Interview with Writer-in-Residence Ms. Jennifer Hubbard

Luke Stone ’20

After nearly fifteen years away, Ms. Jennifer Hubbard returned to Woodberry last fall for one academic year as the school’s Writer-in-Residence. As she prepares to depart for the second time, I sat down with her to discuss a variety of topics, including her writing career, Woodberry’s school culture, and her favorite parts about teaching.

LS: How long was your first stint at Woodberry?

JH: It was a decade. I worked here from 1995-2005.

LS: What classes did you teach during that time?

JH: I taught a bit of every form, but mainly focused on third and fifth formers. I really felt like that was my sweet spot. I taught fourth formers, too, and that was a pretty tough gig. I was also a college counselor for a couple of years. I feel like I got a well-rounded experience.

LS: What do you enjoy most about teaching third and fifth formers?

JH: I like teaching third formers because I get to experience the newness of everything with them. I feel like there are so many little discoveries that third formers make about themselves. A lot of them come from schools where they do very little writing, and so it’s fun to sort of baby step them through the process. And as they do more writing and have to describe themselves on paper, they begin to understand themselves better. They’re really funny, too. They don’t mean to be, but they are. On top of that, they’re not too guarded yet. When I taught fourth formers, they seemed to come in pretty closed off. However, the best part of teaching third formers is watching them become each other’s cheerleaders. They will share their work out loud very willingly. The third form English classroom environment creates a sort of fun energy that makes me feel younger, and I enjoy that.

LS: You mentioned you enjoy teaching fifth formers, too. Why?

JH: The fifth form year is the year that a lot of students start to get serious about their writing. Because of that, they are really responsive, they want to do well, they aim to please, and they take direction well. Their brains are developmentally ready to handle more abstract instructions. They are able to think outside the box in ways that third formers typically can’t. I love teaching you guys because you are mature enough readers and can see things that sometimes I don’t catch. It’s thrilling for me as a teacher because I’m learning from you all, too.

LS: Where did you go immediately after you left Woodberry in 2005?

JH: I went to Charlotte Country Day School.

LS: And what was the biggest difference between Country Day and Woodberry?

JH: The school didn’t hold students accountable, and that was jarring for me. I had students who would come to class without having done their homework, and there was no system in place to hold them accountable for that. They had an honor system, at least on paper, but nobody really took it seriously. That being said, teaching girls was incredible. I don’t mean to stereotype or generalize, but the girls I taught were so much more engaging than the boys were. They asked a lot of questions and valued my input. There was much more of a give and take in the classroom in that regard.

LS: What was the biggest difference between an all-boys and a co-ed environment?

JH: Well, first of all, the difference between teaching at a day school and teaching at a boarding school was substantial. To answer your question, though, I found (and continue to find) that Woodberry boys are more willing to be honest with you and with each other. I felt like the boys at Country Day were so guarded and negatively influenced by one another. When I first got there, I taught this group of junior boys who all played on the football team and seemed to run in this pack. I don’t want to criticize football players generally, but these boys basically bullied the kids they perceived to be “other students.” They felt that they ruled the school and didn’t have to take orders from anybody, especially young female teachers. They felt wronged by teachers who pushed them. And these kids, they egged my house. The eggs started hitting the window at the tail-end of it all, so I ran outside as they got into a car and took off. And they did it because I wanted to make them do what they were supposed to be doing.

LS: So let’s talk a little bit about your writing career. When did your first book get published?

JH: 2011

LS: And were you still teaching at Charlotte Country Day at that time?

JH: No. I “retired” from CCD after two years. Soon after I left, I married my wonderful and supportive husband, who is a high school math teacher. And he basically told me, “I know that writing is your passion, and if you want, you should consider giving it a go. If it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to teaching.” So after I stopped teaching and had more time, I really started writing. I could never write a lot while I was teaching because both of those pulled from the same emotional energy. I would feel guilty when I wrote for myself because I would think that I should have been grading a paper or preparing for class. I wasn’t wired, and I’m still not wired, to give myself permission to indulge in that way.

LS: How long did your first book take?

JH: I started when I was at Woodberry, so it technically took six years. But once I got serious about it, it took me about two years.

LS: What’s it about?

JH: It’s called Paper Covers Rock, and it’s set at a boys boarding school not unlike Woodberry. A boarding school is such a microcosm that has its own boundaries and rules, so it’s very easy to use that as a backdrop. Everybody who goes to, teaches at, or works at a boarding school has a story.

LS: How many times have you been published?

JH: Twice. My other book, called And We Stay, came out in 2014. I’m still under contract with Penguin Random House to write another book, but I haven’t really gotten too far into that. One reason I’m here, actually, is that I just had this string of failures. I wrote a book, and it wasn’t good enough. I wrote another book, and it wasn’t good enough, or at least according to my editor, and she was right. I just needed to hang that up for a while and do something completely different to get out of my own head. And when this opportunity came along, the timing was perfect. Now, it’s April 19th, I’ve been here for eight months, and I’ve got all these new ideas thanks to being with you all.

LS: We’re typically good at that. We offer no shortage of material.

JH: Absolutely–definitely no lack of material. And I write for teenagers, so being away from that age group for so many years made me feel really out of touch. Now I feel like I’m back in touch and it feels good. That’s why I’m hoping to show some of you all a piece of something I’m working on this spring to get your take on it. I’m looking forward to hearing what my students think.

LS: How did you end up back here?

JH: I think about a year ago either Dr. Boesen or Dr. Hulsey asked if I’d be able to come back and serve as “Writer-in-Residence,” which I felt was just a glamorous title for “English Teacher.” It was just a phone call. There was nothing set in place for a writer-in-residence–I still don’t know what exactly that means. I’m not doing much writing, but I am helping people with their writing. I’ve met with some students I don’t teach who have proactively approached me to help them with poems, so I guess that counts.

LS: How many times had you been back before you started teaching here again?

JH: Probably three. Mr. Barnhardt invited me back when the book club read Paper Covers Rock. Mr. Amos invited me back when his 3rd formers were reading that. I’d probably been back maybe three or four times. I love this place.

LS: And when you came back this fall and got settled in, what was the biggest difference you noticed?

JH: The physical space looks much more like a college to me. In a way, it’s a bit more imposing. Culturally, students feel more worldly-wise than they were. They seem more tuned into what’s going on outside this space. And that’s all a result of the internet and social media. We didn’t have that during my last year teaching here in 2005. I remember Wilson Bonner ’05 asked me if I’d heard of MySpace. When I left here, we were still doing research in books in the library, so a lot has changed technologically since then. Also, I feel like the student body is more diverse now–and not just racially, but socio-economically and geographically. And I think that makes for a much richer experience for all of us.

LS: Did you keep in touch with a lot of your students?

JH: Not really. There have been a handful whom I keep in touch with regularly. But every once in a while there’s a chance to reconnect that presents itself, and I’m looking forward to Reunion Weekend for that reason. This place just calls people back for whatever reason. I know that Mr. Reimers keeps in touch with a lot of students. It’s astounding to me. He’s had such a long career, and he’s still so connected to his students. He writes them letters in longhand. In fact, when I left in 2005, he and I continued to communicate through letters, which was really lovely.

LS: As everyone knows, he’ll be retiring this year. How has he changed since 2005?

JH: Well, he hasn’t changed at all, really. At least I can’t see much change. Maybe he’s even more cynical than he was. I guess he’s more vocal. I feel like I’ve talked to him more this year than I ever did before. But I’ve always noticed this one thing about him that’s never changed. He’s got this sixth sense about people. I was going through this really low valley one winter here, which a lot of times we all hit in late January or early February. And I don’t know how he knew it, but he knew it. He knew something was going on and he showed up in my classroom and helped me out. He showed this beautiful awareness of when others are struggling. And I feel like he’s still got that. Woodberry’s going to miss that. Another big loss, of course, is Mr. Lonergan. He’s been a one-man show for 24 years. There are so many students he reaches that no other teacher can reach because he’s just so…cool.

LS: So the plan with the “Writer-in-Residence” arrangement was just to be here for one year. Is that still true?

JH: Yes. I’m holding to that.

LS: What are you going to miss most about the classroom?

JH: I’m going to miss the joy of being with young people and watching them understand the language better as they understand themselves better. Seeing that is a delight–and it’s such a privilege. Teaching makes me feel so energized, and now I’m going to have to pull that energy from within again.

Categories: Today