By Noel Ullom and Emily Wilson
In our interview, we decided to talk to Mr. Parsons about his time here, his favorite memories, and his hopes for the future in light of the major change coming into his life. During his years at HB, he has inspired countless students not only to write, but to truly believe in themselves and what they are capable of. His legacy at HB will always remain invaluable, both in the amazing programs he created here and in the spirits of writers (and really all students he’s reached) pursuing what they love with confidence. While we are incredibly saddened by the news of his leaving, we are also so excited for him to take this new path in life! We hope you enjoy our interview with Mr. Parsons.
Noel: First question – what has been one of your favorite memories here?
Emily: Lots to choose from, hopefully.
Noel: Yeah, you can take your time.
Mr. Parsons: Um… I don’t know, a lot. I think…
Emily: Or maybe your favorite thing to work on or contribute to?
Mr. Parsons: Here’s one! One good memory was Hanif’s first visit here, which was in 2016. It was right after the presidential election, which felt like a really tense time. But he just did this really beautiful… reading, and then, at the end, as he often does, he just had people come forward and sit with him on the stage as he read the final piece. And that felt really nice because… that was just awesome. It felt like, “Ok, things could be okay. We don’t have to be this divisive and, um, there’s still plenty of beauty in togetherness and everything. But I think that first time when he had everybody like gather around up on the stage and read his final piece was a really special, good memory.
Emily: So how has HB changed during the time you’ve been here, or how long have you been here, maybe, to start?
Mr. Parsons: Yeah. So this is, I think, my 11th year? And it’s… I mean it’s changed radically. I would say… um, I mean obviously like physically it’s changed…
Mr. Parsons: But I think the main, the really cool thing that has changed just has been like the student culture part. When I was in… a lot of the writing programming was designed, like it just sort of started in 2011-12 and then a lot in 2012-13 and then everything sort of was settled in around 2013-14. And, at that time, it was just built in response to what we sensed were the student needs at the time, which I can talk about for a second. And then now… none of those same things exist, right. So ideally, the writing stuff just morphs to meet the needs of the students at the time, and some of the value systems are the same, but when it first started, it was… people were really, really… I don’t like to use the word neurotic, that’s like shorthand, but people were very hesitant to put their work or themselves out there. To like share any work, to submit it to a publication or contest. It was like, sort of private and a lot of fear-based. So the goal was just to develop systems where people would be encouraged and comfortable sharing their work. And like now, that’s my favorite part of my job, is all day long just in a room where people are writing and sharing stuff and being encouraged by their peers. Um… so that part has changed significantly, and then the other part that’s changed, and this would seem funny to you maybe, but there was a senior in 2012 who wrote her college, one of her college essays, about… identifying as a feminist. And she was one of the few people who would just be like leading with that at the time. And so like, between 2012 and two thousand… probably 15 to 16, the shift forward in people’s views and acceptance and, um… it just moved forward like two full generations in terms of LGBTQ; race we’re still struggling with as the country is struggling with, but those things like shifted so dramatically. People in 2012, who graduated in 2012, wouldn’t have even recognized the culture just like a few years later, and that–that was cool. And that continues to evolve in really cool ways.
Emily: Was the student body itself very different, like in 2012 kind of versus… in 10 years?
Mr. Parsons: Yeah, and I don’t think… that’s what’s cool about it. Like any of the shifts in the school… um, you know, it’s not like an adult can come in and say like, “this is what type of community we are now.” That just has to evolve organically, and it’s things working together. It’s students pursuing their interests, but it’s, you know, if you have a school system that has pathways where students can discover themselves and then like do it in the context of community with other people, that just sort of builds. And so I think that’s one of the really healthy things about HB as an institution. Like there’s just a lot of programs and opportunities where students can just, kind of, be their real selves and discover.
Emily: Yeah, I was surprised—this is just a note—but when I came to HB in 9th grade, I was surprised when I would see my peers call themselves writers and artists. That’s not something that people really claimed at my old school, like, “I am a writer.” So I was really surprised when I came here and there were people, like with Retrospect and when the writers come and visit, that were claiming this as kind of a part of themselves. So, maybe that’s sort of the thing…
Mr. Parsons: That’s the thing! So, like, and that was—again, I don’t want to use the word neurotic, even though I just keep saying I don’t want to use it, I use it—but like, in that 2012-13 era, that would be a thing overtly, like “I am not a writer.” People did not want to claim that as a, as an identifier. So, that’s really cool to hear. Because that was the goal. Like, you know, this is who I am; this is what matters to me. And um… yeah, at that time, I used to just have this mantra all the time where I’d be like… you know, if you were to go into the auditorium and just say like, “Who here is a writer?” And like nobody would raise their hand. But then I’d just be like, “How many of you in this auditorium… write?” And like literally everybody, because you write for school or do whatever. And I’m like, the definition of a writer literally is just someone who writes. And so that was the whole thing, and then too was like using writing as a tool to reach toward other things, like if we both write, we can both say what we feel, we can accept each other, we can build community…. So that’s cool. That was like sort of the goal in those early years, was to get to a point where it would happen like that. So, that’s cool.
Noel: What is one thing you really hope you have taught students during your time here?
Mr. Parsons: I… I mean, I don’t really think I’m trying to… it’s just that they matter, and that their voice matters. That would be it.
Emily: Yeah. And then, what will you miss most about HB, going forward?
Mr. Parsons: Every–everything, like, I will miss the students, and… it’s just simple to say students and colleagues and (Prime students walk by) the little people walking by. But I mean that and just the community around writing that’s just so cool to participate in. That will be a void, you know, that I will miss big time. And just the community, you know, seeing things like on next Friday, when Hanif will be here; we’ll just be gathered, sharing space. That I’ll miss really bad. Yeah, this is like literally a dream, fantasy job.
Noel: What are you looking forward to most in the upcoming years?
Emily: A different side of the same coin.
Mr. Parsons: Yeah… I would say the main thing I’m looking forward to, and it’s not like, “Oh, I’m excited to do this,” but I think what I’m looking forward to is just digging into the work of helping colleagues and students recover from the last few years. Um… not like “look forward to” like, “Ooo it’s my birthday, I’m gonna get a present,” but just like, that’s the work that I feel like has to be done. And so… I would say, just trying to offer some healing to people.
Emily: Oh, that’s so nice. Um… and then, during your time at HB—kind of going back to the whole developing the writing community and everything—you’ve helped coach and guide many students with their writing. So, is there any advice you would want to share, before you leave, regarding writing and finding inspiration for writing, or just kind of like that whole process, with the community?
Mr. Parsons: Yeah… what would be… I would say like, just that caring is good. And this is what I like about… and you know, it’s weird, I’ll miss working with people on college essays. Because college essays are just like, you’re not writing it for a teacher, you’re not doing it for evaluation or grade. And everybody’s like writing about something that they care about and being led by their own interest. And I think that’s–that’s the key. It’s just like knowing… that you matter, that your voice matters, that you should use it, and it will make the world better, and that… which I always say like the main thing that keeps me…. I always think like, if given the choice between hope and cynicism, people should be hopeful. And one thing that keeps me hopeful is looking forward to living in the future that you guys create. So like, that–that’s a good thing. So, yeah. Learning is good; keep learning…. I don’t know, these sound like cliches; that wasn’t planned. But like I do think the whole part that like your voice matters and like it’s a better world when we get to hear it; that’s good.
Noel: Do you have any other advice to share, for example for upcoming or graduating seniors?
Emily: Or if you have any other advice to share, or if there’s a message you wanna leave with us?
Mr. Parsons: Yeah, um… I mean I feel like this is a thing I’ve been saying even to adult friends and colleagues lately-
(Sofia Dewey walks by)
Mr. Parsons: Did you know Sofia Dewey was in a movie at the Cleveland International Film Festival?
Emily: Wait really?
Noel: Whoa, no!
Mr. Parsons: THIS IS AN UNDERPUBLICIZED FACT, DEWEY!
Emily: We’ll include that in the article.
Mr. Parsons: People should know! Right? My advice is that you should know Sofia Dewey is an international film star. Um, but I think it’s important for people to know their value. You should know that when you go to college, right, and not be hesitant to speak. You should know that when you get a job offer, you should negotiate because you’re probably worth more than what somebody’s gonna initially offer to pay you. And the more you can know that yourself… I’m here to remind you when you need it but it works well when you internalize it and know that and know your value. Cuz it’s high. Yeah that would be one.
Emily: That’s good.
Noel: This is completely random, but do you have any funny or cute story about your cats you would like to share?
Mr. Parsons: I’m like obsessed with my cats now, it’s bad. I just, a funny story about my cats… I mean I told you it’s just weird that they won’t go in a cat bed, even though they’re both obsessed with comfort. Or play with cat toys. But I don’t know, I just love my cats. The one cat comes and sits beside me every time that I go sit in the chair and just purrs and then the other one falls asleep on either my chest or my spouse’s chest every night. So those aren’t funny stories but they’re nice.
Mr. Parsons: I mean, this is a life thing; I was like anti-cat my whole life.
Noel: I remember, yeah.
Mr. Parsons: Even if you’re old like me, you can still be open to change… OR to discovering things about yourself; I like to think I didn’t change into a cat person, but that my inner truth was revealed by these cats.
Emily: What was the story behind the shift? Like when you got your first cat?
Mr. Parsons: Well we went… I got suckered into… Members of my household were wanting a new pet. And I was just done having pets, I didn’t want the mess, I didn’t want the heartache of losing a pet again. But anyhow, it was during COVID, they reopened the cat café, but they would only take a small number of people, like four people. And one night there were only two tickets available, so my spouse got a ticket for me and my daughter who wants a cat to go there. And I was like “fine, I’ll go, but I don’t want a cat.” And I walked into the cat café and it’s crazy town in there. There’s like cats all over the place, running, playing… I thought they were fighting but it turns out they were just playing. Anyhow, I got totally overwhelmed. I was like, “Cameryn, you can go check out the cats, I’m going to the back of this room and just sit down.” And I sit down on the floor, and then this little gray cat came out from under the chair and started rubbing against the chair and purrin’ and I was like-
(Sofia Dewey walks by again)
Mr. Parsons: There she goes! Film star!
Sofia: If we wanna do this, my actual film is on cleveland.com’s YouTube. Search up Letters to Emily Cleveland.
Mr. Parsons: Oh okay. Okay! I will check that out! Right, and I’m gonna guess when I go look up this film it’ll be better even than the one I saw in which, really, it was just about Sofia Dewey stealin’ the show.
Sofia: No, it was like 30 degrees when we filmed that day… and I was in a skirt. Because men don’t care.
Mr. Parsons: That’s another piece of advice I would share. Don’t be limited by them. Anyhow, so, I fell in love with that cat immediately and when we got home I was like “we have to adopt it.” And then we called to ask about it and they were like “okay great, you don’t have to take the other cat but she has lived with this other cat for her entire life.” So I was like “we can’t separate these cats.” And we took both. The other is a little harder to love… he’s very lovable and very loving he just has something of a difficult personality. So that’s how I ended up with two ten year old cats.
Noel and Emily: Awww!
Emily: Where is that cat café?
Mr. Parsons: Tremont. I think there are other ones, but Tremont. And they have like a um, cat cam, so you can go home and watch the cats.
(After some research, here is the link to said cat cam)
Mr. Parsons: Yeah. There’s a coffee place when you walk in and then there’s the door and you can just go in and play with cats. I highly recommend.
Emily: Everyone will adopt those cats now.
Noel: Any last final message? Those are all our formal questions.
Mr. Parsons: I think that’s all my main stuff… come to Hanif on Friday.
Mr. Parsons: The last… it’s weird, it’s the last visiting writer. It’s so strange to be leaving all this behind, I don’t know.
Emily: I mean, you’ve brought so many of them to HB.
Mr. Parsons: Yeah. And it’s just been like… a big sorta family. You know, that’s the other thing I’ll miss, the dynamic between… I love seeing new writers react to the students here. Did you see Meghan O’Gieblyn? The artificial intelligence person? She was here.
Emily: Yeah, that was great.
Noel: She was cool.
Mr. Parsons: We were just walkin’ out, and she was like, “Your students are smart. Like just wow.” I told her she should publish that thing that she read, you know? But she just does it as a talk. But I was like, I just wish she would publish that so I could have a copy and read off it, but… Almost all the writers, I mean, 99 out of 100 writers that we bring in here don’t speak in high schools. You know, they only ever speak on tour or at colleges. But you guys, as a student body, have such a good reputation even amongst prominent national literary agents. They’ll reach out and I’ll talk to the agent or ask her to reach out to somebody – or I’ll just reach out, it depends on the writer – but this agent’ll be like, “Trust me you need to go to this school.” You know. And there was a writer a handful of years ago who… she would no longer even speak at colleges. She was like “don’t bring me invitations from a school.” Her name was Anchee Min. She grew up in the cultural revolution in China; labor camps, just the whole horrifying experience. And this agent was like, “Trust we you need to go to this school.” And, I mean, the reception she got… and I miss having the whole school together in the auditorium. Doing things. But she got the most… the audience was riveted then and they just gave her such an incredible energy and standing ovation at the end and she was just blown away. I just like that. And even with Meghan O’Gieblyn when she was leaving and we were walking out together to get a coffee for… Why were we- why is there a gap there? Doesn’t matter. Anyhow! So she was like “I was reading through this talk last night wondering if I should adapt it a little bit to a highschool audience and I was worried about it because I didn’t, but man I like clearly didn’t need to.” She was blown away by how… and the questions that people asked? Just, all that stuff. Yeah, I don’t know, it hasn’t even sunk into me. It’s gonna be sad to leave.
Emily: Do you think that’s something you wanna grow at your next school?
Mr. Parsons: Yeah, but I don’t know what that means necessarily. Because you can’t go into a new place and be like “here, do these things I did.” But yeah, I think that’s part of the goal.
Emily: Like the culture thing?
Mr. Parsons: Yeah, the culture thing, sure. And Hanif’s become a really good friend to me. And he lives 5 minutes from the school. So he’s like “on one of my main jogging routes, I just go by the school.” So that will help… Why am I talking about that though? Oh, yeah, so that’s just, yeah. Because those are just my values. Community matters, I mean, authenticity. Like, I’m just a little bit obsessive about them.
Emily: I think that’s all we had. Thank you so much!
Noel: Thank you so much!
Mr. Parsons: Yeah, I’ll miss you guys. You can stay in touch. I’ll be wanting to hear about how you’re doing next year. For sure.
Noel: Thank you so much again.
Mr. Parsons: Absolutely.