LOS ANGELES, 1968: HAPPY RANCH TO WATTS
Welcome to the world of education as Allen Greene begins his first day of teaching and realizes that it takes me than just planning, lesson plans and courage to work with inner city students that are not motivated, often flare up and test you every step of the way waiting to see if you break. Allen Greene is a fledgling you might say just starting to spread his wings in a school that filled with prejudice, racial tension and a staff that is not cohesive, coordinated nor geared to work with students in order to promote a quality education. Set in Watts in 1968 before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, author and educator Terry L. Winetsky relates a story that could be ripped right out of the headlines, real life situations and will touch the hearts of all educators, like myself bringing back those first days of teaching.
As we get to know the students we realize that they are victims of their own circumstances and are often fearful, angry and afraid to take that one important step towards education. When a young girl named Carmine and young boy named Ronnie ask for a poetry class to help them learn how to write verses and understand poems Allen takes the time to create this program but what happens when the higher ups learn about it will enlighten readers to the fact that the bureaucrats think they know best when as educators they forget why they are there. So many administrators get caught up in the paperwork, red tape and the politics they lack compassion when it comes to the students, tolerance for differences and some could not even teach a viable lesson. With fights starting just from a word, glance or dirty look, knives flashed and kids getting hurt, Allen has to think fast, smart and take action before things get really out of hand.
A young mother of 14 named Sandra just wants to get ahead in life but needs motivation. A fight in class and the threat of expulsion as Allen comes to her defense. Needing support he goes to the counselor in charge when Sandra’s mom uses her child for a punching bag and things get out of hand. Ronnie a young boy afflicted with Leukemia and Rupert a hardnosed discipline problem whose only goal is to egg him on. Gangs, poverty, poor upbringing, lack of parental guidance and an Assistant Principal aiming for the top spot in order to gain control but over what and who?
When the staff meets to discuss the definition of prejudice and racial tension within the school and their lives the discussion gets heated, the responses vary and the one person in charge lacks the true understanding of the word and how it reflects within the walls of this school. As the world prepares for Dr. King’s March the students in this High School prepare to join in.
Allen Greene might be inexperienced and have just a few weeks of teaching but you can hear it in his voice, feel the emotional stress in his words as his calling is definitely in teaching and his words hold hard and fast with most of his students. Rules, regulations and not backing down on discipline as a new teacher is far surpasses so many. When an educator looks at each student for who they are and not the color of their skin, their ethnic background or where they come from you know that person will make a difference.
Joining forces with the art teacher, Sharon Morgan, they develop a reading program that is first rate. As students are paired with tutors: non-readers and readers the excitement builds as they work together and progress is made. When you read how this program works and is developed you will be impressed by what the author has created for those that need reading skills and the young teacher that implements his words. As reading and writing staff developer who worked with students in need of extra help and often non-readers this program and what the author relates can be used in any school and at any level.
Then a march to show support for Dr. King and the students and teachers come together for a short while as others sneer and think there is no reason for non-violence. Spring fever brings out the thugs, the cherry bombs and things begin to get tenser and then Dr. King returns to Memphis and someone takes his life. Racial tensions rise, Dr. King’s assassination causes more riots and sides are taken. The Assistant Principal seems more concerned with her appearance and appearances only and really has no feelings towards the students and yet she might win the vote for Principal of a school where the students need someone who understands their educational and emotional needs. Thurgood Marshall Junior High is not any different from any other school even now. Listening to some of the teachers you realize that they are not there for the right reasons and some even hate the profession. Told to teach the curriculum many times there is no room for creativity, teaching to the individual needs of the students or creating programs, as Allen did, to foster success.
As Allen comes face to face with the daily riots, bombs and clashes among the students and faculty, he begins to reassess his career choices but not before something happens that changes his perspective. The death of Dr. King caused friction among many different races sending gang members into schools causing harm, damage and creating more than just dangerous situations. With Allen trying to temper things at times, dealing with Sandra and hoping to get her back on track, another student comes to his aid when a situation gets out of control.
One teacher trying to make a difference while another terrorizes them into submission. What is the truth behind Mr. Nash? What is his real motive for being in this school? Why is he trying to get rid of Allen? Why is he a man of interest? An explosive ending that you won’t forget. A principal that is at his own wits end and other that will change things but will it be for the better? Thurgood Marshall Junior High School: Those that want to learn should be allowed the right to an education. Those that don’t learn the hard way with a no tolerance for violence law which in most cases, not all makes sense. When a situation gets way out of hand and one student is seriously injured what happens will surprise readers as one staff member refuses to help when someone is injured and several others including one student step up to the plate. Enter the halls of Thurgood Marshall Junior High School along with Allen, Mrs. Morgan, Ms. Dorsey and Mr. Schultz and listen to the banter, the friction, the meetings and decide: What would you do if you were Allen Greene? Stay or leave! But, first read the poems of the students in his class and you decide: is this profession right for him?
Friendships that will be everlasting and new ones to come Allen Greene sets the bar for all new teachers and seasoned ones too. If you don’t love teaching and want to make a difference then you are in the wrong profession. Author T. Lloyd Winetsky tells the story about a volatile time in the history of LA and our country. Told by a narrator as he relates the events in chronological order for readers to follow this is one novel that is truly authentic in the history it presents, the atmosphere of the times and the characters he created.
Fran Lewis: Reviewer