I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

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Tony Danza (Photo Credit:  Crown Publishing)I don’t know what kind of rock I’ve been living under for the past few years (oh yeah, a big, Australia-shaped rock), but I completely missed that in the fall of 2010, A&E aired a short reality/documentary series called Teach: Tony Danza, which followed Tony Danza as he taught grade 10 English in inner-city Philadelphia for a school year. It’s the kind of thing that’s just random enough, and just awesome enough, that I would have absolutely loved to watch it when it was on.

So when I discovered at work a few months ago that Danza had written a book on his experiences in the classroom, I added it to my mental list of things to read when I got a spare second. And then I promptly forgot about it until Sunday.

I was perusing through the audiobooks when I found a copy of I’d Like To Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had at a markdown price. With my employee discount, it rang in at under $12 – the perfect gamble to take on six hours of entertainment to see me through my road trip to and from Edmonton to visit Matt, who is doing some work there this week.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not always sold on audiobooks. Usually, I can read a lot faster than I can listen – and in the case of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which was my road trip pick back in November, I sometimes feel my attention begin to wander. But Tony Danza is different. I actually think this story works better as an audiobook than a real book because you can feel his passion and emotion come through more clearly. I’d wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is a teacher, is (like me) studying to become a teacher or who has ever wondered what teachers get up to all day. There’s a great review from the New York Daily News and you can also read an excerpt here if pages, rather than audiobooks, are your preference.

The basic premise is this: In 2009, with a cancelled talk show, a marriage on the rocks and pushing 60, Tony Danza (who has a degree in history, which I didn’t know) decides to become a qualified teacher. Through Teach For America (which I don’t entirely understand but appears to be some sort of summer camp-style program where skilled and qualified professionals do their teacher training), Danza gets the credentials you need to teach in Philadelphia, and then makes his way to Northeast High – one of the city’s largest and most diverse inner-city schools.

I have to give Danza a lot of credit. He is very clear from the outset that even though a reality show is being made about his experience, he is taking his year of teaching very seriously. He’s up at the crack of dawn, coaching football, organizing talent shows, taking his kids on field trips, planning Shakespeare lessons and grading papers. He starts a lunchtime mentorship group, the Half-Sandwich Club, and helps kids with everything from homework to planning birthday parties. And when the reality show is deemed to be ‘not interesting’ enough, Danza refuses to compromise by scripting scenes or manufacturing drama. While the show is cancelled and the camera crew is gone before Christmas, he remains with his class all year, showing staff and students that he’s committed to the experience – and to them.

I spent six hours in the car with this audiobook over the past couple of days and I think it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes, the prospect of becoming a first-year teacher (which, next year, will be reality for me) is really exciting, and other times, it’s scary – especially when, as Danza describes it, it’s a ‘second-act’ career. I’m going into a ‘second-act’ career too and even though I’m pretty young, it’s daunting to start fresh from the beginning again.

I found him really reassuring for a number of reasons, not least of which because he cries a LOT in his year of teaching. I anticipate some tears of my own as I spend more time in classrooms. It’s nice to know that’s sort of normal and that even Tony Danza cries sometimes. It’s also nice to see him use experiences from his first-act careers (as a boxer and an actor) as lessons for his students. I know I’m not pushing 60, but I’m not fresh out of university either and it’s really good to know that the years I spent working really hard, travelling the world, and figuring out which careers worked and didn’t work for me might contain lessons that benefit someone else as much as they have benefitted me. I know that this inspiring and moving book will now start slowly making the rounds – first to Matt and my mom, who are both teachers, and then to my Bachelor of Education friends.

This book also really made me want to go track down the seven episodes of Teach: Tony Danza. Check out the preview below. Doesn’t this look awesome?!

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Perfect

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Perfect (Photo: Random House Canada)I read Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry last year and really enjoyed it. It was a hand-me-down from my mom’s book club, which can go either way (some of their choices, like Gone Girl and The Husband’s Secret, have been brilliant, while others, like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, have not been so great).

So when Val, who I work with at the bookstore, chose Rachel Joyce’s new novel, Perfect, as one of her staff picks, I figured it was worth a read. I’ve been craving a little taste of the UK and there’s something about British books that I just love. Perfect is quite different than Harold Fry (this is good, because who wants to read the same thing over and over again?). The story alternates between Jim, who is in his 50s, suffers from OCD and lives in  Cranham Village, and flashbacks to the summer of 1972 when best friends James and Byron unwittingly set off a series of unlikely and catastrophic events when they realize that two seconds will be added to the world clock.

The Guardian did a really nice and accurate review of Perfect, which it called “more ambitious, darker and more honest” than Harold Fry. I’d be inclined to agree. It’s not entirely a happy book, although I was thoroughly entertained by it (and who says all books have to be happy, anyway?). Perfect is a story of friendship, but it’s also a story of family love, manipulation, good and evil – and it’s also a bit of a mystery with a twist ending I genuinely didn’t see coming.

I’ve been plugging away at this in the evenings (alternating with an amazing piece of nonfiction that I’ll probably finish up on the weekend) since classes began in mid-January, and I would say that it’s a pretty quick and easy read. I probably could have polished it off in a night or two if this pesky little thing called homework would stop getting in the way! I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes contemporary British fiction, gentle mysteries and books with lots of talking points.

Night

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Night

Matt lent me Night back in November when he was teaching it to his grade 12 class. But with a stack of final papers to write in my last couple of weeks of the term, onto the shelf it went until I had more time to read. This one isn’t exactly a light undertaking.

Then, the high school student I tutor mentioned that she might like to write about Night for her final exam in English and wondered if we could go over it together. Presto! Motivation to read, and read quickly. So last night, I came home and read it all in one sitting.

Night isn’t a long book (it’s just over 100 pages), but it’s a very, very powerful first-person account of life in concentration camps – including Auschwitz – in 1944-45 when Elie Wiesel was just 15 years old. I’m glad they teach it in high schools, because it works really well around Remembrance Day time. Like all Holocaust books, it’s by no means an easy read. It’s really tough going, actually, because the prose is so distilled and the events are so horrific that you have to keep reading right until the end. It was probably a mistake to start it at 10:30 PM the night before the first day of a new semester, because I just had to stay up to finish it. And then, of course, I couldn’t sleep.

But while it’s not a bedtime read, I think books like Night (which won the Nobel Peace Prize) are really important, especially for young people. It is a story of terror and hopelessness, and also of bravery and perseverance. This story is not comfortable, or happy or safe. But it is true, and I have always believed in the value of truth-telling.  There are important lessons to be learned from the past. And it offers up a much-needed reminder of the way all of us should treat each other in the present – with love, respect, tolerance and kindness.

The Power of Kindness

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Power of Kindness (Photo: Penguin)“Kindness,” writes Piero Ferrucci, “is the universal remedy – first, for the individual, for we can be well only if we are able to care for ourselves, to love ourselves. And then for all of us, because if we have better relationships, we feel and do better.”

I found this lovely little book on the shelf in my mom’s home office this past fall and have been dipping in and out of it at bedtime over the past couple of months.

It’s a quick read, but it’s so thoughtful that I preferred to take it in little pieces than devour it in one sitting. It’s written by an Italian transpersonal psychologist (I know, what?) and explores all the little facets that make up kindness. His argument is compelling – by behaving more kindly towards ourselves and others, we will be better equipped to thrive and to help others do the same.

Ferrucci breaks down the various components of kindness by chapter – Honesty, Warmth, Forgiveness, Contact, Sense of Belonging, Trust, Mindfulness, Empathy, Humility, Patience, Generosity, Respect, Flexibility, Memory, Loyalty, Gratitude, Service and Joy. It’s so simple, but at the start of a new year when many people’s thoughts turn to self-improvement, it’s also very important to focus on what it is that makes us better, warmer, brighter, smarter and more empathetic.

Maybe it’s because I’m going to be a teacher, or maybe it’s because I recently went through a period of major transition, but something about this little book really resonated with me. It felt like a cup of tea or a bowl of homemade soup. If everyone took the time to read it – and took it to heart – the world would probably be a much happier, friendlier, safer place.

One Summer: America, 1927

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One Summer (Photo: BillBryson.co.uk)Bill Bryson is probably my favourite contemporary nonfiction writer. I think I have read every single thing he’s written (even his books on spelling and grammar, which I loved). I think he’s brilliant and hilarious – and he’s got that rare ability to write across genres (memoir, travel writing, history, biography, science) without losing any of his charm in the process.

The first Bill Bryson book I ever bought was as an exchange student in the UK in early 2006. I got a gift voucher for 20 pounds at Waterstone’s for participating in a photo shoot at Bournemouth University (you can see me in the 2006-07 prospectus) and spent it on a copy of the 1995 travel book Notes from a Small Island. I think that because I was just discovering Britain for the first time myself, and Bryson’s dry, witty observations so closely mirrored my own, it resonated particularly strongly with me (There’s one part where he has trouble finding the ferry at Calais – I had similar trouble at Calais with the Eurostar and ended up in a farmers’ field.). It kind of felt like it was written for me, and at the age of 20, I was hooked on Bill Bryson.

I actually started One Summer: America, 1927 back in October, but it had to take a backseat to my practicum and a few assignment-heavy weeks at school. I wanted to give Bill Bryson the attention he deserved, so I picked it back up over the winter break. It travelled with me up to Donnelly to visit Matt in mid-December and I finally polished it off the day before Christmas.

One Summer is divided into five sections, each representing a different month in America during the summer of 1927 beginning in May and ending in September. Bryson covers Charles Lindbergh’s groundbreaking trans-Atlantic flight, a spectacular summer of baseball for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, a sensational murder trial, Prohibition, the beginning of construction on Mount Rushmore, the lead-up to the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression, the advent of talking motion pictures, the premiere of the musical Show Boat (one of my favourites, coincidentally) and a host of other events, both big and small.

What I love most about Bill Bryson is that he never dwells for so long on one thing. He turns history into little entertaining stories (which, in my opinion, is the best way to read history anyway) and his keen observations – especially when it comes to odd or humorous details – make for a great read. Like this review in the New York Times notes, Bryson has a great gift for bringing characters to life.

For example, did you know that US president Calvin Coolidge was presented with a cowboy outfit during the summer of 1927 and sometimes wore it just for fun when his workday was over? Or that the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Montagu Norman “always travelled in disguise, even when there was no plausible reason for doing so?” And then there’s this sentence, which I just loved. “Of all the figures who rose to prominence in the 1920s in America, none had a more pugnacious manner, finer head of hair, or more memorable name than Kenesaw Mountain Landis.” Isn’t that great?

(The New York Times review in the link above also claims that some of Bryson’s facts are wild exaggerations. I’m not enough of a 1920s history buff to know one way or another about this, but I will say that One Summer appears to have a very extensive bibliography and reference notes that are broken down by chapter at the end of the book.)

History is almost never a light read, and I did have to wait for a time where my schedule was a little less intense to read One Summer, but it was well worth it. This would be a great gift for history buffs, social studies teachers and my dad, who gets to borrow my copy now that I’m done with it. Like all of Bill Bryson’s books, I loved it.