High school teacher’s book serves as tribute to Midwest

Justin Hamm

Justin Hamm

Justin Hamm has lived in the Midwest his whole life. He has strong feelings about the area he was raised in, so strong he wrote a book centered around it, “Illinois, My Apologies.”

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The poetry book from RockSaw Press is due to come out Feb. 1. It will be Hamm’s first published book. The first poem in the book, also the book’s title, reflects Hamm’s feelings about not noticing sooner the treasures his home truly offered. Hamm grew up in Bloomington, Ill., went to college in Carbondale, Ill., and now lives in Mexico with his wife, Mel, and their daughter, Abbey. He’s taught English Composition at North Callaway High School for four years.

Hamm said there are many similarities between Illinois and Missouri, like among most states in the Midwest. He said both are agricultural, inviting and the families have strong bonds.

“I think there’s a resilience to people who live in the Midwest,” Hamm said. “It’s apparent that people are tied to the land and that it matters.”

Hamm said he didn’t always appreciate these attributes when he was growing up, because he wasn’t the typical “ag kid.” He found himself asking when he was older, “How could I have not seen this?”

“Sometimes you ignore what’s there in trying to be so different,” he explains.

Hamm describes his book as a mixture of fiction, non-fiction and autobiography.

Brian Jobe, Hamm’s colleague who also teaches English at NCHS, read one of the early versions of “Illinois.” He said he could relate to many of the poems.

“I think it was a beautiful homage to growing up in the Midwest,” Jobe said.

Ericca Thornhill, Fulton, also teaches at NCHS and had the opportunity to read Hamm’s book. She said she “loved the imagery” portrayed in the poems.

“It played with my emotions,” she recalls. “It brought me into the situation, and I could feel what it was like to be him.”

It was always Hamm’s intent to have his work published. When his publisher sent him the first bound copy of his book two weeks ago, and he was finally able to hold it in his hands, he described it as “a great feeling.”

Growing up, Hamm said he was always jotting down poems and stories in a notebook. He always considered himself a writer.

“I think some people are just kind of born for it. You have to do it,” he says.

As some artists see the world in paintings, Hamm said he sees the world in poems.

“I don’t think I could separate myself from the poems.”

Molly Aureli, junior at NCHS, said she remembers Hamm spouting poems off the cuff for the school’s Creative Writing Club. Aureli is in Hamm’s English III class this year. She said she was impressed to hear he was having his poems published.

“I’m pretty much a fan, especially of the stuff he comes up with off the top of his head,” Aureli said.

Austin Govero, senior at NCHS, is in Hamm’s college composition class and has read Hamm’s title poem.

“It really said something about the character of his voice and his upbringing in the Midwest,” Govero said.

Govero is also in the Creative Writing Club and said he was excited to hear about his teacher having a book published.

“I thought it spoke volumes about his talents as a writer.”

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