I’ll readily admit that my little book (available for 99 cents or free, and not bad even if Amazon rejected it for its Kindle Singles series) is in a well-trodden genre: the White Teacher Goes to Teach in a Ghetto School genre. Some of these are sentimental and earnest, like Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age. Some are full of details of lesson plans and projects, like Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children. Some are self-congratulatory and narcissistic, like Ron Clark’s The Essential 55 or Rafe Esquith’s There Are No Shortcuts. Some are very funny, like James Herndon’s The Way It Spozed To Be or Gary Rubinstein’s Reluctant Disciplinarian. And most I haven’t read, like My Posse Don’t Do Homework, the book that became the movie Dangerous Minds.
Despite their differences, the books tend to have in common a lot in terms of structure, with some variation:
a) Idealistic teacher begins school year full of hopes and dreams.
b) Idealistic teacher is horrified by the physical conditions of the school, the social context of the neighborhood, and the apathy or racism of the other teachers in the school.
c) Idealistic teacher is stymied by some combination of student misbehavior, societal apathy, and administrative intrusion.
d) Idealistic teacher perseveres through some combination of intelligence, passion, contempt for administrative authority, and love for his or her students and belief in their possibilities.
e) Idealistic teacher’s students Show What They Are Really Capable Of.
f) afterword: Idealistic teacher tells the world What We All Can Learn from his or her adventures.
The Mighty Whitey genre, therefore, is really a combination of three older styles of books- the Bildungsroman of how a Boy Becomes a Man (with the teacher taking the place of the Boy here), the travel narrative (with the ghetto school and its neighborhood taking the place of far-off Tokyo or old Bombay), and the American political memoir (with the teacher, like a good politician, using their experiences to say What America Is and What America Should Be.)
It seems that the Mighty Whitey genre has fallen largely into disrepute, however, to be replaced with the Not-So-Mighty Whitey genre. In this new iteration, the teacher does not persevere over the obstacles in their school and over the divisions in our society, they are undone by them. The conclusion is that only (pick your policy- school integration, cash transfers, black teachers, pre-K, etc, etc) can Heal the Wounded Land, can Solve the Problem. But I don’t think this new format will last. Part of the problem is that in the past you could call for More Money (if you were liberal) for schools or Bold Thinking (if you were more conservative), but in the last twenty or thirty years we’ve gotten plenty of both; teachers more-or-less are now living in the policy regime advocated for by Bold Thinkers and (in large part because of federal Special Education and English Language Learner mandates) spending per kid has gone up and up and up. So a certain sense of exhaustion has set in.
My recommendation for aspiring writers in the genre, instead, is one or both of the following:
a) Be black, or failing that, Hispanic. There probably is plenty of room for someone to argue that teaching’s racial balance, which doesn’t reflect the racial balance of contemporary kids at all, is the real problem, and there’s a bit of evidence for it. Then the teacher can go through the same structure as above, but with a sufficient twist to make it memorable.
b) Incorporate more depressing history. Ta Nehisi Coates became America’s Foremost Public Intellectual in large part by incorporating downbeat history of redlining and post-Reconstruction violence into his analysis of contemporary events; there’s plenty of room to do this in an ordinary teacher’s analysis of ghetto schools’ problems, and it’s even largely true. The advantage of historical arguments, as Coates has discovered, is that they don’t require the test of success or triumph when adopted; the past is never dead, it isn’t even past, as Faulkner said, and who are you or I to overcome the bloodshed and conquest that marred and made our country? So make your teaching story more tragic, more doomed, less optimistic, if you want to fit into the spirit of the times.
In the meantime, of course, American kids- most of them low-income, most of them non-white- keep showing up in school, having an okay time, most of them, learning some of what they’re supposed to know, most of them. Maybe their schools are even getting better! It’s hard to know, since test scores aren’t really going to tell us. But don’t let good news get in the way of a good story: turn that smile upside down, and get to work.