Deirdre Mundy: Writer, Teacher, Poet, Mother

Interview by Ted Jou '99

Deirdre Mundy '95 majored in Classics at the University of Chicago after graduating from Blair twenty years ago, and her life took a circuitous path through writing, teaching, and motherhood.  She is now raising and homeschooling her six children while working as a freelance writer.  She has published short stories and poems for kids, blogged about baby food, teeth care, and ADHD, and she has written advertisements, technical manuals, and articles in e-textbooks for the CK12 Foundation.  She blogs at deirdremundy.blogspot.com and has self-published a few books that are available on Amazon; she is also working towards writing a YA novel.  Mundy took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for the Magnet Foundation.

You did a lot of different things in the first years after you graduated from college. Was it all part of a plan? What was your most interesting job early in your career?

I really didn't have a plan when I left college. I’d realized that academia wasn't for me, because I didn't want to wait a decade or more to get married and start a family. Most of the people who graduated with me are only just now getting tenured positions-- Academia is a long, difficult road, and I didn't think the sacrifices were worth it, especially since you don’t need a PhD to think, research, read, write, and argue.

So, after I graduated I went full time with the used bookstore I’d worked at all through college, and then switched over to their warehouse/wholesale division. That was my least glamorous job, but also my favorite, because I was working with other nerds and we had great conversations. Plus, some of my coworkers were really funny, so it was like living in a sitcom.

I went to work for [Indiana] University because I needed insurance, and I liked libraries. I intended to go back to school for a MAT degree, but then when I got married, the local Catholic school needed a teacher for their Math and Latin classes. I decided to see if I liked teaching before I spent money getting a degree.

The second time I taught, in Bloomington, the job just fell into my lap because the local Latin teacher was desperate to find a long term sub and I’d been auditing grad level classes at Indiana University on my lunch breaks.

My work at the College Arts and Humanities Institute was probably the most interesting. They were trying to get a new Institute off the ground, and I was the only employee other than the professor in charge. That meant I got to do a bit of everything. I helped organize speaker visits, which meant that I got to hang around with J.M. Coetzee when he came to campus. I planned events, made posters, worked on the website, wrote, researched grants...every day was different, and I always had something interesting to read or think about. I actually got that job because I turned in my graded BA paper as a writing sample. They were impressed with the writing, and even more impressed because it only earned a B-.

So, anyway, I've never had a plan. I try to learn everything I can and try everything I can. Then, inevitably, someone needs my bizarre combination of skills, and I end up with a new job.

How did your life change when you started having children? Did you transition from full-time to part-time/freelance work? How was that?

When my daughter was born, I left the workforce entirely for a few years. We’d just moved across the state, I wanted to nurse, and we could live under my husband’s income. (That’s a lot easier to do in the Midwest than on the coasts!) When I went back to work part time, it was because a professor in California needed someone to do research at our local library. The genealogist worked with my husband and knew I’d be a good match for her needs, so she passed my name on.

After I started writing, I started working more regularly. I actually only work about 8 hours a week, but I’m good at what I do, so I produce a lot. I've been gradually adding hours as the kids get older and need me less. By the time they’re all in high school, I’ll probably be working closer to full time.

What ages are your kids now? 

Anne is 11, Cecilia is 9, Ben is 7, Max is 5, Ada is 3 and Henry is 1. The two-year spacing is great because they’re far enough apart to make the babies easy, but close enough together that they enjoy each other’s company.

Why did you decide to homeschool?

My husband and I both experienced elementary school as a total waste of time. I remember spending long hours sitting and waiting for the class to catch up. Once, I got sent to the principal’s office because I dared to read in class. I was never really challenged in school until high school, and I never had to work really hard until college. I want my kids to learn to work hard from the start, and I want school to be challenging for them.

Teaching high school also made us more serious about homeschooling. We saw the damage that a few ‘intentional non-learners’ can do to everyone’s education. And we saw how many kids, even really bright kids, made it to high school unable to read well, write well, or do math. So, the main reason we decided to homeschool was academics.

As we've homeschooled, we've learned that there are other benefits. The kids finish school within a few hours, so they have more time to read, work on their own projects, or explore the town. We can take vacations at odd times of year and let the kids see landmarks when they’re fairly uncrowded. We can go to school year round so that they don’t forget things over the summer. We can adjust the curriculum to suit each kid’s needs.

We get to give them a lot of experiences they’d miss out on if they went to school - trips to museums and national parks, hands-on experiments, random opportunities that pop up during the school day.

Is it hard to teach kids at so many different ages? Is there anything you learned with an older child that helped you teach one of your younger ones?

Teaching the kids is pretty easy. My 11 and 9-year-olds are self-starters. I give them a list in the morning, answer any questions, and grade their work when they’re done. Really, they only need ‘teacher time’ for maybe 15 minutes a day. My 7-year-old needs more help because he’s not a strong reader yet. Still, he finishes all his work in under 45 minutes a day. Max is 5, but with cut-off dates he’s still technically preschool, so most of his ‘school’ happens organically through the day. Ada is the same way.

The biggest lesson I learned with Anne is not to rush the academics. I started trying to do ‘academic’ stuff with her at 3. She knew her letters and numbers and basic math facts, so she was ready for SCHOOL, right? Nope. We struggled. I backed off and tried again the next year, and the next. Finally, at 6, I tried again. This time, it was like magic. She learned to read in about a month, and by the end of first grade she was reading everything she could get her hands on.

So, school is a lot like potty training. You can start before the kid is ready and pull your hair out, or you can start at the right time and then they get it right away. One benefit of homeschooling is that the kids aren’t really on a set schedule for the earlier grades. As long as you read aloud a lot, they can wait to read until they WANT to read.

How do your kids inspire your work?

They inspire a lot of my freelancing because they keep needing things like speech therapy or braces or summer camp! :)

More seriously, many of my children’s stories started out as stories I told my kids. The poems come from the rhymes I create for them. My current fiction projects all started because a kid said “Mom, why aren't there any books about x?”

My kids also make my educational writing easier because I stumble across really fascinating stuff while I’m teaching them. Most of those things eventually end up in a blog or an article for CK12 at some point. Since we homeschool, we watch a lot of cool documentaries. When there’s a major event like the papal election or the Rosetta landing, we take the time to watch it together. If I didn't have the kids, I’d probably miss a lot of the incredible things happening in the world.

Is there anything you remember learning in high school that helps you today as a writer?

Well, since I write math books, all the math helps, obviously. Also, the things I learned in History of Science and Materials Science keep popping up in weird places. To be a good writer, you need to have an enormous store of background knowledge. The magnet had some really interesting courses.

Blair also gave me a good background in reading and understanding scientific papers. I usually need to do research using Pubmed at least once or twice a week. Because of Blair, I’m comfortable with that.

Blair is why I never run out of clients. Most writers are afraid of math and science. If you can understand STEM topics and can write clearly, you’re in demand.

Were there any teachers at Blair that were particularly influential?

Mr. Donaldson is my all-time favorite teacher. He expected me to work hard and was willing to call me out when I slacked off. He also passed on his love for the History of Science. When I suddenly found myself teaching Geometry in 2001, I still remembered everything he’d taught me back in the early 90s. He was a really good, thorough teacher, and the things he taught us really stuck. Plus, he was willing to answer bizarre questions like “How did they figure out the speed of light, anyway?” 

Ms. Bosse and Mr. Curran were two other teachers who really meant a lot to me. They loved their students and their subjects, and again, I still remember what they taught me. Well, except for the Kreb cycle. I don’t think I could produce that one from memory anymore!

Do you have any other memories from high school that you would like to share?

I think one of my favorite things about the Magnet was that it was a 'nerd preserve.' I was a quirky kid who arrived after years of getting beaten up and ostracized. I was an organizational disaster, a slacker, and a pain in the neck. Blair gave me the chance work hard in a place where I was just 'average.' That meant that the classes were always interesting. It also meant that I could have a normal teenage life. I had good friends - we spent hours after school playing cards, rollerblading, and just talking and being kids. The classes at Blair may have given me skills and knowledge, but I think the people there helped me become a functional adult.