The Book of the Week is ” ‘Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?’ ” by Ilana Garon, published in 2013. This is the personal account of a New York City high school English teacher who began her career during the early years of the Bloomberg mayoral administration. Fresh out of college, but passionate and focused, she became a Teaching Fellow in a rigorous training summer-school program in the Bronx in 2003.
The author, like many, many other teachers before and since, suffered psychologically draining experiences at an overcrowded, inner-city school in her first year teaching. Garon’s day had fourteen periods, ending at 5:55pm. She became privy to numerous bad home situations, and was involved in her share of in-school incidents. Her school had a heavy police presence and metal detectors that were used to screen all the students every time they entered the campus. She wrote, “… am continuing to teach at a school where all I do is discipline….”
There were ethnic tensions among light-skinned, darker-skinned, and Spanish-speaking kids. When students engaged in fighting in the hallway, “…it sounds like a bomb… Everyone starts screaming, the crowd of about one hundred kids…” There were also gang fights. It wasn’t just the boys, either. “Rather than the boys, who would throw punches, the girls would hold each other in death grips, trying to slam each other into floors or walls and pull each other’s hair out.”
Someone asked the author why she didn’t assign a particular novel about African Americans to her class. She tried to explain that the reason she didn’t, wasn’t that the book would be too hard for them– it had nothing to do with the stereotype that people of their ethnicity can’t read as well as others; it was that the book would be too hard for most of the students, given their poor reading, writing and verbal skills, regardless of their ethnicity.
Despite many of the students’ abysmal literacy, Garon was under pressure by higher-ups to give the students a passing grade, whether or not they completed their coursework, or demonstrated that they learned anything. Unsurprisingly, by the spring of her first year, she had also been subjected to sexual harassment from faculty members, and the mentoring system had failed her. Her mentor, who doubled as the baseball coach, absented himself from mentoring her in the spring.
In her second year, the author was assigned to “team-teach” one of her classes– a Special Education inclusion class of 33 boys; in other words, a boatload of behavior problems. The other teacher on her team was a Filipino who spoke only Tagalog (no English), while the students spoke only English and Spanish.
Garon was threatened by a student for confiscating a note he was passing to another student in her classroom. She couldn’t let that go. She had to assert her authority over the students or else they’d walk all over her ever after. However, reporting the student was a legal can of worms. The bureaucracy required a court hearing by the Board of Education. She had to get on the stand and testify. The student had a lawyer present. It took five hours. It happened to be scheduled on the same day as parent-teacher conferences. So she missed most of them.
Garon discussed the case of a cute, smart African American boy in her class who was a year younger than his classmates. His situation had looked so promising when she first met him. His parents and teachers were encouraging and cared about his education. He was attending a good school. Garon thought his academic performance suffered between ninth and tenth grades due to peer pressure– the other kids would socially ostracize him for being “white” and nerdy if he got good grades.
The author teaches the kinds of kids she does, because she wants to make a difference in these deprived youngsters, compensate those who “… had been slighted in more ways than I could enumerate, while my peers and I had been given ever more incalculable advantages over them.” She feels that poverty is the main obstacle to their getting an education. This means home environment– their homes lack the same resources that other kids have; for starters– they lack parents who care about their education, who teach them behavior patterns that lead to success.
Read the book to learn of the slew of other issues Garon faces on a daily basis.