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Faculty Spotlight: Upper School English teacher Dr. Harry Thomas
Faculty Spotlight: Upper School English teacher Dr. Harry Thomas

Harry Thomas always arrives a little early for Durham Academy commencement at UNC’s Memorial Hall. It’s not because he wants a seat down front. He’s assured of that as a member of the Upper School faculty. He arrives early so he can visit a bench behind a building across the street from Memorial Hall, a bench where he sat in utter despair five years ago.  

In 2012, Thomas sat on that bench feeling lost. He had just invested seven years of his life working on a doctorate in English, the academic credential needed to fulfill his dream of being a college professor. But the academic job market was extremely tight. Thomas had applied for 50 or 60 jobs and had no offers, not even any interviews.

“I was done, I'd finish the dissertation, I'd put in the paperwork to Carolina to graduate that spring. I had my teaching assistantship up through May, but I didn't know what I was going to do after that. I remember just being lost. It's kind of a funny thing because I was wandering around campus actually talking to my mom on the phone like I'm a 5-year-old: ‘Mom, I don't know what to do, Mom, help!’ ” 

Because of the economy and the way that higher education was changing, tenure-track college professor jobs — “the kind of jobs that my advisors, many of whom were baby boomers, had in academia” — were vanishing along with Thomas’ hopes of landing one. 

“I think about how lost I felt and how nice it is to feel found. I really, really was lost.”

Thomas was “found” when he was hired to teach English at Durham Academy in spring 2012, and he has truly found his professional home. Becoming a college professor was Thomas’ dream, but when he joined DA, teaching high school students hadn’t been on his radar, and a path to teaching wasn’t even part of Thomas’ career plan when he graduated from Emory University in 1999.

He originally wanted to be a writer, so after graduating from Emory he moved to New York “and took what I thought was going to be my dream job at Rolling Stone because music was a huge part of my life in high school and through college and a little bit after college.

“I had a big, fat mid-20s crisis about working in magazine journalism. I decided that I didn't want to work in what a friend, who also worked in magazine journalism, jokingly called the ‘celebrity-industrial complex.’ I worked with really enormously smart, passionate, talented people who were out seeing live music in New York City every night and knew these amazing bands and knew all this fantastic stuff going on. To pay rent, they were writing about what hors d'oeuvres Britney Spears served at her wedding kind-of-thing. The long and short of it was I just decided I didn't want to wake up and be 50 years old writing about what hors d'oeuvres Britney Spears served at her 37th wedding or whatever she's on at that point. I freaked out and went back to school, mostly because I wanted to write.”

Thomas wanted to work on plays or short fiction and entered a Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Alabama. “That’s what let me teach, that's what put me in the classroom. I really had no idea that I would like teaching. I sort of thought of it’s this thing I have to do and I mean, whatever, I'm here to write. But I really, really liked teaching. I remember teaching an American Lit survey at Alabama and thinking, oh wait my job today is to get up and talk to students about a Faulkner novel or about this Flannery O'Connor short story or about a Tennessee Williams play. That seemed like a really, really good gig, and I liked it a lot. As the MFA was wrapping up, I thought, there's not a huge market for the kind of fiction I write. I'm going to need to find some way to pay the bills. I liked teaching and I thought at the time I could never, ever teach high school, so if I want to teach I’ve got to get a Ph.D.”

Thomas believed teaching in college was his only option. “I was interested in gender and sexuality, and I'm openly gay. I thought for all those reasons I can't teach high school. There's no high school that would ever let me teach there.” It’s a belief he held right up until he was offered a job at DA.

Mary Floyd Wilson, who was dean of graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, reached out to Thomas about an opening for an English teacher at Durham Academy and urged him to apply. Wilson’s husband is Upper School Director Lanis Wilson, who was the Upper School dean of students and taught English literature, psychology and ethics courses at the time.

“I didn't know anything about DA and I was operating on a lot of assumptions that turned out to not be true about the place, but I was like these people are never going to hire me. … May was coming up and I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know what I was going to be doing and where the money was going to come from, so I applied.”

Thomas emailed one of his references, UNC Professor Joy Kasson, to tell her he was applying to a private high school she’d probably never heard of and that there was a remote chance she might be called for a reference. He was stunned when Kasson responded to say she had served as a DA trustee and that her son and daughter were DA graduates.

Thomas interviewed with Lee Hark, who was Upper School director at the time, and English department chair Jordan Adair, and was offered the job.

“And it's just been so great. I feel found. This isn't a life that I would have imagined for myself, but it's been so fantastic. It lets me do exactly what I love doing. I teach really, really smart kids in really small classes. I have a ton of freedom to be creative and do what I want to do in my classes. And it's just a total pleasure. I work with incredibly smart, kind, giving, creative, amazing people. Being here has been the nicest thing. … It's not at all the life that I imagined for myself, but it's been so great. It's been the happiest kind of accident.”

The DA job also gave Thomas and his partner, Joe Cawley, some roots. Cawley already had a job he liked with an employer he really liked working for, and the Triangle is the favorite place they have lived, so Thomas says “to get to stay is really, really nice.”

In addition to teaching English and serving as the department’s academic leader, Thomas is a faculty sponsor of the Upper School’s Urban Ministries of Durham service club and the student Gender and Sexuality Alliance.

Thomas learned about Urban Ministries’ work when his advisory group was assigned there for community service several years ago. They sorted travel-size toiletries that would be used in hygiene kits for people who had no toothpaste, soap, deodorant or shaving supplies.

“I remember being really struck by the need. If I run out of deodorant, I'm aggravated, I'm bent out of shape. But then I get in my car that I own and that has gas in it, and I drive to the store and I buy more deodorant with money that is in my bank account. To think that even in this area, which by like most economic measures is booming, to think that there's that much need, that people don't have wash cloths and toothpaste and deodorant was pretty striking to me. That work seemed really important and I wanted to do something to continue it. … I think sometimes we talk too much about poverty as a thing that happens far away, like poverty is the thing that happens in Africa, that happens somewhere else. I think UMD is really, really important to remind our kids that it happens here. There are people in real and profound need, who don't know where their next meal is coming from, here in Durham, in your town.”

The Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) is a student group that began before Thomas came to DA, and it’s a group that means a great deal to him.

“I think a club like the GSA can be literally life-saving. … The fact that the school had a GSA, it's not a thing I started, it was going on here, it was going strong way before I got here. That helped to know OK, this is part of the school culture. … To be able to do work here with young people that is aimed at reminding them that they're OK and that they're not alone, that's really, really important to me. That's far more important to me than whether a kid can figure out where to put a comma in a sentence, although that is important to me.”

Thomas grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, in the 1980s and ’90s. “My parents’ house, that they still live in, that I grew up in, is a 10-minute drive from the Georgia line, so culturally it was very South Georgia and kind of the only thing to do there was FSU football, which I had no interest in.”

He is close to his parents now, but remembers when “things with them were rough and rocky. They're very conservative. They're both from a small town in Tennessee. They certainly were not raised to be accepting of gay people, they certainly were not raised in a way that told them anything positive about gay people. They have come a really long way, and my relationship with them is a thing that I am enormously, enormously grateful for.”

Thomas’ parents were at the Durham County courthouse several years ago when he got married. “It was super important to them that they would be here when my partner and I could finally get married. Things are so, so nice with them. They love me, they love my partner more than they love me. I'm still very, very close with them.”

What helped Thomas navigate his younger years and initially find a sense of community was literature. “Maybe it's a hyperbolic thing to say, but it's not very much hyperbole to say that Tennessee Williams saved my life. … When I was a closeted kid in north Florida feeling really alone and miserable and I found Williams’ plays and read his letters and his diaries, my world cracked open, my world opened up. I was like, oh, I'm not the only one, other people have felt this way, here's how they wrestle with these feelings, here's how they navigated life. And it made me it made me feel less alone.

“… I certainly don't expect every book that I assign every student to read is going to be that meaningful for them. But I hope that they can see, I hope what comes through in my classes is not a kind of pedantic the comma must go here — although it should and I want them to learn that too, and we do talk about that — but a sense that literature comes out of a particular time, in a particular place. It comes out of people trying to say this is what it felt like to be this kind of person, to be alive at this time, to be wrestling with or thinking through like these kinds of issues. And here's my two cents on what that felt like and how I navigate that. I hope I can get students to see that and to see the value in that kind of connection.”

Thomas tells his English students “we tell ourselves stories in order to live. We are storytelling animals, we tell stories to make sense of our lives.” This fall, Thomas officially joined the ranks of those storytellers with the release of his first book, Sissy! The book, published by the University of Alabama Press, is an exploration of postwar pop culture representations of effeminate men and boys and has already been honored with the Elizabeth Agee Prize in American Literature. Thomas describes Sissy! as a “kind of nipped and tucked and liposucked and filler-injected version” of his Ph.D. dissertation. He had been working on the book for years during summer breaks from Durham Academy. “It’s the dissertation that's gone through a healthy make-over.”

Thomas gave a reading and held book signing Oct. 26 at UNC’s Bull’s Head Bookshop that drew a large crowd of DA students, parents, alumni and faculty.

“I think we live in such a commodified, such a utilitarian world, and the humanities are so out of vogue and out of fashion because how are you going to get a job with that. … But what are you going to do with it? You're going to live. You're going to think, you're going to be in touch, you're going to be less alone in the world, you're going to realize that you're not the only person that ever struggled with X or Y or Z or whatever it is you're trying to think through.

“Lee [Hark] came to my reading and bought a copy of my book and asked me to sign it. All I wrote was ‘Thank you for my life.’ I mean that. I mean, he made my life here possible, and it's been really great.”

In May when he revisits that bench, Thomas will have a lot to smile about.