Meet Commonwealth Faculty: Melissa Glenn Haber ’87, History and Humanities Teacher

“There is a reason why history is associated with dust: it’s boring,” says Melissa Glenn Haber ’87, Commonwealth alumna and teacher of…history. How to shake off the dust? Connect history students, like jumper cables completing an electrical circuit, between primary sources and a teacher who makes them work for answers, letting ideas sizzle and spark between them. That approach dazzled her as a Commonwealth student, and it’s one she employs now as she teaches a trio of history classes spanning from biblical times to Boston’s not-so-distant past.

Gather ’round as yarn-spinner Ms. Haber recounts her two winding paths to Commonwealth: once as a student, once as a teacher. Along the way, she knits, falls in love with the Puritans, wrestles with Plato, knits, shepherds students through their annual research papers—and did she mention she knits?

Getting to Know You

What is bringing you joy right now? 

Knitting, quite seriously. I think about knitting most of my waking hours. I'm constantly planning my next project. Since the beginning of the school year, I've made four hats, one blanket, two sweaters, and a baby blanket. Knitting is at the heart of my existence—with my three children and Ezra [Haber Glenn, also Class of 1987]. 

Hanging out with my children [Linus ’19, Toby ’19, and Mehitabel ’15], having them teach me new things, is by far the most pleasurable part of my life. And Ezra, since the pandemic, has basically cooked all of our meals. That gives me joy. 

Here at school, watching students begin their research papers brings me joy. All of the kids are starting to know more about their topics than I know. I love watching people get more skilled. 

But, mostly, I like to knit.

What is your favorite book (or a book you’ve re-read)? 

If we’re talking about the book I have reread the most times, that’s probably Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers. It remains the book I go to when I'm home, sick. 

Ulysses is the most intellectual fun I've ever had reading a book, because it's a novel about whether or not novels work. When I read it, I wanted to be a novelist, so it really was mind blowing at the time—and I apparently like really long books. 

The short book I admire the most is Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathaniel West. It's about a guy who satirically writes the Miss Lonelyhearts column in a New York newspaper, but it becomes less and less of a joke as he starts trying to figure out how he can alleviate all of the suffering he sees. It does not end well. But it remains one of my favorite novels. 

Also, anything by Tana French. Thank you, [English teacher] Rikita Tyson, for giving me this love!

What are your favorite comfort foods? 

A poppy-seed bagel with cream cheese and lox. Campbell's vegetable soup. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Basically all the white bread.

What was your favorite class in high school (here at Commonwealth!)? 

Philosophy 10 with John Gilligan. Spanish, where we read things that blew my mind, like the existentialist novel Nada, by Carmen Laforet. Latin with [former Headmaster] Bill Wharton. I still remember things he taught me, including this amazing moment at the end of the Aeneid with the Trojan horse, which is written completely in dactylic hexameter, which always ends with a dactyl and a spondee—except for the last line: circumspexit, “he looked around.” The guy is trying to convince the Trojans that they should trust the Greeks, and I totally missed it, but Mr. Wharton kept making us go back until we finally said, “Oh, this line is wrong. It's two spondees.” It's like a little neon light saying, “Look here.” The line has been artificially slowed down to create drama. I loved that [expletive deleted]. 

Describe Commonwealth students in three words or less.

I have to use a phrase! “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” to quote Emily Dickinson. Commonwealth students often see things sideways, and then they get in it. But I suppose “creative, “artistic,” “oddball,” “iconoclastic,” “nerds.” That’s not three words, but I’m terrible at math.

Life at Commonwealth (and Beyond)

As a student, what was your first impression of Commonwealth and how did it map to experience?

That the work was too hard and I didn't want to come! I got accepted as a ninth grader, but I went to public school instead; I was there for about an hour and a half before I found a payphone, called my mother, and said—to quote Gob Bluth [from Arrested Development]—“I've made a terrible mistake.” I reapplied [to Commonwealth] because I realized that, actually, what I wanted more than anything else in the world was to work that hard. 

My first day, I remember I sat down in Philosophy and took out my notebook, and I was like, I'm ready to receive some wisdom! And we read Heraclitus: “If happiness lay in bodily pleasures, we would call oxen happy when they find vetch to eat.” Mr. Gilligan said to us, “Okay, start talking.” And I was like, What? You care what I think?! Then, at lunch, people were making jokes about pre-Socratic philosophers—I'd never been in a place where people actually thought it was funny to talk about the things we were reading. And I thought, I love this place. 

How does your Commonwealth background impact your teaching?

There is a reason why history is associated with dust: it’s boring. And history is boring because we tend to teach it by telling people, “This is what happened. Now tell me what I just told you.” Like, biology without experiments is just somebody telling you about the interconnected systems, and you're like, What do I do with this? If you're reading a book, and the author tells you everything that happened, it's boring. But if the author leaves space where you need to make connections, you get involved, you complete the circuit, and you get that electric jolt. 

Really exciting classrooms are where the student is part of the circuit and the electricity is jumping between them and the sources and the teacher. At the beginning of the Enlightenment unit, instead of saying, “This is what the Enlightenment is.” We say, “Here's Newton's laws of natural philosophy. Here's a poem about sinful bees. Here’s a little Montesquieu with a little Benjamin Franklin and a little Smith.” And then we try to figure out what they have in common—because they don't seem to have anything in common. But year after year after year, students start seeing how radically similar they are, that all of these people believe there are systems that guide the universe and that we can figure out the rules. (Also the sinful bee poem [“The Grumbling Hive" by Bernard Mandeveille] is really great. It's about luxury and greed and their relationship to the economy.) 

I'm not going to tell them what it all means; they can do the work to figure it out. And I think that comes from how I felt as a Commonwealth student: it was so exciting to be here, not as a vessel to be filled by the wisdom of the ages but like a wrestler in a match with the agents of the past. It was like Plato was in the room with us. And Plato actually was a wrestler… 

What led you to teaching and to Commonwealth in particular? 

Okay, there's a plot hole in the middle of my story: it doesn’t make sense that I’m a teacher. I always wanted to be a writer, but that felt about as realistic as saying, “I want to be Barbie.” So I went to college, I studied religion—best decision I ever made—and, as college was ending, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was in this undergraduate teacher education program, and my mentor said to me, “Why are you even in this program? I know you, and you are never going to be a teacher because you won’t be helping enough people. You’ll need to be a principal, you’ll need to be a superintendent, you’ll need to be the Secretary of Education.” And then he said, “When you're thirty years old, you're gonna realize the only place you can make any change in the world is in the classroom.” And then he walked out of the room, like, mic drop. It really pissed me off, actually, because it felt like he thought I didn’t believe teaching was an important career. But he was right in that there was a bit of “show me where to put the lever” in me. And so I got my first teaching job, at Dorchester High School. The classrooms had no books, no paper. The kids were so despairing. They had no hope that things were going to be okay when they grew up. The problems in the city were so much more than school problems. So I arrogantly decided I needed to go into poverty policy.

I went to public policy school because I needed to deal with the fact that we live in a country where opportunities are so unequal and so unfair. My second year of grad school, I was working on a study to see if this program designed to prevent teenage pregnancy actually worked. My group determined it did not—and our findings were just ignored. I thought, I love being in school, I love reading things, I like writing, but I don't like doing public policy research that's just going into the garbage pail. So I decided I would go back to graduate school in history. 

On the first day of school, we read Puritan sermons, and I was like, Oh my God, all I want to do is read Puritan sermons! I fell in love. I spent all of my time on the Puritans. In my last semester, I was giving a presentation to this very old professor, and he said, “That's not what it was like at all. You just had to be there.” For a historian to tell me I just had to be there! 

At this point, I’m also eight months pregnant, feeling like maybe I'm done with grad school. So I left. I had a kid, and then—I do not know how this happened—I had two more kids. I was at home a lot, and I started writing. And then I had this whole life as a writer. [Ms. Haber is the author of a series of young-adult novels, including The Heroic Adventures of Hercules Amsterdam and Dear Anjali.] My third novel did not do well—my first two novels also did not do well, but they did okay—and I was really depressed. So I thought, Well, what am I going to do? 

I'm not going to tell them what it all means; they can do the work to figure it out. And I think that comes from how I felt as a Commonwealth student: it was so exciting to be here, not as a vessel to be filled by the wisdom of the ages but like a wrestler in a match with the agents of the past. It was like Plato was in the room with us. And Plato actually was a wrestler… 

As, ostensibly, a stay-at-home mother, I could take all my friends’ kids [when they needed childcare], and I really like kids. So I’d have eight or nine of them with me, and we would read books, we would sing songs, I would tell them stories, and then we would take trips to all these random historical sites in Boston. It was great, and it turned out I was very, very good at taking kids to random historical sites in Boston. This is how I feel about history: you can go somewhere and say, Oh, this is the fireplace where all these things happened: boring. But if, before you go, you tell them the story about the fireplace, then they get to see it in real life: excitement. So I thought, I'll write a book about it. I started doing all this research—did you know the U.S.S. Constitution once captured two jaguars? They won them in a battle against another ship. You know, fun things like that. 

While I was working on that book, I was the president of Commonwealth’s Alumni/ae Association. I was emailing with Janetta [Stringfellow, then–Director of Development] to set up a meeting, and I said, “If Commonwealth ever needs a history teacher, you should tell me.” I have no idea why I wrote that sentence. And she wrote back and said, “Call me.” And I did, and she said, “In between when I got your email and now, someone walked into my office and said the U.S. History teacher quit.” Plot hole, filled. 

When I first told Ezra I was thinking of being a teacher, he said, “That's the most arrogant thing I've ever heard.” And I was like, “What?! Teaching is a life of service!” And he said, “Who are you to think you have anything to tell anyone else?” And, you know, he was right, because it does take a little arrogance to think you have something to teach somebody else. But I also feel like my work is a net positive in the world. Adolescence is hard. Becoming an adult is hard. But, in this building, you can connect with people. And being around these extraordinary young people as they figure out who and what they want to be for the rest of their lives—it’s so gratifying to be a part of that again and again. We have so much fun over four years, figuring out who they're going to be when they leave. That's why teaching is such a good match for me. 

What courses do you teach, and how did you develop them?

I get to teach City of Boston [part of our Ninth-Grade Seminar], and I teach U.S. History and U.S. History Since 1865, so I can teach all the U.S. history. Regular U.S. history starts at Jamestown and goes to [President Ronald] Reagan. U.S. History Since 1865 is a bit more connected to what's happening now. We cover the same material as in regular U.S. History but have more time to spend on, say, reading The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. We can watch that strange propaganda movie about how free enterprise and petroleum make America better. There's less material, but we go into it deeper. And it's fun to have both of those versions. 

Every other year I teach the strangely named Bible-as-History, Bible-as-Bible course. It's basically an ancient history class using the Bible as its primary source, but we go back and forth saying, “What do we think happened when this was written?” And “What does this still mean to us?” I like to include the “wisdom books,” like the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes, so there's a place in the class to actually engage with text that answers, satisfyingly or not, big questions like, Why are we here? What is death, anyway? 

Sometimes I think all of my classes add up to one course: How Do You Make a Just Society? My core question in the world is, How do we exist in relationship with others? 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I like to get up at 6:15 a.m., I make a pot of Chemex coffee, I sit on my couch. While I'm taking my coffee, I play games against strangers on Board Game Arena. (I’m mostly playing Azul at the moment.) Then I knit for about twenty minutes while I listen to the BBC World Service. On the subway, I plan out my day and then I knit. Then I come to this building and, for two to four periods a day, I teach. In between I meet with students, and I knit. And then I go home and I grade, grade, grade, grade, grade, grade until it is time to knit. And I watch too much television. It's a very pleasant existence. 

What does success look like in your classes?

Everyone is in a different place in their learning, so success, I think, really has to be measured by where you were and where you end up. Students put ideas together in a way that is totally original to them, and they convey those ideas to others in a way that has spice and verve. For me, that's the ideal. I think I am successful as a teacher if a kid feels more powerful as a reader and a writer by the end of the year and if they believe that this work matters. 

I don’t think the details matter. Like, I don't care if anyone remembers the Nullification Crisis of 1832 next year, but I care that they have a way of understanding how the decisions we made in this country—and especially the central contradictions in this country—have created narratives that shape us today. I super care that people understand democracy is not a spectator sport. And I super, super care that students get that what people in the collective do matters and that the collective is made of individuals. I think these are vital questions of citizenship, and we need to have people who care. 

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