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This is March 14, 1984. Mildred Taylor is interviewing Robin Brancato, author or many books for young adults, and her husband John Brancato of the Teaneck High School English Department. They live in a charming home on Churchill Road, formerly the residence of Harvey Scribner when he was superintendent of schools. Mrs. Brancato's book, BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, was the result of her concern about cults.
(Transcriber's note: There is absolutely no backup data with this at all, just a tape. Note is attached to tape indicating that beginning of tape is lost and to advance to about 108 and begin there)
(N) . . . for a long time including back to my young days in college and when I discovered that there were some young people in Teaneck who had been involved in the cults and whose parents were, had brought them out, it gave me courage to on and try to do a story by this because I thought maybe I could get to meet such people and then when it came to really getting serious about the book, I decided that I should pretend to join, that I wanted to join a cult myself. One that I should go away with even if it were for a short time so that over the course of a weekend, I did pretend that I wanted to join the Moonies and I went to the workshop in Westchester County, New York State, for about three days. It was a very unpleasant and nerve-wracking experience which is a really long story so I don't know whether I should try to get into.
(I) Did they really try to rope you in?
(N) Well, I was very well prepared for what I was getting into so I knew exactly what to expect and everything that I expected turned out to be true. I wasn't really afraid in any way. I think in that short amount of time, there was no real thing that could have any effect on me but most of the things I have heard about the this cult which I felt were potentially threatening seemed to be true from what little I saw and I was glad to leave. I had arranged ahead of time for John to come and pick me up so that I could, you know, having my own transportation meant that it wasn't really so risky. And my main feeling though when I got out of there was just this pent up hostility because I had pretended that I liked it when I really didn't like it at all. So that was my main emotion.
(I) You were an adult and mature. Suppose that had happened to a young, impressionable teenager.
(N) That's true although actually most people who become involved in cults, or at least in most cases I've read about, it is not so much a teenager as a young adult in his or her twenties or maybe even older. In the case where I was there for the weekend, it was mostly people of that age. It is often someone who drops out of college or is in some kind of transitional period in life. But in any case, if you don I t know what you are getting into, it is potentially threatening.
(I) Oh boy. I can imagine that. Tell about the movie they made of it.
(N) Well because my book came out about a month after the events in Jonestown, South America, the subject of cults was very and I think it was mainly for that reason that the rights to the book were sold to Time/Life who made a fi1m out of it. At that time, David Suskind was connected with Time/Life and they made a movie that was sold to CBS and it was on in 1980. It was rerun this summer and then recently it was on Hare Box Office so that I think the subject of cults continues to be of interest because some of them are still flourishing.
(I) Certainly is. Tell me, at the time of the Jones affair out in California set the people very much on the alert so, I'm sorry that I didn't get to see that. And how are things going at Teaneck High School?
JOHN: Teaneck is still thriving. Still a very exciting place to teach. It really is. We have a lot of alternatives for kids.
(I) Well that's good. Do they still have the same scholastic standing? Teaneck has always had a good high rating and I think it is carried on.
JOHN: Yes, they do.
(I) They have had a few problems like all high schools but I think
JOHN: Generally speaking, it is a real stable place all through the changes and the lower enrollment and offering students a great deal of alternatives. The high school had remained very strong.
(I) Well tell about the talent that you find in your work for the theater, with the shows they put on.
JOHN I used to direct, I mean I directed about twelve musicals for the high school and several straight plays but now also in my middle age, I do a little less of that.
(I) But don't you find that you have lots of talent up there?
JOHN Oh yes, a great deal of talent. Still some very good work is done in musical theater and also in the straight dramas each year. It is very strong.
(I) That's one thing about the integration in Teaneck that we've picked up a lot of excellent talent it seems to me in the way of music and dancing.
JOHN: Yeah. It is very rich. We also have in the last couple of years we had a Magnet School Grant, a grant for schools performing arts and that was in existence for about four years so that was a very rich thing in terms of
(I) How did that work?
JOHN: It worked very well. The students were able to take a variety of courses in all of the arts and in the writing arts too.
(I) Did they write same plays or write same shows?
JOHN: Yes. They did. They wrote shows and they had creative writing and dance and music and that lasted for four years.
(I) Well that's in addition to the creative writing that you teach in the regular high school.
JOHN: Yeah. This was totally out through the special school. I think they received a good deal of money, a grant from Washington, it is called Magnet School, an Arts Magnet School. But Teaneck has always been very innovative and had a lot of alternatives for students.
(I) Well Robin you said that you started writing, or you've been writing all your life. What did you do before you started writing books?
(N) Well I guess I would have to say that from the time I graduated from college.
(I) Where was that?
(N) University of Pennsylvania back in 1958 until 1975, I really had very little time to write mostly because I was either teaching or raising small children and it wasn't until my kids were about maybe seven and nine or something like that that I suddenly found a little bit of extra time for writing. Until that I had written very short things, poems, occasional short stories and then I was advised by somebody who was a novelist that I would have a better chance of getting a novel published than a short story so I was determined and in the summer of 1973 that I was going to try to write a novel and it turned out to be a novel for young people. I didn't even realize when I sat down that that's what I was doing but it turned out that the story that I had to sell was about a twelve year old girl growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania at the end of World War II and it was based msstly on things that happened to me when I was growing up in a similar place.
(I) Well how did you find time, how old are your children now?
(N) well they are now almost 20 and 21.
(I) I wouldn't believe it. You are so young looking.
(N) I am glad that is on record for all of Teaneck to know. Well the children, once they went to school, actually when I worked on the first novel, they went to summer camp for a month. And John was then supervisor of English in Teaneck and he was occupied most of the summer and I was home all alone for a month. I guess that was what I needed to get me going. Once I was under way, it was a little bit easier to find time and to work around people's schedules and things like that but it has been difficult but I always try to alternate writing with teaching so that most of my writing was done in the summers or else I took a year off from teaching or tried to, I really liked the idea of alternating back and forth because I think if I am writing for young people it is really very useful to be in the setting of school. For instance, right now I am teaching just to rev up my ideas and so forth and hope that it will help my writing.
JOHN' Writing for that audience, for young adults, the idea of teaching and being with people is very important.
(I) You get the current expressions. What they are talking about now and the slang that they use. You have to be current or you are dead I guess.
JOHN: And it is a sort of natural outgrowth. I mean it has been exciting for me to see Robin's books published. 1 mean maybe it is because I teach literature and then to see an idea become an outline and then have it materialize into a novel has been very, very exciting so
(I) You are very lucky to have such elegant publisher. Knopka, they don't just take anything.
(N) I am also lucky to have a husband who is a good editor because he reads the chapters as they come along out of the typewriter.
(I) That's wonderful. You have really a good helpmate there. But working at hare, did that interfere, I know how it is, I worked at hone, when the phone rings and all those things happen to you, do you set yourself up and
(N) Well, I got into good habits when I first worked it was over the summer where I was pretty much alone and ever since then, most of my friends work so that I wasn't in the habit of getting phone calls during the day or anything. Anyway, I made a practice of not going out to lunch or anything. Occasionally I'll break that rule now but in the early days, I was determined to finish.
JOHN: Robin is extremely disciplined. She doesn't have writer's glop. She sits at her desk all day.
(I) Well, that's what it takes to get it done. Although one year didn't you go to Italy?
JOHN: I had a Fulbright Grant in 1965 for two years. We lived, I was a guest lecturer at the University of Balogna and so we lived in Italy for two years. we rented our house in Teaneck to a Dutch family. We later became friends and it was a great experience because we were able to see a good deal of Europe while our children were young and the grant wasn't very much money but in Italy it went a lot farther than living here.
(I) Better than now.
JOHN: So we were able to take a vacation. We'd go to Paris and Vienna and see a lot of Europe in those two years.
(I) You lectured on English literature
JOHN: American literature in English. And at first it was, I didn't know Italian so there was no question that I had to teach in English but later on, when I knew Italian and I knew they weren't understanding, I could explain a little bit more in Italian. So that was a very great experience. And then later on we had, as a matter of fact one of the reasons that Robin was able to go back to teaching was that we had some Italian girls care to live with us when we got back because we had made some friends over there and that was very nice of them and also for us so that allowed Robin to go back to teaching.
(I) Well where did you teach?
(N) Where did I teach? Well I taught several places in New Jersey including Hackensack High School and that's where I am teaching again this semester returning to where I had been for many years. I was going to add one thing before about the rental of our house. The one thing we always found about Teaneck is that the houses are very rentable, not only did we rent it easily when we went to Europe to this Dutch family but we rented it in other cases to people who were coming and staying briefly in Teaneck and only finally sold that house, we became permanent close friends to the people we sold it to so that houses in Teaneck have really been lucky for us. This house also we've rented whenever we've gone someplace for an extended amount of time and have always made good connections with people who
(I) Do you rent it to a foreigner or
(N) Well in this particular house, we rented once to medical student, once to an Indian family.
(I) Do you leave all your books and everything?
JOHN: Everything. Just the way it is. We've always had very, very good luck.
(I) And you've had good luck. I know that there is this exchange of different between the countries of renting houses back and forth. Well that is nice to hear about Teaneck is a lovely place to live as you will all agree I think. There are some lovely hones. People have pride in their homes and take good care of them. So what are your plans now, John. What are you going to do for, how much longer are you going to stay at Teaneck High?
JOHN: Well, I have about seven more years before I can retire so I am trying to enjoy these last years and if opportunities come to do different things at the high school, as Robin said, I was English supervisor for a couple of years and then I went back to the classroom and now if something administrative comes up, I might try doing something different too. Teaching is very, very difficult. It is no more difficult than it ever was but it is very hard to constantly have the kind of energy and enthusiasm that you really need to do a good job.
(I) I know that from Jane and your days are, people think that teachers go from eight o'clock in the morning until three in the afternoon and well forget it, it's a 24 hour job almost because of grading the papers and reading all the things and conferences and so on with the children but a good teacher is always on call it seems to me.
JOHN: I enjoy the teaching. That's why I went back to it.
(I) Well you are going to have a change now when they have the four year high school.
JOHN: That shouldn't be any problem, really.
(I) You are used to junior high.
JOHN: Well I don't think I probably will teach the sane courses that I've taught for a while but there would be no problem to teach ninth graders either.
(I) You teach advanced English.
JOHN: I teach World Literature now but I've taught American Literature and we teach different things, you know. It is not really the subject that matters, it is the process really so whether the subject is World Literature or American Literature or British Literature doesn't matter very much.
(I) So you are starting now on your eighth book.
(N) Yes, I have about a fourth or a third of it finished and because I am teaching, I have very limited working time so that I'll probably get to it seriously in the summer.
(I) Were you teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson. I thought you were teaching
(N) Oh I did teach a course last semester at Fairleigh Dickinson but now I am at Hackensack High School this semester.
(I) What did you teach at Fairleigh?
(N) Well a graduate course that was called Teaching Culture through Literature which was really a kind of ethnic literature course for graduate students most of whom, some of whom were teaching English as a second language. It was an interesting experience. I think that Fairleigh Dickinson is using mostly full time people now so that there doesn't seem to be an opportunity for me to teach there next time.
(I) Well, you've lived in Teaneck for what, twenty years
(N) Twenty plus
JOHN: Twenty four
(I) Twenty four. Well tell me some of the things you like about Teaneck. We always like to hear the things we like about our town.
JOHN: Well I really think that Teaneck is very open place, very, very exciting, dynamic it really is. Aside from its real beauty, I mean the fact that Teaneck does not look like a typical suburban community where a lot of the houses are the same, it doesn't look development-like, there are some magnificent houses and sometimes on a block like this for instance, on Churchill Road, you have all kinds of, you know, there are very few houses that are exactly the same. Tremendous variety. This is a Dutch Colonial and next door is a Tudor and then you will find a Colonial one and a ranch. It's just a tremendous variety. And there is no section in Teaneck that isn't really in a beautifully kept area and this was always true. When I moved in and when I came to teach in 1960, it was very much the same. Very well kept even if the houses were more modest, they were very, very well kept and so that every section of Teaneck is still desirable and beautiful right now in 1984. And I think the houses were built, when Teaneck had its growth spurt, I suppose in the 20s and 30s, great attention to detail. Houses like this could not be built today. There were beautifu1 stone fronts.
(I) We couldn't reproduce. . and Teaneck has always had very strict building laws. I know the superintendent of, supervisor of buildings, when the developers would come in with their cookie-cutter houses, you can't put a whole row of houses that look just alike. What do you like about Teaneck?
(N) Well one thing is the proximity to the city. Every once in a while, John and I have a little moment of fantasy about moving into the city now that our children aren't hare as much and we don't get too serious about it because when we go into the city, it often takes us only twenty minutes and we are home again and we have a place to park our car. It doesn't cost us any money.
JOHN: We have birds chirping
(I) And flowers growing
JOHN: To get to be this close to the city and to have a kind of pastoral look. Teaneck still has that.
(I) It really does
JOHN: As you look out here and see my pond
(I) Isn't that something. The birds as you mentioned, just to see the birds and the snow and the pine trees, it's
JOHN: You can't believe you are that close to such a huge metropolitan city
(N) And another thing that we like is that it's always been possible to maintain your privacy if you want to and yet if you are looking for friendships, if you want to meet people you can. I like very much the mix of people who live in Teaneck now.
(I) I do too.
(N) And I feel good about the fact that there aren't that many towns in, even though there aren't that many towns in Bergen County where that can be said, that anybody is welcome, that it is true here.
(I) That's true
JOHN: Yeah, that's extraordinary. And I feel for instance that my children growing up in a place like Teaneck have a much broader perspective of the world as it really has to become. It is much smaller and their growing up in Teaneck really prepared them for a life in the latter part of the twentieth century.
(I) As children, you should get to know the different types of people, the different and their backgrounds and your lives are enriched really.
JOHN: That's really true and my boys have said that. You know, Chris goes to Brown University and he said that some of the kids are really from small towns in the midwest where they really didn't have a kind of cultural mix that they had coming from a place like Teaneck. My teaching in Teaneck is wonderful, you know, because it is like a United Nations. Every type and that's its richness. It really is.
(I) Now we have some children coming in from South America.
JOHN: South America, India, Pakistan
(I) And they don't have the language. How do you manage that?
JOHN: Well most of the
(I) When they get to high school, by that time. . .
JOHN: Yeah, that's right. There isn't too much of a language problem.
(I) I did some of the tutoring over in the elementary schools for the Spanish and the little children coming from South America but they are very, very quick to catch on, to learn it. Of course, children always learn language very easily.
JOHN: So I think that's a real strength of the town, that fact that it is a totally mixed community.
(I) I think that a strict legislations to keeping the city clean and the street sweeping and care of the parks and all of that is really, makes the place very pleasant to live in.
JOHN: And I suppose the idea of traditions, I mean, Teaneck is also very active community. In other words, the school system remains good because parents are really concerned and come out and really have something to say. They constantly, it's probably a tremendous burden to the Board of Education. Some towns are much easier to live with but
(I) A lot of teachers in my family and they don't always appreciate all that business from the parents but
JOHN: but that is a strength because that means that parents are on top of things.
(I) They are interested. They are concerned.
JOHN: It can seem like a nuisance but it really is a great, great strength. Don't you Robin?
(I) How do you feel? Do you have conferences at Hackensack High School?
(N) Yes but I'm only there for one semester, just this semester so that I can't really speak too well for the whole school system but I would say there is probably a greater parent involvement here than in Hackensack. I know our own kids, especially our older son who just happens to speak of it more often, feels that he was well prepared in Teaneck High School. Competitive courses in college and other former students who we have spoken to over the years all say the same. I can't remember me talking to a student who has found himself floundering in college. Usually they feel that they have had a good background.
JOHN: They are extremely well prepared.
(I) Do you think that is about enough? I'll sign off with a Thank You Very Much.
JOHN: Well thank you for taking the time to interview us. It is nice to say good things about Teaneck because they are all true. (END OF TAPE)
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