Shortest summary ever: The focus of the novel is the wealthy, privileged, white (well, mostly white) American teenager and what is “the most dangerous place on earth” the hallways of the American middle and high school. Following not only the kids but first year teacher Molly Nicoll, the storyline starts with a tragedy in middle school and then spreads from there – looking individually at each player and how their lives turn, as well as Ms. Nicoll’s experiences and expectations.
What’s good under the hood: I’m a high school English teacher who left a school EXACTLY like this. I can’t possibly be unbiased and thus, this is why I adore this book. Its accuracy is chilling. Each “type” of kid is one that I’ve encountered many times – a B student whose parents push and push relentlessly, the druggie, the brilliant kid who makes stupid choices, the juvenile deliquent, the “party” girl – all I’ve encountered. The entitlement. The parents. The environment. The bullying. The stupidity. All of it is REAL, so if you decide to read this, trust me when I tell you, THIS SHIT IS REAL.
What was bad or made me mad: Nothing. Some have criticized this as cliche’ but in my opinion, a cliche’ becomes a cliche’ because it’s true. Johnson’s portrayal is dead-on accurate and I thought beyond the “cliche'” of any high-school mockery.
What I’ve discovered as a teacher is that behind every “I’m fine” is a student who is struggling. The juvenile deliquent doesn’t become one without a reason. The party girl doesn’t stop caring about promiscuity without a reason. A REASON exists behind every student issue. And typically I find it at home – parents divorcing, parents who don’t care, parents who push too hard. But let me say this – most kids turn out fine, and bravo to any parent for SURVIVING the teen years. It’s not easy. 80% of the parents I’ve met are fantastic, attentive, know their children well and supported me in my teaching endeavors. That other 20%? That’s the part that’s driven many teachers out of the profession. At the affluent public school I taught at, the joke was that you weren’t really a member of the staff until someone theatened to sue you. It happend to me a few times. For writing their kids up for 1 – cheating (which the student admitted to but the parent felt we were labeling her child a “cheater” and 2 – another student for excessive talking, which she admitted to, though felt since she wasn’t the ONLY one she shouldn’t be punished). Here’s my response to that:
So I identified a bit with Ms. Nicoll, though she’s a first year teacher and I’m now 10 years into my career. But I am known as the “cool” teacher. The one the kids can talk to. However, unlike Ms. Nicoll, I’ve learned the lines that you never cross, and that you never allow the students to see you as a friend, but rather an adult they can trust. It’s okay to like an adult! But I related to her mission and the response from her peers. I firmly believe that if you love teaching and show that to students, they will know you CARE. Caring about students is never a mistake. Ms. Nicoll makes some of those, and I won’t spoil it.
The next issue is the parents. Many I encountered had the “not my kid” attitude. YES, your kid. I remember distinctly a parent exactly like Dave Chu’s (the B student), whose parents (when I had him as a freshmen) tried to argue and argue that their child never had a B in his life, nor any discipline issues etc. I watched over the next 3 years as his name popped up numerous times for discipline issues mainly cheating. So YES, your kid. Cheating was a major issue as kids were pressured not to get into college but to attend Ivy league universities, the best-of-the-best, etc… In many ways it was sad. I watched as many students quit activities and groups they loved merely to focus on school. No time for drama or debate or cheerleading. High school stopped being a time to be a kid and everything became about test scores. So if you are a parent reading this, trust me when I tell you, this is reality. Never, ever utter the “not my kid” line.
Recommend to: Those who liked Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes (though don’t expect as much “thrill”), every high school and middle school teacher, fans of school-setting fiction, any book club (there’s lots to discuss), every parent.
Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing for an ARC in exchange for this honest review and for making me love my job and want to hug my “kids”.