SKYPE Conversation with Mat Johnson: January 4, 2017
Mat Johnson, author of Loving Day, regular commentator on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and member of Greene Street Friends School’s class of 1985, kicked off 2017 with a Skype session with GSFS faculty and staff on January 4.
Mat attended Greene Street Friends for Kindergarten and 1st grade, took a small break for financial reasons between grades 2 and 5, and returned for grades 6, 7, and 8. During that time, the Middle School had just opened in the house (now ChildSpace) next to the main 5511 Greene Street building.
Mat now lives in Houston and, in addition to writing, is a professor at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. He has returned to campus periodically during visits to Philadelphia. During those visits, he has noticed the missing horse shed playground and has seen Greene Street Friends grow over the years.
In reflecting on how GSFS might have cultivated his interest in writing, Mat remembers reading voraciously when he was young. Not only could he remember the smell of the GSFS library (not great!), but he also remembers the construction of the Northwest Regional Free Library and the dragon! During his regular H/XH rides to school, he would often be found with a book in his hand. Especially meaningful was a 6th grade class visit to Lloyd Alexander’s home on City Line Avenue. Lloyd had written The Black Cauldron, and Mat was moved by how Lloyd had figurines of the characters in his home, really bringing the story to life.
For Mat, writing about Germantown in Loving Day was autobiographical like a dream. Stories, people, places, all were reorganized and moved around, but many were triggered by a real-life experience. And, Mat noted, the Germantown in the book, while similar, is not the Germantown of today.
A proud Philadelphian still, Mat has been fortunate to write essays monthly for Fresh Air with Terry Gross. While he acknowledges that essays are one of the harder forms for him to write, he has recently used this format to reflect on a Trump presidency. As Mat sees it, the recent election results provide us with a reminder that opposition does exist. A Trump presidency removes complacency and allows us to see the world as it is. Mat reminded us that there will be an ebb and flow to the tide, and we must remain strong and active.
In closing, Mat encouraged teachers to continue to honor each student, even the “knuckleheads” like himself. Know that you are making an impact, whether you see that impact tomorrow or 30 years from now!