STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTO COURTESY GORDON JACK
With ears alert and pen poised to capture realistic characters in his novels about high school misadventures, Gordon Jack is a keenly observant author undercover as a librarian.
In the Los Altos High School library, he’s able to both draw inspiration from and teach students with his passion for telling stories. Visitors give Jack a window into the authentic language and characters of high school, such that he strongly based one main character in his 2018 novel “Your Own Worst Enemy” on a real-life library regular, he said.
“What [being a school librarian] allows me to do is see kids unfiltered,” Jack said. “Kids in a classroom immediately put on a [classroom-appropriate] persona. …Whereas, in a library, I don’t go around shushing people, so it’s really kind of a student space. … If I just walk around and eavesdrop on conversations, I can kind of pick up on language and just stuff, you know.”
But students aren’t the only ones with library alter-egos. Gordon Jack has published two books for young adults and just recently wrapped up his second draft of a new novel. Mr. Jack is but a humble and passionate librarian. He said he prefers to keep the two separate.
“Sometimes it’s a little awkward, you know, because they have to both check out and return the book to the person who wrote it,” Jack said. “I try to keep a low profile and not ask them, ‘Hey, did you like it? What did you think?’”
He is more interested in hearing students’ writing than what they might have to say about his own; Jack has worked to cultivate the library as an inspiring space for young writers using his extensive background in English education.
Jack started out as an English teacher at Mountain View High School then Los Altos High before teaching and designing the English curriculum at the Freestyle Academy for seven years. During his time at Freestyle, Jack took a leave to teach at The American School in Santiago, Chile, for a year.
Everything about being an English teacher was a dream, Jack said — apart from grading papers. He admitted that transitioning between schools was partially motivated by his desire to combat the unfortunate reality of grading with the excitement of new environments.
“The grading papers sort of took its toll on me, which is why I bounced around and did different things,” Jack said. “It’s really hard, especially if you have a family or an interest in doing anything besides grading papers to do anything else.”
Jack said he never developed the necessary expediency to be an efficient grader because he always preferred to study student work as he would a manuscript and give feedback. The ambitious curriculum he engineered didn’t make things any easier. In one case, his idea for students to write in a daily journal entry quickly became overwhelming to grade.
“I remember, that first week I took home 120 journals and I was like, ‘Wait, I can’t do this; this is crazy!’” Jack said, laughing.
Eventually, grading became such an obstacle that he searched for alternatives to teaching English and was grateful to be able to transition into the role of librarian at Los Altos. This way, Jack said he could continue to be involved in his sphere of interest but also free up time previously spent grading for family and writing books. In addition, he is able to lead small classes, clubs and seminars for students through the library.
He said having the freedom to offer classes with more student-directed curricula and without the consequence of ungodly grading hours was the ideal situation for him. One such class he led was a creative writing seminar during the latter semester of the 2020 school year in which students practiced developing and revising their own work as well as critiquing others’ works.
“My theory is that all of freshman year should be storytelling,” Jack said. “I think that’s going to help you be a better writer; that’s going to help you discover your voice. It’s going to help make you more fluent in writing so when you get an expository assignment, you feel like you’re just ready to go and you don’t look at it as [being as] formulaic as you maybe would have if you didn’t have that.”
Jack put this concept into practice when he taught a class for writers in need of more basic skill development. He said he concentrated most of the curriculum on storytelling assignments to challenge students stuck in the checking boxes mindset of writing.
“The traditional English curriculum emphasizes expository writing and analysis,” Jack said. “While that’s important, I don’t think it should be emphasized as much as storytelling.”
He explained that in becoming better storytellers, students become better writers by learning to apply ingenuity and creative thought processes to even academic papers. Fluency in all types of writing is much easier when you know how to tell a story, he said.
“You take those storytelling choices that you make and you bring them into expository writing and it just frees you up to have a more creative experience in that particular mode of writing,” Jack said.
So while his years as an English teacher may be in the past, Jack continues to share his love of storytelling with students in the library.
“The place where students really discover their voices, their interests, their passions, is when they’re writing things that are meaningful to them and I think for a lot of students, those are stories,” Jack said.