Book Reviews: Teachers Have it Easy and What It Takes to Pull Me Through

Teachers Have It Easy: the Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers by Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari, and Dave Eggers (New Press, 355 pages, $25.95) BUY NOW!

What It Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble and How Four of Them Got Out by David L. Marcus (Houghton Mifflin, 352 pages, $25.00) BUY NOW!

Reviewed by Sarah Mayper

You will want to bring these books to the beach or the couch – even though they’re about education. Teachers Have It Easy will make you feel entirely justified in putting on more sun block and leaning back in comfort. What It Takes to Pull Me Through reads like a paperback thriller and will make you remember why you are going back to school in the fall. There are so many books and articles that seem designed to make teachers feel inadequate. It’s a great relief to read one that argues that your salary is inadequate. The authors of Teachers Have it Easy enthusiastically bash myths and point out ironies, with chapter titles like, “Look, Dad, My Biology Teacher is Selling Stereos at Circuit City!” and “It’s Not a Bad Salary If You’re Single.”

There’s nothing in this book that you don’t already know, but it’s satisfying to read your own frustrations and anger articulated with humor and a good dash of political outrage. One of the book’s most important points is that Americans still “see teaching as essentially altruistic…Ask a teacher how many times they’ve had this conversational exchange: ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘I’m a teacher.’ ‘You’re a teacher? Oh, good for you.’ ” What’s wrong with this well-meant praise? It is part of a circular logic which holds that because teachers don’t go into education for the money, we must not really need it. The myth of teacher saintliness actually works against us.

The book uses teachers’ own voices to make its argument. Tish Smedly, a pre-K teacher in Nashville, says, “You get used to it and you go on and you do it, because you know that’s what the kids need…If you plant seeds, you’ve got to buy seeds. If you are going to plant seeds, you’ve got to buy dirt.” This is not a lovely metaphor for education; this is about a teacher shopping for dirt because her district won’t pay for it. After you’re finished reading this book, lend it to someone who is NOT a teacher – they need to get angry, too.

In What It Takes to Pull Me Through, journalist David Marcus follows four teenagers through their experience at the Academy at Swift River, a therapeutic boarding school. He describes the insane lives the kids were living before they came to the school: having sex with strangers, using seven different kinds of drugs in a month, or being so depressed that they skipped school school and slept all day. The sex-and-drugs stories are the ones everyone assumes push kids over the edge, but two of the kids Marcus writes about are in every bit as much trouble without ever doing drugs, drinking, or having sex. One of them, D.J., spent most of his time playing video games and ran away to meet someone he encountered on-line. When a Swift River admissions officer asks him what he thinks is good about himself, he answers, “I don’t know.” When she asks “What would you want to accomplish here?” his answer is the same.

The common themes are not found in substances or behavior: these kids are miserably unhappy and don’t have a safe way to express it.

The book is as exciting as any teen movie, and as real as the kid you see writing DEATH on his arm with a Sharpie every day in class. The teenagers in What It Takes are reminders of what “at risk kids” means. At risk for what? It’s so simple: these kids are at risk of dying. Helping kids in trouble is saving their lives, and as teachers we have to acknowledge this, even when it feels absurd and melodramatic to see ourselves as saviors.

Mary-Alice, one of the profiled teenagers, is asked to write down the risks she took in her life before coming to Swift River. She writes about sexual, social, physical, and other risks. Facing the topic “Life Risks,” she writes “everything I did was a life risk.” I had to love this girl for her honesty, even when her behavior, described unsparingly by Marcus, made me want to slap her.

As the book chronicles the crazy one-step-forward, two-steps back progress of these kids through their fourteen months of school, wilderness survival, and intensive therapy, we root for all of them, and thus the fact that many don’t make it is hard to take. Marcus tells the real, messy, ambiguous stories, without making the kids into heroes or villains.

As a CES teacher, I found this book confirming the importance of the way our schools are structured, since knowing kids well and helping them know each other well, in a safe environment, is exactly what the teachers and counselors at Swift River do. By paying close, deep, and caring attention to the students we teach – knowing them well as we help them learn to use their minds well – we are doing, according to the teenagers in this book, what it takes to pull many of them through.

Sarah Mayper teaches Arts and Humanities to 7th and 8th
graders at the Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, MA