Friday, August 20, 2010

The High School Science Teacher Threat

When I was in tenth grade, I took my high school science classes out of order. Apparently, sophmores were supposed to take chemistry first, then biology as juniors. What can I say. Didn't get the memo. I ended up in biology, sans the school's prerequisite of chemisty and did just fine, thank you. 99% of the credit for that fact goes to Mr. Peter Wiles, my biology teacher that year. He'd been involved in loads of early nuclear research for the Navy. He'd mention it in passing during one lesson or another and the entire class knew there were some hair-raising, compelling stories Mr. Wiles could tell. He wouldn't. Instead, he spent his entire day motivating a school full of moody, angsty, sometimes surly teenagers. And he made it look easy. He was one of those people you want to think well of you - someone you didn't want to disappoint. He had no problem being friends with his students. I was full of pride the day his wife came to class and when Mr. Wiles introduced me, she brightened and said "Oh! Pete's talked about you!"

At some point in the class, he assigned a project wherein 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 our papers. Typically, he handed out tests and papers in ranked order - highest scores to lowest scores. I assume he did the same thing that day. He gave back papers and had something good to say about each one he gave back. With each paper he returned, my heart sank and my alarm grew. Never before had my test or paper not been returned within the top five. High school wasn't a good time for me. I had very little to cling to. My academic performance was about it. Here it was. I'd screwed up so badly, I'd gotten the lowest score in the class. Worse. I'd disappointed my friend.

Mr. Wiles, with one paper left in his hands, came to stand beside my desk. He stared at the paper a moment, then looked at me. I must have looked terrified. I was. "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."

A few weeks later, the substitute teachers started. Shortly after, we knew. Mr. Wiles had lung cancer. He didn't finish the school year, opting for treatment instead. By early in my junior year (when I had to take the chemistry I'd missed the year before), he was gone. But his threat to haunt me and his legacy of faith in my ability lived.

Took a few detours, but I'm a writer, Mr. Wiles. Do I get extra credit because I'm writing science fiction??

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