Killingly High School teacher publishes biography

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Killingly - posted Mon., Jul. 1, 2013
Dick Martin at his desk at Killingly High School. Photos by D. Coffey.
Dick Martin at his desk at Killingly High School. Photos by D. Coffey.

Posters line Dick Martin's classroom walls at Killingly High School. They showcase some of the world's best known literature: "Beowulf," Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," "Macbeth." A student sitting in Martin's journalism or English class can look around and find homages to J.D. Salinger's “Catcher in the Rye,” Edgar Allan Poe's “The Tell Tale Heart,” Nathaniel Hawthorne's “The Scarlet Letter.” They can look over the white board for help remembering the meanings of alliteration and metaphor and hyperbole.

There are notes and memos taped to the front wall, end-of-year schedules, and messages written on the board, not all of them Martin's. There is the program from the Connecticut Young Writer's Competition in which one of Martin's students, Justin Martin – no relation - was one of the top 10 finalists. A reminder about The Redline, the student newspaper Martin and a cadre of students put out each month, is on the front board.

Martin is a teacher, but he's also a do-er and it shows. It shows itself in the 32-page Redline he helps the student publish. It shows in the student files that are kept on a side shelf, portfolios of the work his students have accomplished over the school year. The portfolios help each student see the progress they've made, Martin said. “They make big improvements,” he said. “Looking at them helps them see that.” It's in the writing journals he makes all of his students keep. They are always writing, he said.

Martin isn't one to expect his students to do things he wouldn't do himself. He's always writing, too. He writes features and columns for  Smithfield Magazine and The Observer, Rhode Island publications that cover the area he lives in. He's written for the Providence Journal and Providence College publications. For five years he was an associate editor of The Greyledge Review, a literary magazine that published poems and short stories.

“My job is to teach my students how to write,” he said. “I think it's easier to teach if you've been a writer.”

But Martin never intended to teach. In his junior year at the University of Rhode Island, he took some classes that changed his life. At the time he was majoring in psychology and minoring in English. “I had the three worst psych teachers in the world that year,” Martin said. “So I switched my major to English.” He wanted to write.

When he graduated, he decided to try teaching as a way to support himself. The first time he student-taught, the teacher left after 15 minutes. Martin didn't know what to make of it. After class, the teacher assured Martin that he had what it took to teach. “I can't tell you what it is you have, you just have it,” the man told him.

“I loved it,” Martin said. He has taught English since 1973. Since 2000 he has been at Killingly High School. “It was the best move I ever made,” he said.

In the summer of 2012, Martin finished his most important piece of writing to date. “Mae” is a biography about his mother, L. Mae Martin, who died in 2003 when she was 88 years old. It was a project Martin had wanted to complete for years, but duties and assignments got in the way. “Her death had a huge impact on me,” he said. “My kids realized it before I did. Writing the book helped. It was a catharsis for me.”

Martin traces the life of his mother from her early childhood to her death in 2003. He wrote the book based on family stories, his own experiences, and interviews he conducted with her. He read the diaries she kept. He learned that she had lost a young brother in an accident, and her young mother just one year later. “I was surprised that I never heard that story,” Martin said. “It hurt her to talk about it. You never forget tragedies.”

Selling the book to publishers wasn't so easy. “I got some awesome rejection letters,” he said laughing. So Martin self-published the book. It's available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Brown and Hopkins in Chepachet, Wright's Farm Restaurant in Burrillville, and Charming Treasures in Scituate also carry the book. One of the largest global publishers even carries it, according to Martin.

The book has taken on a whole new life for Martin. He's done readings and book signings. This summer he plans to market the book in Maine. When he ran into a student after he had finished the book, she told him, “You're keeping your mother alive.” It was a compliment he took to heart.

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