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Teacher/Pizza Guy

Jeff Kass

Award Winner


Made in Michigan Writers Series

Published: August 2019
ISBN: 9780814347157
Pages: 256 Size: 6 x 9
Published: August 2019
ISBN: 9780814347164
Pages: 256 Size: EPUB

Teacher/Pizza Guy is a collection of autobiographical poems from the 2016–17 school year in which Jeff Kass worked as a full-time English teacher and a part-time director for a literary arts organization and still had to supplement his income by delivering pizzas a few nights a week. In the collection, Kass is unapologetically political without distracting from the poems themselves but rather adds layers and nuances to the fight for the middle class and for educators as a profession.

The timing of this book is beyond relevant. As a public high school teacher in America, Kass's situation is not uncommon. In September 2018, Time published an article detailing how many public school teachers across the country and in a variety of environments work multiple jobs to help make ends meet. Teacher/Pizza Guy chronicles Kass's experience of teaching, directing, feeding people, and treading the delicate balance of holding himself accountable to his wife and kids, his students, his customers, and his own mental and physical health while working three jobs in contemporary America. The journey of that year was draining, at times daunting, at times satisfying, but always surprising. Many of the ideas for these poems were initially scribbled onto the backs of pizza receipts or scratched out during precious free moments amidst the chaos of the school day. A driving force behind the book is Philip Levine's poem "What Work Is," which Kass believes attempts to examine not only the dignity and complexity of what we think physical, tangible work is but also the exhausting, albeit sometimes fulfilling nature of emotional work.

Teacher/Pizza Guy is a funny and relatable collection for readers, thinkers, educators, and pizza lovers everywhere.

Jeff Kass teaches tenth-grade English and creative writing at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is the founder of the Literary Arts Program at Ann Arbor’s teen center, The Neutral Zone, where he was program director for twenty years. He is also the author of the award-winning short story collection Knuckleheads, the poetry collection My Beautiful Hook-Nosed Beauty Queen Strut Wave, and the thriller Takedown. He lives in Ann Arbor with the author Karen Smyte and their children, Sam and Julius.

I never really cared for poetry, but I truly loved Kass’s work. He speaks to all of our insecurities and vulnerabilities, giving a voice to what we want to say but rarely do. Yes, teachers are struggling to get by financially, and it’s a shame that education is not being made a higher priority in our society. Thank you, Jeff, for opening the door to this conversation in a creative and enriching way.

– David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan

After twenty-plus years of teaching, I can say that these poems capture more of a teacher’s life than any news story, assigned manual, or documentary account ever could. To read them is to experience the inspiring, infuriating, hilarious, tedious, and quietly glorious lives lived by one teacher residing in the twenty-first century as a fully realized and flawed human being. They will speak to your heart and mind regardless of which side of the big desk you’ve ever been on.

– Sean Sabo, teacher, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Kass’s hip-hop poetic style illuminates the gritty yet inspiring realities of teaching today’s youth, while at the same time working a second job to make ends meet. Teacher/Pizza Guy will resonate with those who have ever strived to make a difference, no matter with kids by day, pizzas at night, or both. Kass is a distinctive poet with insight and compassion who ultimately ‘chooses bliss.’

– Don Packard, English department chairperson, Ann Arbor Pioneer High School

Here we have poems of labor, wages, busted knees, and the miracles of bodies at all. Forged out of economic precarity and the ways that such uncertainty shapes a life (its breaths, hours, delights, resistance), Kass’s poems strain toward what is broken, depleted, or overlooked, and find song there. These are not songs of repair, but songs that praise and document some of the effortful lasting, and attempts to last, of Kass’s most beloved subjects. In this way these poems carry the intimacy and goodbye of an elegy, the attentiveness of the ode, and the urgency of the protest cry.

– Aracelis Girmay, author of The Black Maria

What a beautiful and moving and funny and un-heroic and angry and tender and honest book of poems about labor, aging, love, and, as Kass says, finding ‘meaning in every ice patch on the sidewalk.’ This book’s heart is enormous. I love it.

– Ross Gay, author of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude and The Book of Delights

Jeff Kass affirms the dignity and heartbreak of the working person with funny and deeply human turns and terms. A master storyteller, Kass reminds us in Teacher/Pizza Guy of the elasticity and liminality we negotiate in our relationships between teacher and student, working and working poor, life and death. Kass is in the middle of the country, a humble Hercules, trying to pull it all together with grace, beauty, and a touching humility. He will make you cry and laugh and remember to hold your head high and hope.

– Kevin Coval, author of A People’s History of Chicago and Everything Must Go: The Life & Death of an American Neighborhood

[The poem] "Garbage Day" . . . made me feel the frustration and joy depicted.

– Governor Gretchen Whitmer

Within the drudgery of going from job to job, Kass is not all work; he observes and shows parallels between his jobs and life, recognizing and taking ownership of those moments rather than letting work consume him, almost as if he is both living his life and watching it from the outside. Kass finds meaning in those fleeting moments of entering and exiting customers’ lives to bring them pizza and also seeks respect as he makes ends meet.

– Martha Stuit, Pulp | Arts Around Ann Arbor

Like so many others in America’s working class, poet and teacher Kass had to take on a second job mid-career to help make ends meet. Isn’t it strange, he states bluntly "attempting something new at fifty," the "new" in this case is delivering pizzas until 2 a.m. on a weekday. Later in the collection Kass mentions, in passing, that he’ll return home to try to get a little bit of sleep, only to awake in time to do it all over again. These poems ring with compassion and empathy, touching on the all-too-human foibles Kass encounters each day and night in classrooms and during his pizza deliveries, from college professors who tip $5 on a $97 tab to an elegiac poem, "Young man, take your headphones out", about a student who bravely endures more pain than someone his age should have to. As John Lennon once sang, "a working class hero is something to be." This collection is the work of a hero and a first-rate poet.

– Raúl Niño, Booklist

An extremely readable, often funny, sometimes serious look at one man’s perspective on the all-too-common, multifaceted lives of teachers today.

– Valerie Wieland, Split Rock Review

  • 2020 Michigan Notable Book Awards - Result: 1 of 20 selected annually
  • 2020 Midwest Book Awards - Result: Silver Medal Winner in the General Poetry category