MIRACLE IN SILVER SPRING

Every time I’m overwhelmed by the apparent hopelessness of the next generation of non-reading, unthinking, and inarticulate youth, all I have to do is think of Michael [a pseudonym], and hope is restored.

Let me tell you his story.

Some years ago, in my Freshman Composition class in an eastern college one fall, was a young man from the inner city.  Always, Michael sat in the back row—for good reason: he didn’t want to be called on for answers.  Almost never had he completed an assignment; he could not write a coherent sentence, much less paragraph.  His reading reports were disasters—when he bothered to get one in.  In short, he was about as close to a mental zero as they come.

The most daunting assignment of all, the Nightingale Project (a six-week-long immersion in reading, thinking, and goal-setting), he abjectly failed.

Then came mid-semester grades.  I was relieved to see him stay after class: one more F I wouldn’t have to give out at the end of the semester.  He extended a drop-sheet for me to sign, saying, “Dr. Wheeler, I have to drop your class.”

“Can’t keep up, Michael?”

“No, I can’t.”

“How about your other classes?”

“The same.”  Then a long sigh, followed by, “It all seems hopeless.”

I knew why.  Early on he’d admitted there was almost no silence in his life.  At home, the television set was blaring from the moment the first person got up until the last person went to bed.  No place where he could think.

But his next words surprised me: “But, Dr. Wheeler, I’ll be back—and I’ll get the top A in your class.”

I managed not to choke: Sure you will—about as likely as your being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature!  I just nodded, however, chalking it up to braggadocio or face-saving.  He left the room, and I forgot about him—just another of those failures that make Bell Curve grading possible.

* * *

Almost a year passed, and it was fall once again.  Another batch of Freshman Composition students streamed into the classroom and found their seats.  When things finally quieted down, I looked up and did a double-take: It couldn’t be!  But it was. Here was Michael again–but with one big difference: he’d moved from the back row to the front row.  Strange!  What’s he trying to prove?

Since there were so many others competing for my attention in the large class, it took a while before things began to register in my mind.  Developments I chalked up to aberrations or possible cheating (a sad probability that all teachers today are forced to deal with): A’s on quizzes, answering questions correctly, hand raised when I asked questions, well-written essays and book-reports.

Finally, at home one night, I took out my grade book and did some tabulating.  None of it made sense to me: short of a brain transplant, this sort of 180E reversal just wasn’t possible.  Something—I didn’t know what—was definitely rotten in Denmark—uh, Silver Spring.  Decided to get to the bottom of it.

When the bell rang at the end of the next class, I asked Michael to stay.  When the classroom was empty, I unloaded on him, in my sternest voice: “Michael, I just don’t understand.  All your assignments are in, you participate in class, your grades are excellent, your writing is clear and persuasive, and to top it all off, you’ve read more pages of outside reading than anyone else in class.  What gives?

I was blind-sided by that radiant smile, the absolute last thing I expected.  “Dr. Wheeler, I’ve been wondering how long it would take for you to grill me.  Normally, you’re so quick, I’d expected it much earlier.”

I was totally at a loss for words.

He continued, “It’s this way, Dr. Wheeler.  You may remember that last year I told you there was no silence in my life, no books in my house—except my textbooks, no magazines, no newspapers—nothing but noise.”

I nodded.  When is he going to admit guilt?

“Well, during the Nightingale Assignment, you demanded of us one hour of silence a day.  First time I could ever remember silence.  Didn’t know what to do with it at first.  Made me think. . . .  But something else happened last year: You forced us to check out all those books from your paperback library.”

I nodded again.  I’d personally sought out, purchased, inventoried, and shelved all those 10,000 books—had a hard time finding a room big enough for them.

He continued, in a slower voice now, “Well, this may be hard for you to believe, but something strange happened to me last fall: I fell in love with reading!  Discovered a whole new world in those books.  After I dropped your class, I practically lived in the paperback library.  It was quiet there, so I studied there often.  That’s why I’m still here.  My grades came up—I was off academic probation by summer.  During summer months, when I wasn’t working, I hung out in the public library.  Kept reading: so many subjects, so many authors, so many new doors opening in my mind.”

“And now, how are your other classes going?”

“All A’s.”

What could I say?  I was too dumbfounded to process all this in just a few minutes.

“Well, Dr. Wheeler, got to run or I’ll be late for my next class.  Oops! [as the bell rang], I already am.”  And he rushed off.

* * *

At the end of the semester, I did something I’d never done before—nor have I since: I phoned a student about his final grade.  When I informed Michael he’d earned the highest grade in my class, I swear I could almost hear his shout 40 miles away from our home in Annapolis.

Then, he blind-sided me one more time: “Dr. Wheeler, I’ve been waiting and hoping for this to happen.  Is it . . . [he hesitated] . . . is it OK with you if I change my major?”

Why was he asking me such a question?

“Because I want to major in English.”

And he did.

* * *

And Michael is the reason I’m still hopeful about the possibility of life-changing miracles—even as late as college years!

Stay tuned.  See you next Wednesday.