My favorite book of all time was introduced to me by an elderly lady, hip beyond her years. Her name was Miss Sterling and she taught my second grade class at good ol' Washington School. Miss Sterling was smart and funny but also knew how to crack the whip when needed. While it may not seem unusual, Miss Sterling was one, if not the only teacher, that would give us crackers and allow us to bust open a juice box everyday around 10AM. She would spend each day reading to us and overtime her admiration for a certain author became clear. Works like Matilda, The BFG, The Twits and Fantastic Mr. Fox were all read aloud as Miss Sterling put so much enthusiasm into reciting Roald Dahl's words. At some point during the year, Miss Sterling chose another classic in Dahl's canon, his 1964 effort of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Perhaps it was the eccentric character of Willy Wonka or his dark handling of the greedy and selfish children who entered his factory. Maybe it was my love for chocolate and sweets that roped me in. Nonetheless, this story captivated me. Dahl's ability to speak on a child's level without ever talking down to them was what made his stories timeless. While I was simultaneously obsessing over R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series, Dahl's work quickly became my favorite and propelled me into a voracious reader. A track that I have not steered from since the tender age of eight.
Upon completion of the book, Miss Sterling allowed us to experience the 1971 film adaptation, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory starring the great Gene Wilder. In retrospect, the film takes certain liberties with the book while still charming the viewer. In 1996, my eight year-old self, was stunned. This film was an absolute revelation that threw my imagination for a loop. The larger than life sets, excellent soundtrack, memorable performances and of course, the chocolate deepened my love for the source material. From that point on, I’d consider myself obsessed with Wonka and his wonderful factory. I remember my parents buying me the 25th anniversary clamshell VHS for Easter and re-watching it nearly a zillion times. My passion for the story continued as I decided to have my own golden ticket giveaway. I took days drawing my own golden tickets for a very secret project. One day during indoor recess, while others were playing Nok-Hockey, I randomly selected five students and hid the tickets under their desks. Miss Sterling kindly gave me the floor right before class resumed and I advised the class to look under their desks. The selected winners made their way to the front of the classroom where I explained their exciting prize. A visit to my house reconverted into Wonka’s factory and a buffet of all the chocolate and candy they could eat. My eight year-old mind, was buzzing with excitement as I envisioned using cardboard boxes and paint to create my own backyard version of the factory. Unfortunately, I never made that dream come true. Thankfully, the lucky winners never sued.
The last day of school is the only day of the year kids look forward to attending. All-day parties, snacks and no work! On this sunny day, Miss Sterling sat us down the final minutes of the day telling us what a wonderful year she had. We all couldn’t have agreed more until Miss Sterling started getting teary-eyed. Fighting back the sadness, our enchanting teacher explained that after so many years educating young minds she would be retiring, marking us her final group of students. She proceeded to tell us that we were her favorite class, a genuine statement from the heart. We all individually gave her hugs as we walked up to get special congratulatory diplomas she made for us. While, we all kept our excitement levels high with summer vacation around the corner, I couldn’t help but feel the sadness take over me. Miss Sterling was my favorite teacher who opened my imagination to so many worlds, it was tough to know that I wouldn’t see her in the halls next year. Right before we all lined up to count down the final minutes of the day, Miss Sterling called me up to her desk. “Mikey, I know how much this story means to you so I want you to have this...” Miss Sterling said. She proceeded to reach into her desk and pull out her personal copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book was aged to hell with a big red stick of tape holding the spine together. Miss Sterling had been reading this first edition of the book to her students throughout the years. I certainly had my own paperback copy by this point, but there was something magical about her tattered version. This old, faded book was responsible for my introduction to Wonka and his remarkable world. It was Miss Sterling’s delivery of the words that made this story so special to me. I took it from her hands practically speechless. “Just do me one favor” she said, “get a marker and write today’s date”. I didn’t really understand why and frankly I didn’t want to cause the book anymore harm but looking back, I’m glad I did. June 17, 1996 was the day that this sweet, elderly lady gave me the personal passport to so many of my dreams and I’ll never forget her for that. Nearly 20 years later, I have read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory countless times and it never grows tired. I can still close my eyes and be whisked away to imaginative worlds of all kinds, but reading Dahl’s tale of a chocolate extraordinaire, I can’t help but think back to that classroom and the sweet, old lady who showed me how to dream. Thanks Miss Sterling.