Teacher lives up to his love of writing
Do high school English teachers write their own stories? If not, how can they year after year lecture impressionable teenagers on the best way to read Fitzgerald and Hemingway, parse through their creative writing with confident strokes of red ink, and have final say over their final grades, which invariably are scrutinized by college admissions officers?
Wilton High School's Tommy Hahn recently dared to drop his red pen and allow his students (and the country) into his creative mind.
The recent publication of his short story "The Things We Remember" paid remarkable dividends, garnering Mr. Hahn a place in Temenos, Central Michigan University's esteemed graduate literary journal.
"This is a big deal," said Michelle Cota, one of Mr. Hahn's administrative colleagues at Wilton High School, who speaks highly of both his literary talents and enthusiastic method of teaching.
The graduate university recently invited Mr. Hahn to read his story to students, faculty and administrators at a school festival. Not wanting to fly, Mr. Hahn set off on a road trip with a friend.
"We were treated like rock stars," Mr. Hahn said of the literary department's gracious reception and the professional attendance of the event.
"The Things We Remember" is a short tale about an awkward and hapless teenager a year out of high school who — despite his deep resentment toward his lower-middle-class, poorly educated lineage — has wound up as a food-sample server at a "giant" and "intimidating" retail warehouse, Costmart.
Mr. Hahn drew inspiration for the fictional retailer from his college stint at Costco in Holbrook, N.Y., serving one year in the food court and one at the photo lab.
"Don't be like Dad, don't be like Dad," is the story's mantra, as the anxious teenager clumsily tries to build a relationship with his supervisor, all the while reflecting on a father who walked out on him and his mother.
Though he is bold and generous at moments, his fleeting hopes of courting a woman ultimately wilt like the $125 exotic flower he buys for their night out.
This is Mr. Hahn's second year at Wilton High School, after three years teaching at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury.
He describes Wilton High as a "wonderful place" and a "dream come true," in which members of the English department are "super supportive, really encouraging."
Courses he teaches include Writing Skills II (oriented toward juniors), Creative Writing, and American Literature and Search for Self, which boasts such classics as Goodbye, Columbus, Ordinary People, The Crucible, Black Boy, and The Catcher in the Rye.
If he feels like adding a short story or poem to the curriculum, ideas are sent by department administrators on the basis of reading level, content, diction, and complexity of characters. Administrators are tasked to find whether a particular literary work is suitable for a particular unit and its theme.
Mr. Hahn has been writing since high school and has been writing "seriously" since his first year of college, in 2003.
"I've been publishing more and more as I've gotten older, hoping to improve the craft aspect of storytelling," he said.
Mr. Hahn advises all aspiring writers to join reliable writing groups.
"I think it helps to have some really good readers read your own work and give you advice, and it's important to bounce ideas off other people," he said. "Stories come from us, but they are intended for other people."
He recommends finding a writers group on MeetUp.com, a site where you can search for local meetings by your area.
"Just write, keep writing," he said. "It's important to sit down and make time every day to write. I don't really have a choice — it's just something I have to do."
Some of his favorite writers are Haruki Murakami, an acclaimed Japanese fiction and nonfiction writer; the late American short story writer Andre Debus; American memoirist and short story writer Tobias Wolff; and Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood.
As for the teacher-student relationship at Wilton High, Mr. Hahn said it has been a learning experience on both ends.
"I have learned from them as well, in terms of things I can change about myself as a teacher."
To fully illustrate a topic of discussion in class, Mr. Hahn uses artwork, movies, video clips, interviews, and nonfiction sources for a complete "360 view."
To get students more engaged with creative writing, he and Ms. Cota are launching a student literary club so students can have the resources of a literary workshop.
"We have been getting a lot of kids coming to us," he said. "We will be talking about the craft of writing, elements of the craft, points of view, etc."
His personal writing style tends toward the poetic-lyrical, and he has already set off on his first novel, though he is experiencing some "first-draft blues."
"We want it to come out perfectly the first time," he said. "It's just not going to happen. I try not to think so much and instead write from the right place — it's visceral writing."