What I’m Reading: The Unteachables

The Unteachables is about a class of seven eighth-graders in the Self-Contained Special (SCS) class at Greenwich Middle School. The SCS class is widely known among both students and teachers as “the unteachables,” kids who teachers just can’t reach and shouldn’t even bother. This year, they’re being taught by Mr. Kermit, a once brilliant and inspiring teacher who quit caring after he was unfairly blamed for a cheating scandal on a national exam in his class twenty-seven years before. If he can just make it to the end of the year, he’ll be able to take early retirement. He’s the only teacher at the school more apathetic than the students.

This is not the first book by Gordon Korman I’ve read and reviewed on this blog. I reviewed Ungifted back in 2014 and Re-Start in 2018. Korman’s books specialize in middle school kids others see as bad or unredeemable who’ve somehow been given a second chance. It’s amazing how much he works this vein without it turning into a formula–the characters always feel real, and the situations fresh. The books are also hilarious. Korman uses something I think of as “plausible ridiculousness.” That is, there are scenes where the characters are just being themselves and doing things that make sense for them, but somehow add up to really ludicrous situations.

An example in The Unteachables is near the beginning, when Mr. Kermit and his class have their first breakthrough. Mr. Kermit hates spirit week because at Greenwich Middle School, every student is issued a vuvuzela to blow and the hallways between class periods become unbearably loud. Mr. Kermit happened to stick up for injured athlete Barnstorm Anderson earlier in the week, convincing his football coach to let him take part in a pep rally with the rest of the football team, so when Barnstorm notices the boxes of vuvuzelas unattended on the loading dock, he has an idea for how he can repay Mr. Kermit. He gets classmate Parker Elias, who has a driver’s license at age fourteen because he has to help with his family’s farm, to bring his truck over, and all the SCS students load the boxes up so they can go throw them in the Greenwich River. Of course, this results in a scene with the students, Mr. Kermit, and the principal and several other teachers at the river, with Mr. Kermit somehow falling in, and his students jumping after him to save him.

My guess is that Korman’s books are not considered “realistic fiction” because of scenes like that, but why does realistic fiction always have to be about kids with drug addictions or teen pregnancy or whatever? Don’t funny things ever happen in real life? Actually, the kids in Korman’s class have plenty of problems, it’s just played for laughs. Mateo sleeps all the time because his dad’s rock band practices in their garage until late every night. Aldo has an anger management problem. Kiana’s not even supposed to be in the class–she was placed there in an administrative mix-up on the first day of school, but because she’s only in town for a couple months, living with her dad and step-mom until her mother finishes shooting a movie and she can move back to L.A., she decides SCS is as good a place as any for a short-timer. It’s not like Mr. Kermit assigns homework.

It’s no surprise that somehow Mr. Kermit eventually manages to get through to his students, or that they eventually inspire him to become the teacher he once was. The delight of a Korman book is the humorous way we get there. I think this one was a couple steps below Re-Start, which I found to be a really special book, but this is about at the level of Ungifted. It’s a great book for middle schoolers, and any parent who picks it up will be rewarded with lots of laugh-out-loud moments and a satisfying ending.

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