- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Students are often inspired by their teachers, but Malcolm Ater, a junior high school teacher in Jefferson County, West Virginia, was inspired by Tyler Moore, a student, to write a novel, “Tyler’s Mountain Magic” (Blue Ridge Mountain Books, Shepherdstown, WV, 224 pages, $14.95, available from Amazon.com orwww.blueridgemountainbooks.com; to read an excerpt: Go towww.blueridgemountainbooks.com. Also available from Amazon in a $3.99 Kindle edition) based on the life of a student athlete with cystic fibrosis and how he inspired his coach, his team, his town and the state of West Virginia.
Ater’s account of Tyler Moore is a novel because he changed some of the details of the book, including the fate of Tyler and the name of the coach, Mac Waters.
Ater, the model for Mac Waters, was a special education teacher and wrestling coach at Harpers Ferry Junior High School in the scenic, historic Eastern Panhandle town where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers meet. There’s a saying in West Virginia that “you can’t eat scenery” — if there isn”t, there should be! I lived in scenic Hinton, WV from 1992 to 2008 and can attest to the poverty of Appalachia. In Jefferson County, where Harpers Ferry is located, the big rival was the much larger Mecklenburg Junior High in the county seat of Charles Town. Harpers Ferry was denigrated as the home of “Mountain Brats and River Rats” by the wealthier students of Charles Town, where many of the parents commute by train to good jobs in the Washington, DC metro area.
In an email to me, Ater said it was culture shock when he moved from one of the wealthiest areas of Virginia — Fairfax County — to teach in Jefferson County:
“Harpers Ferry is quite different today than it was many years ago. When I first started teaching at Harpers Ferry in 1987, we still had some students who lived without running water or perhaps had their family run an electrical wire from a neighboring family house to their house for electricity. Having grown up in Falls Church, Va., (only 60 miles away but a light year away in terms of progress) and teaching the kids from Blue Ridge Mountain, it was a bit of a cultural shock. But they are my kids now. Today, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but Jefferson County…. It’s hard to describle the animosity that existed between our two schools because, back then, the mountain separated our two communities like a stone wall, be it either physically or mentally. Now there is an acceptance of equality and no more ‘I’m better than you.’ We’re all together on the same plane.”
You’ll learn a lot about wrestling in “Tyler’s Mountain Magic” but more importantly you’ll also learn about determination, character, leadership and friendship. There’s plenty of humor in the book, as the wrestlers make often hazardous trips across the mountain roads in the winter to travel to Wheeling, Beckley and Charleston, among other places, for wrestling matches. Junior high school wrestlers are a thing of the past with school consolidation and the rise of middle schools, but in the 1990s, when, at the urging of the Harpers Ferry alumni association, Harpers Ferry Junior High started a wrestling team with Mac Waters as coach.
Harpers Ferry is most famous for its role in the Civil War, and what came to be known as “the curse of John Brown” began with the failed raid on the federal armory on Oct. 16, 1859, when the town — and West Virginia — was still part of Virginia. Brown was tried, convicted and executed on Dec. 2, 1859 in Charles Town, and the “curse” was still in place when Ater, a teacher at the school, accepted the post of wrestling coach.
In the novel, Ater says that the choice wasn’t a popular one in other parts of the county:
“Several other men had wanted the job, and still did. They were the youth league coaches, most of whom lived in the Mecklenburg school district. But the principal at Harpers Ferry had insisted they hire ‘one of its own.’ Mac Waters had gotten the job only because he actually taught at the school. And while Mecklenburg had long ago established itself as a state wrestling power, the early wrestling teams at Harpers Ferry struggled through losing seasons like every other sport at the school. Mac Waters coaching ability was constantly being criticized by the youth league coaches, and many of them wanted him to fail.”
Tyler was a seventh grader when he told Coach Waters that he wanted to wrestle. His protective mother was against his going out for the team, but his father, “Big Bill” Moore wanted his son to do whatever he had set his mind on. Waters encouraged Tyler and the story of their three years together ranks, in my view, with the story of the small town Indiana basketball team in “Hoosiers” and the football player in the Michael Lewis book and subsequent movie “The Blind Side.”
The novel focuses on the 1999-2000 wrestling season, when, inspired by Tyler Moore, Harpers Ferry set out to make history with a wrestling win record that — thanks to school consolidation and demographic changes — could never be erased.
“It was that last year together that we will always remember, both the good and the bad,” the novel’s narrator writes.”Certainly we went on the most magical sports ride in West Virginia public school history. But as we battled the brutal winter trying to accomplish something that had never been done before, it took something terrible to bring everyone to their senses. Along the way we learned about friendship and courage and holding on to the important things in life. And more importantly, we did the impossible. We made Tyler’s dream come true. You won’t see any signs in our little town honoring John Brown and his infamous raid that ignited the Civil War. But you will see a sign at the entrance to Harpers Ferry honoring a teenage boy who had a dream that ended a war in our county that had been going on forever. Call it Tyler’s Mountain Magic. Unfortunately, we learned that everything comes with a price.”
“Tyler’s Mountain Magic” was selected as the 1st Place Award Winner for best book length novel in 2011 by the West Virginia Writers, Inc. I recommend it without reservation to readers of all ages. When you’re reading the book, you’ll probably laugh and cry — sometimes at the same time, thanks to Ater’s writing.
According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (www.cff.org): “Cystic fibrosis is an inherited chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system of about 30,000 children and adults in the United States (70,000 worldwide). A defective gene and its protein product cause the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus that: clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening lung infections; and obstructs the pancreas and stops natural enzymes from helping the body break down and absorb food. In the 1950s, few children with cystic fibrosis lived to attend elementary school. Today, advances in research and medical treatments have further enhanced and extended life for children and adults with CF. Many people with the disease can now expect to live into their 30s, 40s and beyond.”
About the Author
Malcolm Ater has been the special education reading teacher at Harpers Ferry Junior High and Harpers Ferry Middle School for 23 years. He is most proud of the fact that between 2005 and 2009, his students had the highest combined special education reading achievement test scores of any middle school in West Virginia during that four-year period. He was also the assistant wrestling coach at Harpers Ferry Junior High for five years, and the head coach from 1997 to 2001. He was the fastest coach in West Virginia secondary school history to win 100 games or matches in any sport, with a four-year record of 110 wins and 14 losses.
Over the years, he has frequently contributed human interest stories to Goldenseal, the official state magazine of West Virginia. Ater earned his B.S. in Education from Old Dominion University where he was a varsity baseball pitcher. He earned his master’s degree in Special Education from West Virginia University. He lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia with his wife, Valerie, and his two dogs and a cat. Ater will donate $5 from each paperback book sale of “Tyler’s Mountain Magic” to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.