Everyday Icon: The Inner City Educator, Ilana Garon

We chatted with author and teacher Ilana Garon about her career, what it takes to write personal stories and the important lesson she has learned from her students .
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It’s hard not to pick a book titled “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?” off the shelf. (It’s a valid question.) Although author Ilana Garon doesn’t actually take you on an intergalactic journey, chances are she will take somewhere you’ve never been—to a Bronx, New York classroom. Her collection of short stories focus on her first four years teaching at an inner-city high school, where you can still find her at the chalkboard.

Don’t expect a dramatic saga à la “Dangerous Minds.” Rather, be prepared to laugh and be amazed and humbled. Part young teacher memoir, part sociological study of teenagers, Ilana describes her book as a coming of age story for everyone involved.

We had the chance to spend some time with Ilana to learn a little bit more about her book, which was just re-released in paperback, and the craft of writing personal stories.

Where did the idea for your book come from?

When I first started teaching I used to send a lot of emails describing my teaching experiences. The emails got a lot of positive feedback and I realized I wanted to write about school and teaching in a way that was more realistic and less heroic than a lot of the literature that was popular then. I started writing short stories about the students and about the weird stuff that happened daily in school, using material from my emails. Eventually, one of my professors was like, “This could be a book, you know.”

Can you tell us about the title?

I was trying to get the kids to write a research paper and I told them, “You need to come up with questions that aren’t yes or no—stuff you can research.” When I asked if they had any ideas for sample questions, one of them raised her hand and offered, totally seriously, “Why do only white people get abducted by aliens?” And I thought, “Someone should make that the title of a book!” So I did.

Your book is both funny and serious—was that a hard line for you to balance?

I think sometimes the funniest things in life are deadly serious!

What would you say was the toughest challenge you faced when writing the book?

I worried endlessly that, as a white person writing about mostly minority kids, people would say I was racist, or had a white-savior complex, or call me culturally insensitive despite my efforts to eschew these traits in my writing. I stayed up late some nights being worried about this. As with most of the things I obsess over, it barely materialized save for a couple of people’s mean Twitter comments. I think, simply, that worrying about public perception was the part of the process that gave me the most grief.

That, and trying to do manuscript edits while working as a full-time teacher and tutoring on the side. Boy, did I not have a life for several weeks!

What do you hope readers come away with after finishing your book?

I hope people find it entertaining, informative and amusing. Mostly I hope it changes their views about teachers and students in inner city schools for the better, and maybe gives them an idea of what happens behind the statistics and top-down policy decisions.

Why did you want to become a teacher? And what has kept you at your school in the Bronx?

Honestly, I like working with the teenagers. Being at this school a while—more than ten years, now—has allowed me to see families of multiple siblings through all of their high school careers, and I’ve been lucky enough to forge meaningful relationships with many of them. I also think it’s important to keep experienced teachers in schools in high-needs areas like the Bronx, rather than having teachers flee to the suburbs at the earliest possible opportunity.

What would you say is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned from your students?

To laugh more—life is funny! And never to assume I know anything—it’s always better to ask questions when you’re confused.

You’re still a teacher at the same school where the stories take place, how do your current students react to knowing you’ve published a book about your teaching experiences?

Around the time the first edition came out, some kids searched me on Google and realized I was “internet famous,” as they put it, and then my “dirty” secret was out. So I wrote an open letter to them on the blog I was keeping at the time, wherein I explained that I had this other life as an education writer, but that the point of everything I was doing was to shed light on what it’s like to be in a school like ours. And they liked that—they came in with a printout of the blog post and read it out loud in the beginning of class!

At the kids’ request I circulated a bunch of copies of the book around the school for them to read and share. They’ve been really interested in the stories, which surprised me, since I didn’t realize the book would have such YA appeal. So their endorsement has been flattering, though admittedly much of that may be about the fact that I’m their teacher, as opposed to about the quality of my writing itself.

They are really ticked off, though, that I didn’t wait until I taught them to write it. I tell them, “But I didn’t know I’d be your teacher!” And they say I should have known I’d have much cooler students in the future, and saved the book to write about them.

What do you like to do in your free time when you’re not teaching or writing?

I have trouble doing things “for fun”—I think I’m really bad at using free time!

On lazy weekend mornings, I love making myself—and friends—delicious omelets. I serve them with good bread and jam. Breakfast is my favorite meal to make. Then I like sitting around reading the “New Yorker” or watching movies on Netflix, and taking long walks in Riverside Park.

Another hobby I really enjoy is running. I started running seriously in early 2014, as palliative treatment for a badly broken heart. And, it turned out I loved it! This past September, I ran the Via Marathon in 3:39.59, which is not quite good enough to earn me a spot in the Boston Marathon—my ultimate bucket list goal—but still a pretty fast time.

Most recently I ran the New York City Marathon on November 1, 2015, which was number five for me! I didn’t do this one “for time”—I did it for a good time! I wanted to enjoy the sights, sounds and crowds of the world’s greatest city.

p.s. Have you met The Dancer