Friday, 24 June 2016



Imagine what life would be like and the possibilities if you were a young
black boy, born in Texas at the turn of the 20th century, in the year 1900.
How meaningful and productive do you think your life would have been?

That's when Wilk Peters was born.  He was born to a share-cropper in a part
of Texas where the nights were rules by racial threat and the days were
spent fighting off poverty by working the cotton fields.  So by eight he was
walking behind a plow mule.  Now would you think that this is the place or
context of the best conditions for self-actualization?  Would you guess it
to be a place of dreams?

Yet young Wilk caught a dream, and early.  At 8 years old he happened to
meet the only one educated man in his humble experience, an awesome figure
in a tall black hat- the doctor.  But even better, when he mentioned it to
his dad, John Peters, his dad knew how to nourish the beginning of
aspirations in his young son.  He encouraged him.  He validated knowledge
and expertise and that he could become whatever he wanted to become.

And so the dream began.  And as it began to grow, it put a passion in Wilk.
It plants within him a fire for learning, for discovering the world, and for
questioning.  It put in him a hatred against ignorance and that became the
emergent talent, skill, and competency of his life.

But there was a problem.  And that problem was his immediate environment and
the family situation.  Specifically, by 13 his dad took ill in an accident
and died so young Wilk had to step up to be "the man" in the family and talk
care of the family.  So he dropped out of school (fifth grade) and stayed
home to tend the farm in his dad's place.  And so it went, adult
responsibilities and no more school.  How would he ever become a doctor?
How would he ever pursue knowledge?

But by 18 his mother remarried and so left for another town, and that left
Wilk alone for the first time in his life.  Without education or skills, he
took a job at a local lumbermill and that's where he began to hear the other
young men dreaming of getting an education.  In fact, he had heard that some
had actually gone to Tyler Texas and enrolled in college.

That sparked something in young Peters.  It had a dramatic impact!  Many
decades later, Jon Franklin wrote about how this affected Wilks.

"If they could go, so could he!  The gossamer fantasy instantly solidified
in his mind, from possibilities to dream to goal to necessity."

Of course, this was his self-actualizing vision at that time.  Yet up
against that were many things ready to throw cold water on this dream.
First, the men he talked to who had gone to college, went and had failed.
They dropped out.  Some mismanaged their money.  Some couldn't cut the
grades.  Some just lost their dream.  Some failed to apply themselves.  Some
were put off by the racism of the day.  Then there was the belief that was
circulating in the intellectual atmosphere at that time. 

"It was said that an illiterate, once he became an adult, was done for.  The
mind was set, firm, impossible to teach."

Talk about interferences to the self-actualization process of unleashing
one's potentials!  And, while Wilk was filled with cold terror, he refused
to believe it.  He absolutely refused to believe it.  Ah, the creative and
positive role of stubbornness!  He told himself that if he ever got the
chance, he would not drop out.  "If I get the chance."

Then he did something to begin to make his dreams real in his life.  Looking
around him and seeing the machinery at the sawmill, the first automobiles,
the goods at the company store, it struck him that somebody had to know
something.  That's when he made a decision.  He would be one of those
people!  And with that he moved to a choice point of his life.

"The resolution made, his ignorance became suddenly intolerable, and he
couldn't wait.  He borrowed some primers and when he wasn't working, he
reviewed arithmetic and grammar ... when he found it incomprehensible, he
still refused to put it down."  (Jon Franklin)

And so the plan began.  He began saving for school.  Each payday he would
save a little for his education; the rest going to his mother and family and
some for his modest requirements.  A year passed, then two, then three and
all the while he was reading.  Learning.

"The more he learned, the more voracious his appetite for knowledge became.
Slowly the puzzle of mathematics yielded to his stubborn attack, and he was
captivated by the sweet logic of it.  As he learned, the idea of learning
itself broadened."  (Franklin)

With his eyes opened to learning, he one day saw an opportunity.  A notice
on a church bullet board said that the president of Texas College was coming
to give a lecture.  So 23 years of age with only a 5th grade education, he
showed up with the money he had saved in hand and asked if he was too old.
The president didn't have the heart to tell him otherwise, and simply said,
"Nothing was impossible."  That was all Wilk needed to hear.

In the fall of the year he showed up to enter college.  The admissions
officials gave him a job shoveling coal and allowed him to attend 6th grade.
So sitting with his knees jammed under a tiny table, he wrestled with long
division and if there was laughing and jokes, he didn't notice.  "He viewed
his place in class as opportunity, not insult."  How about that?  Talk about
having owned his powers to create meaning and to exercise that power!  Talk
about someone letting a vision direct his responses rather than taking his
cues from the environment.

The school administrators thought that the embarrassment of being with
little kids, of having to work at hard menial labor to put himself through
school would be enough to quench his dream.  It wasn't.  The next year he
was back and that's when he discovered Shakespear; and Shakespear spoke to
him.  "To be or not to be: that is the question."  He memorized the words as
he shoveled coal.  That was also the year he discovered the library- a
sacred place of unimaginable riches. And the books began to change him.  His
learnings began making him a different man.  And he became a dreamer and in
beating back ignorance, he was slowly turning his dream into reality.  And
as he has respected knowledge, now he was coming to respect himself.

Fast forward several years, and when Wilk was 28 he graduated from high
school.  And Franklin wrote that with that, all of his fears of failure
vanished.  Now he was ready for college.  Now he would be a "college man."
But in the second year, 1929, the stock market crashed.  That meant even
fewer menial jobs.  Yet as always, he persisted.  Waiting tables in the
student cafeteria, he did so until he graduated in 1931.  During that time
he become fascinated by languages and so started learning German, then
Spanish while teaching math.  Talk about an emergent passion taking a long
time to arise in one.

When there was no work even with a college degree in mathematics, he
volunteered at the college library.  In it was in that context that the head
librarian began noticing the reverence with which he handled each volume.
That's when she asked a question that plant yet another vision within him.
"Why not become a librarian?"  The rest of the story is that Wilk Peters
applied for a scholarship to the Hampton Institute's College of Library
Science in Virginia.

Then, over the ensuing years he began traveling in his summers to see the
world.  A teacher most of the year, he spent 3 months each summer as a
student, studying Spanish at the University of Barcelona, art and French in
Paris, and his travels took him to Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal, Norway,
England, Ireland, and so on.  "His profession was perfectly matched to his
dream of learning." As a professor and lecturer, he lived his life traveling
the world, searching for knowledge, and constantly beating back ignorance.
He traveled to bring knowledge back to black universities around the world.
And, in the end he discovered that the world wasn't a stage at all as per
Spakespear, but a campus.  And that was the dream that caught his fancy in
the first place, a dream that unleashed a ferocity of learning and turned
him into a life-long learner.


In 1983 Jon Franklin wrote The Ballad of Old Man Peters which was published
it in the Evening Sun (Baltimore) and later in Reader's Digest (Jan. 1984).

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

               Neuro-Semantics Executive Director

               Neuro-Semantics International

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