REPORTS FROM the so-called front lines of North American education aren't new. From dramas such as The Blackboard Jungle in the 1950s to journalistic reports like Small Victories in the 1980s, teachers and writers have long despaired the fate of the young people in "special" schools at the bottom of the educational ladder.
Jill Solnicki's The Real Me Is Gonna Be a Shock: A Year in the Life of a Front-Line Teacher (Lester, 256 pages, $26.95 cloth) adds nothing new to the field, and stylistically it's an often exasperating melange of novel, journal, social commentary, and documentary. From her experience teaching at a Toronto vocational school, Solnicki has fashioned a fictionalized first year as seen through the eyes of a naive, idealistic teacher from the privileged side of town. Two things, though, make this book well worth reading: first, Solnicki is a compelling storyteller with a deft narrative sense and a selfless way of portraying herself - the narrator and main character - in an honest, often unflattering, way. Second, and more important, her compassion for her students shines through in an illuminating, touching manner. She shows us these children as the complex teens they are. Her book serves as a timely reminder that too many of us have simply forgotten about them, or written them off as losers and rejects. Many teachers, however, will rightly protest her portrayal of their profession. Solnicki the character seems in a perpetual fog when it comes to lesson plans, or any kind of planning. While the picture of her students rings true, the picture of the teachers seems irresponsible. Solnicki doesn't spare the school system here, but she quite rightly spreads the blame around for these damaged children. Her terse observations about parents' night, for instance, should be required reading for all parents:
Colin was right: most of the parents didn't come. If these same children had been lying in a hospital ward, as critically injured physically as they were academically, the parents would have been there, consulting with the doctors ... Yet, for those who brought their worried faces before me, what medicine could I promise? What surgery?
This book has a lot of worthwhile things to say to everyone in our society, especially those on both sides of the current debate over "de-streaming."