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Head-On Collisions A Teacher and His Students Between the Word and the World BY PAUL JENNINGS CHASING HELLHOUNDS: A Teacher Learns from His Students. By Marvin Hoffman. Milkweed Editions. 260 pages. $14.95. 1 t will come as no surprise to regular readers of the Observer that Marvin Hoffman’s book, Chasing Hellhounds, is a fascinating account of his experiences in the public school system. As a teacher, writer, psychologist, social activist, and occasional con tributor to these pages, Hoffman’s varied career has taken him from an early stint on an Israeli kibbutz to the Mississippi freedom schools of the 1960s to one-room schools in rural Vermont. In 1982 Hoffman and his wife, novelist Rosellen Brown, moved to Houston, where Brown had accepted a position at the university. Hoffman soon found himself teaching English and creative writing in Houston’s public schools, first at an elite middle school on the city’s affluent west side, and later at Jesse H. Jones High School, a struggling inner-city school serving a largely AfricanAmerican student body. Although Chasing Hellhounds touches on many different moments in Hoffman’s career, the focus is on Hoffman’s years at Jones. Named after a local financier and political fixer, Jones High opened its doors in the late 1950s to serve South Park, a subdivision characterized by a winding suburban-style street plan and inexpensive tract housing punched out by its developers. These days, however, South Park is a sprawling, working-class neighborhood, mostly noted for its grinding poverty and its low-lying streets that flood regularly, thanks to storm sewers that appear to be utterly non-functional. After one of Houston’s frequent downpours, it’s easy to visualize So -uth Park and its high school as adrift in a sea of political indifference. Some of Hoffman’s best writing occurs Marvin Hoffman Frederic Stein when he provides physical descriptions of the community, the school, and the neighborhood “walkers”: children forced to walk to school down the middle of streets in lieu of non-existent sidewalks, in order to avoid the overflowing drainage ditches. But there’s also an interesting academic twist. In addition to serving the students living in the surrounding neighborhood, Jones functions as an HISD liberal arts “magnet” school, attracting academically gifted students from across Houston. Many of these students are from middle-class or professional backgrounds, and once they leave Jones, are headed for elite colleges and universities. In this sometimes uneasy mixture of “regular” and “vanguard” students, Hoffman and the other Jones teachers come face to face with the harsh realities of urban education in the post-Reagan era: If you chanced to enter my Vanguard classroom, you would hear Kate describing her video project, for which she is interviewing people about their conceptions of beauty, where Seth is writing a short story inspired by his reading of Donald Barthelme, where small groups are seated around their rectangular tables discussing the mythic town of Macondo brought to life by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude…. Next period these same tables will be occupied by students who have never heard of Hiroshima, who can identify neither the combatants in the Vietnam War, nor its outcome. Many of them have reached the tenth grade without having read a single complete novel. Another author might have found Jones’ potent mixture of class and race an irresistible invitation to polemicize over the unsteady journey of public education over the past few decades. Hoffman resists. Instead, he has fashioned Chasing Hellhounds out of a series of loosely connected vignettes, most telling the story of a single student. Sweeping policy conclusions, as a rule, are nowhere in sight. “I have tended to paint on smaller canvases,” Hoffman tells us. “Individual children, single classrooms, single schools.” Hoffman’s favorite subjects tend to be students hanging by a thread: artistic types yearning their way through the school year dressed in black; homeless teenagers raising on their own their younger siblings; the son of prominent leftists who must testify against his own mother in a drug case. In other hands, this approach might have turned into so much talk-show fodder. But Hoffman, who managed to pick up a Ph.D. in psychology between teaching gigs, is highly attuned to the vivid interior worlds inhabited by adolescents, and even in the most daunting cases, through his eyes we can begin to understand the courage and emotional resilience of these children. A common thread running through many of the stories is Hoffman’s affirmation of the restorative and occasionally transforming effect of literature. His eclectic syllabus runs from Shakespeare to Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy \(a dramatic examination of gay men’s lives that ruffles a SEPTEMBER 12, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25