Today's Reading


*Everywhere in Chains
*The Beacon School
*Azar Nafisi on the Strengths and Pleasures of Literature
*Themes Are Brought Up

A teacher was speaking.

"As we develop a community here, and I see you thinking about a text, your voice is as important as my voice. What you say is as important as what I say. I'm standing above you. You have to sit there quietly as I fill the receptacle—you. That's how it goes in large parts of the world. That's not how it goes here. Nino, I'm interested in what you have to say about the text, but back up your points with evidence. And when you refer to each other"—he looked at the others—"don't say him. Say Nino."

Nino looked up. He was a handsome boy with curly black hair, a good smile, and large hands. It turned out he was a carpenter, a catcher, and did magic tricks. He liked doing things with his hands. Nino was a nickname. He was Antonio Ferrante, with an Italian American father, a legal proofreader, and a Jewish mother who had been a teacher.

The teacher went on: "When someone is talking, you will look at him or her, because not looking is a lack of respect. I will not tolerate any disrespect. I will push you hard, but I will not disrespect you. Do not disrespect me. I will take it as a personal affront if you are late."

It was the first class of the year, on September 9, at the Beacon School, on West 61st Street in Manhattan, and the teacher, Sean Leon, seemed to know everyone's name. How was that possible? It was an ordinary tenth-grade English class, not an "elective," a special class that students signed up for (Mr. Leon taught such a class in twelfth grade). Their pictures were on the school website, and he may have scanned the faces. Or perhaps he was just very quick. A few minutes earlier, he had gone through the class list and asked the students to introduce themselves. It's possible he remembered the names from one glance. Later he told me, "It's really important to them that you know who they are."

Clear enough. Identity was the first step toward respect and self- respect. A teacher needed to fix a student's identity, for himself, for the entire class. They would know one another and address one another personally. He did some cold-calling, asking students to name other students. Most of them stumbled and guessed wrong. For some reason, no one remembered the name of Lauren, a girl of mixed Latino and Asian background with long dark hair and a soft smile, who was sitting on the side of the room.

In English 10G, there were eighteen girls and fourteen boys—not an unusual breakdown for Beacon or, for that matter, for many American schools. Girls were generally doing better than boys and staying in school longer. In any case, thirty-two students were a lot, I thought, for an English class. They were ethnically mixed and members of every economic class in the city—from poor families in East Harlem and the Lower East Side; from middle-class families in Queens; from such upper-middle-class precincts as Park Slope in Brooklyn and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Every social class but the rich, who often sent their kids to private schools. At the moment, they were more than a little abashed.

"How are you feeling right now?" he asked.

"Shy and a little nervous."

"Curious and a little excited."

"Anxious, excited—you seem like a great teacher."

"By the way," he said to the Hispanic girl who blurted this out, "I've heard great things about you as well." Had he really? I wondered. There was a pause. "I know I sound like a suck-up," she went on, and he stopped her. "How long have you been in class already?"—"Twenty minutes"—"Okay, I know you, I can read you already. I know you are not a suck-up."—"I'm not," she said.

That's the way English 10G began, with command, with candor, with embarrassment and reassurance. We were to be introduced to the difficulties and ardors of literature. The class would be a cross between boot camp for readers and the anteroom of paradise. Our teacher was a slender man in his late thirties, about five feet ten inches, taut and trim in a pink, long-sleeved shirt rolled up on his forearms, a brown vest, a dark gold tie. He had thinning brown hair, a short, pointed beard. Sean Leon smiled a great deal. His voice was dry, a little hard in tone, penetrating, and he said what he wanted to say, without hesitations or false starts. The accent, however, was hard to place. He had been born in Northern Ireland—a member of the Catholic minority in the city of Derry. His father was an American—a navy guy—his mother Irish, and the family had moved to Louisiana, near New Orleans, where he grew up. But his accent was neutral, certainly not Irish, and I couldn't hear a trace of the American South in it.

This excerpt ends on page 3 of the paperback edition.

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