Laura Wilkey. Her name came back to me recently as I was watching President Barack Obama's speech to schoolchildren in Philadelphia. Back in 1968, she was my junior high school English teacher. I hadn't thought about her since then. Listening to the president's words, I remembered the night I felt overwhelmed by homework assignments, one in particular dealing with science.
"I can't do this. I don't understand it," I recall yelling. Besides, I didn't plan to be a scientist. A writer, I was beginning to realize, was what I wanted to be. But this perceived defeat over a science assignment made me feel, at age 14, that I couldn't succeed at anything.
My mother, the child of Portuguese immigrants, prided herself on two things. One was graduating from what she called "grade school" (my father had not). The other was fearlessly standing up to anyone or anything. My English teacher was known to my mother, while the science teacher was not. So, protesting, I was dragged to Mrs. Wilkey's that night.
I felt humiliated. Mrs. Wilkey, as the political rhetoric would become decades later, "felt my pain." Instead of being indignant at having had her dinner interrupted, she told my mother that I would be fine; in fact, better than that, she said that anyone who voluntarily read Charles Dickens in the eighth grade was going to one day be a college professor. I had no idea what that was. Some days, I still don't.
My mother, I'm certain not totally satisfied, brought me home and told me to "just try harder." That didn't seem to be either especially comforting or particularly useful. But somehow I started not only to try, but to believe. I was a socially inert kid, never feeling like I belonged anywhere, not helped by the fact that I was overweight and, therefore, insecure. Today, I would be labeled as having low self-esteem.
Something happened that night and in all of the days that followed. I can't explain it, except to say that words became my refuge; language became my salvation. In the years that followed, I graduated from college, the first in my linage, went on to graduate school, and earned both master's and doctoral degrees while living in another country, traveling this one, becoming a journalist, writing books, and yes, becoming a college professor.
I learned more that night, against my will, than I ever could have envisioned. It wasn't about graduating from college or garnering degrees. It was about expectations. Others had them for me and I learned to have them for myself. Now, I expect them of others. And they, hopefully, learn to have expectations of themselves.
When my mother passed away about three years ago, I was teaching a journalism class at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. In tears, my dad left a message that she had passed away at 12:10 p.m. It took time for me to recognize that I had been talking about her in my class at that exact moment — something I had never done before in two decades of teaching. I used her as an example of someone whose expectations of others exceeded what they thought they could achieve. That's what resonated with me about President Obama's speech. And it's something that's often lost in the national debate about education.
I was the last one to be with my mother at the funeral home before she was buried. The day before, the funeral director said that any of the family who wanted to put a note in the casket could do so. I did. With her is a letter that says, "Thank you, Mom. I'm a writer today, and it's because of you."
Thank you again, Mom. And thank you, Mrs. Wilkey.
Tony Silvia, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.