The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson*****

themostdangerousplaceThe place is Mill Valley, California, the most affluent community in the USA, and yet there’s serious trouble in paradise. Although this title is being marketed as a novel for young adult readers, a lot of adults will want to read it. It’s thought provoking and a real page-turner. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. I actually finished this book some time ago, but often I find that the most interesting, complex books are ones I will want to give considerable thought to before I review them; everything I have read and thought has to gel. So I apologize to the publishers for my tardiness, but it’s not a matter of not caring; maybe it’s a matter of caring too much.

My own background is in teaching inner-city teens and street kids, but Johnson makes a good case for attention toward the privileged yet sometimes neglected children of the upper middle class. This sophisticated story features a number of characters—teachers and students—in detail. We follow them from eighth grade into and to the end of high school. There’s baggage and drama left over from middle school that high school counselors, teachers, and administration won’t know about, and it carries over and influences events in ways no one can foresee.

One key player is Molly Nicholls, a brand new teacher whose age is closer to that of her students than to many of the teachers she works with, and who can’t tell the difference between caring for students, and becoming their peer; between the professional distance used by her colleagues to protect themselves both legally and emotionally, versus jaundiced burn-out.  Molly is flattered when students come to her with complaints about other teachers, and she loves it when they tell her that she’s different than they are. But then she hits a crisis point that may abort her new career if mishandled; and the fact is, these new ‘friends’ of hers are going to graduate, while she’ll be left behind with the colleagues she’s alienated.

She just doesn’t get it.

That said, we also meet students that are stuck in a variety of unenviable positions. Young Abigail believes that she is special indeed; Mr. Ellison, everyone’s favorite teacher, spends extra time with her, drives her around in his car. His wife doesn’t understand him the way she does; she’s crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t intend to leave his wife, and that they have no real future together. She might be absolutely powerless were it not for the other power dynamic in place here, that of the socioeconomic disparity between the students’ families, who live in ostentatious luxury, and the teachers, who either commute a great distance, or live, as Miss Nicholls does, in a converted tool shed for an apartment. The relationships and the components that skew them are absolutely riveting.

Mill Valley kids don’t worry about where their next meals will come from; they drive cars far nicer than those of their teachers, and instead of allowances, they have bank accounts and credit cards.  But what many of them lack is parental time and attention, and most of them lack boundaries. And adolescents really need boundaries; they need small, frequent reminders to check them when they cross an important line. Their teachers don’t dare provide the discipline and structure; they need these jobs. And the parents often won’t.

For example, there’s cyber-bullying.  Tristan Bloch is a special needs student whose social skills often lead to miscues, and the primal behaviors of adolescents lock onto those miscues like sharks when there’s chum in the water.  Miss Flax, a teacher that counsels Tristan, makes a horrible error when she suggests that he make a move toward Calista, a popular girl who’s going through a family crisis herself as her mother lies dying in a dark bedroom and her father comes unstuck. Calista turns to her friends to deal with Tristan’s unwanted advance.  The whole ugly mess erupts on Face Book, and the result is tragic.

 

 “Teachers like [Miss Flax] were always encouraging hopeless kids like Tristan to inject themselves into the social scene with ridiculous gestures—declarations of love, blind stabs at friendship—as if middle school were a safe haven in which to conduct these experiments,  when in fact it was the most dangerous place on Earth.”

 

Then there are those like Dave Chu, a B student whose parents will be crushed if he isn’t admitted to an Ivy League college. Dave studies constantly, but he doesn’t have the talent to get where his parents need him to go, and they won’t hear of his entry into an ordinary California state college. Dave’s anxiety turns to panic, and ultimately he’s driven toward an extreme personal solution .

There’s a host of controversial material here, and also limitless potential for students’ reactions to what’s provided. I can see parents offering their child with a copy to read, and I can also see other parents hot-footing it to their child’s middle or high school to demand its removal from the curriculum or even from the library shelves. One thing’s for sure though: it’s generated a lot of advance buzz, and that buzz will only get louder with publication. It’s meaty, complicated, and an unmissable read for parents of adolescents, as well as those considering entering the minefield of teaching.

You can buy this book January 10, 2017, and you should.  Highly recommended!

Teacha! Stories from a Yeshiva, by Gerry Albarelli ****

teacha!I came away from reading this novella-sized (just over 100 pp) nugget somewhat ambivalent. There were aspects of it that I enjoyed, but please note that I read it free, courtesy of Net Galley. If I had paid full hardcover price, I might well have felt cheated. A buck or two for my e-reader? Maybe.

Albarelli spent a year teaching afternoon classes in a yeshiva. I had seen the word used in text without a lot of explanation in other works, and had heard friends and colleagues refer casually to having sent their children to a “small, private Jewish school” when living in New York City. So I came into this—and volunteered the time to read and review it—because I had questions, as well as the slightly voyeuristic curiosity I always seem to experience when examining a culture that is very different from my own.

Several other reviewers on Goodreads.com expressed frustration. They expected Albarelli to come to some sort of conclusion. I felt the same way at first, but after some thought I realized that he had a conclusion. The problem with it is that it’s buried in the middle of what are separate, journal-like chapters, each of which depicts a particularly interesting (to the author, and often to me also) incident or important day at the yeshiva.

Did I get my questions answered? I think so. I did not understand that there are Jewish families living in present-day New York City who speak no English at all, only Yiddish. Chassidic Jews, ultra-conservative, keep themselves apart even by choosing not to learn the language of the dominant culture, but they see value in having their choldren learn it.

Our writer is one-year part time instructor among several who did not blend in culturally due to dress, their lack of facial hair, and the many singular details that demonstrate belonging to a carefully structured in-group. He and the other English language teachers weren’t Jewish, and the kids could tell.

In describing how this yeshiva ran, Albarelli painted a picture that I, as a retired public school teacher, found horrifying. (The rabbi who hired this guy said that public school teachers did not do well in his yeshiva; I can certainly see why.) A large room of 8 year old boys spent the entire morning unsupervised by even a single adult in the room with them. They had a pattern of behaviors that resembled The Lord of the Flies (my comparison, not the author’s), except less organized and more random. Furniture was broken and left in corners; garbage was not always cleaned up, but left on the floor. The students—all boys—disrespected teachers openly when they arrived or during assembly and class time,, spitting on them, throwing things at them, and worse. They did this in full view of other teachers and the head rabbi, none of whom corrected them in any way. If anything, the teacher must be to blame.

Some of the other reviewers took issue with Albarelli’s smug implication, unmistakable, that he was the most favored English teacher, abused least because he was so much better than any other English instructors, and that the other teachers all more or less had it coming. What a joy he must have been to have for a colleague! Don’t let the door hit you on your way out at the end of the school year.

But there were passages suffused with the joy of the teachable moment, when he was able to get some of his students to engage. At times, we are led to believe that every child in his over-sized class was longing to participate during the whole lesson. Given the other things he says, it strains credibility, and yet there can be no doubt that he enjoyed these sessions; they are his main motivation for writing this, at least to my eye.

The conclusion that is buried in the text is that this chaotic, at times bizarre system of education works for this set of children because it is consistent with the way things are done at home. He doesn’t back this theory up with anything factual like home visits; we are to take his word for it.

Because it gave me a glimpse inside a culture that I’d been curious about, I am rounding my 3.5 review up to a 4.0, albeit reluctantly. I would encourage the writer to be more clear about his objectives and organization.

To readers, I advise that if you’re interested, you might check your local library if you believe you’d like to read more, but don’t go out and pay a lot of money for this muddy though occasionally informative and entertaining bit of reminiscence.