The Cool Teacher
Book Review by Jude Joseph Lovell
It feels apt to title this review with that debatable oxymoron. Especially because Peter Kravitz, a retired educator from the New York Public Schools system and a contributor to this magazine, has produced a new memoir that vacillates freely between opposing poles: funny to serious; emotional to dry; slightly narcissistic to justifiably proud; narrow focus on a contained high school environment to broader, macro-observations of the world. This is one teacher’s autobiography that moves in many different directions.
The book is So You Wanna be a Teacher, published by The Sager Group last year. In it, Kravitz, a first-time author but long-time writing and journalism instructor, negotiates some of these transitions more smoothly than others. But thanks to his wit and ability to write concise sentences—Hemingway gets more than one mention here—he mostly avoids the tedium that seems an occupational hazard of a career where you must fill out lots of forms, fight obnoxious administrators, and occasionally babysit trouble-making youths.
Admittedly, he also makes some unforced errors that can apply the brakes to some of this book’s short-chaptered momentum. The result is a mixed bag, but one that throws light upon the unique struggles facing those hard-working individuals who accept the mantle of educating future generations.
Kravitz is a Philadelphia-area native who chose, not under duress, to teach in the New York City school system. Having grown up in-between (New Jersey), I suspect it would require a sense of humor to do this—and no small degree of moxie. The former shows up immediately, in a killer opening sentence that bears inclusion here: “It took a beautiful woman and a frontal lobotomy to rescue me from completing a degree in accounting.”
How do you not read on? This kicks off a series of brief chapters, arguably the book’s strongest, which give rapid account of Kravitz’s battle with serious mental illness as a young man; his recovery and rebound into a blissful state of newlywed wanderlust with a young bride, traveling around Europe; and an epiphany in Paris, of all places, where he recognizes a calling to become an educator. This eventually lands him in Brooklyn, New York, in the late 1980s, pedaling a ten-speed bike to his first job in one of its most underprivileged areas.
It seems that Kravitz had a winning combination of self-confidence, charm, and youthful fearlessness, at least enough to hit the ground running without fretting too much over the odds. He makes some rookie mistakes and pays for them, but he shows an ability to rebound. “I was a battler,” Kravitz writes. “A tough opponent, I fought hard to win.”
But he also demonstrates an early proclivity, perhaps a less common one, to listen. An indispensable seedling of advice planted by his first principal and mentor takes root in the younger “Krav,” as his students would come to call him, and obviously guided him thereafter. He also learns to filter out less helpful “counseling” from older and more jaded peers. His early battles with entrenched administrators are quite funny, especially in Kravitz’s wry prose.
Unfortunately, I found the first half of the memoir to have a bit too strong of a focus at times on the appeal he seemed to have to his female students, and vice versa. This seems to extend to fellow teachers also, women that seem drawn to him or at least enjoy needling him about his looks, his personal life, etc. Kravitz apparently was grounded enough not to make any career-ending mistakes, and frequently alludes to the happiness he felt in his domestic life, especially with regard to being a father.
But he lingers over these occasional pitfalls a bit too long. By the time we reach what feels like an extended account of a war for his attention between two female students, one more strait-laced and one he describes as “the bad girl,” the reader gets the message.
This is unfortunate, because these episodes at least compete with if not overshadow other stories Kravitz tells about his connections with minority students, encounters with violence between youths and laboring to address their root causes, and some challenging real-life events like Columbine or, of course, 9/11. The latter tragedy greatly affected the Long Island high school where Kravitz settled and spent most of his thirty-two years as a teacher. He writes convincingly of the compassion he felt for his charges through these trials and of the ways he tried to be of help.
In the second half of the memoir Kravitz moves off the crushes and the awkward encounters to some degree, perhaps as a way of charting his progress into greater maturity and the prime of his professional life. He delves more heavily into his experiences and considerable successes in two notable areas: coaching athletics, and teaching journalism and creative writing.
In both areas, Kravitz possessed natural gifts and experience. He spent years as an athlete himself and had a short stint as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer before making the leap to teaching. He also is a great advocate for literature, both fiction and nonfiction, particularly from minority voices. Kravitz’s willingness to veer away from standard (and tired) curricula almost certainly exposed his students to influential voices they might not have heard otherwise. His desire to connect with them overcame any reticence he had to stay in his prescribed lane.
As So You Wanna Be a Teacher draws to a close, it becomes a bit of a compendium of student journalists and athletes Kravitz remembers fondly and can distinguish one from another in his own mind. But it is much harder for an objective reader to do so. The names and achievements of these students, and the tournaments and competitions they excelled in, grow lengthy and tend to flow from one into the next indiscriminately.
In addition, while Kravitz does not skimp throughout the book on citing other educators and students who praise his methods as having made a strong impact on them, his decision to tack on a few addenda continuing in this vein at the end of the book is questionable. The inclusion of one of his best journalism students’ longish article marking “Krav’s” retirement seems appropriate, but following that with ten additional pages of students’ personal messages to him upon his retirement seems less so.
Nonetheless, after reading this memoir, I have admiration for both Kravitz the educator and Kravitz the writer. His unassuming but witty style is effective and can be highly entertaining. Sometimes, admittedly, it leads to pronouncements that seem obvious: “Poor leadership … makes it harder for students to be successful.” But it shines in other moments, like when he justly admires his students’ many achievements, or when he takes a minute to sit in his Long Island back yard and reflect on the fruit of his own: “I grew a garden with tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, listened to the cicadas in the tall trees, and drove with the family a short fifteen minutes to wide, sandy beaches.”
In fact, it may be in the strictly literary sense that So You Wanna Be a Teacher, in spite of some hiccups, shows the most promise. Throughout the memoir Kravitz alludes to his own writing over decades and seems to harbor higher literary aspirations.
What I appreciated the most about this lively, sometimes unruly, and candid memoir is the way Kravitz sat down right away and labored right through a crushing pandemic to get it all down in the first place—to memorialize a long and distinguished career. This is a significant achievement that many people entertain but not many accomplish. This initial salvo kicks a new door open to potentially scale higher summits as a storyteller.
Photo credit by Peter Kravitz (book cover)
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.