by Edward M. Baldwin
Published by Jazlo & Lossi Publishing, Jacksonville, Florida
Reviewed by Michael Jacobson
Remember the name Edward M. Baldwin…it’s likely to become for the classroom drama what John Grisham’s name is to the legal thriller, or Stephen King’s is to horror, or David McCullough’s is to historical novelizations.
His first published novel Learnt is as promising a piece of fiction as I’ve had the pleasure to read. Drawing on his own experiences as a professional educator, Learnt is a tight, well-paced and character-driven work that explores public schools, race relations, families and friendships.
Kenny Houston is a fifteen year old troubled white student with a difficult home life, a tragic past, and what many adults would dismissively file under ‘discipline problems’. He’s spent much of his young years escaping into books, and is more well-read than many of his teachers. But his knack for getting into scrapes gets him sent to Lincoln High School, a bottom-rung institute where kids with either learning problems or disciplinary issues go. Teachers can’t control the students. Many barely even try anymore.
Tony Avery is a young African American teacher with a supportive family and fiancée who, like many beginning teachers, is being sent to Lincoln as well. Faced with students who don’t care, or are afraid to show they do, Tony’s bleak prospect is spending his first job trying to reach kids whom many would probably call ‘incorrigible’.
The issue of language is a factor…as those of us who made it through the system knows, your prospects for the future can be narrow if you lack a good command of “Standard English”, regardless of how you might talk to your friends and family. Dialects may be common, informal and comfortable, and even indicative for all of us as to who we are and where we came from, but Tony knows part of his job is to prepare his students for life outside the classroom…the real world, as it were. And the real world meets us with certain expectations and assumptions, and if we can’t rise to them, that real world can be a hard and cold one.
Tony is no idealistic crusader…he’s bright, he’s capable, he wants the best for his students, but he comes to Lincoln High with no more expectations than does Kenny. Individually, they may view it as a stepping stone from one phase of their lives to the next. With the wrong outlook, a stepping stone can quickly become an obstacle. But with the right attitude, it can go from a trial to be endured to a challenge to be met and overcome.
The novel surprised me pleasantly in that even though it’s a classroom drama, it’s something more than has ever really been offered in such a setting. It isn’t just a parable about the benefits of education, or a scathing exposé of problems in public schools. It doesn’t imply that one wise and caring teacher can change the entire world, or that kids with no focus or support can suddenly become valedictorians in the mere turning of a few hundred pages. It’s positive, but no crusade in unbridled idealism. Cautiously optimistic would be a better phrase. These characters, this school, these scenarios are all rooted in reality. Solutions are never clear-cut and nicely packaged, but if we want to better our reality, the first step is to focus on it for what it actually is.
The drama of the story quite honestly moved me to tears, and it seemed to rise effortlessly with Baldwin’s well-defined and very real characters. As Tony reminds his students, all choices have consequences. For each of the individuals in Learnt, there are choices to be made…some are made by them, others are made on their behalves. Even good choices can have bad outcomes, but that doesn’t make the choice any less good. One can find sometimes find oneself up against a fence, but Tony says it best: “Every fence has its gate.” And if you can’t find the gate…you make one.
Baldwin writes from a place of conscience and clarity, and a compassionate understanding of human nature, even when said nature comes in unattractive forms. In Learnt, it’s not about heroes and villains. It’s about humanity…how we think, how we act, how we love, how we hate. And most of all, how we learn.
To learn more, or to order your copy of Learnt, check out Edward M. Baldwin's home page: