Friday, February 21, 2014

Cancer's Legacy

I hated high school. High school hated me. Suffering from major depression that went undiagnosed for years and years, I lived in a gray cloud layer that insulated me from the rest of the world. Long way of saying that I wasn't a particularly pleasant person. I wasn't easy to know much less like. (By contrast, when I finally got diagnosed and treated appropriately, I looked around and realized the world is in color and no one had told me! Thus, I subject you from time to time to my 'treat the depression - get your life back' soapbox.)

Sullen, unhappy sophomores just can't be the highlight of anyone's day. And yet. There was Mr. Wiles.

Pete Wiles taught biology. He was one of those rare people who actually seemed to like teenagers. I've secretly wondered if that made him an alien. The man exuded charisma and the kind of easy enthusiasm for science that made what he taught matter to everyone in his classes. No one skipped his classes. He went to great lengths to make his students feel good about themselves and he did it without any discernible effort. He and his wife both worked in nuclear science for the Navy. As a result, they'd agreed to not have children. They suspected they'd taken a little too much radiation to the DNA. So they treated an entire high school full of angst-ridden teens like their kids.

I was lucky enough to wind up in Mr. Wiles's biology class in my sophomore year. Wasn't supposed to be there. Chemistry was a prerequisite, but through a series of miraculous, huge schedule screw ups, a few sophomores ended up in biology without the prereq.

And to my utter shock and surprise, Mr. Wiles liked me. Not just 'I'm your teacher, and I want you to learn' or 'I'm your teacher and I have a responsibility to you'. The man took a genuine interest. He made a concerted effort to reach through the prickly cotton wool depressive crap in order to get to me - as if he instinctually saw through the illness wrapped around me.

In his classroom, I got to feel alive in a way I didn't anywhere else. When I got whatever concept he tried to present, when he assigned homework, he upped mine - challenging me to do more. To be more. When we did well, he told us so. He liked to tell me that I was a quarter of a point behind his top scoring student - the kid who went on to become a Rhodes Scholar. Mr. Wiles's wife came into class one day. Mr. Wiles introduced us and said to his wife, "This is the one I told you about." In retrospect, that could be taken a lot of ways, but at the time, it was clear that it was high praise. I swelled way up with pride that lasted the rest of the week. He assigned us an experiment - write up the hypothesis, the experimental process, document, conclusions. Long drawn out (to us - in reality our experiment lasted a week) process of coming in everyday to mess with whatever it was we were doing and writing up our presentations. We turned it all in to be graded.

Mr. Wiles handed back tests and papers in order of score. Highest scores got handed back first down to the lowest. He'd spoiled me. I was accustomed to being one of the first three in the class to get my work back from him. When he handed back our experiment papers, he went to someone else's desk first. Second. Third. He still hadn't even looked at me. Had I screwed up? I couldn't think what I'd done or said in the paper. By the time he'd finished handing back all the papers but mine, I hovered on the edge of tears and I wasn't breathing. It wasn't so much my grade - it was the thought that after he'd been so careful to let me know that I had a future in science that I'd disappointed him so badly.

He finally came to stand beside my desk. I don't know what he saw when he looked down at me and I looked up to meet his eye. He grinned at me and shook my paper at me.

"Highest score out of every single class," he said. "Not because of the fancy cover. This is clear, concise, and to the point. It's perfect. If you don't become a writer, I will come back to haunt you."

Two weeks later, we had a substitute teacher and I knew why Mr. Wiles had used that 'come back to haunt you' turn of phrase. He came back long enough to tell us what most of us had already worked out. He had cancer. It wasn't until a year later, while I was sitting in the chemistry class I should have taken the year before, that I got word Mr. Wiles had slipped away.

It sounds so trite to say 'he had an impact on my life', but I'm sitting here in a teashop. Writing. Breathing around the crater of having lost a friend who thought I was worth the effort.


  1. Dammit, and now I'm weeping, too. Lovely post, M.

  2. ~sniffle~ What a spectacular and touching tribute.

    1. I clearly owe my fellow Word-Whores a round of drinks.