Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book Review: Love and Other Subjects

By Jami Deise

It is more difficult to get into “Teach for America” than it is to get into Harvard. While that statistic may be alarming to undergrads who would like to spend a few years teaching at poor inner city schools, it’s a positive sign for the country that so many of its best and brightest are willing to forgo starting their careers in investment banking and finance in order to make a difference in the lives of the nation’s youngest, poorest, and most vulnerable citizens.

Carolyn Jenkins is not a “Teach for America” recruit. The heroine of Kathleen Shoop’s novel, Love and Other Subjects, 23-year-old Carolyn is a first-year teacher in an old, overcrowded elementary school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, back in 1993. It’s a time before “Teach for America,” when the needs of this vulnerable population were often overlooked in favor of celebrating the successes of their wealthier cohorts. Carolyn’s classroom is particularly challenging – she has 36 fifth and sixth graders, mostly black (Carolyn is white), all poor, and almost all performing well below grade level. What’s worse, Carolyn’s principal, Principal Klein, has had it in for her ever since she pointed out the shortcomings of his curriculum.

Love and Other Subjects spans not quite the school year – it ends when the school year does, but starts somewhere in the middle – and Carolyn’s classroom and her children are its main focus. While Carolyn has friends and a love life, the children’s stories are so compelling that the subplots seem intrusive by comparison. Carolyn is determined to make a difference in these children’s lives, so much so that she defines Klein’s orders and develops her own curriculum. At the same time, she realizes that the children’s home lives impact their education, and tries to get to know them beyond the classroom.

Shoop does a terrific job of establishing the individuality of each child in Carolyn’s classroom. She goes out of her way to show that each child is different in temperament, curiosity, and circumstances, making sure to avoid easy stereotypes and clichés. Shoop’s years in the classroom and her PhD in education are evident while never lecturing or explaining. The classroom scenes and political struggles at Lincoln Elementary feel heartbreakingly real. Carolyn loses energy sometimes, but she never gives up on those kids. At the same time, the year is a real learning experience for her, and she is able to learn from her children and from advice offered by her roommates and fellow teachers.

Because most of the action takes place in the classroom and the stakes are so high, the novel suffers from some unevenness. The conflicts between Carolyn and her roommates seem petty by comparison, and I found it hard to believe that three college best friends would all find jobs teaching at the same elementary school. In fact, the conflicts could have been more meaningful if each of the three women ended up at completely different types of schools. (At one point, Carolyn’s roommate Nina mentions she had gone to Sidwell Friends, an elite private school where presidents send their children. What a contrast to Lincoln that would have been.) Similarly, I found the relationship between Carolyn and her instant love interest to be less than compelling. Based on the novel’s blurb, I believe Shoop was attempting to write a more encompassing novel about the first year of a woman’s “real life.” But Carolyn’s work issues are so specific and gripping, they overshadow the rest of the novel and make her story too unique to be marketed as a typical tale about a young woman trying to make it right out of college. And the humor in the sections dedicated to her personal life contrasts so much with the drama of Carolyn’s work life that the tone of the book feels uneven. I was also frustrated that Shoop chose to start the novel after Carolyn had already been in the classroom for a while. I would have liked to hear Carolyn’s youthful, naïve, idealistic voice and see her earliest attempts to reach her kids and work with that principal. On the book’s first pages, Carolyn is already a bit cynical and slightly sarcastic. She sounds more like a 40-year-old than someone who’s only 23.

Reading Love and Other Subjects reminded me of all the issues I had with my son’s education as we navigated the K-12 system. It’s the teachers like Carolyn – and, I assume, Shoop herself – that make the difference, that look beyond the day’s requirements and state tests and state-mandated processes to reach each individual child where he/she is and help them up to where they want to be. From a personal standpoint, I was struck that Carolyn was living in Laurel, Maryland in 1993, as that year my husband and I also lived there. We moved out of Prince George’s County shortly after our son was born. The public schools just weren’t good enough.

Thanks to BookSparks PR for the book in exchange for an honest review. Learn more about Jami over at Kathleen Shoop's blog.

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