Teaching Lessons: Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?

Ilana Garon, Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens? Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (2014)

WhyDoOnlyAfter receiving Ilana Garon’s book in a giveaway courtesy of the author and River City Reading earlier this year, I flipped through it and then put it back on the shelf. When I finally picked it up again, I raced through it in less than 24 hours. Do yourself a favor and don’t wait so long to read this memoir of four years spent in two tough high schools in one of the toughest areas of the country. It will open your eyes to some of the painful realities of our broken educational system, yet it’s also a joyful testament to the bond between teacher and student that is one of our most universal human experiences.

Ilana (I can’t think of her as “Miss Garon”) writes in a voice that is honest and searching and real. She focuses each chapter on one or two of her students, portraying them with all their endearing and infuriating qualities intact. Her love for them is powerful but unsentimental, and she doesn’t paint herself as their savior. As she makes clear, the lessons of teaching go both ways. There are big problems in her school and its neighborhood — drugs, gangs, abuse, teen pregnancy — and her achievements may seem tiny in comparison. But even small victories, for both teacher and student, gain significance when the stakes are so high. The failures are also real, and discouraging, but no teacher can survive long without finding a way to move through through them, and it is these lessons that have the most impact.

Interspersed with these fairly traditional character/relationship studies are journal entries that Ilana sent to her friends and family while undergoing some of her most harrowing and frustrating teaching moments. These are presented in email format, complete with subject lines like “Weapons of mass destruction” and “Can’t we please get through ninth period without a race riot?” It’s an unusual and effective way to bring some immediate, raw experiences into the more consciously crafted and reflective chapters. (I’m including this review in the “Nontraditional Nonfiction” category of Nonfiction November for this reason.) Frequently dealing with violent and explosive situations, they don’t necessarily try to impose order or meaning upon them, but just tell us “this is what is happening to me right now,” giving an intimate window into the writer’s world.

Ilana is modest about her own qualities, but clearly she has a core of strength and enthusiasm that’s enabled her to carry on with a task that has felled many lesser mortals. (After taking two years off to do a graduate degree, she returned to teaching and also writes an “Urban Teacher” blog for Education Week.) I hope she’ll share more of her experiences with us, as I for one would welcome more “teaching lessons” from this talented writer and dedicated teacher.


23 thoughts on “Teaching Lessons: Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?

  1. Even though my experience of inner-city schools is extremely limited I recognise the highs and lows of teaching from your review of this book. I salute any teacher who is able to return with enthusiasm to a job where too even 10% success is accepted as fair compensation for the 90% mix of failure or disappointment or sheer uphill struggle. Great title too, though I suspect that a whole other book is required to answer it comprehensively!


    1. The title came from student suggestions for topics for a research project. Unfortunately, that line of research was not pursued so we never find out the answer. πŸ™‚


  2. Hi everyone! Lory, thank you so much for reading my book, and for this review, which was so lovely–I think you “got” everything I intended, which is what any writer hopes for. I, too, remain confused by the mystery of why aliens only seem to abduct white people–though a few people have written to let me know of some famous black abductees as well. πŸ™‚ I’m actually working on a new book right now, but it’s not a sequel (despite my current students’ insistence that I should write a new book about them)…but it is also about teenagers. Thank you all so much for your feedback. xoxo


  3. Thanks for this review, Lory. I know Ilana, and I’m happy to read such strong praise for her book. It’s reassuring to know that excellent teachers are committed to staying in high needs areas, despite the challenges. That knowledge helps me stay hopeful about the future of our schools.


  4. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it! One of the biggest appeals for me was Ilana’s refusal to write as a savior, which seems like the only way we get an inner city teacher’s perspective. It was so refreshing to see someone willing to write a book that was different.


  5. Sounds like a great read! I lived in The Bronx for a while, as I attended Fordham University, and I met so many interesting people. For a while I lived in a basement apartment owned by a family that only spoke Italian, so if they needed to talk to me, they had to have their adult daughter come and translate for them. The people in the neighborhood were all from an interesting mix of cultures and ethnicities, despite the fact that Arthur Avenue is known as the Little Italy of The Bronx, so I actually really liked living there.


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