Saved by the Bell

Author Dan Brown was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Cherry Hill, N.J., where he and his family belonged to Temple Beth Sholom. He graduated from Cherry Hill High School West and Midrashah in 1999, moving on to New York University where he studied at its famous film school. During college, he also managed to teach Hebrew school at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side.

This Dan Brown, as you've already probably surmised, is not the immensely popular writer of the same name who's known to tangle with angels and demons, and decode messages left behind by Da Vinci. But this Mr. Brown's a hell of writer in his own right, and he's just published a wallopingly good book — his first, which is difficult to believe — titled The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle, which recently appeared from Arcade Publishing.

The only touch of exaggeration in the whole enterprise is the use of the term "blackboard jungle." The children Brown taught for a year after graduation from NYU were difficult and troubled, and many were probably unreachable, but they were not the juvenile delinquents portrayed in the book and film that first introduced that menacing phrase to the world. Still, the school in the Bronx where Brown was assigned was in a locale that was hardly a picnic spot.

Like many another 22-year-old college graduate, Brown left the privileged halls of academe behind in June of 2003 not quite certain about what he wanted to do next. He'd made a short film he was proud of, and thought about trying to use it as a springboard to get himself a position on the bottom rung in the movie world. But that didn't sound quite right just yet. He wasn't giving up on his artistic aspirations, just putting them on hold.

In fact, he'd paid heed to his NYU professors when they'd encouraged their charges repeatedly to do anything after college — drive cabs, bus tables — whatever it took, no matter how demeaning, to "keep alive" their "passion for making art." As Brown notes, "Several of my film school pals planned to move to Los Angeles and become personal assistants to talent agents. Others decided not to work their first year out of school, intending to subsist on Netflix, ramen and a word processor. I wanted to live on Manhattan's Lower East Side, which meant four figures in rent. I needed a job."

His career-teacher mom started encouraging him to think about the classroom, and when he discovered that the New York City schools were in desperate need of teachers, he became intrigued by the idea of accepting a job that no one else seemed to want. And so he signed up to become one of 2,400 other New York City Teaching Fellows, as part of a program set up to help solve the chronic teacher shortage throughout the city.

Good Material
Brown's film-school friends considered him a bit touched for wanting to work in the inner city — almost as if he'd enlisted to fight in Iraq. His college roommate suggested that maybe the experience would provide him with good material, even as he eyed Brown as if he were a head-trauma patient.

So 15 hours after he turned in his NYU dorm key, he was involved, along with half of his fellow Fellows, in a placement fair for school assignment held at a South Bronx high school. As it turned out, Brown was eventually randomly assigned to do a "structured observation" of a first-grade class at P.S. 85, located in a bad stretch of the Bronx, near 183rd Street and Grand Concourse. P.S. 85, as he soon discovered, had been dubbed "The Great Expectations School." He was buoyed up by the notion.

And most of Mr. Aaron Rose's first-graders gave him no cause to alter his positive mood. Brown worked with "two scowling boys," Theo and Jihard, on a complete-the-sentence worksheet dealing with pronouns. And though, at times, it was like pulling teeth to get them to respond, at other times he made distinct progress with the boys.

When it was time for him to leave, three of the students presented him with drawings they'd made especially for him. "I walked away from P.S. 85 full of excitement and relief," writes Brown. "I had witnessed no violence, sexual harassment, or ultra-jaded zombie teachers as I had anticipated from my preconceived image of an inner-city school. If confused Theo and moody Jihard were the 'problem kids,' the place didn't seem so bad. At least that's what I thought then."

Of course, Brown was setting himself up for a rude awakening. A rude and crude one, as it turned out. He was placed in class 4-217, which was always designated as "four, two-seventeen" when identified, which turned out to be P.S. 85's designated "dumping ground" for fourth-graders with serious learning and emotional issues. Brown, unaware of the circumstances, conceived of problem children as perhaps suffering from "confusion" and "moodiness," so he couldn't possibly imagine what lay ahead for him.

Even after a few days of violence and acting out among his students, he insisted on being a caring, committed teacher who would prepare wonderful lesson plans and try to teach despite the drawbacks. But we watch as insane behavior, uncooperative or absent parents, and administrators who stay behind closed doors begin chipping away at his resolve, until he is forever frustrated, losing weight, missing sleep and soon beginning to dread waking up on Monday mornings.

Before he begins the book proper, Brown provides a small prologue that tips the reader off to some of the sheer madness that will unfold in P.S. 85 and its designated fourth-grade "dumping ground."

"Even if I had known what I was doing when I punched the chalkboard, I still wouldn't have expected my fist to crash through it. Lakiya Ray's face froze in a crazed openmouthed grin, but the rest of the class looked appropriately petrified. My eyes bulged, and I brushed sweat from my temple.

" 'Mr. Brown, you wiped a little blood on your face.'

" 'Thank you, Destiny.' I dabbed at the red wisps on my forehead and glared at the back wall's 'Iroquois Longhouses' bulletin board, safeguarding my eyes from meeting those of any terrified children. Especially Sonandia.

'I righted Tayshaun's upended desk and sat on it, my cheeks tingling. 'None of you deserve to experience fourth grade like this. Class is dismissed.' "

That was one of the lowest points in Brown's difficult year. But there was that little italicized phrase. "Especially Sonandia." Observant readers will remember that the book is dedicated to three women: "For my Mother, Sonandia, and Colleen/ My rescuers, in the order that I met them." As it turns out, there were several bright, excellent students in Brown's class, and Sonandia was at the top of that unfortunately short list. But Brown had sworn, early on, that no matter what else happened at P.S. 85, he would not try to disappointment her in any way. She is almost taken from him because of all the other dysfunctional aspects of his classroom. But she's permitted at last to stay, and as the author acknowledges in the opening pages of his book, she proved to be one of his saviors.

Often, in the course of his narrative, Brown is told by a fellow teacher that, remarkably, and no matter how he may doubt it, something does get through to these oh, so needy and deprived children. And if there is an overriding theme to Brown's book — and he makes many strong points — it is this: that, even when the classroom seems to be at its lowest ebb, something, somehow is absorbed by the children. As Brown notes, "[A]fter four years of studying storytelling [at NYU], I never counted on a neighborhood of concrete in the Bronx to reveal my world's gutsiest heroes and desperately flawed shortcomers, the craziest violence and strangest surprises, the darkest failures and the most unexpected second chances. What I got was a life-altering tilt-a-whirl ride, all of it more vivid and twisted than anything I could have concocted in fiction."

Readers should probably take it as a hopeful sign that Brown, a once-budding filmmaker, despite his trying year in the Bronx, which he has managed to vividly recreate in The Great Expectations School, is now a full-time graduate student at Teachers College of Columbia University, studying for a master's degree in teaching English.

Colleen, his third savior, is now his wife. She's a teacher, too, one of the author's fellow Fellows in the program that obviously has set him on the path to his future — and which was also the starting point for this stunning book that incisively dramatizes many of the crucial issues now facing the our education system.