Retiring teacher Ernie Brill leaves a literary legacy
Ernie Brills in his class room at Northampton High school with some of his many books. Purchase photo reprints »
Ernie Brill in his class room at Northampton High school with some of his many world literature titles. Brill, who is retiring in June but leaving this month on medical leave, has been giving away as many as possible to students, teachers, friends and the school library. Purchase photo reprints »
Retiring Northampton High School teacher Ernie Brill holds up a book from his senior creative writing class syllabus, Sophocles' "Lysistrata." Purchase photo reprints »
Some of Ernie Brill's books in his class room at Northampton High school. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Veteran Northampton High School English teacher Ernie Brill has some advice on how to provide students with a truly 21st-century education: Teach them world literature.
“Literature shows you the emotional life of people,” said Brill, who is retiring in June after 22 years at NHS, one of six scheduled retirements district-wide. “It shows you what happens to people in times of change.
“You say you want to prepare your students for a global experience? One of the best ways to do it is to read a novel by someone from Taiwan or Tibet.”
For years, his third-floor classroom has been home to books by writers from both of those countries and numerous others.
In recent weeks, Brill — who begins a medical leave on Monday — has been giving away as many books as possible to students, fellow teachers, friends and the high school library. (A reporter did not leave his classroom empty-handed, either.)
Handing out books is something Brill has done all along at NHS.
“They call him the Johnny Appleseed of books,” said senior Melanie Tan, who was in Brill’s creative writing class last year. “Every time I see him, he gives me more to read.”
Brill, 67, estimates his school bookshelves have held as many as 500 titles over the years by authors from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, India, the Middle East and immigrant neighborhoods across the U.S.
“At one point, the books were going up to the ceiling,” said the Brooklyn native in an interview earlier this week. “I’m a bit of a hoarder, I guess.”
He posted this offer on his Facebook page recently: “If anyone wants free books from all over the world, contact me or come to the high school this January. I’m needing to get rid of over two hundred books plus some great stories and poems. Come and git it while it’s there.”
What books have students chosen from Brill’s global collection?
“All different kinds of stuff,” he said. “Vietnam stuff, novels. One kid took a book by a Brazilian mystery writer.”
In a storeroom down the hall, he has arranged three shelves of books for use in creative writing classes at the high school.
“I’m hoping the English department will continue the tradition of not just paying lip service to diversity,” Brill said. “We have African writers over here. Also 26 books on the Caribbean. The last shelf is all Asian novels. There’s something for everybody.”
To say that Brill likes books is an understatement bound to provoke one of his characteristic “what-planet-are-you-on?” looks.
A love of literature, he said, was a bright thread running through his childhood in New York, his college years at Antioch College and San Francisco State University, and his involvement in civil rights and student and labor organizing.
In San Francisco, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in American and world literature, Brill met numerous writers at City Lights Bookstore, a landmark independent outlet founded by Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin.
He said he still relies on such bookstores in his ongoing search for novels and poems by writers from other parts of the globe. Other trusted sources are literature anthologies and the swap shed at the Northampton transfer station.
When he began teaching at NHS in 1992, Brill said, the English department was trying to address a noticeable lack of books by women, black, Asian and Latino authors in course offerings. He and his first wife had moved to the Pioneer Valley from New York City, where Brill taught at a public middle school in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
He started out as a part-time reading teacher in Northampton. The following year he was offered a full-time job in the English department.
“The school had money then and I was hired as their multicultural person,” Brill said. “I ordered a bunch of books — it was a blast!”
Among the titles he brought in were “Uncle Tom’s Children” by African-American author Richard Wright, “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe of Nigeria and “The Line of the Sun” by Puerto Rican writer Judith Ortiz Cofer.
In Brill’s view, few public schools offer enough literature by authors of color or writers who approach difficult subjects through humor.
“If it’s existential and depressing, we teach it,” he said. “I’d love to do some research on who made high school and college English courses so tragic. I think that’s a big reason why a lot of kids don’t like English.”
Chris Gonzalez, who graduated from NHS in 2011, praised Brill for being “a big advocate of getting writers who aren’t necessarily old, dead white guys into the classroom.”
Although he never took a class with Brill, Gonzalez said, the two bonded over a shared love of poetry. “He’s given me lots of books over the years,” said Gonzalez, who won the NHS Poetry Slam in his senior year and is now studying English at Greenfield Community College. “It’s not just academic with him, it’s something deeper.”
Tan — another former Poetry Slam winner — said Brill introduced her to Asian writers at a time when she was starting to explore her Cambodian heritage.
“I told him I felt like an outsider and he helped me find other writers going through the same thing,” said Tan, who hopes to become an art teacher. “He helped me find my voice.”
Administrators are finalizing plans to hire someone to teach Brill’s classes for the remainder of the school year while they seek a permanent replacement. Brill declined to elaborate on the nature of his medical leave.
Colleagues cite his vast knowledge of books and films, his forthrightness and his quirky humor — including his mastery of puns — as among the things they’ll miss most about Brill.
“I have never brought up a book or a movie he has not read or seen,” said fellow English teacher Suzanne Strauss, who’s been at NHS for 15 years. “His passion for the written word and the way he’s touched a broad spectrum of kids, he’s leaving a gaping hole at the school.”
Michele Bernhard, who has been teaching English at NHS since 1999, described Brill as a “character” and a “treasure.” She still recalls the impromptu tour he gave her of his favorite New York bookstores and delis when they attended a teachers conference there some years ago.
Brill’s work with students has been equally generous, Bernhard said. “So many kids walk out of his classroom with a book he’s handed them,” she noted. “Whether they read them or not, they feel that they’ve been seen and heard.”
In his final creative writing class on Tuesday, Brill read students an excerpt from his own book, “I Looked Over Jordan and Other Stories,” published in 1980. In the coming months, he said, he hopes to start a blog about global literature and perhaps finish a novel he’s been working on about his experiences during a 1968 student strike at San Francisco State University.
“I’ve written it so many different ways, maybe now’s the time for me to finish it,” said Brill, who lives in Laurel Park with his wife, Randy Ross, a staff member at Brown University’s New England Equity Assistance Center.
While he’s looking forward to having more time for his own literary pursuits, Brill said, he’ll miss sharing discoveries with his students. For example, he recently gave a student a copy of “Blood Brothers,” by Richard Price.
“He told me he read it over the weekend and it was by far the best book he’d ever read,” Brill said. “That’s what I live for — when a kid falls in love with a book.”