'In the Classroom' -- ideological lessons

December 29, 1996|By Elsbeth L. Bothe | Elsbeth L. Bothe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"In the Classroom: Dispatches from an Inner-City School That Works," by Mark Gerson. The Free Press. 258 pages. $23.

Mark Gerson spent his 1995 school year between Williams College and Yale Law School teaching at a Catholic inner-city high school in Jersey City, 20 miles and light-years away from the affluent, intellectually oriented suburban public school where lives.

This book presents an entertaining travelogue of Gerson's adventures into the educational underworld. It is touted more audaciously as "a beacon of hope for our beleaguered education system." The story is enlightening. The light is chimerical.

The writer is exceedingly precocious. At age 23 he has long since outgrown juvenile tendencies toward liberality, to become a pre-eminent spokesman for neoconservatism, a movement once described by Gerson as "the New York intellectuals and their compatriots who opposed the counterculture and its various permutations." Looking askance upon hippies, welfare, quotas, feminists and porn, neoconservatives embrace free enterprise, school vouchers, states' rights, the right wing of the Republican Party.

Gerson's vantage is ideal: St. Luke's, an impoverished parochial school catering to poor families somehow able to scrape up low tuition for students comprising an ethnic mix of just about everything but middle-class whites. He is assigned to teach sophomores: old enough to opinionate and procreate, too young for jail or independence. Street-smart in Jersey City, many have never set foot in the big town across the Hudson.

Nevertheless, Gerson is teaching to the converted. Listen to his students: "Free money going to people who sit home and do nothing. ... Having more babies just to get more money. ... These people should get their behinds up and a job because I [age 15] am sick and tired of supporting them."

When it doesn't suit, the Republican role model eschews lessons in logic. Gerson's charges overwhelmingly favor Democrats because "Republicans tend to want to get lower class and poor citizens off public help ... to prevent the rich from giving away more taxpayer money."

On affirmative action: St. Luke's kids balk at checking race on a college placement form because "I don't need help from no one who thinks the black man need help." The best help Gerson offers is to straighten out the speakers' grammar. He also improves basketball etiquette on a decrepit court from slam-dunk to dribble-and-pass, and music appreciation from rap jazz.

The "inner-city school that works" closes classes at 12:30 p.m. so students can go to jobs that help support single-parent families and pay tuition that would have mitigated had Jersey voters favored a proposition for $1,000 vouchers. When the star must desert the debating team, tearing up potential tickets to college because her family lost welfare, Gerson lets her go without a thought to the alternative of getting her back on the dole.

So what worked? Take it from him, Gerson was an innovative, stimulating and trusted teacher during his singular year spent slumming among the educationally vulnerable. There is no discernible lesson to be taken from it. To put it punningly, he left a Mark. It has no point.

Elsbeth Bothe recently retired as a judge from the Baltimore Circuit Court, after spending 18 years on the bench. Before that she was a criminal defense lawyer.

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