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S. Africa's Tutu: Little Man With a Big Message for American Students : Education: The veteran of anti-apartheid struggle inspires blacks at Emory with his courage, humor and optimism.

March 22, 1992|DEBBIE NEWBY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATLANTA — When South African Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu came to Emory University for a semester of teaching, one singular moment spelled out the effect the Nobel laureate had on everyone he touched.

The all-black student body at Booker T. Washington High School packed the gymnasium. Some squirmed through officials' opening remarks; a music teacher reprimanded one chorus member for talking. There was some ruffling of programs and bored looks.

But then the small man took the microphone, and in minutes he had them on their feet.

Such is Tutu's charisma. His message was electric. Stay in school. Leave drugs alone.

"I am somebody," Tutu chanted, not in the flashy, election-stump style, but in the gentle, rhythmic tones of Tutu at his preaching best.

"I am somebody," the students chanted back. "I reach for the stars. The sky is the limit."

Most will probably never forget the moment; the 950 youngsters will probably never be the same. They remained on their feet and Tutu continued.

"Those who aim for the stars don't want to drop out. Those who aim for the stars don't want to use drugs.

"I have great admiration for you who choose to remain in school against all odds," he told the teen-agers. "I take off my hat to young people who refuse to be trampled on."

The children, some leaning forward on the bleachers, strained to hear his next words. "Don't allow anybody to use you as a doormat." The applause thundered through the gym. "When you are free, you will help others to become free."

He is only 5-feet-4, but with his smile and wit, he seemed to tower over others on the podium. He sprinkled his talk with poetry and stories, spoke out against tyranny and oppression. He mentioned the importance of being in touch with oneself, and the fleetingness of fame and fortune.

Even the faculty of Emory University was taken by his humility. How tall? "You mean how small I am? But have you ever seen Mother Teresa?"

And he throws his head back and laughs with a lilt. "It's almost sort of a giggle laugh," says R. Kevin LaGree, dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, where Tutu was on sabbatical this winter. "It's infectious. He has kind of a Pied Piper effect on you."

But unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who led the village children to a mountain where they disappeared, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town came to Emory to lead students to spiritual mountaintops. He told them stories that made the terror of apartheid in his country real, and he encouraged them to stand up for what they believe and to fight racism wherever they find it.

Tutu spent part of his last week hugging students as he went around the campus.

"I'll remember his serenity and his joy," LaGree said. Borrowing a phrase he had read in the New Yorker magazine, he described Tutu as a man who is "absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble."

"He strikes me as a person of absolute integrity," LaGree said. "There is a direct correspondence between what he believes and what he does. He needs no pretension in his life."

Tutu, 60, left teaching more than three decades ago when the South African government took control of black education. But he returned to the academic world to be a visiting teacher in the theology school at Emory, where his daughter, Thandeka Tutu Gxashe, is working toward a master's degree in public health.

"I have a very soft heart for young people, and I would be ready to do almost anything," he says.

At Emory, he taught in no formal settings, but met informally with small groups from November to February, talking about his country that has been ripped apart by apartheid and about the damage that racism has done to black children. He returned to South Africa in February.

"I come from a country that has told many children that they are inferior . . . because of the color of their skin, because of their race," Tutu says.

He lent them allegory, the story of a little boy who marveled that helium-filled black balloons floated as easily as red and green ones when a vendor let go of their strings.

"The moral," Tutu says, "is that it's not the color of the balloon that matters; it is the stuff inside."

Tutu says people sometimes label him a politician who's trying to be an archbishop.

During a solemn convocation at Emory, he worked the crowd with some good-natured put-downs.

"I can very well understand your groans," he told the congregation. "You're saying, 'Not that guy Tutu again.' You open your newspaper and he's there. You listen to the radio; you see him on television.

"But it could have been worse. I mean I could be here for keeps."

In another speech, he told journalists meeting at CNN Center, "Raise your hand. If I like your face, I will call on you."

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