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'As Fast As Words Could Fly': Celebrity reader draws attention to history of Greenville civil rights movement

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Mason Steele, the lead character in Pamela M. Tuck's "As Fast As Words Could Fly," is modeled after her father, Moses Teel Jr. As a boy growing up in Greenville, Teel wrote letters on behalf of his father, Moses Teel Sr., to help advance the civil rights movement.

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Kim Grizzard

Sunday, February 26, 2017

In the 1960s, Moses Teel Jr. put his father’s words on paper to help advance the civil rights movement. A half a century later, the younger Teel’s daughter put her father’s words on paper to help teach children what that movement was all about.

Pamela M. Tuck’s “As Fast As Words Could Fly,” published in 2013, tells the story of her father’s fight for racial equality and ending segregation in his Pitt County hometown.

In celebration of Black History Month, Tuck’s award-winning book was selected to be featured on Storyline Online, the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists children’s literacy website. A 16-minute video on the site features “As Fast As Words Could Fly” as read by actor Dulé Hill.

“As Fast As Words Could Fly” is the story of Mason Steele, a character modeled after Tuck’s father, Moses Teel Jr. The 40-page picture book tells of how a 14-year-old boy used his typing skills to advance his father’s civil rights efforts and to prove himself as one of the first black students at Belvoir-Falkland High School.

“It wasn’t that difficult to write my dad’s story,” Tuck said. “People ask me, ‘How hard was it?’ It wasn’t difficult because the story was already there. It was a family story.”

The book, Tuck’s third, has received more than a dozen honors, including a Storytelling World Resource Award and a Martin Luther King “Living the Dream” Book Award in 2015.

Tuck, who grew up in Pitt County, was raised in a family of storytellers. The North Pitt High School graduate remembers sitting with her cousins at her grandfather’s feet, listening to the stories he told.

“I came from a family of civil rights activists but also Southern storytellers,” Tuck, 45, said in a telephone interview from her home in Pennsylvania.

“My grandfather was a master storyteller,” she said. “He would tell all kinds of tall tales and scary stories and funny stories. So my love for storytelling grew at a young age.”

So did her love for writing. Tuck was in grade school when she won her first writing contest, a poetry competition at Belvoir Elementary School. Her first-place composition was a poem about her grandmother. Encouraged by her teachers, Tuck began writing short stories, some of which were published in The Daily Reflector. As a teen, she wrote two plays that were performed at her school.

“All this just encouraged me,” Tuck said. “The recognition I got from my community and my teachers and friends just encouraged me to keep writing.”

Teel received very little encouragement in his high school years. During the tense transition of school desegregation, he and his brother were shunned in their new school. Tuck’s book records that though the Teels had won the legal right to attend, the school bus simply passed them by.

“A lot of old history and a lot of things that we went through are swept under the rug and younger people are not aware of it,” Teel said. “... This is a story that should have been told; I’m just proud my daughter did it.

“It means so much to me to show people that you don’t quit,” he said. “You use the tools in front of you to make a difference.”

As a teen struggling to make his way in a school that did not welcome him, Moses Teel Jr. found one key to success in an unexpected place — typing class. Teel quickly mastered the keystrokes and soon picked up speed and accuracy. His skill led to a part-time job in the school library.

“I would stay after school two hours a day and type index cards on a typewriter,” Teel said, recalling the job that paid him $1.25 an hour.

There was typing to do at home as well. Teel, who since middle school had hand-written letters for his father, Southern Christian Leadership Conference field representative Moses Teel Sr., used the skills he learned in class to type the letters instead.

“My daddy had a third-grade education,” Teel said. “I had to write up his reports. People came in and filed complaints, and he had to write it up and report it back to the leadership in Atlanta. I typed it up and reworded it.

“I would formulate letters for him … and I was getting better and better,” Teel said. “He told me one day, ‘This letter is good enough for the president to read.’”

Tuck records her grandfather’s words in “As Fast As Words Could Fly,” which culminates with Mason being chosen to represent his school in a county typing competition. He won — using a manual typewriter.

“I never could type on an electric typewriter,” Teel said, laughing. “I’m heavy-handed. I hit the keys too hard; it would knock holes in the paper.”

His quiet victory apparently left an impression on Hill, an Emmy-nominated actor who stars in CBS’ “Doubt.”

“What I love about this book is yes, words do matter, but actions matter that much more,” Hill said at the conclusion of the video, which has been viewed more than 220,000 times since it was launched at the beginning of the month.

“No matter what people think about you, what they say about you, you don’t always need to respond,” Hill said. “Just do you. Live your life just like Mason.”

Jill E. Eisenberg, director of curriculum and literacy strategy for Lee & Low Books, publisher of “As Fast As Words Could Fly,” said Storyline Online allows actors, who volunteer their services as readers, to select a book to read from among several titles presented to them. Celebrity readers are not coached on what to say about the books, she said, and some make no comment at all.

“Mr. Hill’s thoughts at the end are fully his own,” Eisenberg said, “which speaks to how moving this book is to adults as well as children.”

That is gratifying to Tuck, who was initially hesitant to try to summarize a few elements of her father’s story in a picture book format.

“Originally I did not feel like I could do his story justice in a picture book because I only had 32 or 40 pages to write some of his experiences,” she said. “It’s hard to grasp serious things in a picture book.”

Her late husband, Joel, encouraged her to share the story that she had known since childhood with other children who needed to hear it as much as she did.

“Sometimes you got tired of hearing it,” Tuck said of the story of her family’s struggle for civil rights. “But what stayed with you is they would reiterate things, especially when we complained about having to do homework or not having this or not having that, my father would oftentimes tell me, ‘You don’t know what other people had to go through in order for you to have this opportunity.’

“He would take me back, a lot of tears, a lot of bloodshed, a lot of hatred he had to suffer in order for me to be able to have the opportunity that I had to attend a school with equal education,” she said. “These were things that he would stress to me which made me at that time have a deeper appreciation.”

Since the launch of the video, Tuck has received a request to allow “As Fast As Words Could Fly” to be adapted for a play. She welcomes the opportunity to share her father’s story with an even larger audience.

“To see the kind of recognition that it’s getting now, by people who are so far removed from that time period, people who didn’t know him, strangers, it’s almost like a long overdue recognition and honor for him,” Tuck said.

“They didn’t set out to make history. They didn’t set out to be civil rights activists,” she said. “They just wanted equal opportunities, everything everybody else had. But in that process an ordinary person does an extraordinary thing ... then you become part of history.”

To listen to “As Fast As Words Could Fly,” visit www.storylineonline.net/fast-words-fly/

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