Myles McNamara teaches advanced placement literature at New Mission High School in Hyde Park. After eight years of teaching transformative wilderness education with Outward Bound, he began working in the classroom for the Boston Public School system. McNamara likes to surf on his free time, but when he is not hitting the waves, he likes to read and write.
McNamara is passionate about the value of literature. His reflections on literature, career-paths, and education are below. Content has been edited for length.
Q. What made you fall in love with literature?
A. What made me fall in love with literature is that I could explore something in an entirely personal way. I discovered books when I was really young. The reason why books were so powerful to me was because when I came into a book, it was entirely on my terms, and it was an unspoken kind of relationship between me and ghosts - and by ghosts I mean - the author was not present, other than what they left behind. When I picked up a book, it felt like I was being visited by ghosts and it was not a dialogue. I was exploring something that had been invented for me to discover. The visualization has not been done for you, all the clues are laid out, but unlike television and film, we have to create a picture in our minds. One of the great things about literature and books is that the reader has to add what’s not there to complete it, so the reader becomes an active participant. I bring some of my world to the world of the book. I go on a personal journey that begins anytime I open that book and closes anytime I choose to close the book, until I’m ready again. To me, there is something intensely personal about that and very beautiful.
Q. Do you have a favorite book?
A. There was a series as a kid called Dragonlance and it was developed for Dungeons and Dragons. It was a fantasy trilogy. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were a strong team of authors and I don’t think I could ever write something with other people. I always do it alone. There was something about the characters and their plausibility that was really powerful. It was like 1987-88 when these books were being written. I fell in love with those books. At that time I was ready to be swept up by characters like those, so that was my first huge love for books.
Q. Who was an author that deeply influenced who are you now?
A. The author that influenced me most when I was younger was Ernest Hemingway. I loved him and his writing when I was young. The more I learned about him, the more I learned that there were things I liked about his writing and things I profoundly disliked about his character. I think he was a broken man. Toni Morrison is someone whose books I’ve read multiple times. I’ve read everything she has written in terms of nonfiction and expository writing. She is incredibly powerful, incredibly passionate, incredibly humble. Not only worthy as a writer, but as a person.
Q. Have you always wanted to become a teacher?
A. When I was 17 or 18, I took the SAT exam. There was a form handed out before the exam and you had to bubble in what you wanted to do as your career and I had no idea what I wanted to do. The only thing that made sense to me was a business person because that’s what my dad did. I was not satisfied with that response. I think - with respect and love for teachers - I only had a couple of teachers who were profound in being a mentor and a great teacher to me. I didn’t have in mind to be a teacher until I began working with Outward Bound. I loved being out in the wilderness and never thought of the possibility of becoming a teacher. I spent eight years working with Outward Bound; working with young people, going crazy places, doing crazy team challenges and working together. I fell in love with what happens in groups with the fierce optimism of young people that fades as we age and I’d rather be around young people than old, and that was what drew me into teaching.
Q. Why do you think BPS students should pay more attention to literature?
A. I think embodied with the word ‘fiction’ is the bias that fiction means false, fake, or made up. We think of fairytales and folktales as being unnecessary and unessential. I think we’re a profit driven society and we’re pressured to pursue profit in the interest of taking care of ourselves and our families. Nevertheless, we all love stories. We love them because they tease us and make us question the power of debate. We talk about these characters and we almost live through their mistakes, their tragedies and their victories, so we test life through them. To me, being able to test life’s possibilities at no risk to self through imagination is so powerful.
Q. Why do you think people underestimate the power of literature?
A. Literature is underestimated because I don’t think there is a consensus to its value and its impact. Literature’s benefits are not quantifiable at all. What it does for us is entirely qualitative not quantitative. There’s a highly individual experience, you can have entirely different experiences at different age spans. If you want a big money maker, you go for something that’s guaranteed or a sure bet. And there’s nothing guaranteed or a sure bet about literature. There’s a risk involved in asking people to consider a piece of literature at any given time in their experience and it can be a hit or a miss. Part of the reason why it’s underestimated is because there’s no guarantee that there will be a wanted result. What comes is invited, not guaranteed.
Q. Can you tell me the advantages of literature?
A. The greatest advantage of literature that I’ve thought about lately is the ability of a reader to consider possibilities on a rich level and consider characters and see things that he or she did not see before, without risk to self. I can put myself in situations and places where I can indulge and not get burned or hurt. Most of us have dealt with pain and suffering, it’s an inevitable part of our life. The more guarded we become, the more we close ourselves off. There’s no such thing as a book that can take advantage of us unless we let it, so there is an incredible opportunity for us to learn in a beautiful and profound, sometimes chaotic - but ultimately safe - life affirming way through literature. The steps you take into literature are so individual and a book never asks something of you, all it does is offer. There’s no provisional trade off or sacrifice. Life is all about sacrifice, but it allows us this extraordinary luxury and is generally so cheap and available and if we want to find our way to it we will.
Q. What is the one thing about literature that stands out to you
A. The aspect of time in literature becomes very strange and elastic. What happens with time, is that I could be reading a book and I wouldn’t know how long I’ve been reading. I go somewhere else. I somehow step out of the constraint of time. It makes me feel very appreciative as we consider our short lives.
Q. If there is one piece of advice on literature you would give students, what would it be?
A. Find your passion. Find the books that call you. There are books we may study at school, there are books that we may have to read. Continue to test, audit, try and look around, until you find stories. You want to go out and open yourself to stories that almost magnetically want to attract to you.