Evocative but disappointingly inert, Southgate’s second outing (after Another Way to Dance, 1996) depicts the conflicting tensions of experience and expectations that confront African-American males in traditionally white schools.
The carefully organized tale has three protagonists, each representing different points of view as they negotiate the minefield of race relations at Chelsea, a Connecticut boarding school for boys. Each has a reason for being at Chelsea, whose headmaster is eager to have a more diverse student body (a rich alumnus has offered a big gift if minority enrollment increases). African-American Latin teacher Jerome Washington has been on the faculty for more than 20 years. A graduate of Harvard who taught in Boston public schools until his brother Isaiah, a felon, was killed, has found peace there teaching the language and culture of a civilization he believes was racially egalitarian as well as advanced. Known for never smiling, he believes his role is to introduce the students to a great culture; demonstrate that African-Americans are not all the same; and teach that what matters is “individual effort and rigor.” African-American freshman Rashid Bryson, from Brooklyn and still mourning the recent death of older brother Kofi, who was killed while observing a robbery, wants the education Chelsea can provide. And idealistic white English teacher Jana Hansen, back East and burned out from teaching in Cleveland’s inner-city schools, is ready to make a new life. As the schoolyear passes, Jerome gives out some tough treatment to Rashid; Rashid, trying to adapt, is hurt by Jerome’s ways; and Jana, though attracted to Jerome, is determined that Rashid succeed. While the two teachers disagree about how best to help Rashid, the boy, finally talks about his brother’s death at an assembly, but the scars all three bear, especially Jerome, provoke further painful outcomes.
An elegantly written story with serious concerns is lamentably undermined by much too often showing more than it tells.