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Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite
Schooled is a contemporary fiction novel written by Matthew Rockwood. James Hartman eventually achieved his dream of becoming a corporate lawyer at a prestigious law firm, but even as he gamely struggled through that first grueling year of law school, he wondered if he had made the right decision in choosing that career. Maybe he should have worked for a lawyer before taking that step? Hartman’s background would be called privileged in most parts of the country, but on the Upper West Side where they lived, his family was considered upper middle class. Both of his parents were professionals: his mother an editor, his father a general practitioner. They had always been supportive of him as he progressed through private school, but were strangely opposed to his continuing to swim while in college. He did swim throughout his academic career, however; even throughout the endless demands of the law school experience.
Having passed the hurdles of school and the rigors of the bar exam, Hartman found himself in a windowless cubbyhole of a room, a perk in that he had no fellow roommates. He realized that his life was now the law firm -- nothing else. The swim sessions, that had made him feel so alive and had helped in every facet of his performance, were a thing of the past -- as were weekends and evenings spent with his wife, Sue. Once again, he began to wonder about his career choice and whether he really wanted his life to be circumscribed within the four walls of his office. Then he made a decision, one which his mentor and boss, Phil, begged him to reconsider. He submitted his letter of resignation and applied to be a part of the New York City Teaching Fellows Program. The program had fine aims -- to attract highly qualified applicants to become teachers in poorly performing schools. He would be pursuing the necessary Masters degree while teaching and the program would start with an intensive summer spent in group training. Meeting the other participants in the program was everything he could have hoped for. They were fired with enthusiasm at becoming educators, but there were also problems that soon became apparent with his first student teaching course that summer -- Mrs. Lemmons was elderly and seemed to have little grasp of reality as she floundered her way through her classroom instruction. Hartman and his co-student-teacher ended up having to take over for her. Could the system really be this flawed?
Matthew Rockwood’s Schooled follows attorney James Hartman as he trains to become an educator and then finds almost everything he learned during training to be totally at odds with the reality of his teaching experience. I frequently thought of the path not taken as I began reading this novel and found myself wishing that I had heard of the Teaching Fellows Program when looking for a different career path. I was fascinated by the instruction the group received and similarly dismayed by the frustration those idealistic new teachers experience when faced with the realities of an educational system that seemed to have abandoned learning for excelling at test-taking and blamed teachers for the ensuing disappointing results. Rockwood’s story, which is based in part on his own experiences, has that ring of authenticity, and, as an avid swimmer, I loved those parts of the tale where Hartman takes all his stress and pours it into endless laps in the pool. What is success? What is a life worth living? Is making a difference in a few children's lives worth a lifetime of pedagogy? Rockwood’s tale is a thought-provoking and sober look at public education and the disparities of excellence between schools depending on the attendees’ socioeconomic status. Schooled is most highly recommended.