The theme was human rights, human dignity and freedom, and the discussion in the 11th-grade classroom had dealt with the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, prejudice in general, genocide in particular and slavery.
Toward the end of the class Marv Tavlin dropped his bombshell on his listeners, Crenshaw High School juniors seeing the 70-year-old man through teen-age eyes.
"In 1935 was the first time I was arrested," Tavlin said. "We wanted to demonstrate against Mussolini (in Chicago), who had marched into Ethiopia to fight barefoot soldiers armed with spears by bombing them with Italian airplanes. We were denied a permit to demonstrate but we marched anyway and about 250 of us were arrested.
"You must be aware of so many people who had their heads knocked in for your freedom."
50 Years Ago
Tavlin was talking about events of 50 years ago to an audience younger than he was as a 20-year-old activist. But there was another message here, too, and it concerned the elderly: The elderly are people, people who were once young and idealistic--and may still be, people who have gained knowledge during their life spans, people who deserve acceptance and respect as individuals.
The presentation by Tavlin and his partner this day, Mrs. Lowell (Jackie) Osborne, was part of Project Dialogue, a state-funded program through which two-person teams of senior citizens visit classrooms to rap with teens.
Currently in operation at Manual Arts High and Audubon Junior High as well as at Crenshaw, the program is designed to help young and old relate as individuals and to foster positive attitudes about aging, according to project director Helen Tieger.
Project Dialogue began on a part-time basis in September and became full time in February when the state released $15,000 in funding. Each of the eight senior citizens participating receives a $300-a-year stipend, and the program reaches nearly 300 youngsters in eight classes in the three schools.
When Tavlin and Jackie Osborne, 71, retired principal of Audubon Junior High, visited Millie Hill's advanced English class at Crenshaw, the discussion centered on the Holocaust. The topic had been raised previously and some class members had visited the museum at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Tavlin asked the students' opinion of the museum and was told by a young black man, "It was like one-sided. It only showed prejudice against the Jews."
"It's a Jewish museum," Osborne, who is black, pointed out.
"There was one picture of a black man being hung," another student said.
"The word is lynched ," said Tavlin.
The discussion continued, moving from the Holocaust as "a Jewish problem" to the concept of prejudice in general. Tavlin said that "Holocaust is something that appears to be far away--but today we read of 60 buildings being burned in Philadelphia. Holocaust is something that appears to be far away. How could it happen? The German nation was cultured, civilized; it led in science, the arts, opera. So how could the Holocaust happen?"
No Secret of Goals
Elders and students continued to speak of propaganda, notions of racial and/or cultural inferiority and superiority, the initial refusal of nations and individuals to accept the reality of the Nazi concentration camps--and the fact that Hitler made no secret of his goals, spelling them out quite precisely in 1923 in "Mein Kampf."
Osborne then asked the students if black people, or Asians or Latinos, could become the focus of such persecution in America. Tavlin moved on to this country's treatment of Native Americans, which he equated to genocide. Osborne spoke of the implications of prejudice against Jews and Indians to prejudice against blacks.
"We've made a lot of gains but we must be vigilant that it doesn't happen here," she said. "Do you realize what you have to do?" She and the students collaborated on suggestions: vote, know the government, run for office, petition, strike, boycott, write your representative, insist on the right to assembly.
Tavlin and Osborne, both of whom serve on a variety of community boards and programs, discussed the necessity for interdependency, the feeling of dependence on and caring for fellow humans. Then Osborne returned to the main thrust of Project Dialogue.
'You Will Be Old, Too'
"We are here," she said, "to help you forget that older people are different from you. One of these days you will be old, too."
After the day's dialogue on freedom, Millie Hill explained that in previous sessions students and elders had explored a wide-ranging gamut of ideas.
"We have had role playing about anger and stress," she said. "We have talked about life in general, plans for the future, how secure and how insecure we feel. We bridge the gap and we don't write anybody off.
"We had one old person who did a tap dance. We sang 'Tea for Two' and she tap-danced for the class. Freddie (Clarke, an octogenarian actor who is a regular and a class favorite) read 'Hamlet' to them.
"We free them through exposure to each other. Before the senior citizens came, the students said 'The elderly just preach to you; they don't accept you as you are.'
"They have changed their minds."