It is interesting to follow up one novel of brevity with another. This novel is another example of an economy of words that can so much which so little. When I was younger I never truly 'got' short novels like this, but as I have gotten older, and learnt to write myself, my appreciation of them has increased dramatically. The Blackboard Jungle is certainly a classic novel but certainly not in the league of The Great Gatsby as a literary masterpiece though.
This doesn't mean it should be dismissed out of hand. I picked this up at the second hand book shop from where I got The Great Gatsby. And like The Great Gatsby I started and finished it the same day. That was three years ago and yet it feels like only yesterday my eyes perused its pages. I suppose when class is met then class it stays, no matter how long ago you struck it. I can't remember why I know this novel though. I suppose haven't been a book worm since very young famous titles are referred to in other books and keep cropping up time and time again, and become ingrained on your mind .
I think I have seen the movie adaptation as well. When I read the novel many of the events were very familiar and I knew that it had been cinematically adapted. I just can't absolutely say yes or no. Of course there have been many famous school based films, with probably the best, and well known, being To Sir With Love, which I have seen. It may be fair to say that The Blackboard Jungle is the most well known school based novel ever written. I can think of a wealth of school movies I have seen over the years but struggle to think of any other literary equivalents besides this.
The novel was written in 1955 and has dated very well. I'm not up to speed on the current American education system but I believe that what Jungle has to say about education within poorer communities is as relevant today as back then. In fact this novel reflects much about poor communities worldwide because poverty is poverty, and breeds the same social ills. In so many respects this novel is the complete opposite of the Great Gatsby. This is about the the poverty trap, its never ending cycle, and how those caught in it dis-trust those who aren't a part of it. Just like the moneyed of Gatsby who have a disdain of those below them, the poor have to those who are above them. Between Gatsby and Jungle we see two sides of the same coin, but from differing social points of view.
The Blackboard Jungle is based in a under-privileged, inner-city ghetto, of an un-named American city. New York instantly comes to mind, but it could as easily be Chicago or Detroit. The community is made up of Port Ricoeans, Mexicans, Irish, Negroes, and the likes. The school is like a polytechnic and attempts to teach poor students a trade. It is somewhat condescending to think that the poor are the only ones good enough for a trade, but in all reality the social cycle of these people sees them good for little else. The school in all its sad reality is, by the powers that be, nothing more than a showcase attempt to look as if something is being done. The sad fact is they are failing and little can be done about it.
The story follows a teacher in his first assignment, Richard Dadier. He is optimistic about his career choice and is keen on teaching. What he finds is a school under siege from its pupils. On his first day the head master tells him,' This is the garbage can of the educational system'. It gets worse as one teacher then says, 'Don't be a hero, and never turn your back on the class'. Good advice, as Dadier quickly learns that these are not empty words. As far as an educational facility goes then it doesn't get any worse than this. Most of the teachers have given up trying and are there only to get their pay cheques.
Dadier though does try and finds he is facing an uphill battle. Some of the young men are quite bright, but the communities dis-trust rubs off on them and they present a unified front against Dadier, even at the expense of an education for themselves. At one stage a female teacher is sexually assaulted and Dadier intervenes. He is then targeted for hitting the attacker and beaten up himself. Dadier cannot believe that these boys can't accept the wrongness of the potential rapists actions. No matter what they will all stick together. What we see is a bunch of delinquents who don't want to learn and are nothing more than future gang members. The concept of lifting themselves out of the poverty cycle is entirely foreign to them.
On teacher believes in teaching and gives it a real shot. But the boys break him along with his record collection and he leaves, never to return to the profession. The novel may be forty six years old but the attitudes of the students is no different from those of today. Lack of pride, respect and direction see them become nothing more than hoodlums. It is very hard not to be angry at their actions, but the reader must step back and look at the world around them. It is dirt poor and will always remain so. There is little to no hope things will improve, and the communities suffer prejudices from the outside. Banding together is all they know and letting anyone in is almost impossible. For all Dadier's efforts, especially with the bright Miller, (who opens up to Dadier and explains the way things are and why ), he realises it is a battle lost before it is started. He comes to realise why so many teachers have left or have just become resigned to the inevitable.
I liked this novel. It has spawned any number of movies on teachers in poor schools over coming the odds and prevailing. The Black Board Jungle sees no prevailing though. This isn't feel good material. It is true to life and a brutally honest look at what goes on in the schools of ghetto America. There is little hope for the students, who know it and don't bother to try. It will make you feel angry at their apathy and lack of respect, but conversely it opens your eyes to the whys. This is what poverty breeds and as a novel The Black Board Jungle is a short and powerful representation of what many of us can only take for granted.
A recommended read that won't take up a lot of your time, and yet say so very much.