As an English teacher with 30 years’ experience in a high school classroom, I had an intense personal reaction to the tragic death of Jonathan Levin, the New York City teacher who was murdered in his apartment, apparently at the hand of one of his students. I can admire his dedication and sheer decency in reaching out beyond the school into the private lives of his students. But for me, for all his nobility, he was more than a little ingenuous.
In one respect, Levin can be seen as a victim of a hangover from the ‘60s, the vision of the teacher as a Super Social Worker, a missionary of the Enlightenment. Back then, when I was starting out myself, I read one popular memoir after another about the travails of the new teacher. After a while, the story seemed to harden into a well-worn literary convention. It was all too predictable. Just out of college, the young teacher goes to work in a ghetto school. At first, he tries to go by the book, but the kids are hostile, the administrators are blindly authoritarian, and the other teachers are defeated cynics or bigots. All this frustrates the young idealist, and he is a dismal failure--that is, until he decides to break out on his own, to be imaginative and innovative. The kids write moving essays opening windows on the heartache of their lives, finally providing the teacher with the key to reaching them “where they’re at.”
The books usually had a bittersweet ending, with the too-innovative and too-caring newcomer driven out by the wicked “system” and the kids lamenting their future in school with Mr. Bigot and Ms. Cynic.
But invariably the young teacher made his point. Through compassion and the sheer force of will, he overcame the ill effects of poverty, racism, and the military-industrial complex. Others could do the same, the memoirs suggested. Teacher failure was a failure of individual will.
I never bought into that idea, though. A good school, of course, could do a great deal, but I also believed that social ills made a profound difference in people’s character, often an immutable difference.
This came up regularly back then in classroom discussions of certain books. In A Tale of Two Cities, for example, Dickens makes a powerful plea for social reform. But one of his main arguments is that injustice has made monsters of some of its victims. Nothing can change Madame Defarge’s lust for revenge. She and others like her are beyond pity or humanity. Not every problem, Dickens suggests, has a solution or every pathology a cure. That was and is a distressing idea to those of us who cheered the War on Poverty.
Every class of every school day demonstrated for me the limitations of my will in just doing a minimally competent job of teaching English. My early career made me far too humble to have any ambitions of profoundly changing my students’ lives. I would have been content with a clearly and correctly written essay or a thoughtful, reasoned response to one of my reading assignments.
Also, the classroom drained too much of my energy. It was often a struggle--particularly when I had to moonlight on a second job to make ends meet--to save something of myself for my wife and family. Television might have made it seem amusing when Vinnie Barbarino and the other Sweathogs rose up out of the night outside Mr. and Mrs. Kotter’s bedroom window, but that would have been an unspeakable violation to me. I never felt guilty about keeping a wall between my professional and private lives.
The truth is that I often felt that such a wall was a matter of personal safety. The first essay I ever published was about an incident during my tenure as dean of boys at a high school in Bayside, New York. A boy had been found with a knife that he had brought to school for “protection.” I was deeply moved and disturbed by the difference between his world of imminent violence and the innocence of my own life.
In the essay, noting my reflections as I locked up the knife at the end of the school day, I wrote: “Nothing had happened, at least today, to convince me that the poor boy’s demons were real or part of my world. I was thankful for that.”
The words “at least today” made clear that the essay was really about me and the lesson I learned that day about the fragility of my own security and the necessity of maintaining boundaries.
With 20-20 hindsight, many of us must wish that Jonathan Levin had learned that lesson.
A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 1989 edition of Education Week