Eighth-grade boys are slam-dunking real basketballs into an imaginary hoop in the back of a Brooklyn junior high classroom. Girls are primping in front of the closet mirror. One student sleeps, while another flings an attendance book around the room like a Frisbee. The rookie math teacher is whacked in the head by a rock as she stands, fuming, with her back to the chaos, writing a simplistic lesson on the blackboard with studied futility.
This, unfortunately, is a typical day of school as described by Emily Sachar--education reporter-turned-teacher in one of New York City's 10 poorest public junior highs. The free-for-all is silenced temporarily, not by the instructor but by a frustrated student. "Shut up and let the lady teach!" one girl bellows, and the class falls silent. Sachar, stunned by the force and effect of this command, adopts the student-to-student rebuke as the title of her diary-like book--an honest, sometimes witty but ultimately one-dimensional snapshot of life in a Flatbush classroom.
Sachar plunges into the alien world of Walt Whitman Intermediate School in order to crack open the real story beyond the exposes she has written for New York Newsday. Though she falls short of chronicling the "ongoing civil and human disaster" she expects to find, Sachar does offer a gritty glimpse into the impetuous life of a first-year teacher. She relays the frustration of teaching in a hostile environment armed with meaningless materials and no support. She describes the callous indifference of her colleagues, the contempt and despair of her students.
The book offers some poignant human moments, some elementary tragedy. Shereeza, a frightened student with a lazy eye and a limp, does not know the difference between 30 and 300. A functionally illiterate student voluntarily confesses to cheating: "Mrs. S. thank for passing Pedro, but I no deserve it. . . Pedro is stupid. Pedro will never learn."
On a few occasions, Sachar gropes beyond the daily lesson plan to find out what her students are thinking. She discovers to her surprise that the fidgety Jimmy wants to be a lawyer in the "Court of Supreme," and that the painfully shy Sahadra wants to be a "a star like Whitney Houston."
The principal at Whitman, referred to as a "joke" by some of the school's teachers, rebuts accusations of overwhelming failure by reciting a litany of awards and programs. More than half of the transient students--most of whom are African American, many recent immigrants from Haiti and the West Indies--never graduate from Walt Whitman. The teachers, 55% of whom are black (a particularly high ratio for a New York school), are torn apart by racial enmity, beaten down by bureaucratic malaise and numbed into contemptuous paralysis by their inability to reach the children.
Though Sachar offers no broader context here, the junior high she enters is all too common in New York's decaying public-school system. Close to 2,000 pre-teen-agers are jammed into a building constructed for 900 elementary-age children. Students, forced to sit on windowsills or radiator covers because there aren't enough desks, are burdened by 27-year-old textbooks and their own troubled lives.
The book, and the author herself, are indictment enough of public education in New York City. Sachar, for all her well-meaning enthusiasm, probably shouldn't have been here in the first place--a point she recognizes. It was a job no one else wanted. A St. Louis-born reporter with no teaching experience and little math training has been asked to educate some of the city's neediest students. "Are you breathing? Do you have a pulse? Then you can teach in the New York City public schools," a former Whitman math teacher told Sachar.
Her strongest, angriest chapter describes the agony of assigning grades, and the system's driving impulse to pass kids along who can barely read. "In nine weeks' time I had become just another cog in the insidious machine of education in New York City, doling out to students with virtually no skills some bogus stamp of competence."
But such focused, politicized anger is rare in this book. Unlike "Small Victories," Sam Freedman's textured and enlightening account of a teacher in New York's Seward Park High School, "Shut Up" doesn't get beyond the conflicts within Sachar's classroom to find out why her job is so Herculean. We never hear why the politically potent teachers' union doesn't support new teachers. Sachar never probes the morass of local or citywide decision-making. She never thinks to explain why Walt Whitman has such a huge staff turnover, or why the principal appears to be totally unsupervised. Sachar devotes only one paragraph to the pluses and minuses of New York's decentralized school system, which would answer many of these questions.