011: Cousin Kate with Kate Cunnane
Ugly cover, treasure inside. Good thing she read that ugly book because it set fire to a little girl’s reading life. And another book put Kate Cunnane on the path to becoming a high school English teacher, where reading, writing and curiosity are a way of life. If you like storytelling, you’ll love my cousin Kate.
by Louisa May Alcott
by Jennifer Egan
by Zora Neale Hurston
by Jonathan Kozol
by Celeste Ng
by Rebecca Makkai
by Barbara Kingsolver
by Tara Westover
Full Podcast Transcript
[00:00:10] Recorded live from the Sweet Tea Studios in Wellesley Massachusetts. You’re listening to the podcast, Why I Read Nonfiction. Hosted by broadcaster and author of The Perfect Catch and Follow the Dog Home. Here’s Kevin Walsh.
[00:00:29] Hello. Welcome to the program. We got a good show for you today. Our guest is my cousin Kate Cunnane. But before we get into that I’d like to thank Nirvana on beautiful Cape Cod for sponsoring the program. If you’re looking for a great vacation getaway a nice summer rental on the elbow of Cape Cod or even in the spring and in the fall check it out. It’s a newly renovated coastal theme home. A couple of other things. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast it’s easy it’s free. Leave a rating and tell a friend about it. That’s how we grow. Kate Cunnane, my cousin, guest on the podcast. Hey how ya doing? I’m good. Thanks for having me. Yeah. Yesterday was a great day we spent some time on the pond just down the hill. And I discovered that we have a similar love of reading although I think you may read more than I do which I’m a little bit jealous of. But take me back to the beginning. You come from. You’re a high school English teacher.
[00:01:24] Yep. I’m a high school English teacher. My mom was and in my house, it was just books everywhere and trips to the library and just everybody always had a book going that was kind of like the family culture. So. Where’d you grow up. Born and raised? Oh I was born in Stoughton Massachusetts. And my dad was a schoolteacher used to take the train into Boston every day. And when he would pick us up from school we would go to the library and I remember getting my library card around like five as I’m sure so many people do. So yeah it was really part of our family culture.
[00:01:58] And you live in California now? Bay Area where exactly yeah. And I live in Berkeley California and I’m a high school English teacher in Oakland California. 11th graders. Yes. American literature.
[00:02:09] How are they? Is it fun? Is this this is what you always wanted to?
[00:02:13] Well I have a lot of fun. I mean I I think it’s I think it’s kind of a privilege to be able to do a job where I think and respond and try to get kids energized.
[00:02:27] First of all write in a way that feels authentic and about things that feel important but then also read important stories. And important writers to inspire them.
[00:02:36] You use that expression that really stuck with me I’d never heard it before but I totally get it. A book that “catches you on fire” or “sets you on fire”. Do you remember the first book that did that for you?
[00:02:49] Yeah. I mean well OK. So I have a lot of books that I remember from my childhood as being really big experiences. But I remember when my mom brought home this old ugly brown book and she was like we’re gonna read this together. And I just didn’t believe that it was going to be a you know I thought it was gonna be so boring and then it was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott which I’m sure a lot of people have read. It’s about four little girls whose father is off as a chaplain in the civil war and it’s about them surviving with their mom at home in Concord Massachusetts and you know you just get so wrapped up in their story. And for me that was it was just incredibly powerful.
[00:03:32] I mean it like sobbed through a lot of it got so emotionally involved with that family and I guess it was like the first time I realized that something that looks from the outside like it might not involve me could involve me so much which has really been my feeling about reading.
[00:03:48] And you also probably judge the book by its cover? I sure did. Because it looked grubby. But it was amazing. Yeah. And how old are you when? I think I was probably like seven. And you were sobbing? That’s when you knew you needed reading in your life.
[00:04:02] Reading is definitely cathartic for me. You know it’s like I get very involved in my characters and I feel all the big feelings of life. You love story right. I do yeah.
[00:04:12] So you’re just looking for more than anything you’re just looking for good stories people. The best.
[00:04:19] Yeah. I mean the individuals. Yeah I love.
[00:04:23] I really love historical fiction so I love a good story but I also love it set in a context that I’m interested in and may not know a lot about. One book I was just thinking about is Manhattan Beach which came out last year by Jennifer Egan and I got a chance to go see her talk about writing the book and it was about kind of a Rosie the Riveter type character. It’s about a 19 year old girl whose father had left the family so she had to get a job in the Brooklyn Naval Yard. And so she gets a kind of typical you know. Factory job. But what she really wants to do is be a deep sea diver and repair the boats at the bottom of the ocean. And they’re all men doing that work. So it’s about how she gets her opportunity to become a deep sea diver and she has to wear that like really heavy old deep sea diving you know. Oh scuba diving has come how it was years ago.
[00:05:13] It’s still dangerous in the context that you’re below water and if you don’t do it properly you can you know. Die. Yeah really fast but it’s much more comfortable today than as many years ago.
[00:05:24] Oh yeah. I mean and Jennifer Egan the writer spent like four years researching you know the Brooklyn Naval Yard, reading letters between husbands and wives to get down the tone of how people even talked to each other in the 1940s because their speeches changed so much. And just so that the richness of all that research going into this story it was. I mean it’s so transporting you learned so much about the time.
[00:05:50] How quickly did you know that this author really did her homework and made it seem like you were there? When did the trust?
[00:05:57] Was it now. You know I would be lying if I said I thought about it a lot. I think when I read the book I was just in it. You know I just was along for the ride and I loved the story. But then when I went and saw her speak it was so inspiring to understand why why the story rang so true and why it was so compelling because she had done so much homework on you know being true to the period.
[00:06:19] Yeah. And you appreciate that do you like books that they’d take you around the country like books about the South and different dialects for sure.
[00:06:26] Oh yes. So and you know a book that my dad had taught and when I was in high school I remember him being a high school teacher and teaching it and so when I became a high school teacher I really wanted to teach it. Like Their Eyes Were Watching God which Zora Neale Hurston wrote it’s like 100 years old. So it’s not a new book but she was an anthropologist so that same thing at that depth of understanding she wrote in this dialogue this dialect that was so richly researched so true so that you know I actually haven’t spent much time in the south but you read it as like you’re learning a new language and you really feel like you can hear how people spoke to each other.
[00:07:03] Sure. There’s there’s a language off the coast of South Carolina. Have you ever heard of Gullah? No. Was Gullah part of it? So Gullah was back in the plantation days there’s this little island called DaufuskieIsland. And I’ve been on it before and they almost had their own dialect and or language like different. Different stuff. And I just love having lived around the country in different places but primarily in the Northeast where you’re from and I’m from but having spent time apart. Do you have an ear for the different accents around you? Ah that’s a that’s a Massachusetts person or that’s a Bostonian. For sure.
[00:07:41] And I think you know that’s one of the ones that people butcher when they try to fake it in the movies. But you know when you can hear something that sounds really true to the region it’s you know it’s a it’s a really awesome thing. You don’t really have that in California? No you don’t. Yeah well I don’t hear it because I’m a native New Englander maybe maybe a native California. I know it is and I lived there for six years.
[00:08:05] It’s just it’s very neutral. It’s almost like Kansas. You can’t really put a finger on it. If somebody is from the Deep South once you hear y’all. Yeah. Yeah I was going to say I went to school in Minnesota. So you got that Fargo thing and you know you know the vowel going. Our guest today is Kate Cunnane and Kate is a high school English teacher in the Bay Area of California. She’s also my cousin, an avid reader. Do your children like to read as well.
[00:08:38] They do. I left my son in the lazy boy burning his way through some Percy Jackson now. It’s great. And my my daughter’s only five. So she’s just getting into it. But yeah they both love stories. Any pushing or it just happened organically. Oh and I think I mean this is something. You know you have to be careful about because if you push it’s it doesn’t happen the way you want it to but like Will my son who’s 8 about to be 9 loves the Greek myths and for me that’s I’m not into it at all. But like I think I forget he read maybe one Greek myth and you know he was so interested in it. So then I got him like the big anthology of all the Greek myths and now he could rattle off all of them. So I think there’s something about it. It’s kind of like superheroes it’s just old school superheroes basically you know. And so it’s connecting the passion and the interest and the right reading level.
[00:09:32] So it is not frustrating. As an educated person do you think. Well you have to do it because I guess as a school teacher the education never ends. Right. You have to keep up with stuff. You should. For those that that are not in the teaching profession but are educated do you think that you have a responsibility to the people that taught them or and as educated people to continue to be a perpetual student?
[00:09:58] I don’t know about the responsibility of the people who taught them. But I just feel like life is a whole lot lot more interesting if you keep learning about things and you know. It’s just a way to constantly be learning and really nurturing your spirit to read stuff like stories that inspire you for sure but also about topics that you know I really follow politics avidly and if you can find a book that will add nuance and to your understanding of it that’s just such a I mean that’s how I always want to be in the world to be learning. I’ve read it.
[00:10:36] Me too because if I see a talking head on TV be it on the news or something. They’re talking about something and it sounds like they’re they’re credible. I feel like I need to bone up on something I’ll probably buy their book. I read this book This Town by Mark Liebowitz and he was talking about Washington in a totally different way not so much who the political leaders are but he essentially told the story that the caterers yeah are running Washington. You see. And people are having parties all the time they’re being feted for like there’s a party being thrown for me or for you it’s like.
[00:11:09] Well what do I do. But that’s a whole other industry I never really looked at that. Yeah but that curiosity and also like it’s the under told story like nobody’s thinking about the caterers but they’ve got a you know they probably got the scoop better than anybody on what’s going on.
[00:11:25] Well it’s a town that has no recession because if in good times and bad in the bad times the lobbyists who tried to get gin things up to get some legislation going and it’s it’s it’s just a crazy place. Savage Inequality by Jonathan Kozol was was that about the most profound book you ever as far as the.
[00:11:47] The career path it put you on? Yeah I mean I remember that. I think probably a lot of people read that in the early 90s which is when I was in college. But I remember reading it and it’s about just the discrepancy in our public school system in America about how we we have public schools but we have schools that have in schools that don’t have. And he just did a really beautiful job. He studies a bunch of different metro metropolitan areas and goes to like the inner city school and shows you what it’s like to be a kid there and then goes to the affluent suburb you know 20 minutes away from it. And I think I really sort of thought about wanting to be a teacher but when I read about it it was just so clearly a place where there’s so much need in our country that it was what led me. I mean right into one of the communities that he profiled in his piece in the South Bronx and he was.
[00:12:39] What was your first job. It was teaching third grade at P.S. 220 in the South Bronx in New York. And it was September of 2001. So when right when 9/11 happened that was the fifth day of school my first day of teaching. What was the like. You know. I mean it was terrifying I’m sure but I was a new teacher and I was like so focused on running this classroom and I had 20 and little third graders that were depending on me so I was very focused on like ah we can have school what’s happening is the city going to keep running and the South Bronx where I was it was kind of isolated so there weren’t there wasn’t a lot of impact it wasn’t like a lot of them had parents that work in the World Trade Center that I was aware of. You know it didn’t seem to impact the community beyond the normal. It was a terrifying time to live in New York. Right.
[00:13:27] And what was the school like. Was it. I mean it’s poor I think.
[00:13:32] Yes it was it was really poor. It was really it had just gone through the crack epidemic. And so that was ending when I was there I was there in 2001. But like no playground equipment you know it was a k to eight school.
[00:13:49] There was a fenced in blacktop area and people would hang out there on the weekends and there’d be like broken glass of beer bottles everywhere. But there was nothing for the kids to play on. Most of the teacher there was a core group of teachers that were there for years and years but a lot of the teachers myself included were coming in on this new teacher program. So like when I taught third grade most of my students had had first year teachers every year of their education which is not good.
[00:14:17] You know like I mean some first year teachers are great but like you know it’s you want.
[00:14:21] It’s hard for a school to develop a culture and identity. Yeah because there’s no consistency.
[00:14:27] Yeah. Exactly. And a first year teachers just figuring things out. So if you’ve had somebody just figuring things out and these are like the neediest kids who needed really rich educational experiences to get caught up in you know. Letter sounds in no sense in all that stuff that lots of kids come in with because they’ve had rich preschool experiences which these kids didn’t have. So all sorts of issues very under-resourced. And it was really reflective of what Jonathan Kozol had been describing.
[00:14:55] So yeah that was but you’ve seen the other side of it too where you’ve you’ve talked to kids that have a bit more wealth. Is is it more enjoyable one way or the other. The challenges are just how do you. Well I think how do you mix it up?
[00:15:11] It’s an easier job to teach kids who have a lot of support because you get the you know you don’t have to work quite so hard. In my current job at a Catholic school and I feel like the kids have really good support and are really motivated to do well a lot of them feel really proud of being there and they really want to do well. And so it is more the task of like what I was describing for my son of like China. Connect them with things that they’re going to be interested about and passion about to help them love reading which I really want them to love to do. But a lot of them you know our high school students now are under a lot of pressure so it’s hard for them to take joy in you know the work they have so much homework.
[00:15:52] I don’t know how it is at your school but like with my children in suburban Boston they have some nice they have five or six hours of homework and then that’s more than I had in college. And it’s well where’s the time to read for pleasure. Where is the time to talk to your friends on the phone. Yeah just just show up.
[00:16:08] I know I know I had one student I assigned a book and she read it and she said it’s called Everything I Never Told You. By Celeste Ng. And it’s about a girl who’s under a lot of pressure from her family and you know it’s about that kind of typical high school experience and she said this book made me love reading again and I made a summer reading list and I haven’t done that in years and you know that. But that’s a rare story. I feel like most of the time the kids are just looking for a break.
[00:16:34] Our guest today is Kate Cunnane. She is a high school English teacher in California. She’s also my cousin. Thank you to Nirvana. Beautiful Cape Cod for sponsoring the program. If you’re looking for a great vacation getaway on the elbow. Perfect place a newly re themed newly redone coastal themed home sleeps tens on a beautiful cattle pond perfect for a summer getaway. Also spring fall on Cape Cod are wonderful as well and be sure to subscribe to the podcast. Tell a friend about it and leave a rating if you can.
[00:17:04] Do you have a friend that you count on for book recommendations or is there a group of people that if they tell you read this it’s spot on?
[00:17:14] Yeah well my mom has one for sure she’s we often. I mean right now I’m home staying with them. So we’re just kind of passing the books around.
[00:17:22] Hold on a minute. You have summers off? I do. Is that just the best? It is. Yeah. I am so jealous of that. I know it’s almost embarrassing to admit. Well you guys have earned it. Well by the time summer rolls around it’s time for a break.
[00:17:33] Yeah it is. I mean it is but it’s also such a luxury to just be able to wake up every day and be like what do I want to do today. Read a book. So get back get back to your mom. And what would she read? Well she definitely recommends and she I mean I think my tastes are. She definitely was my number one librarian as a kid. So I think I read very much in line with like her style. So you know a lot of the stuff that we passed back and forth we both love. And then I have. I guess some other friends that I feel like maybe read really good challenging books who’ll kick them my way and then I have this amazing woman who I am. She was my mentor teacher. Her name is Amy Crawford and she’s just she puts me to shame. I mean she reads more books than I do.
[00:18:17] Like probably tripled the number of books and I was at the library the other day and I had just finished an amazing book called The Great Believers by Rebecca McKay totally recommend that one. Also a novel but I text her and I was like I just finished it like I gotta get something good you know I felt so sad because it’s over because it was such an amazing book and so she’d sent me like we just went back and forth and I had you know a list of 10 books on my. I was writing them all down on their receipts so I’m just trying to burn through those now.
[00:18:46] You mentioned some challenging books. I. I have a reading rule that every third book should be kind of a slog in the way that I need to do some heavy mental weight lifting. It can either be scholarly. It could be whatever it is. I just feel like I need to work for it. Do you have any rules?
[00:19:03] Yeah. I mean I think ideally that would be it but I am a little bit easier on myself. I think mean especially because my school year like it kind of comes and goes where times feel really like draining work wise. So I just go really easy and light when work is hard. But when I when it’s summer I feel like I have the intellectual space and the energy for it. Yeah I like to read challenging books.
[00:19:28] Do you see people around just anywhere on the street and say that reminds me of somebody that I read about.
[00:19:33] Yeah I mean I’ve I I put that on them. I don’t know how to read. They’re actually like but I do feel like my life as a reader just I think it gives me a lot more empathy. I mean I think it lets me see. That was like that’s the ultimate thing you learn as a kid you know like when kids are acting like jerks then you read a book and you find out what happened to the bully at home and then you understand why bullies are bullies and you know like that’s like what an awesome thing they reading and do as a kid. I don’t think it ever really stops like that. You always learn about the experiences that people have that make them who they are. And hopefully it allows you to go out in the world. My daughter’s reading a book right now.
[00:20:12] It’s written about a girl with the same name as my daughter, Samantha. And the author’s name is Samantha. And it’s a girl that has similar challenges in her life then so because they share the name and she is vicariously living through this author. Do you do that as well?
[00:20:30] I think so.
[00:20:31] I mean I I I think like you know there are some books that I think about like that I read like Savage Inequalities one that you know sort of shape the direction of my life. But then I remember reading this book called Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver who’s pretty well-known writer and I’m just being like. What’s that about? It’s just about a young woman who leaves a small town in Arizona and goes off and has like a life on her own and then she returns home because her father is sick and she has to deal with a relationship with their father that’s difficult. And I like opens up all this old family baggage that she’s sort of left behind and then she comes home to deal with it. But it’s such a it’s like a simple book it’s very readable. You know there’s a romance in it but it’s also kind of about those profound questions about how you like navigate life as an adult and I remember reading it like 21 or 22 and being like how you know this is what adult thing is like you know kind of like. So I feel like I just I’m always learning about.
[00:21:28] Did she repair that relationship with her father.
[00:21:31] I think kinda sorta. I mean I think she she gives it her college try.
[00:21:36] You know I don’t know if it all turns out perfect but when I asked you about do you vicariously live through the author. You have a great relationship with your dad don’t you. I do yeah. So when you’re reading about somebody that’s struggling with a relationship with their dad or are you like I’m just glad that’s not me. I’m really thankful for what I have. That’s how I think.
[00:21:54] Yeah I mean for sure I feel grateful for that. And then I think it also helps me understand. You know have friends that have gone through all sorts of different kinds of things and I.
[00:22:04] That’s what I’m talking about. It’s like you start thinking about your own life as you’re reading about somebody. To me that’s the mark of a good book. If you start thinking in your own way while reading somebody else’s story parallels to that that’s when read it. Yeah. Really comes alive. Yeah for sure. Educated by Tara Westover. What was that?
[00:22:25] It’s a memoir I read last summer. It’s a really amazing book. And I would totally recommend it. Yeah. Tara Westover This is another one of those books that just takes you. I’m not you know I’m not a big non-fiction person in terms of what I pick up like I am but I do read a lot of people book. I do. I’m curious about everybody aren’t you. I am. Me too. And I also really love. I tend to read non-fiction like a New Yorker article or an Atlantic article you know like if I could do like 20 pages but then I get. But Educated a memoir and it totally brings you in. But she’s living off the grid in Idaho in this really religious family. It’s just I don’t think I probably would meet her and my day to day and I definitely wouldn’t be invited back to her Idaho farmstead to like get to see it. But do you get to learn about this is you know. So just tell me about her life. So her her parents are deeply religious. It’s a sect of a bigger religion but they’re kind of living off on their own. They don’t subscribe to like organized medicine or formal medicines or her mother’s making all these tinctures and herbs and they’re living off the land pretty much and her father’s earning a junkyard and there’s 10 kids. And the premise is that they’re being homeschooled so they won’t have to go to like government schools because there’s a deep distrust of the government but also like they’re not really schooling the kids such any and she becomes really hungry for learning. And she has to dig up the resources on her own and learn how to navigate the outside world with the world that she’s growing up on and trying to figure out what she wants for herself.
[00:24:05] Is this an abuse aside from not being educated properly is it abusive.
[00:24:09] Yeah it’s it’s a I mean my friend who I recommended it to is like I don’t know how you got through this because there are some really gory scenes in it. She gets really injured and they don’t take her to the hospital. How does she hurt herself?
Her father gets her in you know he’s running a junkyard and I think she’s in this.
[00:24:26] I don’t know what it is. I mean a compactor thing. Exactly yes. Thank you. And he dumps it out she gets pinned inside by this heavy piece of metal and I think her leg almost gets cut off. There’s another scene where her father lights himself on fire and you know they won’t take him to the hospital. So this is a weird religious sect.
[00:24:46] This is not formal religion like we would know? That’s right I don’t even want to name it because I don’t remember which one. It’s an offshoot of but they’re in Idaho. They’ve got a bunker full of weapons and ammunition and like preserved foods. And she is just feeling like this is not it for me. Yeah she gets out she gets out. She’s got one older brother that helps her study for the PSATs and SATs and then she goes to Brigham Young University and from there is kind of launched into a totally different life. That means having to give up her family life which has been everything. And even though it was weird and abusive it’s still her family.
[00:25:21] So it is also about that pull of like I can you know she can tell us the story and she can know that it’s very strange but it’s also those are her people and how how deep that is you know to have a family. And how hard that is to let go. I thought I found that part of it really fascinating too.
[00:25:39] And our guest today is Kate Cunnane she is my cousin. She’s also a high school teacher who loves to read. Kate thanks for thanks for coming. Come back sometime. Yeah. I’ll keep reading then come back next summer. I know you will. All right. So next summer. That’s a deal we’ll meet. We’ll meet on a Cape again. All right thanks to Nirvana for sponsoring the program really appreciate that. If you’re looking for a vacation rental that is your place on Cape Cod for the summer, spring and fall. And remember once again be sure to listen to the or subscribe to the podcast and leave a rating and tell a friend about it. So we’ll see you again next time for Kate Cunnane. I’m Kevin Walsh and we’ll see you within the pages.
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