Set in a Harlem grammar school, Webb’s feel-good debut novel rises above its familiar premise: newbie teacher vs. troubled students.
It’s 1969, and young Neil Riley has a big problem: the draft for the Vietnam War. But he has the perfect solution: drop out of law school, take some education courses, then teach until he hits the magic birthday (26) in two years. Bingo! Back to law school and a cushy future. But no. The very first day with his 33 black and Hispanic sixth-graders is a shock beyond the pale. “Sit down and shut up!” is his opening gambit; things go downhill from there. The kids aren’t stupid, but teaching them, opening them up, turning them into students? Not a job young Mr. Riley fancies. In fact, he’s scared witless. But, having little choice, he slowly—glacially slowly—begins to connect with the kids and they to him. Mr. Riley and the students of Grant Elementary 6-306 accomplish several modest miracles together. Along the way, Neil is mentored by Mrs. Robins, a quiet powerhouse of a veteran teacher. Eventually, Neil realizes that assistant principal Mr. Bernbach, weary but not burned out, may save him in spite of himself, since he evidently knows Neil better than Neil knows himself. Small, poignant schoolyard details ring true, and Webb is a sensitive writer, making no missteps. The book covers only September to Christmas break, but will Neil eventually go back to law school? Don’t bet on it.
Top marks for its class.