Thank you, Mr. Charlie

By Harry Anderson

The wit and mental acuity of Charles Miller emerge from an anecdote he tells to explain how, for twenty-four years before his honorable discharge, he rose to the rank of Master Sergeant in the United States Air Force with an electronic specialist MOS.

“After getting a diploma from St. Raphael’s, I went to RIC only to learn that I didn’t want to teach. So I joined the Air Force. When the recruiter asked me what skills I have, I told him I’m interested in electronics. I said that because a couple of days earlier I had put a new tube in my car radio.”

That was in 1967 when the world was on the cusp of entering the digital age. In the ensuing years, Charles learned a lot about Mil/Aero PCB design, Advanced Circuits, and many other high tech components, so much so that, when he was discharged in 1991, Johnson & Wales nabbed him, giving him the title of “Practicum Coordinator for the School of Technology”. He and his wife Nancy settled in Smithfield, and he set up an actual electronic workshop and ushered the university into the high tech age.

“Twenty-three years later, in 2015, I opened my eyes to the fact that I was actually retired and said to myself, ‘Hey, I can do anything I want!’ It took me all this time to realize this. So, remembering an incident that happened back in 1973 and had stuck with me ever since, I went for something I really wanted to do.”

That incident involved an East Los Angeles illiterate kid, a new Air Force recruit under Charles’ supervision, who desperately wanted to learn to read.

“Always looking at things as a challenge and an opportunity, I tutored this kid and got him to read. I felt pretty good about that.”

Charles left Johnson & Wales, made a telephone call to the superintendent of Providence schools, and told an administrator that he could teach kids to read and wanted to volunteer his services. She directed him to Inspiring Minds, whose web site posting profiles its mission, to wit:

A dynamic, award-winning educational nonprofit that closes the achievement gap. The organization is dedicated to enabling our city’s public school students to succeed in school and build a good foundation for their future. We do this by recruiting, training, and supporting volunteers to work with students in small groups during the school day.

Another phone call – this one to the office of Inspiring Minds in Providence on Broad Street – and the next day Charles got his first dose of training: four hours of what a volunteer must know about classroom protocol and about the general background of inner city kids. And pronto, off he went with the assignment to report to Mrs. Daignault, the 4th grade ELA teacher at the George J. West School on Chalkstone Avenue.

The 26 students silently gawked as the big man talked with their teacher.

“ ‘I’ll be up front with you, Mrs. Daignault. I have no special skills. I just want to help you teach your students to read.’ That’s exactly what I said to her, but she only smiled and said I was perfect. ‘First off,’ she said, ‘you care and, secondly, you’re a male. Now I have to introduce you to the class. So, what do we call you?’ I thought ‘Mr. Miller’ or ‘Sergeant Miller’ was too formal. She suggested ‘Mr. Charlie’. And that was that.”

They fashioned a plan. First, the over-sized closet off the classroom would be Charlie’s space after it was cleared of useless bric-a-brac and ten chairs were found and moved into it. Then the class would be divided into three groups, one at a time going to the closet where Charlie would read to them on the appointed day.

Two hours a week is what Inspiring Minds request from volunteers. But soon he realized that two hours was a piffle, hardly enough time to push these kids closer to literacy. Mrs. Daignault happily accepted his proposal to come to school three days a week, upping his volunteer time to 18 hours.

“These are at-risk kids, 85% of them are minorities. I quickly learned two things, one being that they really wanted to learn. Most of all, though, they needed encouragement. So, 75% of the time I was encouraging them. No, make that 98% of the time. Mrs. Daignault just couldn’t do that, not with a class size of 26!”

Charlie’s been volunteering for three years, and the outcome of his altruism pleases him.

“At year’s end, the kids are doing most of the reading, not me. When you can read, you’re pretty much all set for the rest of your life. But getting kids to read – especially at-risk kids – is a tough job – the hardest job on earth, I think. Every day when I drove home from George J. West I’m exhausted. It’s the toughest job I’ve ever had! My respect goes out to the teachers. Honestly, from what I’ve seen, they’re really trying, but there’s so much in their way.”

He is seventy-one years old now (“About time I work at retirement”), and Nancy and he soon will move to Connecticut to be closer to their daughter. Taking with him is a folder that contains 26 hand-made cards given him by his kids on the last day of school. Most of them have a school photograph pasted inside. All of them end brief messages with “Thank you, Mr. Charlie.”