With retirement looming for Clarke County High School’s English Department chairman the Clarke Daily News decided that one last set of essay questions was in order.
Clark Hansbarger, in his own words:
CDN: How long have you taught in Clarke County?
Hansbarger: This is my 14th year.
CDN: You were raised in Gap Mills, West Virginia, right? What made you want to settle in Clarke County?
Hansbarger: When I was 18, I moved to Washington to attend GW University. When I finished there, I started my teaching in DC public schools, then moved to Loudoun to teach and then kept moving west. I suppose eventually I’ll end up back in Gap Mills.
I came to Clarke for the IB Program and because I’d heard about the progressive things Eleanor Smalley was doing. We shared the same beliefs on student achievement and I liked the progress she was making toward meeting the needs of so many different types of learners.
In high school, my teachers didn’t expect much of us, so I did pretty poorly and got away with it. High school was sort of a joke. I guess that’s why I’ve always pushed my students so hard to learn. The best thing we can do for children is to encourage them to swim in the deep end, to go further than they thought they could.
CDN: You are a writer, also. What made you want to do this?
Hansbarger: I told a lot of tall tales to get through adolescence, so when I put pen to paper, story telling came pretty natural.
I tried my hand at journalism for a while in Loudoun, writing political columns and then editing an arts magazine. That taught me a different kind of discipline. Now, I’d like to go back to writing fiction, though I’d like to write some about public education.
CDN: Who are your favorite authors?
Hansbarger: Fitzgerald, O’Conner, Faulkner, Marquezâ€”a bunch of old standards.
CDN: What are you reading at the moment?
Hansbarger: I just finished Faulkner’s The Unvanquishedâ€”a fantastic read. Faulkner’s only page turner.
CDN: Your fiction and non-fiction writing has been published in many journals including Shenandoah, Witness, The Gettysburg Review, and English Journal. Your short story, The Second Baseman was featured on National Public Radio’s The Sound of Writing and in Sports in America, an anthology of literature about sport published by Wayne State University. What advice can you offer aspiring writers in Clarke County who would like to pursue writing as a career (or even as a hobby)?
Hansbarger: Write often and write honestly. I began by imitating other writers, which we all do. But I hit my stride when I found my own voice. This took years and lot of pages, but when I finally discovered what I was supposed to sound like, the writing became easier.
Many folks want to “be” writers, but they don’t want to put in the work of reading and writing. I recommend staying away from the How to Write books and focus on closely reading great writers and figuring out yourself how they constructed their stories.
CDN: You’ve published a collection of linked stories titled The Victory Garden. The stories involve World War II and life in the 1930’s and 40’s. What interested you about this period in American history?
Hansbarger: The Victory Garden encapsulated in fiction stories I’d heard growing up. My two uncles were away for years fighting WWII and I was always fascinated by how this affected my grandmother and mother. Having two sons at war seemed too difficult to bear.
I did a lot of background research into the period and into Huntington, West Virginia, where most of the stories take place. The more I studied, the more complex my fictional world became.
CDN: The PEN American Center has honored some of the most outstanding voices in literature. What did winning the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award mean to you?
Hansbarger: I was honored. That same year, I won an NEA Fellowship and had a story featured on NPR. I finally felt like I was a writer. It’s silly that it takes money and awards to validate such a thing. I had written for years, but I didn’t feel like a writer until the awards.
The irony is that I stopped writing soon afterâ€”just clammed up. Maybe because I felt like I had “arrived,” I got lazy, and then I lost my voice again. This was humbling because it sent me back to Step 1. The good thing is that I returned to high school teaching again, which in the end was a heck of a lot more fulfilling and enriching than writing.
I don’t feel much like a writer anymore, but I plan now to put in the hours now until I feel like one again.
CDN: Teaching “creative writing” must be a challenging job. How do you gauge whether you’re having success or not with individual students?
Hansbarger: If my students are writing, then I’m succeeding. Also when I hear about a publication or an award. A former student recently showed such promise. CCHS grad Katie Noland had a fabulous story published in Collegiate Scholar. That certainly spells success.
CDN: Has the internet changed the way that you teach? If so, has it helped or hurt?
Hansbarger: It never really changed my teaching much, but I’m old school. My students pretty much read and write, read and write. Every year, teachers are encouraged, even pushed by administrators to use more technologyâ€”there are lots of expensive bells and whistles out there. My buddy Ed Novak and I argue about this. He uses technology well and his kids soar. But for me, a Smart Board seems like a $1000 waste of money. Give me a cheap marker and white board.
In the end, I think the deepest academic growth comes through good old- fashioned quiet, focused study. It seems to work for my students, even if they’d rather surf the WEB for info.
CDN: You’ve been involved in education for a long time, both here in Clarke County and as an instructor at American University. As you leave your teaching position please share your thoughts on what we are doing well in Clarke County’s education system.
Hansbarger: As a system, we still keep our focus on the child. That begins at the Primary and follows clear to the end. I think this has been our strength– seeing each child as an individual learner. Steve Geyer leads the way on this; he’s an example for us all. Dr. Murphy has stressed this, particularly in helping to develop the “whole child.”
At the high school, we have been way ahead of the national curve in offering students opportunities and challenges. The result has been higher performance in all areas, from academics to athletics. We’ve had some good SOL scores this year. Obviously, this is a good thing.
CDN: Are there areas where we need to improve our education approach? If so, could you share a few of your ideas?
Hansbarger: Even the best systems can always improve. Right now, I’d like to see less attention on getting the high school built. This has tied up way too much focus and energy now for too many years, while we’ve let our classroom focus drift some.
We had a clear vision under the old board. Granted, we had problems, too. We made lots of mistakes trying to be innovative. Trying to help all children achieve at high levels. But I think our mistakes were fixable. I ought to know; I was one of the ones making the mistakes.
Now we’ve got a school board in constant turmoil over building a high school and a chair who considers herself an expert on every subject from architecture to curriculum, from parenting to payroll. Under the old board, we were asked regularly, “What do you think? How can we make kids smarter?” I haven’t heard questions like that in a while.
I’m not as clear on the vision now.
To be the most efficient, little rural school system in Virginia? To get more for less out of our employees? That doesn’t seem like much of an educational mission.
I think we need to keep our focus on raising the bar for all kids. When I talk to parentsâ€”and I talk to a lot of themâ€”they always say they want their kids to go to college. Even the least educated parents say this. Particularly the least educated. So I think we should continue to teach in ways to make every kid college ready. That way, if a graduate decides not to go to college, it’s not because he or she wasn’t prepared to. We tried to be very good at this for a while; I fear we’re slipping some now.
CDN: Are there any memorable moments from your career in Clarke County that you’d be willing to share?
Hansbarger: I’ve got so many thousands of wonderful memories with kids, I couldn’t name just one.
Working with my colleaguesâ€”that’s a fine memory. This county has been fortunate to have had so many fine teachers.
Developing the Bridge Program with JMU has been memorable. At graduation, all four student speakers were Bridge Scholars with IB Diplomas. That made me proud. Great kids. So hardworking.
CDN: You lead a busy schedule that includes writing, music and teaching. How do you plan to spend your days when you are no longer teaching at Clarke County High School?
Hansbarger: I’ll be joining my partner, Ginger Reuling, in her business, Fly Home Birdhouses, traveling to arts and crafts shows. We’ve also got a house we’re remodeling, so I’ll play carpenter. And I’ll spend time with my adult kids – Kara and Paul, who bring me so much joy. And, if all goes well, I’ll write another book or so.
CDN: Is it difficult to pass the “retirement” milestone?
Hansbarger: A little strange to be so old, but not difficult. I like change.
CDN: What haven’t we asked that you’d like the Clarke County community to know before you step down from your teaching position?
Hansbarger: Thanks for raising such fantastic kids and for being so supportive. I have been blessed to have taught here. It has become my home and I thank the community for this.