Ed Boland begins his account with a quotation from Yankee educational reformer Horace Mann: “Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” This is a dangerous half-truth. Born in 1796, Mann was not far removed from the hereditary class distinctions of old Europe. He may have meant no more than that education can compensate the naturally gifted for not having been born into hereditary privilege.
But modest field-leveling does not begin to satisfy the ambitions of today’s egalitarians. They look to education as a force capable of compensating children for a lack of natural gifts. Like the rest of the American education establishment, Mr. Boland seems not to have grasped this distinction.
The author is an openly homosexual, lapsed Catholic from a family that dedicated its Thanksgiving nights to working in a homeless shelter: “try as we might, we couldn’t scrape the do-gooder scent off of ourselves, and we each ended up in some version of a helping profession.” For a number of years he worked for Project Advance, a charity that:
finds the most promising minority kids from disadvantaged New York neighborhoods and prepares them to excel alongside the children of the ruling class at New York private schools and New England boarding schools.The key to the success of Project Advance is its extreme selectivity; just 200 children are chosen each year out of the 1.1 million enrolled in New York City schools. They are then put through a 14-month academic boot camp before going to school with the “children of the ruling class.”
Mr. Boland was troubled by “a nagging feeling that the program, worthy as it was, just wasn’t reaching enough kids or the ones who needed the most help.” So he left Project Advance for a job in a New York City public school, at a pay cut of $80,000 a year.
Walking past the metal detectors on the first day, the author heard angry voices and hurried to see what was the matter. It turned out to be a fierce shouting match between two adult faculty members. One of them was the “master teacher” from whom the author was to learn his trade.
When Mr. Boland first stepped into a ninth grade classroom as an assistant teacher, the racial structure was obvious: “Black kids to the left, Latinos to the right, a trio of Asians near the radiator.” There were no whites; indeed, the only white among 800 ninth graders was the son of East European diplomats who were “probably clueless about the school’s violent reputation.” New York schools are said to be the most racially segregated in the nation.
The author began by eavesdropping on student conversation: “Man, those phone sex lines are a whole lot of bullshit. I’m looking for free tail and they full of hookers.” On the other side of the room, an obviously homosexual “Latino Liberace” was leading a trio of Dominican girls in “withering group assessments of the boys’ physiques. ‘Yes, girl, he do have booty, but, let’s see, is he packin’ up front? Don’t think so!’ ”
The teacher announces, “Today we start World War II,” and is immediately interrupted: “Hey, Mister, I heard Hitler was a faggot.” “Yeah. I heard he was a Jew.” “One ball in his sack, that’s all that bad boy had was one mother-fuckin’ ball,” says the Latino Liberace. “Eww, gross,” squeals a pair of girls in unison. The lesson goes downhill from there.
The author eventually gets his own ninth grade classroom–presumably Room 314–with students ranging in age from 13 to 17 (including some third-timers), and in height from 4’ 10” to 6’ 3”, and of every color except white. On the first day, their assignment was to read and discuss the school rules: “no electronics in sight or in use, no hats, no sunglasses, no gang gear, no inappropriate language, no fighting,” etc:
I noticed a couple of distracting flashes of red at the door. Then there was a dull thud, followed by a crash. Near the door he had just kicked open stood one Kameron Shields in pure renegade glory, a one-man violation of every possible rule. Above the neck alone, he was flaunting four violations: He wore sunglasses and a baseball cap over a red bandana over iPod headphones. A silver flip phone was clipped to his baggy jeans. Everything he wore was cherry red–the hallmark color of the Bloods. He turned his grinning face to the ceiling and howled “WASS … UP… NIGGAS?”
“Well, Nemesis, you can’t just walk in here and disrupt the class like that.”
“I can’t? Well it looks like I just did, don’t it?” He had me there.The author later learned that Kameron “Nemesis” Shields had thrown an electric pencil sharpener at a teacher’s head the previous year–an expellable offense, but the penalty was never applied.
One day the principal stopped by the author’s class to ask how things were going, and Mr. Boland casually mentioned that Kameron Shields had threatened to blow up the school. This shocked the principal, but Mr. Boland tried to reassure her: “He was only joking. He’s actually done far worse than that. He threatened to mow down Porter with an Uzi on the first day of school. I don’t think he meant that either.”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “After Columbine and 9/11, there are federal laws about this. I am mandated to report this way, way up the chain.”
And so the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, DC, was called in to make a formal assessment of the security threat posed by Kameron Shields. Cops showed up at the school, and the boy was packed off for two months to a “suspension center” in the Bronx. Efforts to prevent his return proved unsuccessful, but a couple of weeks later, a hammer with a concealed double switchblade fell out of his pocket. This time, he was gone for good.
The girls were not much better. By seventh grade, many had several tattoos and wore T-shirts with messages like “Gold Digger,” “Hot Mama,” or “I’m Not Easy But We Can Negotiate.” The author starts off The Battle for Room 314 with a vignette from his fifth day on the job, as he struggles to get a girl named Chantay to focus on her work:
Chantay continued holding court with a group of her “gurlz,” their chatter getting louder by the minute. The geography worksheets they were supposed to be completing were left untouched in a pile. I resorted to some old-school yelling: “Chantay, sit in your seat and get to work. Now!”The class erupted with wild laughter: “Man, he can’t even control the girls.” Given that physical discipline is no longer permitted, though, what is a teacher supposed to do? “If I were to go apeshit, it would show that she’d really got to me. If I underreacted, I would appear passive and invite even more trouble.” These are situations for which teachers cannot be prepared.
Crack! On the other side of the room, someone had hurled a calculator at the blackboard. Two girls swayed in unison and mouthed lyrics while sharing the earphones of a strictly forbidden iPod. Another girl was splayed over her desk reading Thug Luv 2 as if she were on a cruise.
I heard Chantay’s distinctive cackle again and turned back to her. She was now standing on top of her desk, towering above me. “Chantay, sit down immediately, or there will be serious consequences,” I barked. She looked me right in the eye and screamed: “SUCK MY DICK, MISTER.”
Once, when Mr. Boland got on the phone to call security to have a disruptive student removed from class, he listened to the ring tone for a full minute before a voice from the back of the room set him straight: “You crazy? They ain’t draggin’ their black asses up here. Think they got room service here, mister?”
The author once asked a colleague about a particularly surly girl named Yvette. The teacher told him:
In the seventh grade, the kids were spreading rumors that Yvette was a slut. Then they started calling her a hooker. We tried to stop the harassment. One day in class I intercepted a note. It said, “Yvette blows old guys for a dollar each at the bottom of the Manhattan Bridge.”The writer of the note was punished–the author does not specify how–for spreading such outlandish stories about a classmate. Then, not long afterwards, Child Protective Services contacted the school. The note was accurate–right down to the dollar.
Sometimes parents are called in to provide the discipline teachers cannot, and occasionally it works. But many parents are of no use: They work several jobs and are never at home, or are petty criminals themselves. The author writes of appealing for backup to the father of one Jesús Alvarez. The father comes for an after-school meeting and launches right into his son:
Jesús, this is a good school. People here like Mr. Boland care about you. If they toss you out of here–and it looks like they might–you gonna end up in a place like Washington High. You’d be begging the cops to take you home in the back of a patrol car from there. It would take you about a week before you’d get a buck fifty in your face [street slang for one hundred fifty stitches from a razor attack]. You get yourself right, get an education, and show this man some respect. Go stand in the hall.Turning to the teacher, the father declares: “I’m sorry about all this. If he gives you any more lip, call me, pronto.” For once, the author felt he had scored a small victory.
He enjoyed a one-week reprieve before Jesús “came out swinging again, seemingly worse than before.” Calls to the father led only to a return message or two promising action that never materialized.
A few weeks later, a gang fight broke out after school. The author dialed 911 and began scanning the crowd. He spotted Jesús’s brother, then Jesús himself.
Searching for more faces of my students, I came across a slightly older man in a denim jacket in the middle of the crowd. He seemed out of place among the kids. As the fight escalated, he jeered and pumped his forearm, shouting, “That’s it, Nelson, show that punk-ass bitch who’s boss. Whale his ass.”Suddenly it dawns on him: It is Jesús’s father.
The police never showed up. As a colleague explained the next day:
There were no weapons. They’re not going to bother with that shit. And you know what? As crazy as it sounds to us, that father may be trying to teach his son to survive in a hostile environment the only way he knows how. It’s easy for us to say “violence isn’t the answer,” because for us it’s not, but that isn’t an option for a lot of kids outside these walls.In January, the author’s class got a new student: a 16-year-old boy named Freddy. He had not met the requirements for passing his seventh grade Special Ed class, but was promoted because he was getting too big for the desks. Freddy’s family consisted of
a father who was nowhere in sight; a mother in the Bronx projects with serious diabetes; and an older brother, a gangbanger, who was imprisoned on Riker’s Island for running a drug ring. Freddy had joined the family business and been arrested for dealing himself. The family’s housing situation was in serious jeopardy because of laws designed to evict convicted drug dealers from public housing. He was the sole breadwinner.When the author asked his class to welcome Freddy, a voice from the back of the room was heard muttering: “Yeah. Be nice to that hairy criminal or he will fuck you up.”
Freddy did no work, but did not seem to cause trouble either: he would politely take his worksheet at the beginning of class, stare into space for an hour, and hand the blank sheet back at the end without even his name written on it. Then, one day:
Freddy’s cell phone spit out a loud, jarring, hip-hop ringtone in my class, and, adding to that already serious offense, he pulled the phone out of his baggy jeans and answered it. I charged toward his desk…. “Mister, please let me take this. It’s my brother calling from Rikers. It’s the only call he gets this month.” This bit of information turned the head of every kid within earshot. They were eager to see what I would do. I pulled Freddy into the hallway.Remembering some advice to the effect that building trust with students was more important than following the rules, but not wanting to set a bad example for the other kids, the author took a gamble:
“Look, Freddy: I am not giving you permission to talk on your cell phone. But I am giving you permission to go into that stairwell for five minutes and do what you need to do.” His face surged with surprise: “Thank you, mister.” I charged back into class and tried to play tough to the crowd. “Freddy is on his way to the principal’s office. Does anyone else have a pressing call they need to take?”When he returned to class, Freddy was so grateful that he filled out his worksheet for the first time–albeit with wrong answers. Once again, the author felt a small sense of personal triumph.
But Freddy never came back to school. The following month, during a faculty meeting, a social worker came in to explain that Freddy had been making calls at school for his brother’s drug ring.
Mr. Boland writes of a small effort to improve working conditions. Many of his colleagues faced the same problems he did, and one day they developed a plan:
If we all agreed to teach one more period every day, we could significantly decrease the size of each class from about thirty-two to twenty-five. Smaller groups would be easier to manage. We could split up some of the cliques that are giving us the most trouble. More learning would get done.The plan was nipped in the bud by the teachers union, for fear that if teachers were willing to work more without increased compensation it would be held against them at the next round of negotiations. “But we are electing to do this,” fumed one teacher; “it’s an idea from teachers, not a demand from management,” cried another. The union would not budge.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of these horror stories is that they make it so hard to educate smarter or better-disciplined pupils–and yes, they do exist. The author’s class even included a 14-year-old Jamaican prodigy interested in such questions as the reasons for the demise of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization and Sweden’s unusual suitability for socialism. The author designed a separate curriculum for the boy, but was not able to give him the attention he deserved.
Mr. Boland did not last long as a public school teacher. Shortly before the end of the year, a former colleague from Project Advance invited him to lunch and asked him to take his old job back. He turned down the offer, saying, “I can’t just quit because it’s hard and I’m struggling.”
Later, a veteran teacher named Monica asked Mr. Boland to help administer one of New York’s famous Regents Exams. The test, for 10th graders, covered two years of instruction in world history, “from Plato to NATO.” Mr. Boland noticed that some of the students spent the exam period gazing into space. Most left as soon as permitted. One boy stayed an hour later than everyone else and then handed in a single sentence: “Hitler was a bad man and hurt the good men in Englan n USA.”
As Monica tallied up the class average score of 54—the minimum passing grade is 65—she broke down sobbing. The author was stunned, and found it hard to comfort her: “This is what she had to show for two years of work?” he wondered. When he left school that day, Mr. Boland called Project Advance to ask if his old job was still available: “I dialed quickly, fearing I would change my mind.” The job was still there, and he took it.
What is to be done with students of the kind who increasingly fill our public schools? Mr. Boland proposes reforms in what is easily the weakest part of the book. His very first suggestion is more racial integration. I can sympathize with any New York teacher wanting more white children in his class, but it is stunning to find integration being touted in 2016, 62 years after Brown v. Board of Education, as if it were a hot new idea. The author clearly needs to read Raymond Wolters.
Even more eye-rolling is his final recommendation, printed in full capitals:
END POVERTY, THE ROOT OF EDUCATIONAL FAILURE.The author claims to have studied the work of education reformers “from the left, right, and center politically,” but none appears to have the slightest doubt about the poverty thesis. Mr. Boland seems never to have encountered the idea that ability might be largely heritable. The Battle for Room 314 is a valuable report from the trenches of public schooling, but readers will have to look elsewhere for realistic thinking about reform.