Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity

San Francisco Chronicle

September 28, 2003


Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity: One Season in a Progressive School
By Elizabeth Gold
Tarcher/Putnam; 328 pages; $24.95

"This is Hell. I never believed in it before but now the evidence is in," writes the poet Elizabeth Gold in Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity: One Season In A Progressive School. "Hell" is a 9th grade classroom at The School of the New Millennium in Queens, New York, a "New Visions" school, founded by the Board of Education in response to a 20% dropout rate and tests showing fewer than 30% of eighth graders read at grade level.

This very personal chronicle of Gold's days teaching English at New Millennium, where the goal was to develop "informed, sensitive, humanistic young leaders," is a rare honest look at education for the underclass. Using anecdote and artifacts – like the flyer for a conflict resolution workshop presented by the Theatre of the Oppressed Laboratory – she lays out the mind-numbing chaos, persistent failure, insurmountable discipline problems, chronic shortages of everything (particularly books), bureaucratic nonsense, administrative ineptness, and grim personal lives of her students.

She graphically depicts the implosion that occurs when the self-esteem movement collides with standardized testing. Are they there, the teachers wonder, to challenge the students or make them feel better, no matter what? When Gold attempts to motivate her students with a contest, one of the classroom ringleaders sets her straight: competition is bad, it hurts the students' self-esteem. "We shouldn't try and be better than anybody," the student lectures her teacher.

In the end, Gold offers no solutions for the pervasive failure she documents, other than the false panacea of more funding. But, with a poet's sensibility and a reporter's eye, she is an astute diagnostician. Her classroom account is an education.