EMERSON ESSAYS 1.1.11

Mr. Wilkinson

I was hoping I’d get all good teachers for my senior year at Annapolis High. I didn’t want any mean ones. That’s why I thought I had been cursed when I was assigned to Mr. Wilkinson’s Problem’s of Democracy class.

He had a gruff manner and the husky look of an ex-Marine. His thinning hair was combed back and he wore gray jackets and thin ties. He smelled of Old Spice as a lot middle aged Republicans do, but I can’t be 100% sure he was a Republican.

As he lectured us, Mr. Wilkinson paced the floor with his hands behind his back. “During the course of this year, I will be asking each and every one of you if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Then I’m going to ask you why you are a Republican or a Democrat.”

That’s easy, I thought to myself. Mom and Dad are Democrats so I must be one too.

“And God help you if you tell me you are a Republican or a Democrat because your parents are!” My God! He can read minds!

We had to subscribe to Newsweek magazine which we discussed every week. He fired questions at us about current events, world leaders, and politics. We were expected to be well informed on such matters. That wasn’t easy for me since I hated to read.

Mr. Wilkinson fixed that. He assigned us each a specific book that we were to read and report on. “Mr. Wiley, your book will be “Something of Value” by Robert Ruark. It’s a violent, bloody book. I’m sure you can handle it.”

Reading about the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya didn’t seem like a barrel of laughs to me. The book was 619 pages of very small type. That wasn’t too funny either. But I was too scared of Mr. Wilkinson not to read it.

So I read it and I loved it! Okay, there is nothing particularly lovable about animal and human sacrifices or violence and blood shed in the name of racism and imperialism, but Robert Ruark tempered his book with just the right amount of action, adventure and sex. It was the perfect book for a 17-year old who hated to read. It was almost as much fun as a James Bond movie.

Later Mr. Wilkinson assigned the entire class two books by Philip Wylie. The world at that time was living in fear of a third world war so we had to read “Tomorrow” and “Triumph.” Nothing I had seen at the movies could compare to the images that danced in my head when I read those books! The descriptive passages of nuclear explosions made a lasting impression on me. Before reading Philip Wylie, my impressions of war had been based on the highly romanticized Audie Murphy World War II movies. I now began to think of the horrid possibility of the cold war turning hot.

No longer fearing long books with small print, I devoured Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent,” the granddaddy of all political novels.

Although the entire class was suppose to read it, not everyone got through it. I made some extra pocket money by writing several of my buddies’ book reports for them. Maybe there is something to this reading business after all.

By spring of my senior year, I no longer feared Mr. Wilkinson. His Socratic method of teaching still frightened me and I pitted a few shirts while waiting to be called upon in class. But I found him more approachable now. One day I brought a rare Philip Wylie paperback to school to show him.

“Hmmm… ‘The Smuggled Atom Bomb.’ Never heard of this one. May I borrow it?”

He read it in one night and returned it to me the next day. “Good story, Mr. Wiley. Thanks! Why don’t you stop over my place after school. I need some help moving some furniture and there’s something I want to show you.” He wrote down his address for me. It was only a half mile from my home.

I arrived right at 4 pm, as instructed. Tardiness in his class was unacceptable and I had assumed the same rule applied in his home. Mrs. Wilkinson met me at the door and was cordial. “He’s waiting for you in the back”, she said.

He summoned me from the back bedroom. “In here, Mr. Wiley. I hope you brought your muscles.”

Luckily, I had brought them, since he wanted me to help him move a very heavy sofa-bed. At one point, I accidentally smashed his fingers as we awkwardly negotiated the wide sofa through a narrow doorway. He didn’t swear or call me names as I feared. He only flexed his fingers a couple of times and with a wink said, “Only a flesh wound, Mr. Wiley, I’ll get over it.”

When our work was done, he gave me a Hires Root Beer. “Follow me. I want to show you something.” I followed. His den was not particularly remarkable, as dens go except for one thing. A huge bookcase covered an entire wall. It was was filled with paperback books. There must have been a thousand of them!

“I’ve read every one of these books. Some of them I’ve read twice”, he beamed.

“Wow!” I said.

He took a book from one of the shelves and handed it to me. A sultry blond wearing something pink and fluffy smiled at me from the cover. The small paperback was “79 Park Avenue” by Harold Robbins. A blurb below the title bragged: “…the best selling novel about the call girl racket…”

“There’s a bit ‘steamy’, but I think you’re old enough to handle it.” He also gave me a couple of spy novels to buffer the Robbins book.

It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to have a paperback book collection just like Mr. Wilkinson’s. My collection started with the books I read for his class. It has grown over the past thirty-something years to over 400 volumes, less than half the size of his collection, but then he did have a head start on me.

Every book I read goes on my shelf, in paperback form, alphabetized by author. Philip Wylie and Harold Robbins have been joined by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Robert B. Parker. Steinbeck and O’Hara are there too. Thanks to 4th class postage, my paperbacks have followed me from Annapolis to Boston, to Maine, out to Hawaii and back, then back again to Hawaii.

After high school I saw Mr. Wilkinson one more time. I drove to Annapolis High and looked him up while home on spring break. Our meeting was brief, his handshake was firm, his smile wide and friendly. We were glad to see each other. He asked about my studies and did I have any time to read “just for the fun of it?”

“Yep!” I replied as I pulled a tattered copy of Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” from my back pocket.

A year later I learned that Mr. Wilkinson had left Annapolis High to accept a guidance counselor position at a school in the south. My emotions were mixed. I knew I’d never see him again but I felt his compassion and respect for young adults and his ability to guide them in the right direction, well suited him for his new position.

I look at the paperbacks on my shelves and I am reminded of the man who in one school year, went from curmudgeon to favorite teacher. Other teachers taught me how to read. Mr. Wilkinson taught me to love to read.

© 2011 William Emerson Wiley

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1 Comment

  1. Mae Johnson said,

    May 29, 2015 at 11:39 am

    Loved reading this! Smiling and crying at the same time!


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