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Former teacher recounts his failed quest to make a difference in the classroom

The Battle For Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School

By Ed Boland

Grand Central Publishing

243 pages, $26

By Peter Simon

Ed Boland’s midcareer decision to become an inner-city teacher – a crusader for troubled kids – fell apart his very first day on the job.

Kameron Shields, a gang leader and notorious teacher tormentor at Manhattan’s Union Street School, clearly intimidated Boland in a tense, face-to-face showdown in front of the entire class. Later, Kameron threatened to blow up the high school and shoot a classmate with an Uzi.

“He looked like trouble and he was,” Boland writes.”I was genuinely afraid of him the minute I laid eyes on him.”

Kameron’s two-month suspension did little to ease the tension.

Jesus Alvarez picked out classmates who showed even a hint of interest in academics or kindness for Boland, and threatened them in the teacher’s presence.

A student was assaulted in the lunchroom by three boys who “skipped the usual formality of creating some pretext for the violence … and they just beat him,” Boland writes.

By October, getting his students’ attention was nearly impossible. Profanity was so common Boland stopped policing all but the most hideous tirades.

Filled with frustration, he broke into tears in a bathroom stall. “At first I wept for their terrible lives, then their loneliness, and then for myself,” Boland writes.

Before becoming a ninth-grade history teacher, Boland had a successful career as an administrator for nonprofit groups, including one that assisted needy students. At the cost of a big pay cut, he decided he could have a greater impact in the classroom. (Boland changed the name of the school and the people mentioned in the book.)

But day-by-day, class-by-class, that idealism was tested to the limit.

Students taunted him because he is gay. Exacting lesson plans, consultations with other teachers and an obvious – almost desperate – desire to do better made no difference. Frozen by fear, Boland failed to help out when a student bled profusely after punching a classroom window. After a year as a teacher, Boland returned to his previous administrative job.

“I thought I was forgiving,” he said. “I thought I was understanding. I thought I was mature. But so quickly into this experience I began to loathe my students, resenting everything about them that was their lot – their poverty, their ignorance, their arrogance. Everything I was hoping, at first, to change.”

Monica, a fellow history teacher, became Boland’s role model and inspiration, the educator who could maintain an orderly classroom and create a climate of teaching and learning.

But Monica – and Boland – were devastated when Monica’s students recorded an average grade of 54 on a key history exam.

“I admitted to myself what I had been secretly harboring for months,” Boland writes. “Maybe most of these kids are too far gone, too hobbled by their life experiences, for us to help very much. I still wrestle with feelings of guilt, shame and betrayal. A white guy with a salvation complex is bad enough, but how about one who couldn’t save anybody.”

Schools can’t do it alone, Boland concludes. He calls for improved teacher training; more research into what works in the classroom; cooperation between school officials and teachers unions, and – above all – broader efforts to “reverse the crippling legacy of long-term poverty.”

This is a revealing book, written with apparent candor, insight and concern. But it has a major flaw. The school year under Boland’s microscope is 2005-06 – a full decade ago. This reviewer learned that only by calling the publisher, since the very troublesome time gap is neither revealed nor explained in the book. Both the belated time frame and the way Boland writes around it put a serious tarnish on an otherwise fine effort.

Peter Simon is a former longtime education reporter for The Buffalo News.