It is near summer now as I write this brief narrative. This time of year, when I turn on my car radio, I sometimes hear various individuals talking about summer reading, past or present.
These programs got me thinking about Percy Holmes, or the late Percy Holmes, an English teacher I had in the tenth grade at Haverhill High School in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
I remember Mr. Holmes as a dapper little man, carefully groomed and dressed with absolute precision, a man with no hair whose bald head shone. Indeed, one wondered if he didn’t shine it the way others might shine their shoes each day. I remember too that he wore a vest and watch chain across the vest, and attached to it, a pocket watch which, at the end of the class, as the bell rang, he would pull out to check the time.
I am sure Mr. Holmes never knew who I was. I had nothing to say in his class or any other classes in those days, nor was I anything but a “C” student if that. But what I found of interest in Mr. Holmes’ class was his reading aloud. He didn’t do it each day, as I recall now. But I seem to remember him doing it several times a week, time permitting, if other work was completed. It was done as a kind of reward, I suppose.
I always hoped there was time. He would read from a novel, often as not, but I don’t remember many of the books. I only had him for one year, so maybe there were only two or three books. The one I recall was a story set in a leper colony in Louisiana, told, I believe, by one of the colony’s residents, someone with leprosy, I guess. I suppose it was a novel, but it could have been nonfiction, a memoir. I don’t know now, nor do I know how the story came out because the school year ended before the book did.
I am fairly certain Mr. Holmes gave us the title and the author’s name so we could find the book in the library for ourselves. Yet I have no recollection of this. I may have known the title once and the author too, but if I did, I quickly forgot it. But I didn’t forget those readings; they stuck to me like glue. Still, I had this wonderful memory of what I thought was a great book that Percy Holmes read to us for a few weeks that winter. Up to that time in my youth, books were not an important aspect of my life. Yet I hung on to the memory of Mr. Holmes’ presentation of the story of the lepers.
Life is full of second chances, we are often taught, or we note ourselves, and it so happened that years later, the name of Percy Holmes came up. Though long retired from teaching, I was told that he now volunteered regularly (or worked part-time) in a museum in Haverhill. I believe it was at the Hannah Duston home.
“Mr. Holmes,” I said straight away, extending my hand to shake hands with him, no longer shy. After all, I was past forty by a few years by then. Still, I was somewhat hesitant as I approached him. “You don’t remember me, I know.”
How many former students, I wondered after I said these words, had said the same thing to him time after time? Dozens, surely.
I then gave my name, and there was no flicker of recognition, not that I expected any.
“I was in your English class,” I went on, thinking he knew as much since he only taught English, “and you used to read to us, time permitting from other work, of course, and I remember this one book so vividly. It was about a leper colony in Louisiana. About the life of a man who lived there, I think it was.”
He seemed to be trying to recall the book I described. “I read so many books over the years,” he said with no great interest, I thought, in this conversation.
Yet, I thought, how many books did he read about lepers in Louisiana? It could not be that many. Surely there was only that one.
“You say lepers in Louisiana. I don’t recall such a book. You couldn’t have me confused with someone else?” he inquired.
No chance. He was not easily confused with anyone else. He looked just the same as he did when I was in high school. He was dressed the same way, complete with the tweed coat (I may not have mentioned that coat) and the vest, and the watch chain. Maybe he was acting now as he did way back then, coming across as a bit unavailable, that distance that successful teachers need to establish. I never knew him sufficiently then to make such a judgment. I did not know him at all, beyond knowing he was the man who stood at the front of the class and who gave me no higher grade than a “C” for the entire year. I do not begrudge him that “C,” but I did feel somewhat cheated at this moment that he could not recall the title of that book.
Yet I am grateful to the man reading a portion of that one story to me, to our entire class, who impressed me for a lifetime as to the power of words, the power for them to entertain, and the power to change people. That is a big legacy to leave, deliberate or not, on the part of Percy Holmes.
He just never knew it, or else he never let me know that he knew it.
Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.