By Terri Schlichenmeyer
What was the name of your favorite teacher—perhaps the one who changed your life? Even after all these years, you still remember the smell of chalk, the sound of her reading aloud, the way he pulled ideas from your head, or music from your fingers.
In The Battle for Room 314 by Ed Boland, you’ll get a view of today’s classroom—one you’ll barely recognize.
What was a nice, educated gay man doing in a snarling pit of teenage attitude? With sweaty palms and a worthless planner, newly minted teacher Ed Boland wondered that himself. Inspired by teachers in his family, he’d given up a well-paying job to teach, but the ninth-grade class he’d gotten wasn’t what he bargained for.
Because Boland had spent a year teaching English in China, he figured he had a “leg up” on a job at Manhattan’s Union Street School, a combined middle school and high school that focused on history and international studies. He had been led to believe this would be his dream job, and since he’d already worked with “promising” but disadvantaged New York-area minority students through Project Advance, he thought he knew the kind of fresh-faced students he’d have.
Instead, what he found in the classroom that fall were sullen, sometimes violent young adults with attitude, many (if not most) of whom were dealing with absentee parents, drug abuse, poverty, pregnancy, and bullying. Some were in their very late teens; many were unable to write in complete sentences or do age-appropriate schoolwork. At least one barely spoke English.
And yet, with a Hollywood happy ending on his mind, Boland persevered. He hoped to connect with the kids, though they were often uncontrollable. He dreamed they would eventually learn something, though they usually ignored his lessons. And when the year was over, he had considered staying at Union Street, but he just couldn’t.
“I so wish it were a different ending for me and for the kids,” says Boland, “but some stories have to end like a ’70s movie—gritty, real, and sad.”
The solution to the country’s crisis in education, says author Ed Boland, is a multi-faceted one, beginning with more education for the educators. There are other fixes, too, and The Battle for Room 314 offers them.
But that’s not all: Boland, overall, tells a story that’s both shocking and unsurprising—part To Sir, With Love and part battlefield skirmish. There are occasional moments of too much information (involving both himself and his students), but even more moments of frustration and missed opportunities (again, on two levels). What Boland shares left me feeling glum, mostly, but there are shadows of hope in this book—especially at the end, when he wraps up his story with a chapter of follow-ups.
Though you should be reminded that this is just one man’s experience in one school, this book offers hard lessons. Still, if you’ve ever fretted about the state of education—on either side of the teacher’s desk—The Battle for Room 314 goes to the head of the class.
Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.