Matthew Tully was talking to the teacher in a welding class at Manual High School when he heard a couple of students muttering. "There's the dude who thinks we're all stupid and poor." "I hate reporters," another replied.
Now, technically, Tully is a columnist, not "reporter," at The Indianapolis Star, but you can see the kid's point: Reporters and columnists alike love swooping into troubled schools where they can chat up a few teachers, observe some dysfunctional kids, find an inspirational underdog, and call it a story.
But Tully was doing something different - spending an entire year inside Manual in order to write an excellent series about the school's problems. This spring, Tully has worked up a book based on that experience, Searching for Hope: Life at a Failing School in the Heart of America. Unfortunately, it doesn't measure up to his columns.
Early in Searching for Hope, Tully calls Manual "a school on the edge. It wasn't in chaos, but if school police and administrators let their guard down for even an hour or two, Manual would descend into that." The school, which sits a couple miles south of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, used to max out its 2,000-student capacity. When Tully arrived, in the fall of 2009, it enrolled only 947 students - and by the end of the year that number would drop below 750.
Even getting to 947 took work. When Tully accompanies Manual's principal, an uninspiring bureaucrat, on his visits to absentee homes, they meet a mother whose son missed the first nine days of class. "He's left for school every morning," she says through her barely cracked apartment door. "He's got a backpack, that's all I know."
The kids who make it to school don't fare much better. Tully describes Manual as a place plagued by entropy and apathy. There's no student council and no student paper. The yearbook folded a long time ago because most kids couldn't afford one. School administrators, like the dean who drives a Hummer and tells girls to "keep an aspirin between your knees," seem less lazy than actively sarcastic. It's like they're contributing to their students' problems instead of helping to solve them.
And then there's the actual educating. Manual's graduation rate bottomed out at 39 percent, and it's easy to see why. Tully watches one math class where the teacher teaches for barely 30 minutes in a 45 minute period - and by "teaches," he means that she reads from the textbook and scrawls on the chalkboard. "Of 18 students in the class," he writes, "only four paid attention. The others slept, talked, or texted."
Some Manual teachers do try hard. One spends her own money to keep the theater program going. When only a few kids try out, she rewrites Twelve Angry Men as A Jury of Six. When the crowds are small, she closes the curtain and moves the audience onto the stage - that way her students won't have to stare into an empty auditorium.
But most of the people in Searching for Hope seem happy just avoiding chaos. That might explain one of the book's problems: its story doesn't develop and its characters don't deepen. Tully never returns to that asleep-at-the-chalkboard teacher (or to her struggling students). He brings to life our educational platitudes - lazy teachers, sure, but also apathetic students and broken homes - but those cliches never quite feel like people. Even positive figures never seem to become more complex or to change.
The other problem with Tully's book is the way he keeps injecting himself in the story. Want to know why I hate reporters? Because they write far too many sentences like this: "I had spent a career bugging people for information, and I'd been in tougher locales than this, so I wasn't too worried." Tully never misses a chance to describe "jotting in [his] notebook" or to lament the decline of the newspaper industry.
Searching for Hope, in short, fails to capitalize on the things that can make nonfiction narrative so powerful. But there is one reason we should be glad this book exists. While Tully's columns made a big difference at Manual - his Star readers helped restart the student paper and yearbook, among other projects - the school continued to struggle. In fact, last year the state decided to take over Manual and to turn it over to Charter Schools USA.
This fall, Manual will reopen as a for-profit charter, and it will be fascinating to see how things change. Tully's book has given us the bleak before photo; Charter Schools USA will give us the after. But what we may learn, in the end, is that no one can fix Manual. After the state's decision, the city sent students a simple form where they could mark whether they wanted to stay at the new Manual or to transfer to a different Indianapolis school. A third of the students never even bothered to fill it out.