Ginny Robinson, Eighth Grade Language Arts Teacher
Story by Kathy McPherson
Ginny Robinson hit gold when her master’s degree thesis was published in 2005. Carrier, a collection of her original poetry, was not a chart-topping bestseller, but it gave Robinson an opportunity to read from her book at San Francisco’s renowned City Lights bookstore and she learned a lot about herself after it was published.
“I learned what it means to put yourself out there in a personal way and to really have to let a piece of writing go out into the world and be something that I didn't have any control over anymore,” Robinson said. “There was an interesting mix of power and vulnerability that part of me is glad to learn really early. It really did help kind of guide my decisions moving forward about what I wanted to publish.”
A writer and a teacher, Robinson has produced articles for regional and local magazines, published a cookbook, taught at community colleges and is in her third year teaching language arts at Durham Academy’s Middle School.
As an undergraduate, Robinson studied writing and literature in Villanova University’s honors program, then studied creative writing and poetry in graduate school at the University of California, Davis. But it was working at Kaplan Test Prep between Villanova and UC Davis that led her to teaching.
Robinson moved to California with no job or plans, thinking “if I stayed six months or a year or whatever, it will be a fun story when I'm older.” She did freelance writing for web companies and took a job at Kaplan, working primarily as a manager during the day and teaching at night.
“The fact that I could work an eight-hour day and then teach for three hours on top of that was probably the first time I realized, like, wow, I must really like teaching. If I can do it at the end of the day as tired as I am and come out of it feeling as energized as I do, teaching might be the thing for me,” she recalled.
She got to explore teaching more in graduate school as a teaching assistant.
“I loved being a TA,” she said. “I was a teacher for poetry. I was the first graduate student ever to ask the university if I could be the TA for grammar. … It was like you got the short stick if you ended up TA-ing grammar. And I loved that part, I really did kind of love the spectrum. I loved poetry and writing about feelings and all of this stuff. And then I also really loved the craft of it.”
Taking a job teaching ninth- and 10th-graders at San Diego’s Francis Parker School — a school she said is much like Durham Academy — confirmed Robinson’s love of teaching. “I was young. I didn't have a family yet,” she said. “I had tons of time and energy, and I was totally happy to give it all to Parker. I just thought it was one of the most meaningful things I'd ever done in my life.”
It was in San Diego that Robinson met her husband, Mark Messick, a Navy flight surgeon assigned to the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton. They moved to Philadelphia for Messick’s medical residency when he left the Navy, went back to California for his first post-residency job and then came to North Carolina with daughters Ellie and Clara when he accepted a position at Duke in 2013.
Robinson had grown up outside Washington, D.C., but moving to North Carolina was a bit like coming home because her brother, mother, father and stepmother were living in northeastern North Carolina where her brother had opened a restaurant, Currituck BBQ Company. Much of the food served there was based on her father’s recipes, and Robinson’s brother enlisted her to produce the Currituck BBQ Company Family Cookbook. She spent nearly a year working on the cookbook. “It's not just recipes, it's also stories and memories and kind of how the restaurant came to be. It was a wonderful experience.”
Robinson came to DA in fall 2018 as a long-term substitute teacher in fifth-grade language arts and accepted a position teaching eighth-grade language arts the following year.
“I like teaching because I like people,” she said. “I love teaching, reading and writing because I feel like it's such an easy window into who my students are. I love that we get to talk, not only about the craft of writing and the exercise of reading, but also a lot of what we talk about is what it means to be human, what it means to be in community with each other, what it means to communicate. I think all of that is so fundamental and so necessary. I feel if you create a warm and loving community in your classroom, your students will show you who they are and so often they are awesome.”
Teaching and learning during the pandemic has created many challenges, but has given Robinson’s students an unexpected benefit.
“I think, for better or worse, our students now have a baseline for historically huge moments,” she said. “So often what's in the meat of a great piece of writing is some sort of sweeping, big moment in history that somebody is living through, and that's what they're doing. So it's recognizing that there's been a shift from having to imagine a scenario or a moment like that and having one at the ready right now in this moment. It's not an exercise in imagination anymore. It's a reality for them, and so they have a way and an experience that helps them access a lot of the stories that we read.”
When Robinson’s students read Art Spiegelman’s Maus — a graphic novel and Pulitzer Prize winner that depicts Spiegelman interviewing his father about his experience as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor — “so much of what we talk about is how an experience shapes you for the rest of your life. And we've had conversations this year about how the pandemic might change people's behaviors and their feelings about certain things for a really long time.”
Writing is not the only art that commands a huge part of Robinson’s life. She is also a quilter. It’s an art form Robinson came to in 2008 when she was home with a new baby and her husband was working long hours in his medical residency. She hadn’t done any sewing since home economics class in high school, but asked for a sewing machine as a birthday gift.
“You know, having a small baby just feels like every day you have a small baby still,” she said. “You wake up and you're like, did I even do anything yesterday? So I really liked the idea of completing small projects, and I just kept going with it. I started to take classes at quilt shops and things like that. I started following patterns and then eventually I started designing my own quilts.”
Robinson teaches and lectures for an international guild that runs a conference and quilt show called QuiltCon. Pre-pandemic, she would fly to QuiltCon for a long weekend each February and teach classes on technique, craft and design. Last summer, she turned her sewing studio into a film studio because all of her classes and teaching have gone virtual.
“Quilting has taken me in a direction that I could not have ever planned for and never really thought I'd be a part of, but it is a huge part of my life,” she said. “To me, it's just an extension of my relationship with craft in general. So much of writing, so much of being a writer, has taught me how to be a quilter.”
Robinson noted that DA already had a strong quilting community when she came to the school, and she is excited about the possibilities of expanding sewing and textile art at DA both in the summer and during the school year.
“I think part of it is there's artistry in it and then there's a technical part of it that I really like, and kind of understanding the push and pull of artistry versus technique,” she said. “I think that that exists in all crafts and it just depends on the medium that you're in — things like the emotional impact on a reader or somebody who's looking at a quilt.”