After Radio

Sometimes the Best Teaching Happens without Words

You’ve probably heard the saying about being “too close” to something to actually see it. That was the case with me regarding a background aspect of my high school experience.

I grew up in the sleepy outskirts of Anderson, South Carolina, population somewhere around 25,000. Until a few years ago, Anderson’s claim to fame had been that it had been the first city in the South to use long distance cables to transmit power from the hydroelectric plant. That’s how it got the nickname, “The Electric City.” Now, the little upstate town and its T.L. Hanna High have found themselves on the map because of “Radio.”

As Hollywood filmmaking goes, the movie Radio (2003) fairly well captures the Radio story, and if you’ve never seen it, you should put it on your list of Black History Month family features. Here’s the gist of it, with little in the way of spoilers.

James Robert Kenney, a black, twenty-something, developmentally disabled man, had taken to hanging around the schoolyard near his home. Coach Harold Jones, along with a few others, took notice and looked for a way to reach out to him. They soon found their way through a combination of food and football. Radio always carried a little transistor radio around, and that’s how he got his name.

Coach Jones especially befriended Radio, and over time, Radio became a regular presence, both in the halls and wherever the football team happened to be at any given moment. There were bumps along the way, as the various parties to this unconventional set of schoolhouse relationships learned about each other. But as they pressed through the awkwardness and challenges, Radio became something of a “walking heart” at Hanna. He loved everyone, and everyone eventually came to love him back.

For the purposes of storytelling, the film condenses a decades-long story into a single school year, and although Radio is the fulcrum around which it all turns, the real story is as much about everyone else as it is about him. Like the fictional Forrest Gump, Radio never changes. He just is who he is. The changes, or “character arcs” that are part of all good storytelling, take place in other people as they interact with him. They change. They soften. They deepen. They grow to see life differently. And gradually, they live differently because of him.

And that’s where my “too close to see it” factor comes in. Truth be told, I never knew Radio’s given name until the movie came out. We all just called him Radio. By the time I was a student at Hanna, he was in his thirties. I had no idea that somewhere along the way, a few rules had been bent so he could be “enrolled” as a junior and could ride the bus to school every day. It never occurred to me that some adult probably had to be his designated guardian at all times, whether for his own protection or in the interest of preventing mishaps (there are a few in the movie, some based on actual events, however loosely).

All I knew was that Radio was just there every day. He was happy to be there, and we were happy that he was. Certainly, he was different, but nobody made a big deal about it. He was a part of Hanna, and as far as any of us students knew, everyone was fine with that.

No one told us we were supposed to be anti-racist, and that therefore we should accept him. He was just there, and we did. No one told us we were supposed to be anti-ableist, and that therefore we should accept him. He just was who he was, and we set our expectations accordingly.

Much of the credit for all this, I now see, goes first to Coach Jones for bringing him there, and then to the administrators who ran interference as necessary to keep him there. I never saw at the time what a beautiful sight it was when brothers (and sisters) live together in peace. It just was what it was. And in hindsight, it was beautiful.

Marches and protests in the name of love and peace will probably be with us for some time. But the kind of love that makes for real peace doesn’t vaunt itself. Nor is it always visible in the moment. Sometimes you only see it in the rear-view mirror.

Radio left this vale of tears on December 15th, 2019, at age 72. The following June, he officially graduated, after some fifty years as a junior. An empty chair on the front row, holding a single rose and a graduation program, marked his place in the graduating class of 2020. His niece Jackie, with whom he’d lived since the death of his mother, accepted the honorary diploma on his behalf.

Heaven alone has the capacity to measure the effect of the lives of Radio and Coach Jones. I know now that I saw people who loved well, and teachers who taught well, so well, in fact, they probably didn’t know they were teaching. For me, the seeing was enough to become learning.

has a BS in Computer Science and worked in software development with IBM until she hopped off the career track to be a full-time mom. She lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she works as Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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