Friday, February 12, 2016

The Battle for Room 314, by Ed Boland

In Ed Boland, I have found a kindred spirit.  We don't have a lot in common except for this: we have both spent time in a battle zone, namely, an American public school.  For several years, Boland ran a non-profit whose aim was to identify gifted students who were, because of poverty, family, and other circumstances, stuck in bad public schools.  He helped them get scholarships to elite boarding schools and then, hopefully, to top universities.  The organization has an amazing success rate, with doctors, lawyers, and, significantly, educators among the program alumni.  But Ed wondered about the rest of the kids, not the small number who get these scholarships.  So he signed up to teach in a New York City public high school.  He writes about his year in the classroom in The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School.

One strength of Boland's book is his bringing the characters--and his students were certainly characters--to life.  Boland truly cared about them, and was committed to seeing them learn and succeed.  But an even greater strength of The Battle for Room 314 is the frankness and honesty with which he describes his nearly complete inability to teach, his frequent lapses of caring or even acting like he cared, and the hopelessness (in spite of the book's title) he felt during most of his teaching tenure.  (He definitely leans more toward despair.)  Like the rest of us who have taught or are interested in education, we have read countless books and seen countless inspiring movies about the dedicated teachers who turn around the impossibly tough class in the worst of circumstances.  Boland is honest enough to write that those endings are great for the "Hollywood heroes and the superhuman twenty-two-year-olds who are made of stronger stuff than I am.  My god, how I wished I were tougher, more reslient, more organized, harder working, and less in love with bourgeois pleasures, but I was not, am not."

Ed, I can relate!  My students were not inner-city New Yorkers, but I struggled through trying to teach emotionally disturbed elementary school students (not a week went by with a chair being thrown at me at least once) and poor hispanic and black middle schoolers.  I read all those books, too.  I wasn't out to be a hero, I just wanted to connect with the kids and teach them.  I wanted to be a role model for kids who didn't have a father.  I wanted to be Jesus in the classroom, loving the kids with unconditional love.  Alas, like Boland, I found that I was none of those things, at least not to the degree that I had hoped for.

I can so relate to Boland's lament: "I still wrestle with flashes of guilt, shame, and betrayal.  A white guy with a salvation complex is bad enough, but how about one who couldn't save anybody?  Every time I walk by a school or see a band of rowdy kids on the subway, these demons revisit me."  Bravo, Ed, for putting my feelings into words so well.  Like Boland, I started with the best of intentions, but like him quickly "began to loath my students, resenting everything about them that was their lot--their poverty, their ignorance, their arrogance.  Everything I was hoping, at first, to change."  As much as he didn't want to think it, he began to wonder, "Maybe most of these kids are too far gone, too hobbled by their life circumstances, for us to help very much."  Reflecting on his experience as a Yale admissions officer, he reflects that "I didn't like knowing that [a bright, motivated student's] fate was already pretty well sealed by his ethnic surname, his lousy zip code, and his mother's measly income."

The Battle for Room 314 is not what you'd call a breath of fresh air, or inspirational reading for new teachers.  But he fills an important niche: a realistic account of teaching in an extremely difficult setting with extremely difficult students.  He may not get invited to tell his story at the next back-to-school rally for teachers, but his story should be heard and read.  As he points out, schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s.  College acceptance and graduation rates have more to do with family income than intellectual gifts.  Kids from poor neighborhoods and families have little chance for success in the poor schools.

Boland concludes The Battle for Room 314 with some reasonable steps for change.  I'm not optimistic when it comes to schools like he and I taught at, but that, perhaps, is why I'm no longer in the classroom.  Like Boland, I do hope that innovative, reform-minded educators can make a difference in the lives of poor kids who struggle at school.  The future of the nation depends on it.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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