Ground-level view of an American high school

``I know she has too much freedom,'' the middle-class mother acknowledged tearfully to a friend, ``but I can't give up my social life to watch her all the time.'' She was talking about her daughter, a 14-year-old at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac from the nation's capital. The girl had venereal disease at the time.

It is just one of the sobering vignettes in ``Tales Out of School'' by Patrick Welsh (Viking, $15.95), who has taught English at T. C. Williams for the last 15 years.

After several years of weighty reports from august commissions, the book is exactly the antidote the country needs: a ground-level look at a high school from someone who's been there.

Welsh writes with a novelist's eye for detail and the savvy of a man who reads the papers. He describes the faculty politicking to avoid the slowest students. We see administrators and union leaders blaming one another for incompetent teachers, and how education reforms like teacher evaluation work -- or don't work -- in practice. There are elating moments when a poem takes hold, and the dismaying ones as when Welsh finds a girl in class holding a baby -- her own -- in her lap.

``One of the revelations in writing the book,'' Welsh said in a telephone interview, ``is how bored the kids are.'' Boredom is hardly new. The difference today, he says, is the ``youth culture'' with its cable TV, videocassettes, and cars -- and its drugs, drinking, and casual sex.

The very smartest kids can handle it, Welsh says. But others tend to fall through the cracks. Welsh described in the interview how some black students -- who need reading skills desperately -- stay up until four a.m. watching movies on cable television. Attention spans have diminished all around, he says, and sometimes the only student willing to ``bust through'' a difficult prose passage will be a Korean immigrant.

Many students keep themselves in Guess jeans and gas through part-time jobs, which shift the center of gravity still further. Even the brightest will complain, ``I can't read 60 pages tonight. I'm working.''

Problems like these will not be remedied with merit pay and teacher competency exams. Still less will such devices address the fractured families with which the schools must cope.

Welsh brings out how divorce turns parents into pleasure-seeking children at a time when their own children are in urgent need of guidance. Girls in his classes, for example, talk about giving dating advice to recently-divorced mothers. At a recent crew race, one student turned to a friend and said, ``Hey, is that your father with the nice-looking young chick?''

``Unlike so many of my friends, I've never had to cry on a holiday,'' one of Welsh's students, whose parents had stayed together, wrote in a class essay.

Increasingly, it seems, the guidance office is the center of the action. One mother sought help for her 15-year-old daughter who was paying overnight visits to her 21-year-old boyfriend. The daughter, it turned out, was simply following her mother's example. Another mother called to ask the guidance counselor to tell her son he couldn't take the car the next week-end.

T. C. Williams offers an exceptionally good vantage point from which to observe these changes. The result of the merger of Alexandria's old segregated systems, it brings together the offspring of congressmen and lobbyists with blacks from nearby housing projects, rednecks, and Afghan refugees.

It sounds like the melting-pot ideal of American public education, but Welsh shows how it has become just the opposite. To keep white support during integration, administrators established, in effect, a private school within the public schools by ``tracking'' from the early grades on up. By high school, the patterns are habitual. Welsh shows as well the more subtle barriers to black achievement, such as the derision that successful black students encounter from their peers -- who call them ``Oreos'' (black on the outside, white on the inside).

``Tales Out of School'' is much more than another ``Fast Times at Ridgemont High,'' however. Welsh offers an informed discussion of various reform proposals: He would like, among other things, to provide kids more opportunity for community service. He also cites a number of beacons in the gloom: the Wellingtons moved up from North Carolina and kept 11 children on the straight and narrow. After sending seven of those children off to college -- by ``cleaning white ladies' houses,'' her daughter said -- Hattie Mae Wellington is in the process of getting a college degree herself.

Not least is Welsh himself. He has the irreverent wit of a man who left seminary after three years, and the intense commitment of a man who didn't leave that experience completely behind. After earning his law degree at night, he decided that teaching was his real love. His students are the richer. With teachers like him, you sense, we will somehow pull through.

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