My Year of Terror and Abuse Teaching at a NYC High School

Maureen Callahan, New York Post, January 17, 2016

In 2008, Ed Boland, a well-off New Yorker who had spent 20 years as an executive at a nonprofit, had a midlife epiphany: He should leave his white-glove world, the galas at the Waldorf and drinks at the Yale Club, and go work with the city’s neediest children.

The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School” (Grand Central Publishing) is Boland’s memoir of his brief, harrowing tenure as a public school teacher, and it’s riveting.

There’s nothing dry or academic here. It’s tragedy and farce, an economic and societal indictment of a system that seems broken beyond repair.

The book is certain to be controversial. There’s something dilettante-ish, if not cynical, about a well-off, middle-aged white man stepping ever so briefly into this maelstrom of poverty, abuse, homelessness and violence and emerging with a book deal.

What Boland has to share, however, makes his motives irrelevant.

Names and identifying details have been changed, but the school Boland calls Union Street is, according to clues and public records, the Henry Street School of International Studies on the Lower East Side. [Editor’s Note: The school is 54 percent Hispanic, 29 percent black, 14 percent Asian, and 2 percent white.]

Boland opens the book with a typical morning in freshman history class.

A teenage girl named Chantay sits on top of her desk, thong peeking out of her pants, leading a ringside gossip session. Work sheets have been distributed and ignored.

“Chantay, sit in your seat and get to work–now!” Boland says.

A calculator goes flying across the room, smashing into the blackboard. Two boys begin physically fighting over a computer. Two girls share an iPod, singing along. Another girl is immersed in a book called “Thug Life 2.”

Chantay is the one who aggravates Boland the most. If he can get control of her, he thinks, he can get control of the class.

“Chantay,” he says, louder, “sit down immediately, or there will be serious consequences.”

The classroom freezes. Then, as Boland writes, “she laughed and cocked her head up at the ceiling. Then she slid her hand down the outside of her jeans to her upper thigh, formed a long cylinder between her thumb and forefinger, and shook it . . . She looked me right in the eye and screamed, ‘SUCK MY F–KIN’ D–K, MISTER.’ ”

It was Boland’s first week.

At the time, Boland’s new school was considered a bold experiment–not a charter but an “autonomous” one, given freedom in both management and curriculum. It was endowed in part by the Gates Foundation, and the principal hired only teachers who had once lived abroad.

Boland had taught English in China. This was his favored school–advertised as the last, best hope for kids who had fallen far behind–and he was thrilled to be hired. He went home to his then-boyfriend (now-husband) and celebrated over takeout pad Thai and an expensive bottle of red wine.

“I was ready to change lives as a teacher,” he writes.

How wrong he was.

There were 30 kids in his ninth-grade class, some as old as 17. One student, Jamal, was living in a homeless shelter with his mother; most of the other students lived in public housing. There was one white kid in the whole school.

{snip}

Two weeks in and Boland was crying in the bathroom. Kids were tossing $110 textbooks out the window. They overturned desks and stormed out of classrooms. There were seventh-grade girls with tattoos and T-shirts that read, “I’m Not Easy But We Can Negotiate.” {snip}

{snip}

Here among the kids who couldn’t name continents or oceans, who scrawled, “Mr. Boland is a f*****t” on chalkboards, who listed porn among their hobbies, were a few who had a shot.

There was Nee-cole, who wore thick glasses and pigtails. She was quiet, smart, much more childlike than her peers, and Boland felt for her. He was also intrigued by a tough girl named Yvette, who showed flashes of insight and intelligence yet did all she could to hide it. “PLEASE DON’T TELL ANYONE I WROTE THIS,” she scrawled on one report.

{snip}

Boland came to actively loathe most of the student body. He ­resented “their poverty, their ­ignorance, their arrogance. ­Everything I was hoping, at first, to change.”

{snip}

A lifelong liberal, Boland began to feel uncomfortable with his thinking. “We can’t just explain away someone’s horrible behavior because they have had a tough ­upbringing,” he argued back. “It doesn’t do them–or us–any good.”

{snip}

Boland didn’t know what to ­believe anymore. At the end of the school year, he quit.

Boland ends his book with familiar suggestions for ­reform: Invest more money, recruit better teachers, retool the unions, end poverty. But there’s no public policy for fixing a broken kid from a broken home, or turning fear into resilience, or saving kids who can’t, or won’t, be saved.

{snip}

Topics:

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.