For over a decade, I taught English literature to American twelfth graders. I’ve known people to recoil in horror when I shared what I did for a living. For some, the idea of teaching a classroom of seventeen-year-olds would be akin to the tenth circle of hell. But it was, for me, the best and most important job that I’ve ever had. It reminded me why books mattered to me, and in the end it rekindled a love of writing that I believed had died.
I came to teaching after trying, and failing, to publish a novel in my twenties. I’d given writing a fair go, devoting to it years that felt like wasted time in retrospect. A failure at only twenty-nine, I felt done. Finished. There is something draining about stumbling in so public a fashion, in full view of your friends and family. Burned out, I was certain that I would never write again, and in truth, I didn’t write a word for years.
Instead of writing books, I redirected my energies to teaching them. It turned out I was a good teacher. The kids got me, and I like to think that I got them, too. Most days anyway. At their best, my classrooms were lively, freewheeling spaces. The students energized me, and I loved how often something unexpected happened to make me smile. There was the day that all the boys came to class dressed like me – I didn’t know I had a recognizable style. Or the boy who used video games to analyze Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in an essay (it was brilliant). Or the time a girl argued impassionedly to the entire class that Ernest Hemingway would have been a great rapper, leading to an impromptu homework assignment to write rap lyrics in the voice of a character from The Sun Also Rises. I learned to expect the unexpected – craved it actually.
Which is not to say it was an easy job, or that I ever inspired an entire class to stand on their desks in solidarity. Success in teaching is rarely so cinematic. The truth is that most of my students were not readers by the time they reached me. Although many had been avid readers when they were younger – Harry Potter was a great literary unifier for my students – few read for pleasure anymore and viewed books merely as part of the job of going to school. Each new novel was greeted skeptically, opened by wary high school seniors curious to see what fresh hell I’d inflicted upon them. I saw my job as making the case for books. To make that case, however, I had to think about why I read. I felt passionately enough about reading to teach it, but I’d never given much thought to why. I’d always been a reader and simply left it at that.
To their credit, my students weren’t easy sells. They held their ground, pushed back, and challenged my crusade to make them readers. I like to think I converted a few, but in twelve years I never had a class that all loved the same book. At first it drove me crazy, but eventually I accepted it, eventually I embraced it. Why should they love the same books as me? Wasn’t my job to help them cultivate their own taste in literature? I adopted an expression that I repeated any time a student told me they liked or disliked a particular book: “I don’t care unless you can tell me why.” It was the key to my teaching – they were seventeen, telling me why was in their blood. But to tell me why, they had to read. I won even when I lost.
Somewhere in there, I caught the bug again. I began to write – nothing fully formed, nothing that would ever see the light of day. That dream was dead, I reminded myself. But somewhere along the way, I’d become a much better writer without having done any writing of my own. One day I began to write a book that would become The Short Drop. I realized that in teaching my students, I’d also been teaching myself. Or they’d been teaching me. I learned at least as much from my students as they learned from me, and I know for certain that I would not now be writing my third novel had it not been for them.
About the Author
Matthew FitzSimmons is the author of the bestselling first novel in the Gibson Vaughn series, The Short Drop. Born in Illinois and raised in London, England, he now lives in Washington, DC, where he taught English literature and theater at a private high school for over a decade.
About the book
POISONFEATHER: Book 2 of 3 in the Gibson Vaughn Series
Gibson Vaughn, hero of the bestselling novel The Short Drop, returns in a smoldering thriller.
When jailed billionaire Charles Merrick hints publicly that he has stashed a fortune in an offshore cache, a school of sharks converges upon his release from federal prison.
Among his swindled victims is Judge Hammond Birk, the man who saved Gibson Vaughn’s life when he was a troubled teenager. Now Gibson intends to repay that debt by recovering Merrick’s victims’ money.
But Gibson isn’t the only one on the trail of the hidden fortune.
The promise of billions has drawn a horde of ruthless treasure hunters, including an edgy ex-con, a female bartender with a mysterious history, a Chinese spy with a passion for fly-fishing, and a veritable army of hardened mercenaries. To stay ahead of the sharks and win justice for his mentor, Gibson will need all his formidable skills. But at the end of the road, he’ll still have to face “Poisonfeather”—a geopolitical secret that just might get Gibson killed…or worse.