After detailing his wife’s struggle with breast cancer, the author of It Takes a Worried Man (2002) turns to a more cheerful topic: his life as a high-school teacher.
When adding to the substantial weird-world-of-teaching bookshelf, it helps to be young, unjaded, brimming with a desire to teach, and able to convey genuine pleasure when a class ignites. Halpin claims to be easily bullied, but he’s also capable of rocking the boat without a whiff of self-righteousness. Nine years into his profession, his voice reflects an honest unruliness. He aspires to be “a hated-then-loved hard-ass,” but admits to feeling “terribly uncomfortable with the reality of my authority,” a circumstance that occasionally bites him on the ankle: “Finally I just lose my mind. I get right in his face and scream, ‘Shut up! Will you just shut up!’…The other kids laugh. The next day I apologize to him. I will feel guilty for years about this.” Halpin changes jobs often, working in various suburban schools as he tries to find a way into the Boston public school system, where he aches to teach. He gets to the city with an experimental truancy prevention project, then goes to a charter school that really has his heart, until its vibrant teacher-controlled atmosphere is crushed by the imposition of an ill-fitting administration. The bureaucracy’s destructive capabilities nearly drive him out of teaching altogether. But he decides instead to push on to a more functional environment. “I used to want to transform education,” he writes. “Now I just want to work with kids in a place that doesn't grind me down.” Is this a cop-out, Halpin asks himself? Readers won’t think so as they watch him move once more from his corner into the center of the ring.
The ups and downs of the teaching profession may leave Halpin feeling like a basketball, but thankfully he isn’t full of hot air.