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