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 but are ignored.
“Chantay, sit in your seat and get to work — now!” Boland says.
A calculator goes flying across the room and smashes into the chalkboard.
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 FUKIN’ DICK, 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 … NIGAS?’ ”
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 $100. 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 pocket. The principal gave up. Kameron was expelled.
“Oh, they getting real tough around here now,” one student said. “Three hundred strikes, you out.”
Here among the kids who couldn’t name continents or oceans, who scrawled, “Mr. Boland is a faggot” on chalkboards, who listed porn among their hobbies, were a few who had a shot.
There was Nee-cole, who wore thick glasses and pigtails. She was quiet, smart, much more childlike than her peers, and Boland felt for her.
He was also intrigued by a tough girl named Yvette, who showed flashes of insight and intelligence yet did all she could to hide it. “PLEASE DON’T TELL ANYONE I WROTE THIS,” she scrawled on one report.
He asked his fellow teachers about the enigma that was Yvette. “One day in class, I intercepted a note”, said a colleague, Tasneen. “It said, ‘Yvette blows old guys for a dollar under the Manhattan Bridge.’ We punished the girl who wrote it for spreading lies.”
Soon after, the school heard from Child Protective Services. The prostitution rumor was true. Yvette was removed from her home. “She’s not doing it anymore,” Tasneen said, “but she’ll never outrun that story.”
The bookish Nee-cole was also a target, but things were tolerable — until parent-teacher night. Nee-cole’s mother showed up wheeling a suitcase down the hall, listening to Donna Summer on a Discman. She wore off-brand jeans, rainbow leg warmers, a ratty orange vest, dreads festooned with ribbons and shells, and a face tattoo of pin curls where hair should be.
Boland was flummoxed. He closed the classroom door.
She introduced herself as Charlotte and explained Nee-cole’s history: Her daughter had been enrolled in Harlem, but when her mother saw the school was on the city’s list of under performers, she pulled Nee-cole out and home-schooled her.
“But we didn’t have a home, so I made do and taught her where I could, mostly on the subway, for the year.”
She went on to explain that she had to put Nee-cole in foster care. “I love my child beyond words and am still very involved with her life,” Charlotte said. “Her education is my priority.”
After that meeting, Nee-cole’s life at school was never the same.
“Nee-cole’s mother is a HOBO,” the other kids would say. “Did you get a look at her? Mama look like a homeless clown.”
Boland came to actively loathe most of the student body. He resented “their poverty, their ignorance, their arrogance. Everything I was hoping, at first, to change.”
His colleagues gave him pep talks, reminded him to contextualize this behavior: These kids had no parents, or abusive, neglectful ones. Most lived in extreme poverty. School was all they had, and it was their only hope.
A lifelong liberal, Boland began to feel uncomfortable with his thinking. “We can’t just explain away someone’s horrible behavior because they have had a tough upbringing,” he argued back. “It doesn’t do them — or us — any good.”
Then there was Jesús Alvarez, boyfriend of Chantay and, as Boland writes, “a perfect shit.” Jesús would stroll by Boland’s classroom and shout, “Bolan’, who you ballin’? It ain’t no chick.”
Boland called in the father, even though he was warned it would do no good. The three sat down, and Boland was surprised.
“Jesús, this is a good school,” the father said. He warned Jesús that it was either school or the street, and Jesús wasn’t tough enough for the street. “You get yourself right, get an education, and show this man some respect.”
It was the one thing that had gone well so far. “I left that meeting brimming with confidence,” Boland writes. “Involving parents was key.”
Next, he turned his attention to Valentina, a transfer student who joined his class in February. She wore tight jeans over what Boland calls “an epic derriere”, and as she walked to her seat, the kids oinked and mooed.
“Step down, all y’all nigas, or I’ll stab you in your neck”, Valentina said. “Don’t get me tight, bitches.”
Boland soon learned Valentina was what the Department of Education calls “a safety transfer” — meaning she was such a threat to her fellow students that she was pulled out of school.
Now here she was, Boland’s newest charge. He was quickly impressed with her observational skills — a bar he had set extremely low, now the victim of some inner-city form of Stockholm syndrome.
Asked to write about an ancient sculpture of two royals, Valentina wrote, “Well, isn’t it obvious that they are a couple? His hand is on her titty . . . The way they sit is regal.”
It was the use of the word “regal” that blew Boland away. He pulled her aside after class.
“You can’t fool me,” he told her. “I can tell from just that one sheet of paper that you have a very fine mind.”
For that, he received an official complaint of sexual harassment, filed by one Valentina. She claimed Boland said, “You are mighty fine, you turn me on, and I can tell you like fooling around.”
The entire administration knew Boland was gay, yet they still had to follow procedure. He was never to be alone with Valentina again.
By the time he invited a highly decorated Iraq War veteran to speak to class and Valentina greeted him with, “Hey, mister, give me a dollar,” Boland thoroughly despised her.
Nor could he escape the kids outside of school. One winter day, Boland was mounting his bicycle, on his way home, when he saw a gang fight break out in a parking lot. He saw Jesús in the crowd, and an older man egging the kids on. “That’s it, Nelson, show that punk-ass bitch who’s boss. Whale his ass.”
It was Jesús’ father.
Angry and humiliated, Boland relayed this latest heartbreak to a veteran teacher. “As crazy as it sounds,” the teacher said, “that father may be trying to teach his son how to survive in a hostile environment the only way he knows how.”
Boland didn’t know what to believe anymore. At the end of the school year, he quit.
Boland ends his book with familiar suggestions for reform: Invest more money, recruit better teachers, retool the unions, end poverty. But there’s no public policy for fixing a broken kid from a broken home, or turning fear into resilience, or saving kids who can’t, or won’t, be saved.
Toward the end of his tenure, Boland asked his sister Nora, a longtime teacher, for help. What was he doing wrong? What could he be doing right? Why couldn’t he break through to these kids, even the ones who seemed to care? How can society absorb such a massive human toll?
“I’ve been teaching for a long time now,” Nora told him. “And my only answer is that there are no easy answers.”