I met William on the first day of my third year of teaching English in the adult high school program at our local community college. He was small, dark-eyed, with tight blond curls, rather unattractive, unwashed, and, as I soon came to discover, almost totally illiterate. It was the early ’70s, when long hair was popular among the young and drugs were beginning to be a major problem. I thought, Here’s another victim of the drug culture, and my heart sank.
After making my introductory remarks, I asked the class, as I always do on the first day of school, to write about themselves. Looking from student to student, I noticed that William worked very hard on his paragraph, grasping the pencil in a stranglehold, licking the point every few minutes. William’s face was close to the paper, his brows knit close together.
The rest of the class completed the assignment rather quickly and grew restless. I let them leave. It took William 40 minutes to print a few lines, and when he at last handed it to me, I could not read it. He stood at my desk staring at me while I looked at the paper.
“You want I should read it for you?” he said.
“My name is William, and I live off a government pension in my car in an empty garage. I’m 19 years old, and since I was 11 I been a drinker. Now I’ve decided to be a learner.”
I had never before taught a student who could hardly read and write. I had no idea how to handle the problem.
“You’ve misspelled every word,” I said.
William looked dismayed. “I can learn,” he said.
“All right. I’ll print them correctly, and when you come to class tomorrow, plan to write them for me.”
“A spell test,” he said, as though it were some magical word.
I looked away from him. “Look, William …” I meant to tell him that the class would be impossible, that his skills were so poor he would fall behind immediately, and that there was no hope for him to catch up. I meant to tell him he could not possibly succeed. But instead I said, “Your basic skills are somewhat limited. How hard are you willing to work?”
He stared at me.
“We’ll be studying difficult writers—like Shakespeare and Twain.”
“William Shakespeare. Mark Twain.”
“Oh,” he said. And after a pause he added, “I can learn.”
“It won’t be easy for you,” I said, “but if you work hard …”
I didn’t expect to see him ever again, but the following day William was the first one in the room. He took a front-row seat, and as I taught, his eyes followed me intently, his brows knit into the same shaggy line, his mouth slightly open as he listened. After class ended, he stood by my desk staring at me for a long time.
“What is it?” I asked, irritated.
“I’m ready to spell,” he said.
And he was. He had memorized all the words, and as I called them out to him he wrote them quickly.
He stood watching as I marked his paper, putting a check by each correct word and then an A+ and a large I AM SO PROUD OF YOU at the top of the page. For the first time, I saw William smile. He took the test, folded it carefully, and put it into his shirt pocket.
“Now,” he said, “I’d like to pick up some on my reading. You got anything I can borrow?”
“I don’t think I have anything appropriate,” I said. Opening the desk drawer I began to look through the papers and books.
“What about that?” he said, pointing to a copy of Huckleberry Finn.
My hand hesitated, and then I shook my head. “It would be too hard for you.”
“I’ve done hard things all my life,” he said.
I pulled Ellie the Elephant Learns to Fly, one of my daughter’s books, from my desk drawer.
“That’s for little kids,” he said.
“It’s for new readers,” I said, handing it to him.
“I want that other one.”
Ignoring his comment, I opened the child’s book and began to read aloud, resting a finger under each word while he stood beside me watching and listening.
“Let me do it now.” He read hesitantly and with great difficulty. “See, if somebody shows me, I can learn. If I had that other book, I could work at it. I’m not stupid.”
I gave him Huckleberry Finn.
Each day I sent William home to the garage with a list of words clutched in one hand and one of my daughter’s books tucked under his arm. Every morning he came back with the material mastered. A few weeks later he returned the Twain text. “I read it,” he said, and the look of pride on his face brought tears to my eyes.
That week I gave him a bag containing a bar of soap, a washcloth, a towel, and deodorant. “This is an important part of education, too,” I said.
He looked in the bag and then at me, stunned. But the next day William was clean. And he was reading and writing with greater confidence. He had progressed so much that he insisted on taking his turn at reading poems from our literature text aloud. And every day he stayed after class for an hour to talk with me. Actually, he asked question after question, and I tried to answer them.
His enthusiasm for learning was contagious, and soon three other students began to stay, too. There was Suzy, who later trained as a registered nurse; Jody, who went on to earn a doctorate in biology; and George, who planned to become a physician but died in a motorcycle accident that spring.
George’s death upset the class deeply, and we spent that day talking about the transient quality of life, trying to answer the eternal questions—where did we come from, what are we doing here, and what happens to us when we die? I taught the class that knowledge is power, that the glory of God is intelligence, and that all we take with us from this world to the next is our relationships with others and the knowledge we gain in this life.
“There are two ways most people learn,” I told them. “One way is by experience—and life doesn’t last long enough for us to get all our knowledge that way. The other is to read.” I encouraged them to spread their wings and learn while they were young and filled with energy and enthusiasm.
One day William came into class with a list of quotations he’d copied from the library, and he shared them with us. He particularly loved “Knowledge is the wings wherewith we fly.”
“Watch me fly, teacher.” He spread his arms and flapped them, bringing laughter from the students and me.
William (this genius—the only true genius I ever taught) was my student for two years of English. When he graduated, I sat in the audience and watched with pride, tears brimming my eyes. He enrolled in the community college program and continued his education. On occasion he stopped by my office during the week, sharing with me the excitement of his new world. Each Friday afternoon he borrowed one of my books, which he quickly read and returned. On one occasion, he asked to read my Book of Mormon. I gave him a copy and a week later learned that he had called the missionary number left with my testimony on a front page. At his baptism, I gave him the Pearl of Great Price.
Last spring I received a card from William. He was teaching Spanish and American literature at a large university. “We’re reading Huckleberry Finn,” he wrote, “and I’ve never been happier. I seem to have a gift for languages.” He continued, “Remember years back when you had to teach me English? For all you did for me, I thank you, teacher. Thank you for lending me your wings while I was growing my own.”