A novel about a teen who has been sent to Rikers Island due to a fairly small charge, and becomes stuck there for months due to an ineffective court system seems like a pretty solid read. Plus, the novel is written by someone who spent years teaching at Rikers Island, to top it all off? This should be something good. Looking over some of the reviews for this novel on Goodreads, it seemed to be fairly well received, getting a score of 3.8/5.
Perhaps I would be getting into the novel version of Dangerous Minds, where a teacher really can make the difference in the life of a young, troubled person?
Sadly, I found none of these things to be true about Rikers High, and really feel that this novel was superficial and flat, in the end.
Martin is a teenage boy, sent to prison on a charge of “steering,” which involved him telling an undercover cop where to by weed in his neighborhood. A harmless enough charge, given that we are told time and again that Martin is a good kid. But he gets stuck on Rikers for months, due to what we are shown to be incompetence by his lawyer, and a system that just doesn’t care.
Returning to the prison after one of his failed court dates, Martin is caught in the middle of a scuffle between other inmates, and has his face slashed by a razor blade, leaving behind a four-inch scar that will be with him for the rest of his life.
Eventually he is moved over to another section of the prison, where they send the students to school, so they can continue with their educations, or get their GEDs, or whatever else. There Martin is supposed to find his inspiration, influenced positively by the teachers he encounters, and the new people he is forced to live with.
The story is pretty straightforward, and we know from the start that it is on a finite timeline, because we know that Martin is going to be getting out of prison soon. So we know that he won’t be there to graduate in some heartfelt storyline, where his teachers break down and cry over all the positive changes he has gone through. In fact, he is only in the school portion of the prison for about a week, leading to one of the major problems of this novel: everything is superficial, and rarely goes beyond the surface of what could have been an emotional story about change.
Sure, Martin would love some revenge on the guy who cut his face, but despite feeling angry a couple of times, nothing really comes of it. He is able to stay away from the regular prison issues, and is able to fight off his anger, fairly easily.
All of the characters in Rikers High, Martin included, are pretty flat. We don’t really learn anything about any of them. And this definitely left me not caring that much about them. No details about the lives of his friends are given, so we can’t relate to them at all. There is no sympathy for the characters, only knowing what is happening. The writing in the novel very much felt like we were distantly being told a story, and we were not at all involved in it, as readers. This left the whole story lacking, for me.
The character that meant to be the inspirational teacher, does very little in my mind to deserve that. He treats the prisoners with respect, which is great. He holds their attention in class, but no reason is given why. He teaches them English, and has them do a series of amateurish assignments that are directly from cliched movies about great teachers. For some reason, these tough kids totally buy into these assignments, and really take their time and care to do them well. They even engage in deep conversations during class time. But why? How do they trust this teacher? It is just assumed, from our first meeting with him, that he is the good guy, and people really like him. That’s it, the only explanation that is offered.
In fact, the inmates like all of their teachers, save one. I feel like it’s rare to find a high school where kids like, and respect, all of their teachers, let alone one on Rikers Island. I found the whole school portion of the novel to be unrealistic, and almost pointless. Martin really doesn’t learn anything from the school. We know that he was smart before he walked into the prison, and nothing about that changes during his time there. He feels some kind of bond with his English teacher, which, again, we are unsure of why it is happening, or what it stemmed from.
The author, Paul Volponi, taught at the Rikers high school for years, and states at the beginning of his book that many incidents that he writes about are based in fact. That may be true, but it somehow seems almost too tame for what one would expect.
Another issue with Rikers High is that there is very little suspense in the storyline. Will Martin ever come face-to-face with the kid who cut him? Will he get out of prison (we know, without a doubt, that he will)? What little build up there is, really fizzles into nothing. The head goon on their ward, who controls everything, offers some potential incidents that could have changed the course of the novel, but literally nothing ever happens with him. He acts tough. Martin doesn’t bite. Moving on. There is also the story of the kid in the bunk next to Martin, which I suppose offers the emotional end to the story that it needs. Sanchez, who is going to be soon going upstate to the adult prison to finish his sentence, is looking for a way out. I guess the fate of this kid helps Martin understand something that he didn’t before…no, wait. He definitely knew all he learns before. Perhaps this incident was just something to reinforce the idea that…prison is bad?
Even the “suspense” building up to one of Martin’s fateful last evenings on Rikers, seems to be shallow. There isn’t much more to it than that. We have seen these types of scenes before, and this one was stolen right from The Shawshank Redemption, which did it emotionally and brilliantly. Rikers High, on the other hand, did it without flair or real concern over what was happening.
I did not like this book, and would find few YA readers to recommend it to. I feel that even a younger audience would see through the skimpy characterization and general lack of interesting incidents to keep the plot moving forward. We never feel scared about Rikers High, and it actually seems like a pretty decent place, which couldn’t have been the intention of the author. There was potential here, and not having read any of his other works, I don’t know if this is along the same lines of his other writing, or just an idea that was there, but just didn’t take off.
I think that the average YA reader wants some more depth in the books they read, and I didn’t find that there was much depth at all in Rikers High.