When Bernard Wilson reaches the podium at Mt. Airy’s Blue Marble Bookstore, the audience falls silent—pencils poised on paper, smart phones raised to record. With interminable energy and a youthful grin, the featured author addresses the crowd at the Nor’easter Open, the monthly open mic series co-hosted by Nina Sharma Jones and Wilson’s fellow Adjunct Professor of English Quincy Scott Jones.
“It has always been a pleasure to be able to share what has been given to me, whether it is through multimedia, or through an experience in life,” he says. “I work with young people and a lot of their goals and their angst is around these questions: ‘How do I know who I am? Where do I fit in?’
“The older you get, you learn the fact that identity is something that’s created on the fly. Who you are is what you do with the life that is given to you.”
Peering down at his digital tablet through half-frame eyeglasses, he reads a vivid coming-of-age story about a boy from a single-parent home. As he injects the character’s voice, inflection and personality into each portion of dialogue, it is difficult to know how much of the story is taken from real events—how much the conflicted hero is a reflection of Wilson’s own dynamic identity.
Over the years, he’s gone through various incarnations—minister, musician, mental health worker, Federal Reserve Bank employee, general contractor and bartender. However, as Wilson explains in an interview before the Nor’easter reading, the role of teacher is at the very core of his being.
“I frequently turn pages in my life,” he says. “I just go to the next chapter. Often I don’t bring any of what was before into the next incarnation—with the exception of teaching. Teaching has been the thing that I do that I feel like I was meant to do this from the womb.”
Indeed, he was born with the magnetism and charisma of a seasoned orator. At the early age of 11, Wilson became a licensed, ordained minister. A child prodigy, he traveled around the country doing speaking engagements in churches and stadiums. He even found himself competing with Marjoe Gortner, child preacher and subject of the award-winning documentary Marjoe, who became a friend on the evangelism circuit.
Wilson admits that after rising to this position of power—the most highly regarded position in his North Philadelphia African American community—he grew disillusioned. He was exposed to hypocrisy beyond the pulpit, from backroom deals to adultery. “I reached a point when there was something so parochial about my existence,” he says. “There were so few doctors and lawyers and they didn’t have the respect in the community that the minister did. And then to see these people misuse that trust was pretty eye-opening for me.” These experiences inspired him to strive for balance rather than aspire to an impossible perfection in life.
But it wasn’t until his ministry mentor died in 1968 that Wilson’s world fell apart. “I didn’t graduate high school. I guess, I couldn’t get it together or just didn’t get it together.” Lacking the courage to tell his mother, he created a ruse. With his name already printed in the program, he snuck in a side door, and slipped into a spare cap and gown. When Wilson walked across the stage at Philadelphia’s Civic Center his mother cheered loudly—none the wiser. Of course as mothers always do, she learned the truth just months afterward.
When Wilson earned a perfect score on his GED test, the testing center staff stood incredulous and asked him what he was doing there. He simply stated without a hint of compunction, “That’s just what happened to me in my life.”
A few years later Wilson was the Valedictorian of his graduating class at Temple University and a graduation commencement speaker at the Civic Center—the same building that had hosted his high school graduation ceremony. He gave a speech in his mother’s honor and memory in front of 10,000 people.
“When I was waiting for my time to speak…I looked up into the audience—way up there—and I saw a woman leaning on the balcony. She looked like my mother,” he whispers, wide-eyed. “It flipped me out. I looked away for a second, blinking, because I just couldn’t believe it. When I looked again, I couldn’t find that place–it was the most incredible thing.” Whether the woman was a hallucination, an angel or a case of mistaken identity, Wilson knew his mother was there in spirit.
In addition to teaching his many courses, Wilson serves as an instructor for the Gateway 101 program, which prepares students who, despite some modest elements in their credentials, have potential to succeed at Arcadia.
Though the life of a teacher isn’t always glamorous, Wilson says, “This gig I have here at Arcadia is the most amazing thing—I get to talk about all other aspects of my life, I get to bring in things that seem unconnected. The best part about it is that my students have been so receptive to hearing it, and my students value my experience, and seek me out for support and advice.
“I do know a little bit about human nature, and I do know a little bit about the angst that young people at this stage feel—they’re scared, they’re on trial, some of them are holding up their families on their backs, all of this responsibility. It’s hard. So I try really hard to make them realize that in the classroom, wherever it is, it’s a safe, comfortable place for them to grow and learn and explore—and they’ve been really receptive. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams that I would have this kind of success in the college classroom.”
From community readings to the classroom, Wilson’s success is found in each individual listener. They are the beneficiaries of his expert insight, with which they confront challenges and understand new information. He spends the first meeting of his Thoughts and Expressions I course with the Gateway 101 program telling stories from his own circuitous and utterly rewarding path. He ends with a simple statement: “It doesn’t matter how you started, as long as you get there.”
His students leave with smiles on their faces and new inspiration for the journey ahead.
TEDxArcadiaUniversity: Wilson Speaks about His Mother
and the Power of Education
Photo by Jin Zhao ’13