Liza Jessie Peterson is a broke unsuccessful model turned poet, who in the spirit of most unsuccessful artists in New York, turns to education for a living. Her assignment – The Island School, where the youth of Riker’s Island are educated. Wait, scrap that, it’s where they are dumped during the daytime. She’s with them all day long, no switching from math to science to social studies classes, and as a former suspension site teacher, I can tell this is going to be the teaching job from hell. While some of the boys are hard-core offenders, almost all of them behave like rude children (well what do you expect, they don’t want to be there anyway) and they will test her, mess up the room, and do silly things.
Peterson faces a problem of many “teaching artists” who go from afterschool programs into full time education. While the afterschool programs are easier because the kids want to be there, full-time teaching is always difficult because of the kids who DON’T want to be there. If you think that’s a problem in a regular high school, imagine what it’s like in Riker’s Island, arguably the worst jail in the USA. It’s not like you can call the kid’s mother (there’s nothing she can do) or send him to the principal (there isn’t one) or expel him (there nowhere to go, this is the end of the line.)
Here’s a horrible irony about teaching at The Island School, which I figured out on my own. You know how the worst kids will probably come to school late and miss your class? Well not at this school, because they’re physically forced to go at gunpoint! Do you remember the kids in public school who never disturb your class because they spend all their time in the bathroom? Well not at this school, because bathroom breaks are restricted! You’re stuck all day long with the kind of kids who you’d rather play hookey all day.
Peterson does get some info about how the boys got there, but I doubt they’re all truthful. Some of them are definitely guilty of the crimes they’re accused of, while others were in the wrong place at the wrong time (like riding in the back of a car when the driver was carrying a gun and had just shot someone.) Some are in there because their parents can’t afford a non-refundable $2000 bail bondsman’s fee, others are foster kids whose legal guardians probably don’t care.
An advantage that the boys have in going to school is that they can hang out with their friends instead of getting stuck all day with the nasty correction officers. They don’t fight much in the classroom, mostly just tossing ball of paper at each other. Maybe the school is the only place where they can still be kids.