BY ANGELA BARBUTI
Ed Boland thought he had an idea of what to expect as he began his first year as a high school teacher. “I’m a good New York liberal, I had read all the Jonathan Kozol books, could cite the great books on urban education, observed in all these schools, student taught, so thought I knew what the life circumstances were like for the 1.1 million school kids in the city. And, in retrospect, I didn’t have a clue,” he said.
At the beginning of his memoir, “The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School,” Boland leaves his lucrative career as an executive in the nonprofit sector behind for a ninth-grade classroom in what he thought was a progressive school on the Lower East Side. However, he quickly comes to realize that both the school and the city’s educational system are failing his students, many of whom come to school already struggling with their own personal issues.
Although he desperately tries to connect with and engage the teenagers, he met with much resistance. However, his experience was not all negative. Although he ended up abandoning his teaching career, he is still in touch with more than half of his students, whose responses towards the book have been overwhelming positive, with many apologizing for the tough year. But Boland turns it around and apologizes to them not only for his naiveté in the classroom, but also for the fact that the school and educational system failed them.
At his reading at Book Culture, he even wore a sweater one of his students had given him. “I wore it as my good luck sweater and she was there,” he said, choking up, “It was very poignant.”
When did you decide to turn your experience into a memoir?I had my experience teaching and then went back to my job at Project Advance. You know when something bad happens and you just want to pretend that it didn’t, so you don’t talk about it? I told everybody that I went back to my old job and didn’t really process or share it much because, frankly, I was ashamed. Everybody had known I had gone to graduate school at night for all those years. I had a pretty successful student teaching experience and everybody said, “You’re going to be a great teacher.” And then I had a very humbling experience and my blend of arrogance and naiveté caused me to really fall hard. For about a year after, I didn’t talk about it, except with my at-the-time boyfriend, now husband, and a couple of friends. But I knew it was there and I had to make sense of this experience. So my husband said, “A friend of mine teaches at the West Side Y.” I really did it as a form of, I hate to say, therapy, but it really was. It sounds so cliché, but it’s true. So I started to write and everybody I shared the story with was similar to me in that they thought they knew what life was like for kids in struggling schools in New York. But there is such a difference between knowing something in an abstract, academic and interested way and quite another when Chantay is staring you in the face and screaming obscenities at you.
Based on their backgrounds and situations at home, you were surprised that a lot of your students even showed up to school. Give us an example.There was Nee-cole who had been in foster care since middle school. Her birth mother was struggling with a lot of issues but still so involved in her child’s life. She was not happy with how her daughter’s education was going in middle school. She did research and realized the school she was in was not a high performing school, so she pulled her out and homeschooled her on the subway. And ironically, she was one of my better prepared and more academically oriented students because of it. She showed up and was terribly bullied and when her homeless mother came to the parent-teacher conference that made the bullying worse. But, she transferred to another school and persevered. And one of the greatest glimmers of hope in the book is that I watched her graduate from college two years ago, which was extraordinary. One or two percent of kids in foster care get a college degree. It’s just a testament to her grit and resilience.
You really tried to help Byron, who was undocumented, get into college, but to no avail. I’m telling you this kid was a genius. He had so much potential. He was so curious and hardworking. And the fact that he never went to college at all because he’s undocumented is a sin. And it’s a sin from a moral point of view, that anyone with that much potential should have it squashed by a government policy. He was undermining his own chances at many turns, which was so frustrating to watch. But, ultimately, the system failed him. When he was on the waitlist at Harvard and Brown, it was so close. And I advocated for him and then tried to get him a postgraduate year at a boarding school. He’s applied for DACA, which is the Obama program for undocumented kids who were brought here by their parents, to attend college, so there may be hope there.
A teacher wrote in the New York Post that you were ‘throwing fuel in the fire,’ and you responded.The only fuel I’m trying to add to the fire is to make the American public more interested in the link between education and poverty. That was a little frustrating because the teachers who have read it. One reviewer said, “I’ve never read an education book that’s so edgy.” And come to think of it, our education books should be edgy. And a lot of people say, “What right do have writing a book after one year?” But, the more I think about it, sometimes the voice of failure is more telling than the voice of success. And sometimes the voice of the rookie will give you an entirely different perspective than the voice of the veteran. That guy didn’t think that I didn’t try to use food to have my kids perform? Every chapter is gummy worms, Oreos. He doesn’t think I didn’t try to use relevant content to make ancient history interesting? I mean, look at [the Roman history lesson with] Little Kim. I don’t blame the guy. He read the Post article and they made it seem as if I was blaming the kids. He didn’t read the book because the Post published that two weeks before the book came out. If I can find where that guy teaches, I’m going to send him a bottle of whiskey and my book.