The Great Escape
New York City
The plan seemed relatively straightforward and remarkably simple in design. Wilbur would cut a hole wide enough for him to escape into an adjoining and empty classroom. The hole would be cut into the rear wall of our social studies classroom and concealed behind Wilbur's old wood desk. Wilbur was never very good at math, but he calculated the task could be completed by early December if he started right after Labor Day. A two-inch wide metal chisel was all that was needed to chip away at the soft cement wall, and the debris could be pocketed after each class.
My high school was celebrating its centennial birthday and I had no doubt the wall would yield to Wilbur's galvanized blade. I was also impressed with Wilbur's attention to detail and his astute powers of observation. Wilbur had studied the work habits of our social studies teacher during the first week of class and discovered a routine. The teacher arrived promptly to class at exactly 9:05 every morning, checked the attendance record, pointed to an assignment written on the blackboard, and then spent the remaining 45 minutes of class time hidden behind a copy of The New York Times.
Wilbur wasted no time explaining his plan. "He comes in every day, gives us some horse shit pages to read and some bull shit questions to answer. Am I right?" he asked.
I quickly flashed the previous week's assignments in my head. "Yes, "I answered. "That's exactly what happens."
Wilbur looked at me and then whispered. "That's why I can cut the hole," he said proudly.
What first seemed to be a ridiculous plan suddenly made a lot of sense to a high school freshman. I was not confident about the December deadline, but even a June completion date would be a remarkable achievement.
Wilbur now had a steely look of determination in his eyes. "Here's how we do it," he said. "Everyone sitting in the two back rows need to be perfect students when class begins."
"Okay," I said.
"And we need to help each other complete these dog shit work sheets." Wilbur held up a worksheet about the French and Indian War.
"Okay," I repeated.
"We don't want to draw any attention to the back of the room or that chicken shit teacher might come back here."
Wilbur was fond of using animal shit adjectives. He called our 9th grade English teacher "Miss Ape Shit" because of the histrionics she displayed whenever a student talked in class. This same teacher disappeared during our junior year. The rumor circulating throughout the school was that she had a nervous breakdown. Wilbur said that she "went ape shit in the principal's office."
"What are you planning to do when you bust through the wall?" I asked.
"Dude," Wilbur replied, "the classroom behind us is empty. Nobody uses that room."
"Don't you see?" Wilbur asked. "If I can get inside that empty room, I can cut this class every day."
I was beginning to see some of the purpose of Wilbur's plan but not all the benefits of such labor. "What are you going to do in the empty room?" I asked.
"Hang out and smoke, "he said.
Now that made a lot of practical sense. The boy's bathrooms had long since abandoned any semblance of a usable toilet facility and became the exclusive domain of teenage smokers. Wilbur hated smoking in the bathroom because "too many dipshits grubbed cigarettes."
Wilbur displayed undaunted perseverance while chipping away at the pliant wall. Every day, for forty minutes, he applied chisel to cement and came a little closer to his goal. The teacher was mesmerized by the Watergate scandal and never emerged from behind the pages of The New York Times. And the school custodian didn't notice or care about the cavity in the wall.
Wilbur passed away last week. I lost touched with him over the past decades but never forgot that cold February morning when he broke free and escaped from what contemporary critics of education fondly call "the good old days of public education."
May Wilbur and the halcyon days of public education rest in peace.