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Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity Paperback – October 7, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
When New York City poet Gold arrives at the School for the New Millennium in Jackson Heights, Queens, in February, she's the fourth English teacher her ninth-grade classes have had since the beginning of the school year. The school, meant to be an alternative to the city's overcrowded, underperforming schools, claims to develop "New York City's leaders of the future" and employs the philosophy that in a small school (with only 500 students), "students and teachers get to know each other, work together, and love each other like a family." But, as Gold details in this tiresome, sketchy memoir, the philosophy falters when put into practice, and her students are unruly, angry, bored and not particularly lovable. Some ninth-graders read at a third-grade level; others are smart and capable, yet refuse to pay attention in class or complete homework. A few exceptions emerge (such as one boy who discovers writing and the public library), and Gold receives heroic help from the school's dedicated, supportive humanities teaching staff. Yet the author never gains control of her classroom, one she says she "grew to hate," and though she convincingly describes the anguish of that defeat, her narrative lacks the depth and cohesiveness to make the book compelling or enjoyable. In the end, Gold's afterword sums up what readers have known all along: "I learned what I knew already: I wasn't born to be a high-school teacher," she writes. "I learned that being a teacher is tough.... I had no idea how tough it could be."
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
In 2000, the author took a job as a ninth-grade teacher at the School of the New Millennium, in Queens. Because students had scored so low on tests in the 1990s, the New York City Board of Education decided to give alternative methods a try; hence the establishment of something called a "New Vision" school--less hierarchical, more inclusive. But, as Gold points out, the plan was doomed to failure: whereas educators tend to swing between promoting self-esteem, on the one hand, and test scores, on the other, the School of the New Millennium tried to endorse both philosophies simultaneously. The result, if Gold's memoir is any indication, was something that looked a lot like any other school, with good students and bad students, cliques and social hazing. But the pressure to create a "new kind of education" made the atmosphere at the school oppressive. Gold's memoir, in which she introduces us to a number of her students, is stylishly written and sharply observed. It should be required reading for anyone interested in the state of public education. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
The dust cover bears plugs for the book that claim it makes you laugh "hard", and one of them compares the author to Nicolai Gogol and David Sedaris. These are wildly exaggerated, invalid comparisons that must have been written by buddies of the author. Gogol can still have people rolling on the floor after more than 100 years. Sedaris is similarly witty. Both of these authors achieve this because they are able to get outside their own heads and observe enough to provide us with vivid observation of life situations. Gold's characters are more or less one-dimensional -- despite the time she puts into describing them. It's not a lack of detail that's the problem, but the fact that Gold never gets outside her own head and personal emotional life enough to show us theirs. Her attempts to convey the probable interior lives of some of her students smack more of projection than of observation.
This would be a very valuable book if it were truly meant to inform the reader about the school it claims to be about, but it's really just the author's own vanity piece. She uses the school and the students as props in her own interior drama. The book is very unlikely to tell anyone anything they didn't already know about city schools, progressive education or kids. The author doesn't even seem to try. When she spent about three useless, unenlightening, unentertaining pages trying to analyze why she'd always had the hots for firemen, I knew I was going to put the book down early. It never got any better.
What the reader is left with is a severely skewed and clearly contemptuous account of one person's failure.
The responsibility of that failure, the writer would like to you to believe, is everyone else's: the principal is apparently responsible for her failure (and perhaps he was -- she wouldn't have failed if he had never hired her); the students are responsible for her failure (and perhaps they were -- she wouldn't have failed them if they'd expected nothing from her); the other teachers are responsible for her failure (and perhaps we were -- she wouldn't have failed if we had given the author more time and attention than we were giving those same students). And man, is she angry at each and every one of us about her failure. The book is seething; her intention is quite obviously to destroy us as she believes we destroyed her. And again, she has failed.
The veracity of her account is suspect. I am the teacher featured in the epilogue -- the one she claims saw her at Barnes and Noble and ran in the other direction, as if I was afraid her failure was contagious. I have no recollection of this event. I have no doubt she may have spotted me at a Barnes and Noble, but I am sure I never saw her and I know I didn't run away. If her perspective of this event is so clearly divorced from objective truth, it isn't difficult to assume the rest of the book is, too.
I never ran away from Elizabeth Gold. I never ran away from this school, which still stands, and thrives. I never ran away from my students who are full of challenges and possibilities and who enable the adults in the building to keep this well-reputed school growing (even in the face of a never ending onslaught of crushing and misguided federal mandates).
I would never suggest you run away from this book. I would also never suggest you read it... unless you work here... and remember her. In that case, read it: it's hysterical and totally detached from reality.
This book is not about teaching. If you're looking for an inspiring story about making a difference in the classroom, try Educating Esme or Among Schoolchildren. If you want a book about classroom management, you can't go wrong with Harry Wong's First Days of School.
No, Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity about NOT teaching. It's about what happens when things go horribly, horribly wrong. The author is trying to survive, trying to salvage some meaning from the four months she works in a progressive New York City high school. She's a poet. She's untrained. She's working without a curriculum or a vision. Her textbook is incomprehensible, her materials lacking. The discipline in her school is a joke. In almost every way, she's been set up to fail. Yet somehow, some way, she's expected to get these children to pass freshman English.
I loved this book, if for no other reason than simply because she gets it. The author is no saint. She doesn't beam unconditional love onto all of her students. She spends her Teacher Development Day waxing poetic over the silence. She wears her candy necklace to school so that she can feel like a real person, with a real life, instead of a foil for teenage ennui. She has felt the sickening swoop. And she's a great writer, so she can write about all of it much more eloquently than I can. So read it. It will make you smile in spite of yourself.