Alex Barron, 34, hails from northern New Jersey (although, somewhat surprisingly, his town did not include many fellow Jews), but Maryland has been his home for the past 11 years — first in Montgomery County and now in the Baltimore area.
Barron is an English teacher at the Boys’ Latin School of Maryland, teaching mainly ninth-graders for the past five years to appreciate literature and language. A graduate of Kenyon College in Ohio (and, later, doing his graduate work at Brown University and Middlebury College), Barron also coached wrestling for a number of years and has played the cello for the Hopkins Chamber Orchestra. When he’s not wrangling his teenaged students, he’s instead wrangling his 5-month-old twins, Leo and Helena.
What brought you to Boys’ Latin?
A fraternity brother is the short answer. Adam Osborn, who is the chair of the history department [in the Upper School], is a friend of mine from college, and we had stayed in touch. For six years I taught at a public school, but I always had my eye on moving to a smaller place, teaching in a smaller community. I stayed in touch with [Osborn], and through some networking, he was able to help me get my foot in the door, and the rest is history. [Laughs]
You’ve also published some nonfiction and write elsewhere, so what keeps you teaching?
There is nothing that exhilarates me as much as talking about great literature with kids. It encourages me to do more reading and think more deeply about what I’m reading. I think when I’m leading a discussion of 12-13 boys, which I do here on a daily basis, [the time] just flies by because it’s really fun, especially when it’s new literature we’re all discovering for the first time.
One thing that really keeps [teaching] fresh for me is my writing. So, I do a lot of writing on the side. I went back to school to get my [graduate] degree in English, and I published some of the essays I wrote for classes there in various academic journals. I’ve written personal essays for little publications here and there. I [also] write restaurant reviews for a monthly publication in D.C.
What is your favorite book to teach your students?
Wow. You know, I’ve taught “Romeo and Juliet” 11 years in a row to high school freshmen, and you’d think it would have gotten old by now, but it really hasn’t. I think there’s something for everyone with Shakespeare in general and specifically in “Romeo and Juliet.” If you’re not hooked on the love story, which a lot of ninth-grade guys are not, you can get hooked on the violence or the wittiness of the play. I think my ninth-graders are always surprised the play opens with dirty jokes, like they didn’t think those existed back then.
[But] one book that’s been really gratifying to teach here at an all boys’ school is “A Streetcar Named Desire” because I think guys, especially in high school, have some really — I don’t want to say sexist — really ingrained ideas about women. “Streetcar” challenges them to develop empathy for a strong, but flawed female lead. Blanche is such a great character — she’s someone who is obviously flawed and has some terrible qualities, but she’s someone you can’t help but empathize with because she’s been dealt such a tough hand.
What do you hope your students take away from your classes? What is your approach?
It’s twofold. On the one hand, I’ve kind of come to see myself as “the writing guy.” If that can be my legacy, I’d be really happy with that. I opened the writing center a couple years ago, which is a room where kids can get extra help on their writing with peer tutors. So, one, I hope they come out of my class knowing how to organize their thoughts in a logical and forceful way.
But two, more abstract, I hope they can develop empathy for people who are not exactly like they are. I think all high school kids in general, and maybe specifically these kids, are kind of in a bubble. If I can get them to empathize with someone whose experience is so different from their own, then I hope I can get them to see outside the bubble of their own lives.