The First-Person Project

Mick Carlon '82

Centerville, MA

English teacher, Barnstable Intermediate School & Author of three novels featuring jazz greats

Major: English

Minor: Journalism

I grew up mostly in Nashua, and spent my freshman college year at Plymouth State. At the time, Plymouth was a little wild – like five, six nights in a row in the winter, fire alarms being pulled. It was too much for me, so I took time off. Then, in the winter of ’79, I went to Keene State. I loved it. Made friends right off the bat, found it very welcoming. My professors were top-notch. One I remember in particular, because I was an English major, was Dr. Richard Cunningham. He was wonderful. They all were.

I changed my major a couple of times. I went from education to journalism and from journalism to English. I minored in journalism, which came in handy when I got hired as a high school teacher – they needed someone who could teach English and run the school paper.

At Keene State, I was a resident assistant, I worked on the newspaper, I was in a lot of the plays. I played club baseball. I had my own radio show. I did a lot of things that I might not have been able to do at a larger school. I have nothing but great memories of Keene. I grew as a human being, I gained confidence, I made lifetime friends.

After college I spent a year as an assistant editor at Little Brown, the Boston publisher, and found it about as exciting as watching my fingernails grow. So I decided to be a teacher, and I went back for a one-year master’s program at UMass-Lowell. But having the English degree from Keene paved the way to becoming an English teacher.

I landed a job teaching at Barnstable High School on Cape Cod. As a beginning teacher, it feels like you have two jobs. You have your job during the day at school, but then you have your nighttime job planning the next day’s lessons. I wouldn’t go back to that first year for a million dollars. My first year, I taught a journalism class, two 10th-grade English classes, and two senior English classes, and I ran the school paper.

English teaching is a smorgasbord. Literary terms, vocabulary, grammar, essay writing, story writing, literature. A good English teacher is like a juggler. For 19 years I taught high school, and then I moved to middle-school in 2002. I was English Department head for grades seven through 12 for two years, but I missed teaching so much that I went back to the classroom. I like being in the trenches.

I teach my seventh-grade English class not that differently from how I teach, say, an 11th-grade class. It’s literature, it’s discussing it, it’s learning how to write well. I let my students rewrite their papers until they earn an A. For me, peer editing is the blind leading the blind. I’m their editor. I know how to write, and I let the students endlessly rewrite. That’s why my students really improve as writers.

I love jazz, and I’m almost like Rain Man in terms of knowing about it. It hit me maybe ten years ago: You love to write, why not try novels with these jazz musicians that you know so well? Give it a try. I found a publisher and they’ve been adopted into quite a few school systems.

The first two are Young Adult novels, but I don’t dumb down the writing. Adults tell me they’ve enjoyed them. The latest one has been published as an adult novel, but it’s already in the curriculum at over 30 high schools, 11th and 12th grade. My process is, I sit down at the word processor and I jam out a first draft. It might take two, even three years. I never go back and look at it. When I’m done with the story, I print it out and then I look at it. Then comes the revising, which is the part I love the most. I use the same techniques I teach my students. As Dr. Cunningham said, “Omit needless words.” If you can say it in eight words rather than 15, it’s a better sentence.

When I write, I’m thinking of the characters. I’m not thinking of who’s going to be reading it. I’m friends with some guys now in their 80s and 90s who knew Louis Armstrong and knew Duke Ellington. These are men who are brutally honest. They’ve told me that I’ve captured the Duke Ellington that they knew, I’ve captured the Louis Armstrong that they knew. I get letters quite often from readers. They all end the same way: “After reading your book, I’m now listening to jazz, or Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington or Count Basie in particular. And that’s music to my ears, because that’s why I wrote the books – because I would love for younger people to discover this incredible music as I have.

As a white man, how do I approach writing about African Americans? Number one, I lived till I was six in New Rochelle, New York, and I was the minority on my street. When I moved to Nashua, I remember saying to my parents, “Why is everyone white here?” I was raised to hate bigotry with every ounce in me. Just to hate it, and I do. I know the stories of these incredible artists, like Louis Armstrong, for example. The Pope wanted to meet him and royalty wanted to meet him in Europe, and then he comes back to his own country and he’s not even allowed to use a restroom. So just the brutal unfairness of that – I just use the imagination to put myself into what it might feel like.

Riding on Duke’s Train was published in 2011. I already had the Louie book finished at that point, so when Duke’s Train was successful and the publisher said, “What do you have up your sleeve?”, I handed over the completed Travels with Louie. I’ve done a lot of book signings. Anaheim, Minneapolis, New York City. I was at one book signing in Harlem, and Duke Ellington’s granddaughter was there. She gave me this hug, and she whispered in my ear. She said, “You’ve captured my grandfather, and I didn’t think that was possible.”

I’d been reading about Duke for 40 years, and listening to his music. Watching interviews to listen to his voice to try to catch the cadence. My books are novels about fictional young people blended into the stories of real people. Riding on Duke’s Train is being made into a feature-length animated movie.

My students are impressed that I’ve published novels. At my school, Duke’s Train is taught in the sixth- grade curriculum. So when they get me as a seventh-grade teacher, they kind of have me up on a pedestal. They’re always bringing me stories they’ve written, which is very gratifying.

Getting back to jazz: My dad was a jazz fan, and great music was always playing in my house. Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday. I was born in 1959, so the Beatles hit me in a big way. Bob Dylan, the Who, punk rock, rock ’n’ roll. When I was about 15, I began reading about the jazz greats, and discovering how brave they were, their resilience in the face of all that racism. From the age of 30 on, it’s been 99 percent listening to jazz. Most of my CD collection tends to be music from the ’60s and earlier.

With my writing, I’ve managed to meld a couple of different passions. When I first tried to write novels, I ran out of ideas. Then I got the idea for Duke’s Train. The book kind of wrote itself over the next year and a half. I knew Duke Ellington in the spring of 1939 did a European tour. He and his band had to cross Nazi Germany. They were held up at the Hamburg train station by the Gestapo, who basically wanted money to allow them to go. And a couple of guys wanted to leave the train. Duke said, “Are you guys crazy? They hate black people. You’re not leaving the train.” But you’re not tied to reality in a novel. My character, an 11-year-old boy, and a couple of Duke’s musicians, leave the train, and are chased by the Gestapo.

For the third book, Girl Singer, the publisher told me to aim it for an older audience, upper high school. And they told me to try to create a female protagonist. Girl Singer incorporates the story of a dear friend of mine, Heinz Praeger, a Holocaust survivor who became like a grandfather to me after he spoke to my journalism students in 1987. He had an amazing life. He escaped from the Dachau camp and landed in Shanghai, where he lived for eight years. When he died in 1997, he left me his photos and documents. My wife and I donated most to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and had them send duplicate copies to the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State.

Girl Singer takes place in 1947, the year Heinz came to America, so I thought, Why not have your African American female protagonist meet a Jewish survivor? Have it lead to romance. Now you can tell the story of an interracial couple in 1940s America – and my character, because he’s based on Heinz, could have the backstory of everything that had happened to Heinz. So the departure in Girl Singer is that it brings in the Holocaust.

I met my wife, Lisa, when she was a young teacher. My daughter, Hannah, is 20 – she’s in her junior year at Suffolk University in Boston. Her sister, Sarah, is a senior at Barnstable High. My family supports my writing, and they tolerate my love of jazz.

What else? I passionately loved Keene State College. Keene was a great fit. I made great friends. I have nothing but wonderful memories, and that’s why I always highly recommend Keene to students who are looking for a great place to go to school.