MEA member Jeff Kass was a mid-career English teacher when his take-home pay began going down each year. Amid rising costs of living, the Ann Arbor educator—like others—took on second and third jobs, including one year moonlighting as a pizza delivery driver.
With a former student serving as his manager, Kass worked a few shifts a week at a busy college town pizzeria that sometimes kept him up all night before heading back to Pioneer High School the next morning to teach sophomore English and creative writing all day.
That school year—2016-17—he was determined to make something more than pizza from the experience. “It taught me to believe what I tell my students: You can look at the world as a writer and everything around you can be a poem or a story,” Kass said.
The book that he produced from his delivery driver days contains both—narrative action and hip hop-styled verse. His collection of poems, Teacher/Pizza Guy, tells a rich story at once relatable, funny, poignant, and profound.
In January, the Library of Michigan named Teacher/Pizza Guy, published last year by Wayne State University Press, one of 20 Michigan Notable Books for 2020 featuring Michigan people, places and events. The Notable Books program shines a light on the state’s best writers.
“I want this to be a story that speaks for all teachers who are struggling, who feel like—‘I do good work all day. I help people. But for some reason the culture we’re in right now doesn’t think it’s important enough that I can go home and relax.’”
The heart of the book, according to Kass, is a piece about a touching late-night conversation between the teacher‑narrator mopping the floor and his former-student-turned-boss, “The Manager Talks About Getting Engaged,” in which “…we who close the store/ at 5 a.m./ must be our own fairy/ godmothers, our own/ Prince Charmings,/ there is no one else in this/ moment for us, no one/ thinking of us/ but us…”
The collection brings the reader along for his year of driving a beat-up car that smells of “hockey gear and garlic” through snow and fog and potholes to deliver warm pies to customers who mistreat, ignore, swindle, flash, and—occasionally—inspire him.
Other poems take the reader into the 65-year-old high school building where his third-floor classroom sits next to the boys’ restroom (“Against automatic hand dryers”); and where he connects with quirky kids at lunch (“Marty blows up”); confronts his own failures while trying to console a student (“Leonard says his poems got rejected from the youth literary magazine”); and grieves a student’s death by suicide (“Another school year, another email”).
At times, his two worlds mingle together.
In “Young man, take your headphones out,” teacher/pizza guy is making a delivery, pausing to let a song on the radio buoy his spirit, recalling a student reading his poem about how music is his stability in a life divided between divorced parents’ separate houses.
Being a writing teacher is exhausting, Kass says. “It’s the emotional investment that comes with allowing students to become vulnerable in their writing. It’s every day hearing a story of one kid’s drug problem or eating disorder or abusive relationship or parent in prison.
“It’s hard to look at your 25 16-year-olds and know what they’re all going through, but it is the richest part of the job—getting the real story and reaching the heart of the kid, not just whatever appearance they want to put on when they’re at school.”
A New York native, Kass taught a few years in California before marrying his wife Karen—also a writer—and settling in Ann Arbor when she took a job as a University of Michigan crew coach. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia.
He began working in sports journalism but turned to teaching in the hope of becoming “the English teacher I always wanted to have,” the type who brings in contemporary literature, and holds meaningful discussions, and asks students to write poetry and personal narratives in response to what they read.
That isn’t to say he doesn’t teach the five-paragraph essay, he said, “but I wanted students to write their own stories and to believe their stories matter.”
He gets emotional talking about having his daughter Sam in creative writing class during her last semester of high school—she’s now a freshman at Vassar College—and anticipating his freshman son Julius possibly taking his tenth-grade English class next year.
“I think my son sees me as his dad, as his sometimes baseball coach, but he doesn’t know what I’m like as a teacher, what I can make him think about in terms of the stories that we’re reading,” Kass said.
About 10 years ago—13 years into his career at Pioneer High School—Kass earned his Master of Fine Arts degree through a low-residency program at University of Southern Maine. He knew he needed to make time for his own writing in a way he hadn’t before.
“I feel like it inspires my students to know their teacher’s a published author, and when I get really incredible writers in my class, which I do, it inspires me to continue to grow as a writer,” he said. “That energy allows me to come into the classroom every day feeling like something interesting and new and exciting can happen.”
Kass is the founder of the Literary Arts Program at Ann Arbor’s teen center, The Neutral Zone, where he was program director for 20 years. He also is 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 no longer delivers pizzas but works a second job as a Lyft driver 4-5 nights per week while continuing to sift through his experiences for writing material. “Now I’ve learned the way for me to get through whatever is hard is to create art out of it,” he said.