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.

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://joewheeler.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/miracle-in-silver-spring/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for sharing a wonderful unlifting story.

    • Good to hear from you. Appreciate your kind words.

      Dr. Joe

  2. Dear Dr. Wheeler,
    I am a college student at Andrews University (I am majoring in dietetics but am also enrolled in the Honors Program, which is mostly literature and history). I stumbled on this site by accident and am so glad I did! I am a prolific reader; I especially love the classics (Dickens, L.M. Montgomery, H. B. Wright, and Austen are a few of my favorites). I was wondering if you have any suggestions for books that you have thought were outstanding. Also, that was a great story! Thanks so much!

  3. Joe,
    I just this morning was discussing Marva Dawn’s book “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down”, in which she brings up (and quotes several notable authors on) our children and their inabilities in the realms of speaking, listening and thinking. The topic is so discouraging and can seem so hopeless.

    This post gave me all the right kinds of goose-bumps. Thank you for the ray of hope, and kudos to Michael, wherever he may be.


  4. Dear Sierra,

    It is good to hear from you. Both our son and daughter have degrees from Andrews. You mentioned Wright–which of his books have you read? The Social Gospel Trilogy? How about Elizabeth Goudge? Books such as City of Bells, The Scent of Water, The Dean’s Watch, etc. Goudge, I have to read slowly as she always has so much to say in each line. Myrtle Reed’s books are also memorable, as are Gene Stratton Porter’s. If you like historical romances, check out Rafael Sabatini’s–all are good but the best is that great novel of the French Revolution: Scaramouche. A must is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables–read only the unabridged version: Ditto Sienkiewiciz’s Quo Vadis and Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur. When you get one of them read–actually, before, start journaling (reacting to lines, paragraphs, similes, metaphors, provocative thoughts, as you go–for what is not responded to in minutes is lost forever). Then write me (P O Box 1246, Conifer, Colorado 80433) and let me know your reactions, and compare to other writers and books you’ve enjoyed. This is the sort of thing I’ve done with many students throught the years in Directed Reading classes.


    Dr. Wheeler

  5. I LOVE Harold Bell Wright. I am actually from where Shepherd of the Hills is set! My parents (both Adventist school elementary teachers) are big fans of him. I have read Shepherd of the Hills, The Calling of Dan Matthews (That’s my favorite), God and the Groceryman, A Son of His Fathers, the Winning of Barbara Worth, That Printer of Udell, and The Eyes of the World. I also read The Master’s Violin by Myrtle Reed. I did read Scaramouche, but nothing else by Sabatini. I have been trying to convince my brother he needs to read it, but he is currently into Sherlock Holmes and won’t read anything else. I also love Ben-Hur (my brother’s favorite), and Quo Vadis! This is so exciting! I will definitely write you (oh, expect a different name, but I will identify myself as Sierra in the beginning. I have my own personal internet pseudonym). I will definitely look into Elizabeth Goudge, Gene Stratton Porter (is he the one who wrote Girl of the Limberlost? My mom loves that book) and Hugo. I have read the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and really liked that, so I imagine I would really like Les Miserables, one of my dad’s favorites. Sounds like an ideal summer read, what, about 1500 pages?
    Thank you for the advice about journaling. I’ve never done that and plan to start. I know you are busy, so thanks for the advice!

  6. Dear Sierra,

    You are a reader! Gene Stratton Porter is a she. During the first half of the 20th century, she was the third most popular writer in the country, behind only Zane Grey and Wright (she and Wright were very close popularity-wise). Most of her books were set in the Limberlost Forest areas of Indiana. She was a professional nature photographer and combined nature into her romances. Her books have never gone out of vogue. Start with Freckles (her all-time bestseller), and then continue with Girl of the Limberlost–by that time you’ll be hooked, and not stop reading until you read clear through her–and then you’ll cry because there aren’t any more, just like a neighbor of ours did in Texas when she read the last Wright book.

    Yep, Les Miserables is a hefty read. I consider it to be the greatest novel ever written. Perhaps 1400 pages unabridged. And don’t make the mistake of taking the detour chapters lightly; irrevelant though they may appear at the time, sooner or later in your reading you’ll discover that each of those detours is essential to the totality of the masterpiece.

    Have you read any of Zane Grey’s books?

    Happy reading–and keep me in the loop.


    Dr. Wheeler

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: