The Chicago Public School system recently got a dose of prestige and honor when an English teacher at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, 211 S. Laflin St., won the 2010 Hemingway Foundation/PEN award for her first novel.
Brigid Pasulka, who has taught at Young for about seven years, wrote “A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True” over the course of several years. She was to be presented with the award at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Mass., on March 28. She said she was shocked when she found out she won the PEN Award.
“I had no idea that I was up for it,” Pasulka said. “It was not even on my radar. Then I was sitting at home on a Saturday, going through my junk e-mail box, and there was an e-mail from the PEN Foundation. I think I read half of it and registered what it was. I’m not an easily excitable person, and I started just jumping up and down and doing some exclamatory swearing, I think. So I was very excited. Then I went back and read the other half of the e-mail.”
Jim English, department chair in the English Department at Young, said the entire school and community have been excited for and supportive of Pasulka.
“We’re all overjoyed that she got the award,” English said. “It was really something she very much deserved.” English also said the award has created increased demand for the book around the school.
“I have six copies of the book in my room,” he said. “I can never get them, they’re always signed out by students who are reading it constantly. They all like it. We have parents who are coming in and reading it … so it’s very well-received, very well-liked.”
The novel tells the story of two generations of a Polish family. One story line follows the grandparents and the Polish resistance movement during World War II, and the other plot line follows their granddaughter living in Krakow 50 years later, shortly after the fall of Communism. Pasulka said most of her research about Poland came from living there for a year. She went to Poland after graduating college and decided she wanted to live in Europe and teach English there.
“I lived there from ’94 to ’95,” she said. “And then I go back there every year just about. So a lot of the stuff is just from my direct experience or from, you know, stories that people have told me. People love to talk there, they love to tell stories.”
Joe Scotese, another English teacher at Young, used Pasulka’s book as a part of his senior class curriculum this year. Sarah Kochanny, 18, read the book in Scotese’s class and said she thought the insights it gave into Polish culture were particularly interesting.
“I’m Polish and I didn’t even know anything about Poland,” Kochanny said. “So I was like, ‘Oh, it’s my culture and my heritage.’”
Kochanny said she thought Pasulka’s writing experience is a helpful asset to her as a learning tool.
“I think it’s a good experience,” Kochanny said. “Because I don’t think many teachers in this school have actually written books. It’s kind of like she knows a whole other process of actually going through writing the book and going through the whole editing process and such, so she could help students with their editing because she’s been there professionally.”
Pasulka said she didn’t initially set out to write a novel, but her writing soon took on a life of its own as the book slowly came together.
“It started out as a list of all these things that I didn’t want to forget about Poland,” she said. “I probably started that list in ’95, right after I came back. And then I started to write descriptions, and then I kept writing on the ’90s thread until 2000. And I went to grad school then and started writing stories about Russia for three years.”
Much of Pasulka’s writing is set in foreign locations, a fact she attributes to the amount of traveling she’s done and the idea that good stories can happen anywhere.
“I think that by changing all the details, you realize what stays the same,” she said. “And what stays the same are the basic elements of human character, and relationships and what’s important in people’s lives.”
She said she’s working on her next novel, to be set in Italy, although she was reluctant to give too much away.
“It involves butchering, soccer and Dante,” she said. “So that’s all I’m going to say about it right now.”