Caroline Randall Williams has deep roots at MBA. After all she spent many of her formative year making friendships with the boys of the Hill, before leaving for prep school in the Northeast and later Harvard. For the Nashville native, whose mother co-taught with Mr. Gioia, coming to MBA has been like coming home. She joins an accomplished English department at MBA with a few achievements of her own; Ms. Williams is the published author of a collection of poems, Lucy Negro, Redux, and a cookbook, Soul Food Love. I recently sat down with Ms. Williams and had the opportunity to discuss her thoughts on MBA, writing, and coming home.
What is it like to return to Nashville?
It’s been amazing. Needless to say, the city has grown beyond recognition in some respects. I’m also grateful, though, for the ways in which it has not changed. I love the small live music venues, and running into old friends in restaurants, and picking up Donuts (these days for my students, not myself) at Donut Den. It is wonderful to a native in a city that is attracting so many visitors and finally getting the recognition that it deserves.
What factors brought you to MBA?
Coming to teach at MBA was, quite simply, an offer I could not refuse. I had the opportunity to speak to and workshop with the students this past April, and it was inspiring. I love the community here, and I was impressed with the willingness of the boys to leave their comfort zones and engage with poetry.
What kind of activities were you involved in in high school?
In high school, I acted, a lot, I was on the newspaper. I was the arch-editor of my high school newspaper. I rowed crew. I tried a bunch of other sports but that was the only one that I kept up with, and I was a member of the southern society at my boarding school in New Hampshire. I was an acolyte. Those are the primary ones that come to mind: acolyte, acting, crew.
I sat on this committee; we lost our headmaster and they asked me to be one of the students that was on the rector search committee to help find a new headmaster
Did you carry over those interests when you went to college at Harvard?
I kept up with writing definitely and I kept up with my southern nest to some degree. In college, I kept up with creative writing for sure. I kept up with southerness, sort of, and then I acted for a semester, but I didn’t keep it up as much as I think I would have liked to have. I thought about rowing crew in college, and then my alarm clock went off at five thirty the first week of school; I think it was on Thursday or Friday, and I was like, “Hmm, I’m not going to do that.”
I was a part of the literary magazine, the Harvard Advocate. I didn’t do the newspaper, which would be The Crimson, but I did really keep up with the Advocate and I loved that. I think those are my activities that primarily carried over.
What did you write about in college and in high school?
Both in college and high school I wrote a lot about what most young people write about which is themselves; I wrote a lot about me. Writing at that point was still very much a processing of emotions sort of act for me; I would write about what was going on in my life and how I was feeling about it, which now I strive to not do as much; I try to tell other peoples’ stories and make observations about the world around me, as opposed to just talking about myself in my writing, but in high school and college it was a lot of me, me, me, and my work, and, you know, things about boarding school things about college that were hard or interesting. I wrote a couple of short stories in college that I enjoyed that I’m proud of, but they were really exercises for what was going to come after more than anything else I think.
After high school and college did you continue to write?
My undergraduate thesis at Harvard was a collection of poems, which have not been published. A couple of them made it into my collection that is now out in the world as a book, but after college I moved to rural Mississippi to teach public school in the Mississippi Delta for two years, and while I was there, I kept writing some, and then I applied to graduate school at the university of Mississippi, so I got my MFA in creative writing. I wrote poetry for three years at Ole Miss, so I definitely kept up the writing after that. Then, I published a book, and I assort poems now and articles and things like that, essays.
What is the greatest difference teaching at MBA as compared to college?
Let’s start with the obvious answers--teaching five days a week, and teaching all boys! The more exciting difference, and one I didn’t expect, is how wildly prepared my students are. The work here is rigorous, and the quality of your education is profound. It makes for students who are unusually diligent and teachable. Also, I didn’t realize I would laugh so much!
Growing up in Nashville and attending USN, what was your view of MBA and has it changed since you’ve started teaching there?
I’ve always thought of MBA as a school that provides an education of the highest caliber. When I was in eighth grade, and applying to boarding school, I wished more than once that MBA could have been an option for me. Some of my best friends in the world attended this school. I think I would say that my opinion of it has not changed, but rather that my appreciation for it has deepened in the time that I’ve spent teaching here.
If you had to define to define yourself in two words, which would you choose?
Writer and educator, those would be my two because I love to teach that’s like a really important part my life and it always will be. I can’t imagine a world in which I wouldn’t always teach no matter what happened with my writing career.