Wally Lamb

Portrait Image

occupation

Novelist, teacher

interview date

08/19/2013

“I wanted and needed teaching in my life, still.”

INTRO

He taught high school English for twenty-five years before trying his hand at novel writing. His first novel, She’s Come Undone and the demands of a writing life eventually drew him reluctantly from the classroom. He is the author of I Know This Much is True, Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, and other novels. He has collected the works of incarcerated women at York Prison for whom he conducts writers workshops: Couldn’t Keep it to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters and I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison.

Wally’s son, Jared Lamb,  is an educator. He helped found a school in New Orleans post-Katrina.

I

Jared was always a good consumer of his own education. In college, he was having a struggle with organic chemistry. .. As do many. He had a weak professor who was indifferent. Jared was never shy about raising his hand if something was unclear. He always went in for extra help. Even early on, he was frustrated with teachers who were giving him the brush off if he came in after class. So he was really frustrated with this organic chem teacher, third year. By this time, he was thinking of becoming a teacher. One thing that professor said: “What the hell would you want to be a teacher for? You can set you sights higher.” Jared was really offended by that, and was thinking to himself, Then why are you teaching?

Do you have any sense of how he viewed your life as a teacher?

He certainly would have seen me working at the kitchen table every night. Because I taught English in high school and writing at the university, there were always piles of paper. And I always tend to write long extended notes in the margins. Jared would have seen me spending hours and hours a night and many hours on the weekend, not only going through student work, but planning lessons. We’d be out and about on the weekend, and very often I’d run into students, and he would have been listening to those conversations.

Sounds like you would make a strong connection with each student.

Yes, the main reason I left the university after three years was, my writing career had taken off. I had gotten a couple books selected by Oprah, so suddenly I had book contracts and deadlines to meet. My problem was that I teach whole-heartedly, and I naively thought if I teach at college level, that frees me up for my own writing. I found out in short order that that was not the case. It was still hours upon hours of work and prep. That was the reason I left university teaching. But I had never burned out at it, and I wanted the classroom dynamic in my life.

Ironically, on the last day of my work at the university, after I had just packed up my office, the phone rang. It was the librarian at the York Prison. She said there had been a couple of suicides. A conservative governor had come in and was making things tough for the prisoners and their environment. Several more attempted suicides. The librarian said they were trying to counteract this epidemic of despair so they’re asking people in the community to come and talk about their work, just as a way of distracting the women. I didn’t want to go, but couldn’t find a way out, so I said I would. I thought I was going for one ninety-minute session, but within that ninety minutes, the students really engaged me in very interesting ways. Suddenly, I saw that as a way I could give back.

Give back?

When Oprah picks your books, you scratch your head and ask, What in the universe made this happen? So I was looking for ways to give back. I wanted and needed teaching in my life still, so I committed to going back there. Particularly when one of the toughest women in the class asked me if I was coming back. Maybe it’s because I’m basically a wimp, I said, “Ok, I’ll come back.” That was eleven years ago, and I’m still going back. Teaching incarcerated women has been the most exciting and in some ways most gratifying teaching that I’ve done. And it certainly has changed my life in very positive ways.

II

When I talked to Jared, I heard a very strong social justice element, and a deep commitment to every one of his kids, and I’m hearing that in what you’re saying, too.

I don’t know how much of that comes from me, but you are absolutely right about Jared’s commitment to individuals. He really had trial by fire in his first couple years with TFA. Because he was a bio major, he was teaching biology at a high school in the ninth ward. He would call once or twice a week. His mother and I would get on the extension, and listen to what happened to him that week. Within a week’s time, things would happen to him that I hadn’t had to deal with in twenty-five years of teaching. It was a very broken system and very broken set of expectations. He just sort of rode that bucking bronco.

 One of the unnerving pictures for me and my wife was when he had gone back to New Orleans after the storm. He took a picture of himself sitting in the library, and it was chaos, mud, ruined books on the floor. My reaction was, holy shit, this is going to be so traumatic for him. And it was for all of them. But it made him more determined than ever to get back there and make a better school system. He had an opportunity in Houston to be involved with the KIPP program. He became very invested in that philosophy and mission. And remains so to this day. I love their philosophy– Work hard and be nice. You don’t have to say too much more than that.

His mother and I sometimes worry that he lives it to the point that we hope he’s taking care of himself. Because he’s there until late at night, and he gets there early. He’s dedicated his life to this. He has a wonderful girlfriend, but they have issues about how much time he spends in school. We remind him he has to have a life outside of school as well.

What was it like for both of you to be on the other end of the phone?

Very difficult. You want, as best you can, to keep them safe, whether they’re kids or grown. We worried about the safety issues, that kids would sometimes threaten that they were going to come back with a gun. But he didn’t seem to be focused on that to the point where it stopped him in any way. I should say that his mom is a retired elementary teacher, so he had two teachers in the house for role models, for better or worse. She retired eight or nine years ago, but she still goes in twice a week and volunteers in two schools, runs a writing program for the kids, publishes their stories. She’s working with kindergarten class that is just acquiring language, and third grade class. Still gets a lot of enjoyment from that.

Sounds like you’ve got a family that just can’t walk away from this

(Laughs) Maybe we all need therapy

When I asked Jared about his resilience, he said that one of the things that gives him that strength is this notion that he’s going to do right by his kids. He talked about the difference between his early schooling and when you all moved to Storrs.

Our move to Storrs was a very difficult transition for the kids. Primarily, we moved because the town we were living in kept defeating the school budget. And this was a really threadbare budget to begin with. It went to three or four referenda. My wife and I were part of the committee that made calls about this. We would call people and ask if they would come out for the kids and vote for the school budget. [Laughs] I remember one woman saying to me, “Why should I do anything for kids? What have kids ever done for me?”

Finally, we made the difficult decision. The difference between the Willimantic system and the system at Storrs, where we eventually built a house, was night and day. We’re talking about privilege vs. lack of privilege. Willimantic had been populated largely by the French Canadians who came down and assimilated. Two generations later a lot of Latinos came up from Puerto Rico, primarily, and they were the next group that was going to assimilate. But what happened was the mills closed down and they moved them south and eventually overseas. That left a huge population that was suddenly unemployed. It was really the have-nots that were in the majority. We always loved our town, but we finally threw in the towel and moved to this other town. Jared was about to start high school. The kids were loath to leave their friends, but we made one of those decisions that parents make for the betterment of the kids, whether they understood it or not. We were all having a struggle with the transition.

Jared joined cross country team. It was in his second year at the new school, and he was getting pretty established. They had a getting-to-know-you kind of experience where the kids from his old school in Willimantic were bused up to his new school. It was the only time in high school that I saw him come home in tears. He had really invested in the idea of everybody getting to know each other and imagined bigotry flying out the window. He said it had been a great day, and he had gotten to talk to some old friends. Everybody seemed to be invested in this new idea about kids from Willimantic. But as the kids were piling on the bus to go back, one of the kids he knew from his new school, as the buses were driving off, shouted “See you later. Say hi to everybody in Willa-rico.” It was like he had been knifed in the heart. He was so upset by that. Came home and railed about that attitude of superiority.

III

Do you remember any first impressions of when you first saw him in a professional capacity?

I hadn’t realized how good he was. I figured he would be, but to see him in action was really something. We went down with another couple to jazz festival. We walked in … This couple has known Jared since he was an infant. We walked into the cafeteria, and he was addressing two or three classes. I looked at our friends and their mouths were open because they were really impressed with the way he was engaging them. Jared’s mother has gone in for a couple days to help out. She has to hit the ground running. She’s done that for both Justin and Jared’s schools. She says, “At least Justin gives me time off for lunch. Jared works her from the start to finish.”

And he expects everybody to operate on that level, which I hope… Good luck with getting everybody to be that dedicated.

He told me, “We’re going to show the nation what the students of New Orleans are capable of.”

But that’s a tall order.

Do you worry about that?

I do. I don’t see that resilience tapering off. He has the same if not more enthusiasm for what he’s trying to accomplish with his staff. I do worry that there may come a time when he slams into a wall of exhaustion. I’d hate to see him play himself out in terms of education. That’s probably not going to happen. That’s just me being Dad. When I have those moments when I worry about him, I think Jared was a cross country runner, he knows how to pace himself. This is a marathon. It is a difficult mission he’s set for himself. But it goes back to that, Say hi to everybody in Willa-rico. Same kind of outrage that people have these assumptions about people they don’t know. He’s working against those stereotypes.

He seems to draw his strength from the challenges.

Thus far. I’ve seen no evidence that he’s flagging at all.In some ways he takes after his mom more than me. She is a worker, Type A, and she herself has run marathons. She ran the marathon in DC. This was when Jared was in Connecticut College; we flew down to see her. She had trained for months. It was the first one she ever ran. It was the year she turned fifty. Jared ran with her for the last four or five miles. They’re a lot alike in that way. They’re in it for the long run.