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.
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.
“It was as if Brown v. Board of Education or desegregation had never occurred,” Boland writes.
He had rounded up his students into a semicircle and checked for forbidden items: phones, electronics, sunglasses, clothing in gang colors.
Then someone kicked in the door.
And there, Boland writes, “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.
“He turned his grinning face to the ceiling and howled, ‘WASS . . . UP . . . N—AS?’ ”
Boland was outmatched. He was petrified. He ran out the clock and asked his fellow teachers who this kid was.
“Oh, yeah, he’s brutal,” one colleague said. Turned out Kameron had thrown a heavy electric sharpener at a teacher’s head the year before, but the principal — whom the teachers sarcastically called their “fearless leader” — refused to expel any student for any reason.
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.” Their self-care toggled in the extreme, from girls who gave themselves pedicures in class to kids who went days without showering.
Kameron was in a league of his own. “I was genuinely afraid of him from the minute I set eyes on him,” Boland writes. After threatening to blow up the school, Kameron was suspended for a few months, and not long after his return, a hammer and a double switchblade fell out of his pockets.
The principal gave up. Kameron was expelled.
This book, White Teacher in a Black School, came recommended by another author.