John MacLean has taught high school English for 30 years, 26 of them at Woodlands High School.
“That’s more Ethan Fromes than I ever want to have to think of,” says the mild-mannered Croton-on-Hudson resident who’ll retire this spring.
He teaches upperclassmen a mix of classics and modern works, from Homer’s “Iliad” to August Wilson’s “Fences.” He substituted Toni Morrison for Thomas Hardy.
Not that he has any problem with the classics. It was a case of knowing his audience and helping them to connect their lives to classic works of fiction, a topic MacLean covers, in a conversational and accessible way, in his 2010 book: “If You Teach It, They Will Read: Literature’s Life Lessons for Today’s Students” (Rowman & Littlefield).
“The point of the book is that we shouldn’t shy away from serious literature for fear that young people today can’t understand it,” says MacLean. “I think if it’s universal, there are things they can connect with, as long as you, as a teacher, know how to approach them, understand teenagers and can speak in a way that’s meaningful to them.”
Literature is essential, he says, a fact lost on educational reformers who value literacy over literature.
“My book begs teachers to teach literature for the reasons authors wrote literature,” MacLean says.
“Nobody ever wrote a poem to provide a scavenger hunt for a standardized test. People have poured their hearts and souls into literature because they think they have something to say about the human condition — and it’s a condition that these kids still share.”
MacLean finds proof of his argument in next weekend’s “Once on This Island,” the last musical he’ll direct at Woodlands.
“When Erzulie (the goddess of love) talks about they’re all part of the human heart, she says you’re all connected to all the people who went before you and all those yet to come.
“That’s literature. That’s what literature does. It connects you to all those who came before you and all those yet to come.”
Here are 10 things you might not know about John MacLean:
1. Before directing his first play at Woodlands, 22 years ago, he was a complete novice.
“I had never been in a play, let alone directed a play,” he recalls. “But I thought: A school should have a play.”
2. That first play he directed was Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a joint production with the nearby New York State School for the Deaf (Fanwood), which sent some of its students to Woodlands.
“Part of the process was to have Woodlands students work one-on-one with students from School for the Deaf, to learn how to communicate,” he says.
“From a theater standpoint, it was wonderful. When you have hearing students who are very vocal — but who sometimes use language as a defense — to have that taken away from them and force them to communicate in another way, it lead to some really interesting theatrical moments.”
“The Fanwood students came to our prom and our kids went to their prom,” he says.
3. MacLean’s wife, Mary, is a sign-language interpreter. “She works for Theater Development Fund in the city and freelances all over,” he says.
4. For two summers — after high school and after his freshman year at Fordham — he lived the life of a merchant seaman, working on supply ships along the East Coast, to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
5. He worked as a mill hand.
6. He graduated from law school and was an assistant district attorney in South Carolina. The law prepared him best for the classroom, he says, “because with the law you have to think on your feet and be organized.”
“It helps me field excuses for late papers,” he says with a laugh.
7. He studied English at Fordham and then Oxford University.
8. He has a soft spot for Shakespeare. “I tell my students, and it’s it in my book, that I didn’t fully understand understand ‘Hamlet’ until a particularly hard day in family court when I was an ADA,” he says. “I went back to the office, saying ‘What a piece of work is a man. How noble in reason,’ throwing files across the office until my secretary asked me what was wrong with me. Then I realized what ‘Hamlet’ was about.”
9. The Queens native is the father of four daughters: Cora, Caitlin, Emma and Sarah.
10. Among his favorite shows to direct are “The King and I” and this year’s show, “Once on This Island,” the story of “The Little Mermaid” set in the islands, a show he has directed twice.
“There are 32 in this cast; the last time we did it we had 14,” he says, adding: “It’s a completely ensemble piece and the idea of the community coming together to tell a story and pass it on. I thought it was a nice way to go out.”
Photo by Tania Savayan/The Journal News: John MacLean, at Woodlands High School.