Nothing is more gratifying for a teacher than to have a former student look back and think, Id really be a different person right now, were it not for Mr. So and So. But the idea that that teacher could be Tony Danza is a bit tricky. We tend to typecast teachers, associating them with tweeds or dusty lab coats and hands perpetually coated in chalk dust, so a memoir about the teaching life – and grind – from a Hollywood sitcom star takes some getting used to.
In theory. Because, in reality, about four pages into whats tantamount to a prose-based documentary – Id Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had – youre sure to feel as if youve squeezed into one of those weirdly shaped desks, hoping today is not the day Mr. D drops that pop quiz on you.
Theres a streamlined premise here: Danza decides to make up for past transgressions against his former teachers and, touchingly, his earlier, more reckless self. And so its off to teach 10th-grade English in Phillys hardscrabble Northeast High, a school that has its students pass through a metal detector each morning. Honorable intentions quickly give way to chaos, and no shortage of tears from the students and Danza himself. He ends up going through a crisis of the soul, against a backdrop of brawling girls, break-dancing students and a would-be Lothario who cant keep his hands to himself on the field trip bus. And, oh yeah, theres a TV crew shooting the proceedings for an A&E series, but they bail halfway through the school year, complaining that theres not enough drama.
Anyone expecting Danza to mug his way through the year is bound to come away shaken by the mans sincerity. And he has a knack for turning a phrase. When Danza visits a bright, wayward kid held in the school jail (seriously), theres a Dantean vibe fitted out with No. 2 pencils and overhead projectors.
Overwhelmed, Danza solicits all the input he can from his fellow teachers, and we start to see how close a teacher is to being a student and vice versa. They offer advice and tell me what they believe it takes to be a good teacher. You have to be prepared to play many roles, says an older woman whos been teaching for decades. You have to be a mother, father, sister, brother, social worker, counselor, friend and anything else they need.
That includes policeman, as when a student tries to goad Danza into a fight. Self-discipline prevails, and we see a special, pedagogical kind of will on every page: the will to face a students horrifying out-of-school problems, or the will to devote hour upon unofficial hour to help a kid learn to read and, just as important, to feel good about herself. As they all do when they manage to memorize a poem. One girl is so overcome that she needs a couple of breaks out in the hall to get through her recitation. Meanwhile, Danza makes a compelling argument for the exercise: Its the difference between a pianist playing while reading the sheet music and a pianist playing a piece he has memorized. If you know it, you feel it in your body as if its a part of you. One might add that there is something poetic about being a teacher, especially one who becomes a part of who we are.