The Battle for Room 314
My Year of Hope and Despair
In a New York City High School
Ed Boland did something that the rest of us should be doing right now. That is, get the hell out of our Slough of Despond and help the benighted of the world. He gave up a successful job with Project Advance --- a non-profit that offered a variety of support to poorer students --- and went directly to the source: to teach at Union Street School, on New York City's East Side.
He shudda stood in bed. These teacher jobs in the ghetto are hardly an exercise in giving exciting knowledge of world history (Boland's speciality) to the hardship cases of the inner city. Going into a place like Union is learning to deal with those who come to school to spend a few hours away from families who are living with drugs and drink and bitterness and poverty, those who know that their place in the world is at the bottom tier . . . and that their chances of escaping it are close to nil.
In other words, the majority of these kids --- both male and female --- are tough: they've seen it all, they've seen family members go under, they have fought, in some cases, just to survive, or even make it to the classroom. The upshot: if you are one of those hoity-toity characters, or even a mere do-good type, and if you have or show even the slightest sign of weakness in any form . . . they'll know it. And will exploit it. Mercilessly.
Did Boland suceed? Since this is not a novel --- although, as a piece of writing it is rather novel, hard to set down even at cocktail time --- I won't be spitting in the soup if I tell you the conclusion: after a year, he threw in the towel. And if it were me, I would have done it long before the year was up, maybe in the first month. These kids are angry.
Take the one he labels "Nemesis:"
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 bandanna 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.
It was not hard to get off on the wrong foot with the likes of Kameron, and Boland easily falls into his trap: the one that says "I'm gonna make sure you don't like me, or trust me." One day he threatens to blow up the school. Not knowing the rules, Boland just happens to mention this to the principal. He doesn't know that since 9/11 and Columbine it is now a federal offense to threaten to bomb, shoot up, or destroy a school. In other words, it is a felony to speak of the rage you feel . . . in this case, directed at the institution that you are required to attend, whether you like it or not, whether it interests you or no.
The police come and Kameron gets shipped off to the local version of a gulag --- a "suspicion center" in the Bronx. Since it is out of his gang's area, Kameron ends up getting jumped regularly and --- after his two months --- comes back to Union more pissed off than ever.
Boland brags, "I was the first teacher in the three-year history of Union Street who managed to get Kameron suspended, though many had tried." Were the other students impressed at his ability to shut this bully down?
No such luck: I had sold their hero up the river on a trumped-up charge. Despite my victory, the damage he had done to my reputation that first day was beyond repair.
§ § §
We find out early on that Boland is gay, and no closet case. So from that moment on, "Instead of the gay witch hunt dying down after [Kameron] was gone, as I'd hoped, the rest of the boys declared open season on me in his name."
What our (very) innocent teacher is learning is that when you deal with gangs, you live by gang rules. You don't tattle on anyone. Most of the time, you shut off your hearing-aid --- forget all those judgments. Any of us who have been in the war zone know the price for ratting on one of the bros: from that day on, Boland's goose is cooked.
Which ends up feeding the readers' sense of despair, turns the book --- and his fate --- more dismal than we would want. We figure anyone who goes in the trenches as Boland did should come out the other side with even a few victories, the chance to touch a few lives, an opportunity to instill hope for some who are trapped but seriously want out.
Yet we watch him getting gulled again, and again, apparently not able to learn from some of his fellow teachers who have survived, even manage to teach a few lessons, have the ability to survive the worst times.
The Battle for Room 314 isn't all gloom and doom. One of the best chapters takes us on a field trip --- the students going in turn to a Jewish synagogue, a mosque, and a Buddhist temple in Manhattan. In the Temple Emmanu-El, the students are lectured on Judaism by Hadassah --- "Hunched but perky, she was probably kissing eighty and was five foot two at most . . . " To his surprise, when she speaks, the students pay close and rapt attention. Then, Boland being Boland --- he starts (as he often does in The Battle) to put himself down:
What has she got that I ain't got? Are they cutting her slack because she's old? Female? Short? Maternal? The last time I tried to lecture for even five minutes, there was immediate unrest. Now here they are, listening raptly like members of the Temple Sisterhood. What gives?
Oh Ed, we think . . . can't you just drop this solipsism stuff for even a moment?
§ § §
In the Buddhist sanctuary, the nun invites them to ring the temple bell. Boland tells the class heavy Maurius to do it. "He grabbed the ringer, a wooden log hanging on chains, and ran with it like a maniac full force into the bell. A deafening peal rang out."
I was certain he had cracked it. The nun covered her mouth in horror and quickly went over to inspect the bell. Other nuns and concerned worshipers came out of nowhere.
Everywhere they go (city street, temple, classroom), whatever they do, apparently, Boland and his kids just have to turn it into a riot. And, to top it off, when they leave Manhattan to return to the Bronx, one of them asks if Boland has a girlfriend. "From the beginning, I had always vowed that if asked, I would never lie about my sexuality, but I hadn't been directly asked . . . " Until that day.
When he says yes, they start in on whether Sam --- his love --- is black, or Latino, or rich. "Fat Clovis" asks a specific question about his . . . unh . . . membrum vitale. Boland says that is an "inappropriate" question --- which starts the gang right in, right there on the street, screeching about Sam's "salchicha."
"Salchicha!" "Salchicha!" "Salchicha!" they chanted in union. The Chinese mother and Hasidic men from the neighborhood gave us a wide berth and shot disapproving looks. The chorus got louder and more raucous, but it wasn't the hateful chants of The Lord of the Flies. It was jolly and real and human. And they seemed happy for me. Where was all that hate? Why hadn't I just done this from the start? . . .
I was standing on East Broadway surrounded by a group of thuggy teenagers chanting about my boyfriend's junk. This was to be the greatest moment of communion with my students?
I took what I could get. Victory, thy name is salchicha.--- Pamela Wylie