In Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way, William M. Akers’s wickedly sly and snarky novel for middle-grade readers, we meet Toby Wilcox, a typical baseball-, submarine-, and fries-loving fourth-grader. He has likes and dislikes, his own interests and opinions, and a nice family who support his individuality. And that is so not OK with Leni Ravenbach, Toby’s new teacher at McKegway School for Clever and Gifted Children.
The reader’s first clue that Mrs. Ravenbach might be a tad difficult arrives in the way she describes herself as a “wonderfully German woman” who believes that nothing is more important than order, except possibly discipline: “My classroom is a sacred temple,” she says. “It is where I do my work. In a way, it is my religion. And if any pupils get in the way of my religion, of course, sometimes I am forced to crush them.” Each day this imposing figure stalks Toby’s classroom in a Drindl and Christian Louboutin heels, eyes peeled for nose-pickers, bottom-scratchers, and—most dangerous of all—free thinkers. It is January, and Toby has just transferred to the McKegway School mid-year. His classmates have already adapted to his new teacher’s fascist sensibilities, but they’re a shock to poor Toby.
Perhaps Toby’s independent streak wouldn’t ruffle Mrs. Ravenbach’s feathers in quite such an undignified manner were she not vying for her fifth Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching; in fact, she’s already cleared space on her mantle for the trophy. “And so,” she explains, “it is very important to me that all the children have a happy semester. And that none of the students is a bad apple.”
One day, soon after Toby has joined her class, Mrs. Ravenbach gives every student a brand-new composition book and assures them that anything they write in it will be completely confidential, seen by no one, including Mrs. Ravenbach herself. But she hasn’t given Toby any reason to trust her so far. She criticizes his cafeteria choices and scolds him for speaking his mind about the quality of the school play. And she can’t fathom why Toby won’t quietly conform to her style of classroom management. After all, she says, “I am your teacher. In order of veneration, it should be: mother, father, teacher, God. No doubt your parents have taught you that.”
Mrs. Ravenbach has a penchant for brutal metaphors (“My voice was as hard as San Francisco Bay when a person lands on it after jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge”), and she rewards her students for a job well done by “allowing” them to brush her hair and massage her feet. Toby, whom we hear from directly only through the pages of his private—as well as his not-so-private—journals, is a good kid who wants to make his parents, new friends, and the cute girl in his class proud of him. But he can’t catch a break from Mrs. Ravenbach, who is determined to extinguish every last flicker of independent thought she detects.
As relations continue to sour between Toby and Mrs. Ravenbach, each seeks revenge on the other, and the conflict culminates in a showdown in front of the whole school. Who will come out on top? Toby is determined to prove he isn’t the bad apple his teacher believes him to be, but, he writes, “It’s awful to be a kid. To be afraid. To wanna say something and not be able to make your mouth work or any sounds to come outta your guts. Somehow it’s worse than anything.” In the battle between a kid and a teacher, everybody always sides with the teacher…don’t they?
Kathryn Justice Leache is a freelance writer who lives with her family in her hometown of Memphis. Her life among books has included work as a librarian and stints as a bookseller at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.
Tagged: Children & YA