School & District Management

Mark Twain-Impersonating English Teacher Hanging Up the Chalk

By Kristine Kim — April 22, 2016 2 min read
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Tom Gilding, a high school English teacher who has gained renown as a Mark Twain impersonator, has announced that he is retiring this spring. But only from teaching, not from impersonating Mark Twain.

According to the Racine, Wis.-based Journal Times, Gilding began his teaching career in 1974 and went on to teach at Burlington High School in Burlington, Wis., where he has been since 1994.

He began performing as Twain in the fall of 1984, inspired by a trip he had made to the author’s boyhood hometown of Hannibal, Mo. Gilding recounted the transformation in an email:

In the middle school where I taught 7th grade at the time, it was a tradition for the teachers to come in costume for Halloween. I felt it would be a fun, worthwhile, and educational day to spend it in the person of Mark Twain with my students. My wife, a hairdresser, purchased a white wig for me, a $3 brown seersucker suit, which she bleached to white, I studied up on Mr. Twain, and set forth on my first day as Mark Twain. It was an amazing day of learning for me and my students, as I stayed in character, teaching them as Mark Twain. The following day, as myself, I did follow-up with them, asking them about their special visiting teacher. The learning experience was profound!"

Throughout the years, Gilding has continued to use his Twain persona in his classes, especially when teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But he has also toured the country offering Mark Twain shows for different age groups. With elementary school audiences, he shares tales of Twain’s boyhood and encourages the students to use their imagination to tell their own stories. Middle school groups, as “the young Tom Sawyers’ and Beckys’ of today,” hear Twain’s “advice to youth,” while high school audiences explore Huckleberry Finn and the context of Twain’s literature.

“As a history and English teacher, it has always been most important to me to use Mark Twain’s own words so other than transitional words, I do present an authentic Mark Twain for my audiences,” Gilding said. “I most enjoy when the groups interact with Mr. Twain—asking questions, which again, I answer using Mark Twain’s own words.”

He told the Journal Times that his favorite shows are for younger crowds, noting that kindergartners especially, “treat Mark Twain like he’s Santa Claus.”

During his career, Gilding has taught English, history, and writing. He also oversees Burlington High’s FM radio station, WBSD.

He told the Journal Times that he considers his greatest achievement as an educator being able to teach his grandson, the aptly named Sawyer, at Burlington. During his first year at the school, incidentally, he also taught Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who grew up in Wisconsin. (No word yet on whether Romo remembers the Twain impersonations.)

After he leaves the classroom, Gilding plans to continue performing as Twain. “It’ll keep me in education,” he said.

On his school bio page, Gilding quotes Twain himself: “If I have a passion for anything, it is to teach. It is noble to teach oneself, but it is still nobler to teach others. And, as far as I am concerned, it is a lot less trouble.”

Image: Gilding with his grandson Sawyer Thomas during an American Literature field trip to Watson’s Wild West Musuem in Elkhorn, Wis. Courtesy of Tom Gilding.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.