Author: John Arthur Long

Publisher: Vellum Publishing, Inc.

ISBN-13: 978-0-9897651-2-1

What an interesting surprise. I expected some revelations about high schools, perhaps an updated UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE (1965). Back then, Bel Kaufman wrote shockingly yet humorously about a new teacher wrestling with the public education bureaucracy in New York City. After its launch, the book was adapted to film and stage and ultimately sold six million copies. Scott Simon (National Public Radio), commenting on Kaufman’s death in 2014, described the work as “both an alarm bell and a love letter.” Notably, Kaufman explained what a teacher’s daily life was like and what changes were taking place. Not many people knew what a classroom had become by the mid-twentieth century. This Ukrainian immigrant with a degree from Hunter College put her finger on it.

Half a century later, The Mean shows us a radical transformation of schools since desegregation and decentralization, including extreme parental angst in the face of frequent violence, drugs, sexual explicitness – essentially the obliteration of childhood -- and unanticipated communication technology. Brian Scarlucci, narrator of this novel, is an assistant principal, which puts him in the path of every catastrophe that happens at Central High on Long Island. The story opens with a visit from a burly father named Salvatore Mordento, who murders for a living but wants his son Joey to be a successful student. After many infractions, Joey has recently turned a corner, and the grateful mafia member presents his thanks in two envelopes of one-hundred-dollar bills, one for Scarlucci and one for the teacher who made a difference. Finding a way to return $50,000 is a leit motif throughout the episodes of gang activity, teen drama, and teacher shortcomings. As if that’s not enough to contend with, THE MEAN is a thriller, too, as the sections of the book are punctuated with scenes in which assassins prepare to attack the school using sarin gas in the AC ducts. This complication is tied to Angel Jehmar, a female student who is dressing provocatively to get attention from males in her father’s absence from her life. Mr. Jehmar is going to make a rare appearance at the school between trips as a controversial international negotiator.

What makes The Mean a surprise is the parallel story that, in my opinion, renders the book unsuitable for young adults, but prime material for examining our contemporary work/life conflicts. The narrator reveals his own shortcomings as a human being, specifically as a husband, whose wife became a paraplegic one year into their marriage. Having been denied of their full physical intimacy for years, he still adores her and is caring, but also has a lover (not the first) and a secret apartment between his office and home. The woman he enjoys is a teacher at his school, a divorcee, but on the same crazy planet that educators share. Their relationship gives increasing emotional heft and truth to the story. Even more potent is his buddy relationship with Ken Valentine, the African-American teacher who is succeeding with so many troubled teens. Mr. Valentine leads meditation sessions in class, using musical recordings on iPads, strictly against the rules. Readers know that meditation recently has been studied scientifically for its positive effects on the brain, but the narrator leaves open the question as to whether a higher awareness (a clearer thought process, if not consciousness) can be produced by concentrating on the sounds of Tibetan gongs. Although even Scarlucci pokes fun at pop-Zen, he makes a good case for his friend’s advice: “Just listen.”

I especially like the way the author celebrates books, those old-fashioned vehicles for learning. In what might be a howler of a situation, were it not so serious, the metaphorical idea of books as potentially lifesaving becomes material. This is one example of how deft this author is in his construction of a meaning filled plot. A collection of amusing episodes and almost-unbelievable characters adds up to a profound consideration of whether or not we are succeeding in our quest for equal opportunity through education. At the core, it explores why teachers stay in their profession.

I finished The Mean just before hearing the news that our state has the lowest pay in the nation for beginning public school teachers. I had committed to reading it, however, because our 22-year-old grandchild has started teaching math in a charter school ranked among the top five in this country, all in the same publicly-supported, privately-designed system. Charges of “elitism” have dogged the model, with its very high academic expectations, yet it has spread to Texas, Washington, D.C., and even China. Now that’s a wake-up call.