Mr. Wilson was my eighth grade home-room teacher. He looked and, in my imagination, acted like the Greatest American Hero, minus the awkwardness. Let’s be real, 1982 real — he was kind of rad. It’s possible that I was swayed by the fact that he took those of us who got straight A’s out to Farrell’s (I think it was Farrell’s; it might have been Carlos Murphey’s) for lunch, but more likely, it was his dazzling blonde-fro.
Mostly, though, he genuinely cared about his students and it was obvious that he wanted us to enjoy learning. In fact, he actually seemed to like us. This was unusual for a middle school teacher. There were many who were clearly paying their dues until they had racked up enough seniority to choose the grade they really wanted to teach. We knew it too. Middle Schoolers are anything but naive. Hormonal? Yes. Self-conscious and appropriately self-absorbed? Usually. Unable to determine when a teacher would rather be soaking in a vat of vinegar after a good lashing with copper wire than teaching Spanish to seventh and eight graders? Nope.
For my part, I excelled at oral reports. The subject matter was inconsequential. When Mr. Wilson employed a written assignment, followed by an oral report, as he frequently did, I rose to the occasion. I still have most of those papers with the words “Written: A+; Oral: A+” scrawled across the top. I cannot say how Mr. Wilson’s style moved other students, and I am sure there were some for whom the idea of an oral report sparked trans-corporeal hives, but it instilled in me great confidence in my ability to communicate ideas.
At the end of our eighth grade year, teachers were required to place us in ninth grade English based upon the results of a standardized test. Testing was never a pleasure of mine. Tests left me light-headed. They still do. When a person asks a question in a manner that suggests my knowledge is being tested, I go from witty to wasted in a manner of seconds, no matter how versed in the subject matter I might be. Seriously — try it. Test me on something. I bet it’s amusing to observe.
I did not do as well on the placement test as I’d hoped, scoring just below the percentage required to be placed in Honors Freshmen English. I so badly wanted to be in Honors English, not because I had noble ideas of studying great literature, mind you, but because I clung to my academic achievements the way an arctic fox clings to its transformable coat. They gave me an identity that camouflaged the one I had assumed for myself.
This admission requires no sympathy. While it is certainly not the identity I would chose for my own children, it compelled me to find patches of my world where I could excel. Language arts was one of those patches.
I remember the morning Mr. Wilson allotted to assign our placements like it was yesterday. I wore an above the knee, turquoise, flouncy skirt and a button up white blouse with a lacy high collar, the tail end of the “Little House on the Prairie” look. My hair was equal parts Farah Fawcett and Rosanna Rosanna Dana. Mr. Wilson approached my desk, standing to my left, and held his pen an inch above my paper, hovering between two lines, one for standard English and one for Honors English. I felt sick. “You didn’t quite get there,” he said. I nodded. He paused, winked at me, and wrote his initials on the line placing me in Honors English. “You’ll do well,” he said, as he moved onto the desk in front of me.
I could not have known then just how greatly that simple gesture would change the course of my life.
I did, however, internalize Mr. Wilson’s vote of confidence in me. It has sustained me through many a challenge. He saw something in me that I myself could not see. At the fairly tender, entirely dependent age of 13, that knowledge quite possibly prevented me from choosing a path that would not look the way my life does now.