Zev Eleff is a Wexner Davidson Scholar who will begin his studies at Columbia Teachers College this fall.  He can be reached at Eleff@yu.edu

The fact of the matter is that teaching and reaching second-semester high school seniors is a nearly impossible task.  And, for a 23-year-old collegian in his first attempt at managing a classroom, the attempt appeared to be a fool’s errand.  Nevertheless, I had to try. 

During my first few weeks on the job, I experienced highs and lows teaching Journalism Literature to students at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys.  I found it difficult to command the respect of youngsters with whom I am close in age. A major turning point, however, came when I arrived one day to class with a special lesson plan.  As the bell rang for class to start, I passed around copies of Janet Cooke’s “Jimmy’s World,” a Pulitzer Prize winning article which appeared in the Washington Post on September 29, 1980.  My students were floored by the story about Jimmy, an eight-year-old heroine addict from Washington, DC.  Teenagers who had spent most of their high school years avoiding classroom discussions jumped at the chance to opine their thoughts in our lively discussion. 

Toward the end of the class one of my quieter pupils, in disbelief over Cooke’s depressing portrayal, called out, “There’s no way this story is true, Mr. Eleff.  It just can’t be!” 

I was anxiously waiting for one of the students to say something along these lines.  However, before I could, another student shouted, “Of course it’s true.  The article was printed in a top newspaper!”

For the next half-minute, the classroom exploded into an impassioned crossfire of conversations about the validity of little Jimmy’s horrific story; until I raised my voice over all the others, that is. 

“Two days after Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for “Jimmy’s World,” she admitted the story was a forgery and relinquished her prize,” I explained.  “The story’s bogus.  We’ll talk about what happened tomorrow.” 

I looked at a classroom full of shocked faces as the bell rang. 

Every one of my students showed up to class the next day, eagerly awaiting the next part of the Janet Cooke saga.  From that defining point on, I had the edge to be an exciting and informative high school teacher.