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Tough And Universal: Longtime Educator Catherine Talbott Is Still Passionate About Teaching

Catherine Talbott, 73, follows along the script of a skit she and a group of others will put on for Soka Gakkai International (SGI)-USA's upcoming Sunday service. SGI-USA is a Buddhist organization with a local community center in Louisville. Catherine has been practicing Buddhism for 39 years.
Catherine Talbott, 73, follows along the script of a skit she and a group of others will put on for Soka Gakkai International (SGI)-USA's upcoming Sunday service. SGI-USA is a Buddhist organization with a local community center in Louisville. Catherine has been practicing Buddhism for 39 years.

Catherine Talbott was born in Louisville in 1945. She's 73 years old, and taught in Louisville's schools for 27 years.

“I was born in — we called it the ‘projects’ because that was the general term. It was called Sheppard Square. And I grew up with a beautiful family that showed me how to respect life, how to respect people, and my community was the same.”

Catherine’s great-grandmother was born in slavery.

“And I asked my mother a few days ago, I said, ‘What did she do, what happened?’” Catherine remembered. “She said, ‘Well, she just told me that whenever they got food, they had to dig little trenches and hide them, and then if anybody came too close, if the master came too close, they had to start singing these songs to warn people’ because they didn't talk about it. My great-grandmother never talked about, ‘Oh, I was abused. I went through slavery.’ I'm sure those things happened. However, she had the gift of love. She had the gift of respecting the human dignity of life.”

Catherine graduated from Louisville’s Seneca High School. She started there in the eighth grade in the late 1950s, as the school was integrated.

“I did not like it too much,” she said. “Most of the classes that I took were, I guess you can say college prep. And usually I was the only black in the class. No one was hostile towards me, or anything of that nature. But it was like, ‘Well, you can't really be a majorette and you can't really be a cheerleader. But you can play basketball!’ And I felt isolated.”

In junior high, Catherine was active in extracurricular activities like the student council and the band. But she didn’t feel she had the same opportunities in high school.

“So when I went to Seneca, it was just like, ‘I'm here. I'm here.’”

Catherine said she didn’t encounter very much overt racism at Seneca, except for one incident that comes to mind when she remembers her high school years.

“There was one incident of a student I think, a grade level below me at a football game,” Catherine said. “And she didn't know I was way in the back. And she hollered out ‘Look at that n***** run!’

“And she turned around, she felt my vibe. I was quite a few yards away from her. And she felt embarrassed. And that was the first time in my life I have ever heard anyone say the word ‘n*****,’ not even my neighborhood.”

Catherine got married young — at age 19 — and soon after got a divorce. She had completed one year of college, and gave birth to her son. Out of necessity, she moved back in with her parents.

“Later in my 20s, I decided I had to really do something with my life,” Catherine said. “I was working steadily, one of the first females to work at the post office, but I decided to go back to school with a little confidence. So I went to JCTC. I didn't want to finish any more than two years. But this lady there, she said, ‘You really need to get four years.’”

Catherine enrolled at Spalding University, and earned her B.S. degree.

“And I decided I'm going to go and get my master’s before I get lazy,” she said.

Those years were rough. Catherine says her parents’ support was crucial to her success, but she made many sacrifices, too. At one point, she chose to work the third shift at a job “with delinquent young ladies way out in Anchorage,” because she knew overnight would be the most convenient time for her mother to watch Catherine’s son.

“I was lucky to get maybe two or three hours of sleep per day,” Catherine said. “I'm glad that I was young, very healthy, and I made the sacrifice with my sleep.”

That started Catherine’s teaching career, which continued for 27 years. She says she taught all ages and all subjects. But she was blown away by the emotional intelligence she encountered while teaching the youngest kids.

“One beautiful thing with first graders I'll never forget: it was towards the end of the school year, I had them all together on the carpet…so we sat and I began to say, ‘Let's do an end-of-the-year notebook about the things that you liked about this school year, your friends, so forth and so long.’”

Catherine then started to tell her students about something that happened to her when she was six years old.

“I said, ‘When I was six years old, in first grade, my best friend and I would walk to the cafeteria together, we would just talk.’ And I said, ‘All of a sudden, she was whisked out of my life.’ I said ‘Then we were told she has polio.’ And I told them, ‘What does that mean?’ And tears flow from my eyes. I said, ‘I never saw her again.’

“Well, I opened up a can of worms,” Catherine remembered. “The children went back to their seats, they got busy with their stories about their school year. One of my so-called ‘misbehaving’ students was having a difficult time reliving things. And one of the brightest students, a female in the room, went and put her hand her arm around his shoulder. And another student of a Latino background was saying, ‘I went home, and my best friend wasn't there anymore.’ And the students were embracing each other with their stories.

“What are we as a society doing with and for children? They have a lot to show us. Empathy, empathy, because I showed empathy, and I just couldn't help the tears coming down.”

Even now, in retirement, Catherine lights up when she talks about teaching. She describes her overarching philosophy:

“I look at people as being a part of the human race. I've had many people in my life, my parents never, ever showed prejudice to any human being, no matter their skin color. So with that kind of a background, I was able to really see, as I mentioned earlier, that every child has something special,” she said. “But we have to provide the setup. We have to provide the avenues for a child to bring out their own innate creativity. Every time I taught a particular classroom, every class that I had was different. And I had to understand that.”

Since retirement, Catherine maintains a “very full life.” Her mother is 97-years-old, and still lives independently, so Catherine spends time with her.

“She's a joy to be around. A man is sharp, and she's loved by her church members. And just like me, she used to work with youth,

And she has her son, Desmond.

“My son inspires me and I inspire him,” she said. “He inspired me to write and I that's what I have started to do. I got him into music and sports. And now he is a recording engineer and he plays the piano. I'm inspired by him. Because just like my parents, and like me, his mother, he doesn't judge people by what they look like. He judges them from their hearts.”

Catherine also has a group of what she calls her “young friends.” She’s an active volunteer with young people, and meets new friends on Facebook.

“Talking about Facebook, I have a lot of Facebook friends, and I'm trying to face them,” she says as she cracks up. “So in one week's time, I had lunch with one of my Facebook friends who is a mother, wonderful lunch. And then we went shopping, spent three hours with just seeing this person, maybe a second time in my life, because I want to be able to know people. Then a few days later, I'm having lunch again, with two of my young friends.

“Every day I wake up with a sense of gratitude,” she said. “I really say to the universe: I'm so thankful to be on planet Earth.”

Catherine Talbott’s story is part of Tough and Universal: Stories of Grit, a partnership between WFPL and IDEAS xLab. A new story will be released every Friday through November 2; for more stories, click here.