'I will teach and you will learn' Demanding, revered instructor steps down

August 04, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maybe it was the tea. Maybe it was that he addressed teen-agers as "Miss" and "Mr."

Or maybe it was that he inspired a generation of Anne Arundel County students by being strict yet caring, demanding yet encouraging, and taking pride in their successes.

Friday night, 63 of Charles E. Wilkerson's past students and friends paid homage to the 57-year-old high school English teacher who retired in July after more than 30 years in the classroom.

Amid tears and laughter at a banquet at Loew's Annapolis Hotel, admirers roasted and toasted the man who tortured students by requiring them to memorize soliloquies by Shakespeare, keep a journal and perfect their grammar.

He challenged them to think critically and creatively and to enjoy the richness of the language and its window on history. While he regaled them with stories about his dog, Winston, read dramatically to them from his beloved British literature and offered individual help, he suffered no nonsense. No matter what their careers, the former students said his classes were turning points in their lives.

William "Pinky" Norbeck started 10th grade nearly failing Wilkerson's class at Arundel High, but he ended the year with an A.

"He is my education," Norbeck, a director of a health care financial services corporation, said at the reception.

Former CBS-TV weatherman Mark McEwen was master of ceremonies for the evening. A 1972 Arundel High graduate, McEwen told the nation in a January 1987 morning segment that Wilkerson was responsible for his career.

"He gave me a key that opened a door that led me to CBS," said McEwen, referring to the journal Wilkerson required. "It was the opening to the world of words and writing."

McEwen is to be an anchor on the CBS-TV "This Morning" show, which is to begin in a week.

John Klocko III, a member of the County Council from Crofton who sat in Wilkerson's Arundel High classes in 1974, presented the man who "has said sooth to the youth" with a citation from the council, then talked about respect. "He respects you, but it was, 'I am the teacher and you are the student, and I will teach and you will learn,' " he said.

Wilkerson came to Anne Arundel as an elementary teacher in 1960, but two years later left to finish his bachelor's degree at Salisbury State College. He taught elementary school when he returned, then joined the English department at Arundel High School in 1968. He moved to Old Mill High in 1975.

Wilkerson brought to high school teaching an understanding from elementary school that an impeccably decorated classroom motivates students.

He made tea, served on a tray with milk and sugar, "as a cultural experience" for his student aides at Old Mill.

"My aides, if they didn't like tea when they arrived, by the end of the year they were tea drinkers. I taught them how to make it right and serve it in a teacup, not a mug and not a Styrofoam cup," he said.

He once gave a formal tea, complete with china cups and saucers, for an afternoon meeting of English department heads, "just to be a good host," the Anglophile said.

"I was really getting tired of going to these meetings where they served a box of doughnuts and coffee," he said.

Wilkerson accepted challenges, too. He developed a writing course to help county police craft better reports and taught an inmate at the county jail.

It wasn't until later that he learned the man had murdered his own grandparents.

"I am glad I was informed about the reasons for his incarceration after it was over," he said. "You know, he was a big man. I would have said, 'I don't think I can do this.' "

Wilkerson held his students to high standards, said Samuel Perry, a former coordinator of English for secondary schools. "He encouraged them to do their best. I think that is generally what inspires students."

Janet Hughart's family became close to Wilkerson after son Shawn graduated from Old Mill in 1994. "Charles turned him into a Winston Churchill researcher and a lover of Shakespeare," Hughart said. "He opened the doors of learning, he turned the light on."

Wilkerson, who has a master's degree from Johns Hopkins Uni versity, spent the past nine years as chairman of the English department at Old Mill. But he has decided that "my time has come," that he is a throwback to a more formal and disciplined style of teaching that has faded.

This will be the first fall in 52 years that Wilkerson hasn't gone to school. Instead, he's making his second trip to the land of Shakespeare.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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