Thank You For Being Such A Vital Part Of Our Team, Tommy. We Look Forward To Sharing More About You So Others Can Get To Know You Better!
Tell us a bit about your backstory and what lead you down your current life path.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. At an early age, I developed a passion for music. I spent a lot of my time playing guitar and obsessively searching for new, local bands that would fuse with some part of my identity. When I graduated from high school and began attending Butler University, I thought I wanted to pursue a career in music. Fate had other plans for me, and by chance I ended up enrolling in a literature course that would change my life. I wound up graduating with a degree in English. After my undergraduate studies, I moved to Europe, where I would spend the next four years teaching English as a foreign language, first in Prague, and later in Vienna. In the summer of 2019, much to my family’s relief, I moved back to Chicago to continue my career as a teacher stateside.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career?
When I was in high school, I had an English teacher that single-handedly shifted my worldview. Throughout my high school experience, I was not very engaged academically. Although I did well in my classes and completed my assignments on time, there was an enormous gulf that existed between what happened in class and what interested me. I’d spend the weekends going into the city to visit record shops or go to punk shows in dingy basements. To my mind, Shakespeare, polynomials, and Newton’s third law of gravity had nothing to do with my immediate reality. Then, one morning on the first day of school, I walked into a classroom that was illuminated by lamp light, like an oasis from the blaring fluorescence of my public school building. Joe Strummer’s voice crooned from two speakers set up on a table at the front of the classroom. At that moment, the world as it appeared to me merged with my academic life. Not only did class suddenly reflect what mattered to me, but what mattered to me in the world became worthy of more intense scrutiny. That is, it became worthy of study. In a moment, I became curious. Throughout that semester, we read Jostien Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, looked at Rothko paintings, spoke seriously about indie music, and created projects that sought to fulfill a creative and artistic need rather than a column on a report card. Mr. Glass, if you’re out there, thank you.
Share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started teaching/tutoring.
There are so many moments to choose from! Here’s one that comes to mind. Once, when I was teaching at my college’s Creative Writing Summer Camp, I held a class called “Any Questions?” I wanted to see what would happen if I held a class that would be entirely centered around questions my students had, on any subject. One session began with a student asking what reality is made of, and ended with us discussing what happens when two black holes collide. Another class comprised of a deep dive into feminist theory and a discussion about the wage gap. It was wonderful to have a platform that was truly student-centered in a way that felt free-form and radical. I try to incorporate the lessons I learned from that class in my approach to tutoring.
What do you like to do in your free time, tommy?
Writing takes up most of my time outside of teaching. I started writing cringe-worthy love songs on my guitar in junior high. This eventually developed into a deep (dare I say religious?) love of poetry in college that has sustained me to this day. Like teaching, poetry is a desire to transform wonderment into language. I’ve also branched out into other genres and media. Last year, inspired by all the wonderful things I saw in Vienna, I decided to begin writing art criticism. When the pandemic hit and the galleries closed, I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands. I had a bunch of vinyl records lying around from high school, so I decided to try my hand at DJing. I guess I’ve wound up amassing hobbies over the years, but for me they are all different manifestations of the same curiosity.
What do you enjoy most about teaching/tutoring?
As a writer, I am constantly reminding myself to avoid cliches, but in this case one is unavoidable: I learn so much from my students. During my freshman year at Butler University, a professor told my Intro to Literature class that he became a teacher because he realized he never wanted to stop going to school. I remember sitting there and thinking, “Hey, that’s a pretty good idea!” Teaching is an excuse for me to never stop learning. It allows me to turn my own private curiosity into a shared experience. It is for this reason that teaching feels a lot like art to me.
Tell about an amazing trip you took. Where did you go and what did you enjoy most?
During my stint in Europe, I had the opportunity to visit Krakow a couple times. Once, I went there to attend the Milosz Literature Festival, named after the late Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. I was (and still very much am) an admirer of his work. He spent the majority of his life after the war exiled in the United States. In his work, Krakow became a kind of half-imagined holy land. During my time in Krakow, I always felt as though I had booked a room inside one of his poems. I stood alone in the crypt he was interred in and read from his collected work, a moment of sublime beauty that was to be cut short by a hoard of Polish school children who were noisily ushered into the tiny tomb. During my stay there I also got to meet a bunch of younger Polish poets, arguing with them until dawn when they tried to tell me Milosz has little to teach the 21st century.
Is there something exciting you are working on now? What is it and why did you choose to start it?
Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time working on this essay about the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire I’ve been thinking about for years. All of my favorite American poets seem to trace their poetic genealogy to 19th century France, so I figured why not go straight to the source. Baudelaire is also the first poet of the modern city, so reading him makes me feel as though I am experiencing urban life for the first time. Alongside that, I am working on a poetry manuscript that has been in the works for years now, and whose end is nowhere in sight. Lastly, of course, I am continuing the life’s work of finding ways to instill curiosity in my students.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? What is it and why did it resonate with you?
The book that has occupied me most has been Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. It consists of six volumes totaling over 3,600 pages. Knausgaard writes about his life in the first person, with a resolute lack of ornamentation and a strong desire to speak the world as he sees it. On the surface, this book seems to be unreadable, given its banality. It contains, for example, several hundred pages detailing a single night from his teenage years, multiple pages about exactly how much milk he liked in his Wheaties as a child (enough for them to remain crunchy, but not too crunchy), and nearly a thousand pages meditating on the atrocities of the mid-twentieth century. The other two thousand odd pages are dedicated to life’s other trite rituals: picking the kids up from school, going grocery shopping, and arguing with romantic partners. It is a book that doesn’t survive summary, but it’s penned with such breathtaking clarity that it forces the reader to examine their life as if Knausgaard were going to write about it. Suddenly, a perfectly normal night becomes worthy of a hundred pages.
Please share your favorite Life Lesson quote. How is it relevant to your life?
“This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.” –John Ashbery, “Soonest Mended”
This comes from my favorite poem by one of my favorite poets. Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended” is the closest thing I’ve found to a succinct expression of my understanding of the world. His work has baffled readers since his first publication in the 1950s. And though during his lifetime he was often accused of obscurantism, I find the central revelation of his work to be quite simple: that the world is mercurial, that even the grandest ideas of humanity are subject to the passage of time. I love how in this line, Ashbery is able to shrivel a philosophy of what antique philosophers called “The Good Life” to a single single line, without sacrificing the sublimity of existence. What more could I ask for from my time on Earth than to be small and clear and free?
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private lunch and why? He/she might just see this! 🙂
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I believe I would choose the American journalist Amy Goodman. She has dedicated her entire career to increasing the reach of global movements for emancipation, from the East Timorese independence in the early 1990s to this country’s wide-spread racial justice movements last summer. On her wildly successful daily news show Democracy Now!, she consistently amplifies marginalized voices from all over the world, and does so without positioning herself as a saviour figure, but rather an ally in the struggle for equity. It is these values that have helped me navigate what it means to be a white man in the US today, and, furthermore, how I can best attune myself to realize Educate. Radiate. Elevate.’s mission of educational equality for BIPOC students.