Friday, November 25, 2016

Early Influences: The First

Think back to high school. You know that unhappy kid few friends and nothing much to look forward to? That was me. I was writing stories no one ever saw. Mostly as a means of entertaining myself when I was lonely and bored. It was often in those days. Sure, I'd had a creative writing class and I did just fine writing papers and essays, but it hadn't occurred to me that I *could* write. It was just something unremarkable the bland kid in the third row (me) did to transport her out of a lackluster life.

Due to some really messed up scheduling on the school's part, I ended up taking science classes out of order. Sophomores were supposed to take chemistry, then biology as juniors. I didn't get the memo. The school plunked me in a biology class filled with upper classmen. Mr. Peter Wiles was my biology teacher. He'd been involved in early nuclear research for the Navy. We knew there were some hair-raising, compelling stories Mr. Wiles could tell, but he wouldn't. Instead, he spent his days actively interested in each and every kid who came through his classroom door. Regardless of how moody, angsty, and sometimes surly teenagers could be. He made you want to think well of you - no one wanted to disappoint him. Not even the football players who only needed a D in his class in order to keep playing. Mr. Wiles got better from them, and they all seemed happy to give him the extra effort he requested. He even took me aside one day to inform me that I was a fraction of a point behind his highest scoring student that year - another sophomore tucked into one of his classes. Mr. Wiles wanted me to push just a little harder on my work and on my tests because he knew I could close that final gap. When he introduced me to his wife one day, she brightened and said "Oh! Pete's talked about you!"

I was surprised, because who talks about miserable teenagers no matter how well they score on your tests? Then I swelled up with pleasure and pride. Maybe I really was friends with my extraordinary biology teacher. At some point that year, he assigned a project. He gave us a multistep experiment to perform. We were to write up the hypothesis, the experimental protocol, document the actual experiment, and then write our conclusions. It took us weeks to wade through, but we finally turned in our papers. Some days later, he returned them. Mr. Wiles liked to hand back tests and papers in ranked order - highest scores to lowest scores.

I'd had a good time with the assignment and I knew I'd done pretty well. I knew I had. He gave back papers, stopping at student desks and saying something good about each paper. With each one he returned, my heart sank and my alarm grew. He wasn't stopping at my desk. Never before had one of my tests or papers not been returned within the top five. High school wasn't a good time for me at all. I had very little to cling to. My academic performance was about it and here I'd gone and messed that up in some way I couldn't comprehend. I must have gotten the lowest score in the class. That meant I'd disappointed my friend. And me.

Finally, Mr. Wiles, with one paper left in hand, came to stand beside my desk. He stared at the paper a moment, then looked at me. I must have looked terrified. I don't think I'd taken a breath since midway through his trip through the classroom.

"I saved your paper for last, because it needs some explaining. Highest score. Not just in this class. Out of all of my classes. It's brilliant," he said.

I blinked.

"The writing is clear. Concise, but detailed. Specific. If you don't become a writer, I'll haunt you until the day you die."

I laughed, but I was so relieved I cried, too. It must have been the reaction he was hoping for. He spent the rest of the period grinning.

A few weeks later, the substitute teachers started. Shortly after, we got word. Mr. Wiles had lung cancer. He didn't finish the school year, opting for treatment instead. Early in my junior year (when I had to take the chemistry I'd missed the year before), he died. Broke my heart. But his threat to haunt me made me smile. And the legacy of his faith in me and my ability to write, survived.

He was the first person ever to tell me I *could* write. To make a big deal out of a skill that I'd regarded as a kind of life preserver. He made me look at it differently. He inspired me to appreciate what I'd learned to do. And, in typical Pete Wiles fashion, made me want to try even harder. Not because he asked, but because he seemed so delighted by what I'd done.

So I write. I may have taken a few detours through the years, but I'm a writer, Mr. Wiles. Even if I sometimes wouldn't mind being haunted - just to get to see my friend again.

1 comment:

  1. Really cool how we all have someone who suggested we could do this thing.:-)