It’s been years since the publication of books like Up the Down Staircase, Among Schoolchildren, and Teacher Man. In Teacher Man, just two words, “I’ll try,” constitute the final chapter. It is Frank McCourt’s response to the call, “Hey, Mr. McCourt, you should write a book.” I, too, have tried to write a book that would be worthy of my students. I offer Baffled by Black and White: Teaching in an Urban School and Unlearning Assumptions about Race.
My Princeton friends invariably asked me, “What is it like to teach at Trenton High?” My memoir about my experience at Trenton Central High School answers their question and explores my suspicions about why they asked. In my book I describe students who coped with pregnancy, apartment fires, and drugs; students who gave up; and student leaders who wished their school could be like suburban schools. They all deserved a decent education. Yet much of Baffled by Black and White is an exposé. At Trenton High, some teachers dismissed their students early or watched the soap operas in class, and some counselors discouraged students from applying to college because they didn’t want them to be rejected. Nine wasted school days followed final exams— perhaps so that grades could be altered. Nevertheless, student government battled administration and sometimes won. So did the Faculty Senate. Today, the struggle to change a system that values graduation above education and whose subliminal curriculum discourages academic achievement continues. Baffled by Black and White will be instructive for student teachers, administrators, and policy makers.
My memoir also exposes my own racism. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and ready to lead my own civil rights movement, I applied to Trenton High to help black people, with whom I’d had very little prior contact. Careful always to be politically correct but bewildered that my colleagues were seldom like Dr. King, I spent ten (fruitless) years trying to define black people. Mine is an honest, even comic, revelation of my assumptions and idealistic expectations and of my evolution from do-gooderism to what I should have known all along.
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