When Ric Klass closed his private equity firm in affluent Greenwich, Connecticut, to become a math teacher at an unnamed New York City school he refers to as Central Bronx High, he wanted to live the whole movie—the one in which an idealistic teacher triumphs over the odds to transform the dead-end lives of inner city kids. A week before he started teaching, he actually watched Blackboard Jungle; To Sir, With Love; and Stand and Deliver to pump himself up. And Klass did get his movie, but it wasn’t To Sir, With Love. It wasn’t even Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It was Armageddon.
Klass recounts his disheartening experiences with rueful, self-deprecatory humor—and an occasional mixed metaphor. (“In the air, I smell the beginning of a long series of bureaucratic obstacles to smooth sailing.”) His book, which takes the form of a diary, belongs to a popular and growing genre that also includes Brendan Halpin’s Losing My Faculties, Esmé Raji Codell’sEducating Esmé, and Elizabeth Gold’s Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity. All these books chronicle what happens when a novice, “full of hope and other misconceptions,” discovers the yawning gap between the heroic-teacher movie playing in his or her head and the grim realities of teaching in an understaffed, overcrowded, impoverished urban school.
In Klass’ case, his students aren’t the eager and grateful learners he expected; they’re belligerent, disruptive, and shockingly unprepared for high school. They don’t know how many inches are in a foot or how many days are in a year. Their ignorance frightens and infuriates Klass.
But he’s better at depicting the problems at CBHS—incompetent administrators, burned-out teachers, missing parents—than at devising solutions. He himself cuts and runs at the end of the school year. That’s not an option open to everyone, especially the students, who are crippled by neglect and mired in failure. What’s just an entertaining war story for readers is a real war for them.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Man Overboard