The Class

The Book of the Week is “The Class, A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids, and the Most Inventive Classroom in America” by Heather Won Tesoriero, published in 2018. Despite its sensationalist title, this volume provided a fascinating inside look at one program at an elitist school where brainy kids prepared to fiercely compete for big money and prestige on the high-school science-fair circuit.

The cliche of the baking soda/vinegar volcano as a winning project at the science fair ended decades ago. A Greenwich Connecticut school offers a specific course for self-starting kids passionate about science, whose sole purpose is providing resources– experimental equipment, materials and supervising teacher– with which to enter science fairs.

The author related about ten of the kids’ experiences in the form of vignettes– their personally chosen projects and whether they won an award, personal details of their homes lives, prom adventures, and college acceptances or rejections, etc., roughly over the course of the 2016-2017 academic year, with backstories.

The supervising teacher of the class, who had previously acquired a couple of decades of scientific experience in private industry, had hand-picked the lucky 48 applicants from different grades who partook of this unique opportunity.

They got access to his guidance and professional scientific devices that even well-funded school districts don’t have. Yet another reason Malcolm Gladwell might brand them “outliers” is that some of the chosen students were younger siblings of ones who had gone before.

Most of the science fairs or prizes thereof are funded by corporations and benefactors with big names, such as Google, Intel, Amazon, Xerox, United Technologies, etc.

A great irony is that the event itself is called a science fair when in reality, there were instances mentioned by the author in which the judging of projects was thought to be unfair by the teacher, contestants or their parents. The reasons that certain entries won awards and others did not, were unexplained.

The real reasons would have to be revealed in litigation–probably beyond the scope of this book. It must be said that the author did not mention any litigation.

Nevertheless, since major business entities are running the show, the projects must certainly be seen in terms of their commercial applications, not just in terms of their potential for societal good, like curing diseases or finding new sources of renewable energy.

For instance, one girl’s project that was passed over for an award involved computational biology. The software she coded was, with 80% accuracy, able to identify the most effective breast cancer drugs. Without question, that project had a very valuable commercial application that would open a Pandora’s box.

In another case, a boy who was competing for an “XPRIZE” was advised by his personal attorney to drop out of that contest. He was exceptional for various reasons, much more advanced than his classmates– already attempting to patent his work, and the kind who has the potential to be a future Nobel-prize winner.

At the other end of the spectrum, the author also wrote about kids who weren’t able to get their acts together, due to honest ineptitude. However, the author also related that, in previous years, there had been mean-spirited activity in the lab. In the documented academic year, there was cyberbullying by students and parents even in the science-fair community (!), borne of jealousy and whiny sour grapes expressed by the non-winners. Sadly, as is well known, the parents can be worse than the kids.

Read the book to learn of the triumphs and setbacks, trials and tribulations of the privileged kids and their teacher.

Strong of Heart – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Strong of Heart, Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York” by Thomas Von Essen, published in 2002.

The bulk of the book recounted 9/11 through the author’s eyes. At the time, he was the Fire Commissioner of New York City, overseeing about sixteen thousand firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and civilians at the then-240 fire stations across the city. The deaths of firefighters on 9/11 numbered 343.

Additional workers passed away due to illness in the months and years following that disastrous day. The author admitted that the men who aided in the recovery effort refused to wear equipment that would have prevented their exposure to toxins at Ground Zero– the location of the tragedy. Goggles, masks, hard hats and respirators were uncomfortable and hindered communication.

The fire department consists of two divisions:  the ladder company, which searches for and rescues victims, and the engine company that operates the hose that puts out the fire.

In 1970, at Ladder Company 42 in the South Bronx, the author began firefighting at 24 years old, but still wasn’t sure he wanted to make that his career. The alarms were nonstop every shift in those days; many fires were made worse by fire-code violations of slumlords, and the proliferation of poorly constructed wooden buildings.

The author soon realized he enjoyed the unpredictable nature of the job, and the ego satisfaction he got from saving lives. He got elected president of his union in 1993. This allowed him to get to know every borough’s firehouse and politician in the city and state.

Read the book to learn of the author’s trials and tribulations in his chosen profession; what he was able to accomplish as an officeholder in the fire department with the help of his ultimate boss and friend, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani; and why firefighters were less than thrilled with the late former mayor Ed Koch in the late 1980’s.

Mistaken Identity – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Mistaken Identity” by Don & Susie Van Ryn and Newell, Colleen & Whitney Cerak, with Mark Tabb, published in 2008. This is a long, true story of a cluster-screw-up of honest ineptitude whose negative consequences were mitigated by the virtuous nature of the people involved.

The families of the victims described in this book weren’t vengeful and didn’t look for someone to blame or sue, pursuant to the tragedy. They were forgiving, and saw the positive consequences of it– they widened their social circle and became a good example for others of civil and mature behavior.

In late April 2006, two female Taylor College students from Michigan who shared an employer happened to be riding home in the same van in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They didn’t know each other. However, their appearance, build and facial features happened to be largely similar. The van was involved in a tragic accident. Along with other passengers, one of them died, and the other lived but had serious injuries.

In the aftermath, the one who lived remarked, “A lot of what was written in different magazines was wrong, and I think it gave me a different perspective on people and the media that I never had before.”

Read this book (not media stories) to get an accurate picture of what happened to the two families of the accident victims.

The Year of the Goat

The Book of the Week is “The Year of the Goat, 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese” by Margaret Hathaway, published in 2007. This is an account of a couple’s journey to collect data for deciding whether they could and/or wanted, to become goat farmers to produce goat milk, cheese and/or meat for eating.

The author and her boyfriend were New Yorkers when the story started. They were seriously considering a major lifestyle change, realizing how stressful and unhealthy their lives had become.

The couple started their road trip in August 2003, driving around the United States, visiting goat-related events and places like festivals / auctions / conventions / races, farms and stores; even a college of veterinary medicine. They met hundreds of people in the industry.

Read the book to learn all the details and the results of their efforts– whether they took the plunge.

Funny Cide

The Book of the Week is “Funny Cide” by The Funny Cide Team with Sally Jenkins, published in 2004.

Sidenote: Here is yet another nonfiction book that fails to list any References, Notes, or Bibliography. And NO INDEX. The co-author is a respected journalist who lends credibility to the work, and omitting  backup documentation does cut costs in time and labor. However, this trend will open the floodgates to laziness and dishonesty among “nonfiction” writers whose names are not known because they have no reputations to uphold. They can avoid scrutiny by their critics because extra work is involved in tracking down information (since there is no index) and  sources for purposes of fact-checking. Arguably, audiences will believe the most prolific propagandists’ version of history regardless of the writers’ reputations, given the current fragmented and complex publishing environment in the United States.

This book is about a racehorse named Funny Cide that became successful in an unusual situation. Born in 2000 in Sacketts Harbor, NY– a place upstate slightly larger than a small town– the colt was tended to and trained by extremely passionate, meticulous personnel on a small farm. He was purchased by a group of about ten men who liked gambling. Having been close friends for years, they pooled their resources for fun and profit.

Read the book to learn about the horse-pool members; the first few horses they acquired; Funny Cide’s trainer (Barclay Tagg) and other attendants, his jockey (Jose Santo), why the horse was made a gelding; the numerous, different factors that affect a horse’s performance in races; and how Funny Cide performed in 2003 in front of upwards of 100,000 spectators.

The Boys in the Boat

The Book of the Week is “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown, published in 2013. This is the incredible, suspenseful story of how the crew team of the University of Washington, and one team member especially, overcame tremendous odds to transcend themselves in the most important competition of their lives.

Various traumatic situations in Joseph Rantz’s young life ironically made him an ideal candidate for the sport of rowing. He and eight others out of a total of 175 hopefuls, made the cut for the freshman team in the autumn of 1933. Sportswriters had popularized rowing teams of Northeastern elitist colleges, but the less well-heeled athletes at the Universities of Washington and California– on the west coast– had muscled their way into the sport. In fact, these two were fierce rivals. After five and a half months of training, they competed every April in one race each consisting of a freshman, sophomore and senior crew, before heading to Poughkeepsie, for another competition against the east coast teams, too.

The Washington team trained in the absolute worst winter weather of freezing rain and icy-cold wind storms, never mind snow. Another way the team gained an advantage in competitions is that it had one of the best, if not the best, boat builders of its generation. With decades of rowing experience, he, in addition to hand-crafting their boats, got to know the athletes intimately and served as their mentor.

The tough-as-nails coach chose each and every member of the crew for a specific position in the boat, given each one’s body build, and physical and psychological strengths. Winning races called for perfect positioning of the oars and rowing rhythm, maximum power at the right times, and singularity of mind of the entire team. Such abilities allowed Washington’s team to compete in the Olympics.

“In the United States, talk of boycotting the 1936 Olympics had been simmering since the Nazis had come to power in 1933.” Countries with sports teams decided to compete anyway.

The reason they did was that Adolf Hitler largely brainwashed countries participating in the Games– convincing them that Germany was a gorgeous, peaceful nation where everyone was treated fairly and well. He built the most advanced, immaculate, highest quality athletic facilities for his show.  He had someone produce a propaganda film of the proceedings. He put his fellow Nazis on notice to display their best behavior toward the world.

Within days of the closing ceremonies, however, the Fuehrer resumed building a power base. This, through continuing to gather a significant number of sociopathic and sadistic followers with weaponry, persuading the weak unarmed to blame their troubles on people with certain last names, and was starting to build torture chambers in neighboring countries to systematically kill certain other defenseless groups and the aforementioned scapegoated group.

Read the book to learn the details of why Joseph Rantz and the other University of Washington’s crew team members were ideally suited to be the best team in decades, how they did in their matches, and what happened at the Olympics.

A Death in White Bear Lake

The Book of the Week is “A Death in White Bear Lake” by Barry Siegel, published in 1990. This is a long, suspenseful story about how a case of manslaughter helped spark awareness of deaths of children due to physical abuse in the United States. As book-lengthening filler, the history of White Bear Lake, Minnesota is also contained within.

The story starts when an infertile couple seeks to adopt a child. Through intense scrutiny, the Commissioner of Public Welfare of Scott County, MN learns that the prospective mother has a history of psychiatric problems. In the early 1960’s, the couple are permitted to adopt a child anyway. Some time later, they seek to take in a second child. Trouble ensues, especially on Palm Sunday in 1965.

Read the book to learn: how the American attitude toward physicality with children changed from the tail end of the 1950’s to the late 1980’s; the people and agencies (“the system”) that had enabled the trouble and would continue to do so; and the twists of fate that gave the story its fitting ending.

Side Note: The author gave the impression that the White Bear Lake case was one of the most influential factors that forced the change in attitude. However, prior to the Internet, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on TV and other communications of Oprah herself were major nationwide publicity vehicles on child abuse discussions. Additionally, another notorious case was that of Joel Steinberg in New York City in 1987.

Iphigene

The Book of the Week is “Iphigene, Memoirs of Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger of The New York Times Family” by Susan W. Dryfoos, published in 1979. This is the life and times of a New York Times heiress, as told to Dryfoos– her granddaughter.

Iphigene was an only child in a wealthy family. Her father was a highly successful newspaper publisher, having turned around The Times upon his purchase of it in 1896. “While the other New York papers fought a ruthless and unscrupulous battle for circulation by means of outrageous headlines and sensational stories, The Times sought to expand readership with sober and comprehensive reporting.”

In 1898, The Times faced stiff competition from the tabloids that sent their reporters on location to the Spanish-American war front. Iphigene’s father, Adolph Simon Ochs, dropped the price of his paper from 3 cents to 1 cent instead of making up inflammatory war stories.

The paper maintained its integrity and avoided conflicts of interest under Ochs . For instance, he claimed to refuse to accept gifts from, or print laudatory stories, about advertisers.

Iphigene was born in September 1892. Suffering from then-undiagnosed dyslexia, she was beset with poor grades although her schooling was the best that money could buy. Nevertheless, Iphigene studied for Barnard College’s entrance exams. At that time, the school had a two-year program for students whose academic abilities were less than stellar, but were eager to learn. She wrote, “I found the atmosphere of the school congenial, the students friendly and the teachers excellent…” Iphigene passed additional exams in order to upgrade to the four-year program, enabling her to graduate in 1914 with a degree in economics.

The Times went beyond the call in covering WW I. Its daily circulation between 1914 and 1919 rose to 170,000. Iphigene wed a man who eventually proved himself equal to the task of publishing The Times as competently as her father did. In 1944, he had the company purchase the New York radio station WQXR.

Read the book to learn much more information on what Iphigene did for various communities in New York City in various areas including parks and education; her global travels during which she met various politicians and dignitaries, and her impressions of them.