The Queen Bee of Bridgeton, by Leslie DuBois, is about Sonya, a fifteen year-old African American girl who lives in dangerous Venton Heights. She and her sister have received scholarships to attend Bridgeton, an exclusive private school. However, Sonya is more concerned with becoming a professional dancer than anything else. It’s not until she attracts the eye of the school’s star basketball player that she becomes involved in the high school social scene. Yet her involvement comes at a price; the school’s “bitch brigade” suddenly has it out for her, and Sonya now has to battle against an anonymous force of lies, rumors, and sabotage.
We know at the beginning of the book that Sonya will eventually have to face the school’s honor council, which is a jury of her peers. They will decide whether or not she is guilty of cheating. We know she’s been framed, but if she is found guilty she will be expelled, and forced back into her dead-end life in Venton Heights.
I loved this book. It was immediately intriguing, and Sonya was a character I really rooted for. The stakes were high in every area of her life, and there were no easy situations. Even her relationships with her boyfriend and her sister were complex when they should have been simple, and the reader was left wondering who the bad guy is. Yet throughout the novel Sonya tries to rise above her situation, and tries to make good choices despite all the obstacles in her way.
It was refreshing to read a young-adult book that did not in any way include a paranormal subject matter. Instead, it dealt with very real issues, like poverty, abuse, alcoholism, bullying, and loyalty. I strongly recommend it.
One reason it hit a chord with me is because many of my students deal with such issues on a daily basis. However, the school where I teach is nothing like Bridgeton Academy; no public school is. At my school you need to really be a threat in order to get expelled, and even then you get lots of second chances before that happens.
I’ve been serving on my school’s rules and handbook committee, where we have been trying to come up with consequences that are better than suspension or expulsion. Neither has been shown to positively affect the behavior of the student in question.
What would you do if a student came into class looking for a fight? Some of them do; they are angry at you before they’ve even met you, and if you ask them to do something simple, like sit in their assigned seat, or put away their cell phone, or quiet down and get to work, they’ll ask you who are you to tell them what to do, mind your own business, get out of their face.
Getting of that kid out your class, either temporarily or permanently, may not benefit him/her, but it will benefit the rest of the students who are trying to learn. Keeping that kid will only show all the other students that your hands are tied when it comes to enforcing consequences; it will teach other students that you can be treated with disrespect and nothing will happen.
I’m going on about this because I’ve learned that there’s a big focus now on eliminating suspensions and expulsions for minority and disadvantaged kids, because they are leaving school in disproportionate rates. Arne Duncan, the education secretary, seems to imply that schools are being racist when they suspend or expel more black kids than white kids. If you look at the figures, I can understand his inference. But anyone who has spent time in a class with difficult kids knows how hard it is to simply survive with your dignity and sanity in place. I rarely send kids out of my class, and when I do I am usually happy to have them back if they are willing to be respectful and follow the rules. A few times in the eleven years I’ve been teaching a kid has been so outrageously bad that I needed him/her out for a day or more, and I’d like to think that this will still be an option in the years to come.
But this much is true: whether it’s fictional stories about private education, or real-life stories about public schools, there are no easy answers.