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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A young teacher, an awkward kid, and the turning of a key

Because I often visit middle schools as a writer of novels for young adults, I get asked questions. This is a great privilege. A lot are very interesting, and some recur: “How long did it take you to write the book we read?” “Is this story about you?” “Where did you get the idea?” I do my best to answer in ways that are both candid and interesting — but one question that kept coming up had me stumped, for a while. It was, “How did you get started writing?”

I had to think about that. I’d been a pretty good reader in elementary school, and in high school I got very busy on the school newspaper; but in between those times, something happened. What was it?

Then I remembered. It was Mr. Behr’s class.

This came in the last phase of the loneliest, unsurest time in my life. I’d been a socially clueless middle schooler, scrawny and awkward in every way, and I annoyed people. I had a knack for drawing negative attention; it was the only kind I knew how to get. My town had a junior and a senior high school, grades 7-9 and then 10-12, and after my horrific first year in that jungle of a junior high, my parents sent me to a private boys’ day school, an hour’s bus ride away. And there began my darkest time.

At that school the bullying was professional-grade. We wore jackets and ties, the jocks and the entitled kids ruled, and there were lots of rules but no supervision — and the library was the safest refuge for an off-putting misfit. I hadn’t found anything like a talent or passion to help me feel okay about myself, and no doubt that uncertainty made me the more magnetic a target. I don’t mean to be dramatic, this is just how it was — as it is for countless adolescents today who are seen, and often see themselves, as different and ill-fitting. These are the ones who, when the popular kids say “You’re a loser,” have so far found no reason to disagree.

Then I had Mr. Behr for ninth-grade English. Tom Behr was a young teacher then, with a commanding voice and a strong presence, and in his class he tolerated none of the casual cruelty that elsewhere permeated our school lives. At the same time he was a progressive teacher, especially for the mid-1960s. Rather than telling us the theme of a novel we were reading, he'd say, “You read the chapter. What do you think?”

I thought a lot. I was a reader, and in that lonely time books were my best friends. And because Mr. Behr tolerated no cruelty or putdowns, slowly, gradually I began to raise my hand. When I said what I thought, tentatively at first, I think some other guys were surprised to find that I wasn’t, it turned out, a total idiot. Maybe I was surprised too. As the year went on, as we worked through novels like William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, I spoke up more and more — and at home, in secret, I began to write.

In my room at night, with my rolltop desk open and the door closed, stories and poems began pouring out of me onto paper. I was even working on a play. I have no idea what those pieces were about — I didn’t save them and never showed them to anyone, including Mr. Behr, who didn’t know to encourage me to write. Instead he created a setting, a forum, where I began to discover that I might, maybe, just possibly, have something to say.

And that, I realized, thinking back on it long afterward, was what turned the key.

Last spring, 45 years later, I was teaching fiction writing to talented high schoolers at the New England Young Writers Conference, a wonderful long-weekend residence at Middlebury College’s fabled Bread Loaf campus — and I met a teacher from that old private school. I told her my story. A week or so later, having asked around, she found and sent me Mr. Behr’s email address. I emailed, and told him this story.

He wrote back. I discovered that E. Thomas Behr, retired from a fine career in teaching, is now a management consultant for multinationals and the author (so far) of two books: The Tao of Sales (1997) and Blood Brothers (2011). The latter, a novel, unfolds on the Mediterranean Sea and in the Sahara Desert during, as Tom describes it, “America's first foray into nation-building in the Islamic world: the 1805 attempt to put a pro-American ruler on the throne of Tripoli.”

He graciously received my personal tale. “Whatever I have given students over the years are simply gifts I’m returning — with pleasure,” he emailed back. “My calling, then and now, is to point out doors where people see only walls, give them a key, and help them find the courage to step into the world on the other side.”

So that's the story. And these days I tell it, over and over, to audiences in which many middle schoolers are themselves in a dark-edged time of loneliness and search. I don’t know if it helps them, but I think the teachers like it. And I often wonder, sharing my experience in school classrooms, auditoriums, gyms and libraries, if there's a Mr. Behr there, too.

I really hope so.  

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