Faculty Spotlight: Upper School English Teacher Dr. Lauren Garrett

Story and Photo by Kathy McPherson

Dr. Lauren Garrett grew up in Harper Lee country, in Monroeville, Alabama. Garrett’s great-grandmother was friends with Lee — calling her Nell, the name she was known by before she became famous as Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird — and the writer would visit when she returned home to Monroeville and Monroe County, Alabama, from Manhattan.

“My dad’s family would always always say that Boo Radley [the reclusive character in To Kill a Mockingbird who only came out at night] was based on a cousin from my mother's family,” Garrett remembered. “My mother hated that, which made it all the more powerful to my young imagination.”

Storytelling and imagination were integral to Garrett’s life. That is part of what led her to study literature and brought her to Durham Academy in 2015, where she is an Upper School English teacher. “I grew up in a family that was very drawn to storytelling,” she said. “First of all, my father was a minister. Story and narrative is really central to the way he presented the world to us.”

And her mother’s family did their part. “We would get together at my great-grandmother’s house every Thanksgiving. After the turkey and after sitting on the porch or playing some football, the whole family would walk over to this cemetery in town and we’d stand over the graves of my dead relatives. My aunts were the storytellers and they would give their go-to story for each of the dead relatives.”

From an early age, Garrett said she “felt like I saw myself in story. I felt a connection to story and character and place. I realize now what a huge privilege that was.”

Reading was a refuge. “Back then, we didn't really talk about wellness and self-care, but I realize in retrospect that reading was very much that for me growing up. I think it was one of the ways that I took care of myself, but it was also so much more than that. It wasn’t just escapism, it was fiction therapy. It was also how I lived beyond my circumstances.”

Home was Alabama and Mississippi, but Garrett entered a far wider world through her great-grandmother’s book closet. “She had so many great books in there. … I took this volume of Shakespeare. It was old with soft, soft leather, onion skin pages, gold edges and the font was tiny. It was not a book made to read, but I took it and I started reading it. I didn't understand half of what I was reading. I think it was as much the book itself that kind of drew me in, but for some reason I kept at it. I felt like I was reading some old volume of magic where I would have flashes of understanding.”

It lit a fire for Shakespeare and she became adept at reading him — “you kind of break the code of his syntax and his language.” When Garrett got to high school and read Romeo and Juliet in English class, “I was amazed to find that my classmates hated it and thought it was terrible, didn't understand it and didn't like it. By that point, I loved it. … I think that’s probably what planted the seed of my love for Shakespeare. I felt like I had some kind of special relationship to share it with others and to help other people see how fun it could be.”

She followed that passion at Millsaps College in Mississippi, where she graduated with a major in English, and to UNC-Chapel Hill, where she earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in English and spent 10 years as a teaching fellow. Garrett was on the cusp of a tenure track career in higher ed when she started to question whether the dissertation process had robbed her of her joy of reading.

“I felt trapped in this niche, this little corner. I had made what I love to do, I’d made my passion a job and one that had become a little unrecognizable from what actually led me there.”

She canceled job interviews, completed teaching a spring semester Shakespeare course at UNC and was wondering what was next when she was offered a part-time position teaching English at Durham Academy Upper School.

“That has been the biggest decision, scariest decision I've ever made,” Garrett reflected. “That was a really tough process and a huge turning point in my life. I was a new mother, I had a 6-month-old. Over the years as a grad student I really had begun to question if I was going to be able to be happy, find happiness in this career. I think becoming a mom, something about it made me want to really live authentically. So I wanted to act on this, I didn’t want to go further.”

By her third year at DA, Garrett was teaching full time, leading an Upper School advisory and serving as advisor to Exurbia, the arts and literary magazine published each spring to showcase Upper School student work.

“Strangely, in all of this, I always imagined myself teaching literature, I don’t think that I’d ever seriously considered teaching at the high school level. … It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Garrett said. “It wasn’t what I set out to do, but thank God it happened because I found my joy for literature again. Grad school was great, and I’m glad I had that experience, but along the way I lost that original relationship I’d had with literature. Teaching at this level, I can ‘geek out’ and do my Shakespeare thing, but I can also teach Zora Neale Hurston, I can teach Jane Austen, I can teach poetry, I can do all of these things. I can teach new texts and new authors and continue to expand my horizons instead of being boxed in.”

Pleasure, fun and enthusiasm are central to Garrett’s classroom, and that’s how she brings students — especially sophomores taking a required English class — to share her joy and love of literature.

“The most emblematic thing that I do in my teaching is probably the ‘geeking out’ presentation. I do it in English 10, where I invite students to share some texts that they love, that they think are really exciting and important, or just fun or whatever.”

Students have chosen video games, songs, movies, reality TV shows, sports biographies, comic books, fantasy series and cartoons for the geeking out presentation. “Two of the smartest, best geeking out presentations I got were on Scooby Doo and SpongeBob SquarePants,” Garrett said.

“Instead of always reading what I say is important, it’s an opportunity for them to get a full 20 minutes in class to totally geek out about something they love. … That’s my attempt to help students recognize that the way we think about the texts that we read in English class, it’s no different from how I want them to engage with any kind of text. It helps them draw a direct line from their favorite video game to something like Dante's Inferno. They realize that the questions we ask about those texts, they can ask those same questions about the text that they love. It helps them see that the joy and enthusiasm they have for this other text can be a bridge into engaging with texts in a deeper way.”

Garrett realizes that not every student sees themself in the texts they are assigned in English class. As academic leader of DA’s English Department, she is helping revamp the required courses for ninth- and 10th-graders to make them more inclusive of different cultures and experiences.

She sees that in her own life experience. Monroe County, Alabama, where Garrett’s family is from — Harper Lee country — is the same county that Bryan Stevenson wrote about in Just Mercy, a memoir about his career as a lawyer, including defending and ultimately exonerating Walter McMillian, a Black man who had been sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman.

Garrett said reading Just Mercy “made me very aware of the degree to which there was one dominant story, a single story about where I come from, that I had really bought into a whole lot. … That really opened my eyes to the importance of making sure I'm not reinforcing the dominant narrative or single story in my classroom.”