Erin: Your book about teaching high school English for a year is so endearing. It’s really a love letter to teaching.
Tony: For me, teaching was the road not taken. If you look at my acting work, so many of the roles involve being a teacher. Tony in “Who’s the Boss?” becomes a teacher. I studied history education in college. I wanted to be a teacher. Teaching always appealed to me. Arthur Miller once said, “The best thing you can hope for is that you end up with the right regrets.” I didn’t want to regret not trying this.
Erin: It seems like you were on quest for meaning.
Tony: It was kind of existential, I guess. Why am I here? – that was the question. Everyone wonders, What does my life add up to? My closest cousin died at an early age of a heart attack. I remember my mom dying and the day after…it was weird, everything was the same. She was gone, but everything continued as it had been. It causes you to reflect on what you’re meant to do. We all want to know the role we’re meant to play.
Erin: There’s a part of the book that seems like it’s almost a homage to your parents, to the emphasis they placed on education.
Tony: They were immigrants, never went to college, didn’t finish high school, but they knew school made a difference. My father died died at 62 when I was 32, just as I was beginning to feel, “Hey, maybe he knows something.” I thought about that when I got in the classroom. A lot of kids don’t have fathers around, and I felt a certain responsibility. I myself exerted little effort back when I was in school. I just got lucky, I very easily could have been lost. I felt, “These kids need to hear the message: pay attention, school is important, this is something you must do.”
Erin: In urban areas, there often aren’t a lot of strong father figures. How did it feel when you were teaching that lesson on “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the kids called you “our Atticus?”
Tony: Midway through the year, one girl, Nikiya, actually started calling me “dad.” The character Atticus, maybe our greatest hero (whom Gregory Peck played in the film), represented someone who cared, who listened, who wouldn’t yell at them. I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to live up to the image my students had of me. These kids have such huge needs. It’s scary.
Erin: You had this dual reality – you had both your classroom family and your family back in L.A. What was it like balancing both?
Tony: I hoped the teaching thing was something my wife and kids would be proud of. Especially my kids. That was a secret motivation, I guess. But there was also something else I hoped my kids would get out of it. They’re privileged, having been brought up in L.A. with access to a lot of nice things. So, though they’d go to the mission to help out, get involved in various charities, they didn’t have much sense of the type of lives my classroom kids were living. So that was one of my hopes for the project, too -- to give them a reality check, show them what life could be like.
Erin: Anyone who reads this book will feel that you’re really committed to teaching as a craft – that you think of it as a noble profession.
Tony: It certainly is. It’s maybe the most important job there is. There came a point where I thought, Wow, this is really tough – can I even stick out the year? But then you see the commitment of the people around you, the long days some people are putting in, that responsibility they have of dealing with 150 kids each (my load wasn’t at that level) and so much need. From that perspective, one year doesn’t seem like that big a deal. It’s funny, though, at night I’d be totally stressed, thinking about the day I’d had, what I’d failed to get right. But somehow in the morning, I was all pumped up, I had this newfound verve. And then the first kid I’d see at school, the very first kid, I would smile at him and say, “Good morning” and he would scowl at me, and when that happens you just have to re-commit.
Erin: What was toughest part of the job?
Tony: Well, kids walk in and right away they’re broadcasting this message: engage me. They tend to not take responsibility for their own education, though eventually most of the kids in my class did, which was wonderful. I think the toughest part was that there’s a certain Catch-22. Kids will not work for you unless you show that you like them. But once you show them that, they open up to you in a big way. They tell you secrets – sometimes heartbreaking secrets – and then what do you do?
Erin: Did you actually cry in class?
Tony: Oh yeah. At first it was a crisis of confidence. I was scared out of my mind that I would fail the kids in the only tenth-grade English class they would ever have. But then it morphed and I began crying about the kids themselves – the problems some of them had to deal with, the way they could make me feel. One minute they’d break my heart with a demonstrative yawn, and the next they’d show me such love that I felt weak.
Erin: Your emotion is very endearing, actually. You don’t try to shield it. What about your colleagues? I noticed in the book that many kept asking you how long you were staying. What was that all about?
Tony: When I got there some of my fellow teachers were skeptical. Who could blame them? They wanted to know this was no stunt. The way things are for teachers right now that would be the last thing they needed. It wasn’t only my students who wanted to know I cared. But little by little I had to win them over. Toward the end, I … well, I’m not patting myself on the back for this, but some of the same teachers who were the most skeptical were asking me to stay. I remember thinking, jeez, at my age do I really want to care this much about anything other than my own kids? Anyway, I formed great relationships with many of the teachers. I put on the first ever Teacher Talent Show at the school where the teachers performed, and the next day some of these teachers walked into classrooms and their kids gave them standing ovations. That raised my standing.
Erin: So what’s the solution for getting more kids on the right track? What is the big lesson you learned from your year in the classroom and the process of writing this book?
Tony: There are some very big problems out there. The unmotivated student is no longer the exception, and there are many parents who, for whatever reason, are missing from what goes on. Worst of all is a culture that undermines everything you’re trying to do in the classroom. But I think trying to find the solution in something that is external to the students may be wrong, or at least not the most important thing. The most important thing is that kids must take part in their own education. We have to convince them. We can’t want it more for them than they want it for themselves. That’s not going to work. We have to say to kids, “You have one life – this is your chance.” They live in a world that is different from the one you and I grew up in. Back then, if a kid dropped out, there were jobs – construction jobs and so forth. You could still have a good life. Not today. School is necessary. It’s important. You can still have your dreams, but most adults know that sometimes you have to put your dreams in your pocket and make a life. Taking part in your own education is step number one.