Marty Babits

The Middle Ground

The Naked Truth About High School

From the inside out

Posted Feb 10, 2016

I am honored to present today’s guest blogger, Ed Boland, whose recently released memoir, The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School, has already attracted rave reviews from Andrew Solomon--author of Not Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon--Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and others.

Before training to become a therapist, I worked as a reading specialist and education evaluator for the New York City Department of Education. I walked some of the same hallways depicted by the author. I can vouch for the authenticity of his vision. Ed’s voice, from the front line of the teaching profession, both gritty and elegant, points us towards needed improvements in our education system with humor, love and compassion.

aleg baranau/Shutterstock.com
Source: aleg baranau/Shutterstock.com

Ed writes:  I knew being a rookie New York City public high school teacher was going to be tough, but tough didn’t begin to describe it.  In my first month alone, one of my ninth grade students hurled a textbook out of the window, another threatened to bring a bomb to the school prompting an investigation by Homeland Security, and one girl stood on top of her desk in front of her 30 classmates and screamed a string of profanities in my face tat were worthy of the Howard Stern Show .

How did things go so wrong so quickly? There were scores of underlying educational and social reasons, but at the root of it all, there was a colossal gap in communication and trust.  My students and I were separated by so much: the chasms of age, race, class, education level, worldview, and life experience.  I was a gay, white, middle-aged, middle-class, career changer with a graduate degree and they were for the most part, poor teenagers of color who struggled academically. There were times when we literally could not understand each other’s language. I would inadvertently use words like inadvertent, misogyny, and affinity, that they didn’t know and they would say, beastin’, wilin’, and dappin’, leaving me scratching my head.

But one dividing factor seemed to trump all others: my sexual orientation.

From the very first week, they became absolutely fixated on the fact that I was gay and a storm of bullying began.  It was sometime covert (graffiti, anonymous voice mail messages and notes) and sometimes not.  They would say “faggot” stone cold to my face.  Given that most of them where in the throes of puberty and the formation of their own sexual identities, it wasn’t surprising that this was such an issue for them.

I had been completely out to friends, family, and co-workers for decades, but in a school setting I was unsure what was appropriate, professional, or helpful to share. Advice from my more experienced coworkers—both straight and gay—was wildly contradictory, ranging from “Are you crazy, why put blood in the water?” to “Take a stand. Come out. Own your orientation publicly and the issue will disappear!” to “I dunno.” Unsure of what to do and lacking my usual confidence, I decided to say nothing public. We shared so little and trusted even less, why should I risk it, I thought.

A few weeks into the year, a veteran colleague counseled me.  “Teachers who make connections with kids over shared interests have a far easier time with classroom management. If you have something to talk about other than school, it opens the door to trust and builds a bond.” I had always prided myself on being able to bond with people with backgrounds very different from my own so I gave it my best. Over the months, I tried to communicate and connect with my students in every way I thought possible. I learned about the sports they played, the shows they watched, and the music they liked.

I spend a weekend listening to the city’s top reggaeton radio station and casually mentioned it in my morning homeroom period.  “Stop frontin’, mister. You don’t know jack about that music.” They were right.  After presenting a lesson plan on graffiti in ancient Rome, my student Jaylessa came up to me after class laughing. “You trying to reach us “ghetto kids” by talking about graffiti, mister? Puh-lease!” My quick study of football wasn’t much better.  An inept performance at a lunchtime pick-up game made things worse. I didn’t know the lingo and I fumbled a pass.

Teenagers are good judges of sincerity, and they smelled my genuine lack of interest. Even I knew it was ridiculous, but what was the alternative?  Tell them how much I was enjoying War and Peace or the great pesto I made over the weekend? My attempt to connect backfired.  Now, I was not just different, I was insincere, a white guy frontin’.

The miserable school year dragged on. And then eight months in, something interesting happened.  On a field trip to a Buddhist temple, my student Stephan asked me:

 “Hey Mr. Boland, you got a girlfriend?”

“No,” I answered, for what was probably the two hundredth time that year.

From the beginning, I had always vowed that if asked, I would never lie about my sexuality, but I hadn’t been directly asked. For whatever reason, though, that afternoon he asked what no one else had: “Have you got a boyfriend?”

Without much thought, I answered with a simple “Yes.”

I realized what I had said as it was leaving my mouth. I looked into the sun and numbly waited for the onslaught. I heard a short giggle, a tiny gasp, mostly silence.

“Have you got a picture?” Blanca asked.

Warily, I pulled out my phone, which had a tiny magenta sticker-photo of my then boyfriend (now husband) Sam on the back, smaller than a postage stamp. They gathered around the phone and inspected the image with care and intensity, as if they had uncovered a rare coin.

“Oh, Mr. Boland’s boyfriend is black!” Stephan said.

“No, he’s not, actually,” I said.

“Oh, Mr. Boland’s boyfriend is Lat-in!” said Nestor.

“No, he’s actually Jewish.”

“Oh, Mr. Boland’s boyfriend is rich,” a voice at the back said.

“No, he actually makes very little money.”

The questions continued for some time and at the end of it something remarkable happened. The kids surrounded me in a joyous (and deeply profane) chorus celebrating love and sex. They were smiling, laughing, and telling me I was lucky and that they were happy for me. I was stunned. Where was all that hate I expected? 

After that day, the harassment subsided considerably (but by no means completely.) The issue largely disappeared.

My colleagues and I spent a lot a lot of time and energy trying to interpret the scene. After much reflection, this was our assessment: They respected that I took a difficult stand. By owning my identity publicly, it took away much of their power to harass me about the issue.  The endless speculation and on-going cat and mouse game ended.  I had spent so much energy trying not to be vulnerable in front of them that when I showed it, they backed down. Above all, I was honest with the kids and they rewarded me. 

In a year marked by failure and despair, I learned one clear and simple lesson: the root of good communication and human connection is honesty.  

Ed Boland is the author of The Battle for Room 314 (Hachette/Grand Central; 2016), a memoir about teaching in a tough New York City public school. He has dedicated his entire professional life to educational, art, and social service organizations as a fundraising executive and communications expert. He lives in New York with his husband.  Visit his website: http://www.edboland.com/

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