In May of 1997, peace activist and former Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy arrived at Spring Hill College, in Mobile, Alabama, to deliver the commencement address for that year’s graduating class. Although McCarthy had himself graduated from the small, Jesuit-affiliated school, he wasn’t Spring Hill’s only special guest that day. School administrators had selected To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee for an honorary degree, and the reclusive writer made a rare public appearance in order to receive it.
McCarthy walked alongside Lee in the procession toward the 400 soon-to-be graduates, and the two got to taking.
“Are you writing much?” McCarthy asked Lee.
“Every day,” Lee replied.
The answer surprised McCarthy; he hadn’t seen any of Lee’s work since To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. He asked Lee for the titles of he books that she’d written since.
There were no books, Lee told him. “I write letters to school children,” she said. “They write to me about Mockingbird and I send back my thoughts.”
The exchange stayed with McCarthy long after he returned home to Washington, DC. In his 33 years of teaching nonviolence courses–at Woodrow Wilson High School, Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, Georgetown Law, and others–he’s introduced more than 10,000 students to the lessons of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. Many have left his classroom changed forever.
Along the way, McCarthy has corresponded with current and former students through more than a thousand letters. And, inspired by his conversation with Harper Lee, McCarthy recently published these letters in a book, his eighth, called Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters with Their Teacher.
“Because I was an unsalaried volunteer at two of the three high schools, and was paid little more than stoop-labor wages at the third and as an adjunct professor at the universities,” McCarthy writes, “I came to see the letters as my real paychecks.”
Steeped in McCarthy’s radical pacifism, the letters range from comical to poignant–but they’re never dull. Teaching Peaceis an enjoyable read for students, parents, teachers, and peacemakers everywhere.
Below are some notable exchanges from the letters. (The book is also the source for the conversation, described above, between McCarthy and Harper Lee.)
In 2007, a student who received an A- in McCarthy’s class wrote a letter saying that the grade would ruin his 4.0 grade point average; the student asked if there was any extra work he could to to increase the grade to an A. McCarthy declined the offer in the following letter:
…I do my best to advise students not to stress out about grades, citing the telling line from a Walter Percy novel that you can make all As in school and fail at life. I’ve seen it happen. I try, too, to persuade students that when life’s plusses and minuses are finally toted, grades don’t really matter. When you have a moment, take a look at the obituary pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Whether the obits are written by staff reporters or are paid announcements (up to $700 an inch in the Post, more on Sundays and more with color photos), nowhere will you find mention of the GPA of the departed nor a syllable on how many As they scored in high school or college or gold stars in Pre-K. I have yet to find an obituary that said the death bed words of the deceased were “I wish I’d made more As in school.”
Now head to the wedding pages, which both papers run on Sundays. You’ll be told about the couples’ parents–mandatory mentions in The Times if they are CEOs who summer in the Hamptons or winter in Gstaad–and be informed on where the couples met and where educated. I have never seen a wedding story or paid wedding announcement that included the GPAs of the happily betrothed.
You have to wonder, then, if grades are that crucial why no reference to them in these important notes? Why don’t obituaries start off with this: Mary Smith, whose 4.0 GPA in college was acclaimed throughout the Western world, died at home yesterday of a heart attack after her 911 call failed to get through to her town’s ambulance rescue squad.” Why don’t wedding announcements begin: “Millie Jones and Bubba Carter, whose GPAs respectively were 3.9 and 1.7, were married today yesterday at Our Lady of Academic Excellence, the chapel at the Deep South Catholic college where they met. The chapel is next to the campus library, where Millie spent scads of time studying and Bubba rarely entered.”
It’s possible that you’ll remember me, if you remember me at all, as the guy who ruined your chances for a 4.0. But suppose I did up the A- to an A. You might remember me as the guy you conned into feeling sorry for you. Either way, it looks like a lose-lose deal.
Let’s think about a winning. I remember you saying you were thinking of law school. I’d be glad to write a letter of recommendation for you. I’ve been at Georgetown Law for 25 years, and I can see you easily fitting in and doing well there. And the same for any law school.
In 2009, a former student of McCarthy’s wrote from college asking for advice on how to explain to her friends that she does not drink alcohol. McCarthy’s response:
You may have come across it, that ambiguity-free line from T.S. Eliot; ‘In a world of fugitives, the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away.’ That’s you. By not running with the ruck, when it heads to the parties, bars or refrigerators for a fix of alcohol–or to the Rose Garden to slug a beer with Obama, the cop and professor–you’re the mad one: daft in the head, slow to lighten up and assuredly not one to invite to the next kegger.
I’m not surprised you’ve taken a stand. You were the one student in [the Wilson High School] class last semester intent on making a difference in life–by being different…
So how to explain to others your decision not to drink? You can probably have some fun with that one. Make up a story that you have a $100,000 book contract on what it’s like to be a college non drinker. I Was a Nerd. And Worse. A Sober Nerd.They’ll make it into a movie! Or that you have a rich uncle who has promised you $1 million if you don’t drink before 25. The last is not that bizarre. I recall reading a biography of Joseph Kennedy in which he pledged a hefty payoff to his children–eight of them including Jack, Robert, Teddy and Eunice–if they laid off until they were 25. I’ll have to ask when seeing her again, but Eunice, I believe, was the only one who held on to collect.
The better way, and not a fantasy-driven way, to explain your stand is merely to tell people that you don’t drink. Your close friends–and most of us, if we are blessed, have two or three people who are truly lifelong friends, with all the rest being acquaintances–will appreciate and respect you. The rest–those who move in and out of our lives–probably won’t understand, much as they might be close minded about people who are slightly different. Why bother with them?
In 2011, a former student of McCarthy’s asked in a letter for help finding a job or paid internship for his summer break from Oberlin College & Conservatory, in Oberlin, Ohio. McCarthy’s response:
…As you don’t need to be told, Washington is packed every summer with interns. And as you DO need to be told, the word intern has French origins–meaning “slave.” Internment camps.
I’d advise staying clear of a summer slavery. But I do know of some well-paying jobs: outdoors, four or five hours a day, plenty of socializing, plus physical exercising. What job? Caddying.
Where? The top choices are the Chevy Chase Club, which is closest to your home, and a bit further away, Columbia Country Club, Burning Tree Golf Club and Congressional Country Club. The current rate for carrying two bags is $80–in cash which means no taxes taken out, unless you want taxes taken out to oil America’s war machine…
Looping at Chevy Chase would expose you to two worlds, the one of WASP high-breds and the one of nonpedigrees where caddies orbit, spinning around suns and moons of their own making: some as down-and-outs, a few as drifters who can’t or won’t hold regular jobs. Listen and learn from them. It will be far more than what you’d pick up shuffling papers with interns on K Street. You could ask Oberlin to give you three credits for your summer course in Advanced Sociology.
In 2012, a student of McCarthy’s wrote a letter explaining the benefits of playing football, a sport that McCarthy opposes on account of its violence. McCarthy’s response:
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. I appreciate the time you took to offer your thoughts on your enjoyment of playing football and what it has done for you. Nothing you wrote makes me doubt this. At the same time, though, everything you say–football “teaches you accountability. Responsibility. Determination. It teaches you how to work hard,” it “prepares you for life,” “you receive what you put in”–could as easily be said about playing on the high school soccer team or baseball team. True, those are different games but it’s certainly plausible that just as many high school soccer or baseball players could make the same claims for their sport as you do for yours….
It’s not accidental that football is the country’s most favored sport, and invading other nations to maim or kill people is our most favored way of settling disputes. It’s no accident either that veterans of the National Football League are now filing negligence suits against the owners of their former teams for injuries the way veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking legal relief for their injuries. The battlefields of football and the battlefields of war zones lead to similar Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. It can be argued that no one is forced to play football and no one is forced to join the military. Perhaps, but it has to be wondered why so few players in the NFL come from Ivy League or Little Ivy colleges and why so few soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are from those schools.