Getting to Know Mr. Kelly


Mr. Kelly has been teaching at Rye High School for 43 years (he started working here in 1976). In the past, he taught various English APs and senior electives and served as the English Department Chairman. This year, he teaches AP Language and Composition, Satire, and Freshman Composition. This is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.  

Q: What was the last book you read for pleasure? Would you recommend it to others?

A: That’s kind of hard to remember (laughs). I read primarily nonfiction because I actually find it more interesting than fiction. It wasn’t the last book, but Hillbilly Elegy I thought was really good. I really enjoyed that book. And, I’m looking now to some new book out, I just read the review on it, that I wanna get. It’s a nonfiction book that talks about an African American individual who went to Yale and went on to graduate and become a very interesting person. But the big problem with reading for English teachers is that during the school year you really don’t have that much time to read; you’re spending most of your time grading papers.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

A: (Laughs) There’s a big assumption that I have spare time! Probably the time that I do get I really enjoy cooking. It’s something that I’m good at and I enjoy doing it. I have a six year old, so that puts me involved in a lot of those activities. I’m also a college coach, so a lot of my time is taken up doing that as well, not only coaching, but also recruiting. I like to build, and I can play guitar, so I like playing. So those are some of the things I like to do when I have spare time, but the concept of spare time I don’t think exists anymore (laughs).

Q: How has Rye High School changed physically, culturally, and academically since you started teaching here?

A: (Laughs) I could write a book. There have been so many changes over the years that I’ve been here. I’m working with my fifth principal and my fifth superintendent. The building physically has changed by adding on the science wing and some of the configurations of the library. I’ve lived through four of the renovations of the building, and strangely enough, some of the building has been changed back to what it looked like in 1976. We tried different experiments and decided it didn’t work and rearranged the classrooms. The outside of the building, other than the addition of the science wing, has remained pretty constant. I was here when they built the middle school addition, so that was kind of interesting as well. Culturally, because the population in Rye is pretty stable in terms of the type of culture it produces, the culture in the school has remained pretty much the same. Quite honestly, I haven’t found that much striking differences by the time kids are seniors in from, let’s say the class of 2018 back to the class of 1976 (laughs). Wow, that’s a long span. The curriculum’s changed a great deal. I’ve lived through two different types of schedules here, and obviously, now we’re exploring a third one, which I think in the long run is going to be very interesting. The course work has changed in terms of the sheer number of APs that are come out online with us now, and with the advent of the technology, obviously, when I started here we didn’t have computers, and we didn’t have those in all the rooms so that’s changed a lot as well.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your career path and how you got to where you are now?

A: (Laughs). It’s kind of a long, winding road if you will, to steal from The Beetles. When I graduated high school, the initial plan was to take a gap year, we didn’t call them gap years back then, but it would’ve been to take a gap year. But it was also during the Vietnam War period, and I was very quickly informed that if I did not go to college I was going to be drafted. And so, basically, I had to get into a college relatively quick, which kind of changed my trajectory a little bit because I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. And, through a variety of circumstances I ended up in St. Mike’s up in Vermont, which was a game changer for me. I ran into some really, really interesting teachers that I had really good relationships with, and the way these teachers were instructing was very different from anything I had ever seen before. Just really, really enjoyed their classes. And, at that point, I said, “You know what, I think I can do this.” And so I decided to declare an English major with a minor in education and graduated with that. And when I came out I literally had no idea what I was going to do. I got a phone call for a teaching position at Resurrection, and I went in, I interviewed for it, I got the position, and I worked there for a couple of years. And then I had an opportunity to come over here. Basically (and realistically) the rest is history. I came here, I got the job, and I’ve been here ever since.

Q: How would you describe your teaching style?

A: (Laughs). Basically (laughs) it’s probably confrontational. I like to challenge kids; I enjoy the banter that occurs within the class. In large degree it’s a reaction against the way I was taught, which was basically memorization, writing in notebooks, very little discussion, and sitting in seats that were bolted to the floor so you couldn’t move. And that’s not what I like my classroom to be. I like my classroom to be lively, a lot of people think it’s a bit chaotic, but I enjoy that. I really think you can get meaning out of chaos. And I’m genuinely interested in what kids have to say. It’s one of the things I don’t know; obviously, I know the subject matter, I know how to write, and I know how to do those things, but the interesting factor is where you guys are. What are you thinking about? Why is that important to you? And I really enjoy what I do or else I wouldn’t have been here this long.

Q: Why do you take that approach and how do you think it helps students learn?

A: One, I want the classroom to be interactive; I want the kids to listen to each other. In particular, with the AP students and the senior classes, you’ve put a lot of time in and you’ve got a lot of information in your heads. I want you to start using it and putting it together and realize that you guys are educated and that you can come up with opinions that are interesting. I want you to challenge what you think you believe. And if I make you uncomfortable with what you think you believe, then I’ve done my job because I’ve got you questioning things. There are two things I say that tend to get quoted a lot. One: “It’s only high school.” And by that I mean that a lot of things that we look at as disasters or problems in this building: it’s only high school, you’re gonna get over it, classes are gonna graduate, you’re gonna move on, things will work out. And the other thing, the real big part of my philosophy: “Make the kids do it.” In other words, my job here is to stimulate you, get you guys thinking, provide materials—but you’ve gotta do the work. And once you start doing the work, and you start taking ownership of your own education that’s when it becomes really interesting. Because I love being able to write college recommendations where I can say, “This is a student who likes learning for learning’s sake.” And you can’t always say that, but that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to get them to be interested and learn for learning’s sake.

Q: What makes a good writer?

A: (Laughs). If I knew what that was, I’d be the next Stephen King, but I’m not. It depends. The basics of writing, for me, are relatively simple: it’s communication. You’ve got to be able to communicate your particular point of view or your ideas, to whoever it is, or whatever audience you’re presenting it to. And to do that, you’ve gotta have a good vocabulary, you’ve gotta understand the basics of writing and know how to put it together. In the school, we have a lot of good writers. And even now and then we get lucky and we get a great one. But good writing to me is heartfelt, it’s got authentic voice, and when you read the piece, you actually hear the student behind the words. Like okay, I know this is her writing, this is who she is. That to me is what good writing is.

Q: What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to your high school years?

A: If I could go back to my high school years? (Laughs). Take your education a little bit more seriously than you did (laughs). Don’t wait to the last minute to do everything. And relax a little bit, because things will work out.