Through the eyes of an idealistic educator and a hopeful ninth grader in Brooklyn, Williams’ debut novel sheds light on our failed public education system and the declining character of its students.
Minnesota native Annette Kalin arrives at Fort Green Academy High School and quickly realizes she’ll need “more than a college education and a bag of teaching tricks” to deal effectively with her inner-city students. On her first day, she introduces the concept of “active listening,” which she writes in big letters on the chalkboard. The class ignores her, caught up in music, trash talk and cruel laughter. The administration seems just as oblivious. Annette learns that students can expect, at most, a three-day suspension for a “serious” discipline referral, which gives her adversaries an “even more defiant swagger” when they return. There are exceptions, like Rochelle DeSantos, a model student, who gets sick every morning because she’s forced to learn in the crumbling old structure, with no gym and no cafeteria, full of hypersexualized kids who care more about their smartphones than communicating smartly. Williams offers no prescriptions, just a tragic parable with moments of insight—Annette’s eager efforts to understand the “naked vernacular” of her students—and genuine humor, such as when the narrator notes the “duck-like waddle” of tough guys in their droopy jeans. The book cops a pessimistic attitude and gets a bit preachy at times. More nimbly, the narrator dips in and out of Annette’s and Rochelle’s perspectives, including a scene where the teacher attempts, somewhat ridiculously, to conduct a discussion among her uninterested students about a 1943 book on the American Revolution, using Socratic circles. The session, predictably, does not go well. Nor do Annette’s good intentions, which are punished most shockingly.
When the “tyranny of the pack” controls teachers, violence triumphs over reason in this cautionary tale.