Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Blackboard," by Lewis Buzbee

Lewis Buzbee, who teaches at the University of San Francisco, where I also teach, has written yet another thoughtful, thought-provoking, and enjoyable book: “Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom” (Graywolf, 2014). (See also my 3/9/10 post on one of his earlier books, “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop”). “Blackboard” is, as the subtitle states, a kind of memoir of Buzbee’s own schooling through the years, starting in elementary school. He actually went back and visited the schools he attended, which helped jog his memories, and is also evocative for the reader. He also interweaves his childhood memories with what he observes in his own daughter’s schools now. Buzbee writes beautifully and persuasively about the power of teachers and education. He is a great supporter of public education, and gives example after example of specific teachers and specific things they did to educate, encourage, and inspire him. He freely states that because of certain difficulties in his early life, especially the death of his father, he could have easily gone off the rails and gotten into trouble, and even started in that direction, but that over and over again it was dedicated and caring teachers who took the time and effort to go beyond their normal duties and help and guide him. This is such a good response to, and countering of, the too-often-heard negative comments about teachers these days. And interestingly, Buzbee, as mentioned above, became not only a writer but also a teacher (at the college level) himself. The book is full of vivid, telling and intriguing details, and bursting with the sense of how things actually happen in real-life classrooms. We feel we know Mrs. Moody and her kindergarten classroom, including how it was set up. We learn about Mrs. Talley and the first grade classroom, and about Buzbee’s crush on Miss Cleveland, his second grade teacher. We meet several other amazing teachers Buzbee had in middle school, high school, and college. We hear how he fell in love with books, largely because of his teachers, and how reading became so central to his life and his future as a writer. As someone who comes from a family of teachers –- grandparents, great-aunt, aunt, mother, brothers, sister-in-law -- I am happy to see this kind of recognition of what good teachers do, day in and day out, and how they influence generations of young people. But this book is not didactic or (only) message-centered; it is an engaging memoir and story. “Blackboard” is a small book that will inspire readers in a big way; it certainly inspired me.

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