Sunday, July 12, 2015

Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story (Jonathan LaPoma)

There are at least two competing ways of sizing up Jonathan LaPoma's very entertaining novel Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story, and both have merit.

(1) It is a scathing comic novel about the failures of American urban education, sort of a M*A*S*H for Miami schoolteachers.

(2) It is a Bildungsroman about the personal growth of a young man who happens to be a Miami schoolteacher for a year.

Complicating matters is that subtitle, to which only a handful of passages in the actual text directly or obviously relate. Who or what are the ghosts here?

If we go with interpretation (2), it helps explain the bagginess of the novel. If it was being edited as a novel with a purer school focus, a lot of episodes would go.

Our 24-year-old protagonist, Luke Entelechy, is a refugee from the Arctic chill of Buffalo, New York, who, despite his ambivalence about the teaching career he has apparently trained for, decides to pursue a job in the Miami, Florida, public school system (which, about ten years ago, was always recruiting, along with every other school system in Florida. That has pretty much ground to a halt). He persuades his buddy Billy, who has been teaching in the New York City system and who has recently come out of the closet, to join him on this adventure, but this has the drawback that Billy is way more ambivalent about the whole thing than Luke, even, and remains so throughout the novel.

Luke narrates, and LaPoma doesn't quite avoid the pitfall that many a first-person novel stumbles into, which is that Luke depicts himself as slightly superior to everyone else. Just slightly, mind, but in a way that could be more annoying than mere braggadocio. We quickly learn that he is better-looking than the people around him, a better teacher than most, way less messed-up than Billy and his new Miami friends (which wouldn't be hard), etc.

At the recruitment fair they attend, Billy winds up getting a job at a pretty decent elementary school; Luke walks into a pit, a low-performing middle school (and middle schools tend to be excruciating to begin with). Of course, just how bad a pit it is provides the substance of a chunk of the novel, although after the first half, the point having been made, the story drifts more into the area of Luke's personal life and extracurricular debaucheries, which grow increasingly frenzied. Here is where an editor looking for the school focus might have started cutting; on the other hand, the crazed M*A*S*H-like episodes do develop a rhythm of their own. (I'm less sure about the side chapters about Luke's Mexican girlfriend and an older Lebanese woman from Buffalo that he gets to consummate his crush on.)

Part of what makes Developing Minds entertaining, but potentially controversial too, is that it is gleefully politically incorrect from the get-go, and grows more and more raunchy as it goes along. Copious amounts of drugs and alcohol are consumed, off-color and quasi-racist talk abounds, and then when Luke and Co. fall in with a couple of players, a telenovela actor and his bodybuilding friend, the sexual action gets explicit and even somewhat nasty. Some readers are going to be put off by the book veering into these extremities.

I didn't mind, but although I'm a teacher myself and have worked under some stressful conditions, and am not entirely unacquainted with partying, I couldn't see myself hanging out with Luke and his friends. The reasons boil down to one, really. It is very striking that the conversations of the young teachers (and the older ones too, for that matter) are almost entirely lacking in intellectual, cultural, and political substance - even pop-cultural substance. That wouldn't cut it for me in real life. When one of the older teachers (significantly called "the Professor" because he moonlights as a college adjunct) drops a mention of the great jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, that was the only glimmer of the kind of conversation I've had with fellow teachers my entire career.

Maybe there is a bit of troubling social revelation here. Although I don't recall any references to reality television in the book, Luke and friends certainly carry on just exactly as they might have learned to do from watching too much of The Real World and similar shows. They enact cultural scripts that are supposed to be typical of twentysomethings, especially in a hedonistic semi-tropical milieu such as Miami. This could be taken as depressing.

Luke's school life is depressing too, of course, as well as disturbingly funny, and the descriptions of it seem pretty spot-on to me. Luke is an empathetic guy, and eventually makes some nice connections with his students - but none of it leads to actual content being learned.

Most urban teaching isn't teaching; it's a species of social work. And teachers are not trained as social workers. I discovered early in my career that I simply don't like teaching under "challenging" conditions. You spend mostly every entire class period trying to get to the Square One from which you could begin teaching. Occasionally the students let you arrive there, but, I always noticed, only as the period was coming to an end. And it's not as if you then start on Square One the next day; you have to go through the whole rigmarole again. Unwilling urban students are virtuosi at wasting time, and LaPoma captures that to a tee, although I think he intends for us to take some hope from the scattered warm moments. I don't, having been there.

As for the "ghost" of the subtitle - my favored take is that we're talking the ghost of the education process, because in Luke's middle school, that's all you're going to find.

Although Developing Minds is all over the map, I found it thoroughly absorbing, and it definitely gives one a lot to think about.   

Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story

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