A young teacher mismanages relationships with his students at a small private school in Virginia.
After announcing that “what follows is based on a true story,” Bausch (The Legend of Jesse Smoke, 2016, etc.) opens his latest novel with ruminations. “What happened to me in those two short years may have been a consequence of some fault in the understanding between teacher and student, but it changed the world for me in ways I’m still contemplating. This is not a story about teaching. Nor is it about education, or school, although most of what happened started in a school. This is a story about caring a little too much; or maybe about not caring enough. I really don’t know which. The only thing I know for certain is that I wish a lot of it did not happen.” Readers may feel he should perhaps have settled some of these matters in his mind before embarking on this account, in which the trouble ahead is signaled so often that it is almost an anticlimax when it occurs. By that time, the narrator has thoroughly convinced us of his lack of aptitude for teaching, his immaturity, and his irresponsibility in handling his students’ personal problems. He has one who is being physically abused, another who refuses to speak or make eye contact, and one who is so beautiful that he, a 25-year-old with a live-in girlfriend, is unable to think straight in her presence. His half-hearted attempt to teach writing involves showing the students movies about the Holocaust and having them keep copious personal journals. Supposedly they can fold a page to request it not be read, but in fact, both he and the head of the school read whatever they want. Most of the time, he admits, it’s all so tedious, he just writes comments in the margin—“Thank you for sharing”; “It’s good to be honest”—without even reading what’s there. This is probably exactly what really happened—down to the dog who craps in the classroom—but that’s not good enough in a novel.
Vivid details and tricky situations fail to come together to create a compelling or meaningful story.