“SUCK MY FUCKIN’ DICK, MISTER.” When his student Chantay delivered this message to first year teacher Ed Boland in front of their entire ninth-grade history class (all caps in book), all he could think was, “It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.” Chantay was at that moment standing on her desk, screaming these words while miming an imaginary penis — imaginary because she is a girl. It was early in the school year and Boland’s decision to leave a comfortable job placing high-achieving kids from poor homes in prestigious colleges was starting to look like it might not work out. It didn’t — The Battle for Room 314 lasted but one year.

If you’ve worked in a tough school, little that Ed Boland reports in The Battle for Room 314 will surprise you. But it may come as a revelation to some who haven’t been in school for a while, particularly those who think our schools are “failing” because the teachers can’t teach, or the administrators don’t care, or the curriculum’s all wrong, or the disciplinary polices are too strict or too lenient, or because of the failings of educational policy generally.

It’s not that Boland doesn’t encounter any of those intramural issues. In a student-teacher placement at Eugene Debs High School in Manhattan (presumably Norman Thomas High in reality), he is assigned to an appalling teacher who tells an economics class that automobiles are examples of commodities that appreciate in value, something that anyone who has ever sold a used car knows to be the opposite of reality. Nor is he impressed with the teachers union’s openness to his colleagues’ efforts to restructure their teaching schedules. And he has pretty much the same critique of teacher-training programs that you will hear from virtually every student teacher you meet in a tough urban school: “Most of what I’d learned wasn’t even from my professors, but from the shell-shocked first-year teachers I shared my classes with. The majority of our professors hadn’t taught in a public school in ages, if ever.”

But when he says “I feel like I am standing in front of a tsunami with a mop,” he’s really talking about the larger forces that shape the lives of the students who populate his classes. Some of the kids’ stories will tug at your heartstrings — there’s Nee-cole, whose homeless mother (brutally mocked by fellow students as “a hobo”) was for a time “home schooling” her on the subway. And Yvette — when she was in seventh grade, one of her teachers intercepted a note that said, “Yvette blows old guys for a dollar under the Manhattan Bridge.” The teacher says, “We punished the girl who wrote it for spreading lies, but she insisted it was true,” and after being contacted by Child Protective Services, they learned, “It was all true, even the stuff about the dollar.”

Other kids you may be glad that you’ll never meet, like Chantay’s beau Jesus (“a perfect shit,” in Boland’s estimation), whom he once observes participating in a street brawl side by side with his father. And Valentina, a charmer who says to classmate Norman, “What you looking at, you cross-eyed piece of shit?” In the course of the year, Valentina will file a sexual harassment complaint against Boland. His response to learning of the complaint is to joke, “Jeez, between being a full-time faggot and sexually harassing girls, you wonder how I find the time to teach.” But of course, all such claims must be investigated no matter how frivolous. His being gay is at first a central concern for him. He is taunted about it and looks to protect students he thinks are possibly gay, but he finds that when the question is finally answered directly it turns out not to actually be that big a deal.

This book could provide a healthy reality dose for readers. Some may find the dosage too heavy. Boland’s observation, “It was baffling to many teachers that the disadvantaged kids we taught were, in an odd way, so spoiled,” struck a note of truth with me as I thought of the trash-talking, would-be tough guys who come up to me when I’m substitute teaching and ask if I “have a tissue,” apparently having come to school unprepared to blow their noses.

The Union Street School, a combined middle and high school at which Boland teaches (apparently the Henry Street School in reality) is an “autonomous school” that receives Gates Foundation funding. It’s not a charter school, but the principal has greater than usual autonomy in hiring, curriculum, and management. It has an international studies theme that requires all faculty to have lived abroad at some point in their lives. For the students it means virtually nothing, other than that the dish in the principal’s office contains types of candy you wouldn’t find at the corner store. It is located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and has students from all five boroughs, but Boland can identify “only one white child in the entire school,” and notes: “Today, New York’s schools are the most racially segregated in the Union; even Mississippi and Alabama are more integrated.”

When he visits the school’s saintly special-ed teacher, who deals with “[l]earning-disabled. Middle school. Boys […] the trifecta of all difficult teaching assignments,” he makes what for me was the central observation of the book: “things seemed to be different for the rich. I knew plenty of upper-middle class families who had kids with learning disabilities, some very serious. One […] who attended an exclusive private boys’ school […] could barely recognize his letters in first grade,” but after “evaluation, diagnosis, and services […] He went to Princeton and is now at Yale Law School.” Can anyone imagine George W. Bush making it to the White House had he not come from a rich family?

Boland’s suggested changes that might help other teachers succeed where he failed are familiar enough, but he concludes that:

all these systemic issues pale in front of the wellspring of all social problems […] As long as our society and our leadership expect the educational system to singlehandedly reverse the crippling legacy of long-term poverty, the system itself and attempts to reform it are doomed to failure.

This is where the reader’s eyes normally glaze over, because the prospect of actually ending poverty in the United States seems about as realistic a possibility as repealing the law of gravity. It’s just too big a question to actually think about. And yet, this year things are different, now that the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and, in perhaps in a sort of Bizarro-world fashion, that of Donald Trump, have actually put the big questions of wealth and power right out there in front of the body politic. If those questions stay on the table, and only if they do, we can finally begin to talk about doing what needs to be done to “make America’s schools work.”

¤

Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools.