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WORTH REPEATING: Being Tony Danza

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[Illustration by OUTLINES INC]

SALON: At a time when public schools are on the ropes, teachers unions are less popular than LeBron James, and everyone is waiting for a Superman to save our floundering education system, one man has accepted the challenge. Unfortunately, that man is Tony Danza. The 59-year-old actor brought his trademark mug — and a few TV cameras — to a year-long job teaching 10th-grade English at Northeast High School for an A&E reality show called “Teach” (Oct. 1, 10 p.m. EDT). The school is situated in a sprawling section of Philadelphia known locally as the Great Northeast, which houses both bombed-out buildings and manicured suburban lawns, with a mixture of not just black and white students but Asian and Russian immigrant populations as well. You can say Danza is guilty of naiveté or narcissism, but you can’t say he doesn’t try; he brings more showmanship to the classroom than the second-stage headliner at Harrah’s in Atlantic City. Much of “Teach’s” first seven episodes are devoted to Danza’s efforts to become more involved in and out of the classroom: He tap-dances, he sings. He even cries. If he were a better actor, I might doubt his sincerity. But I’ve seen “Who’s the Boss.” He ain’t that good.

I spent most of my 20s working with at-risk and incarcerated teens in Philadelphia […] I wanted to hate “Teach.”

I didn’t want to see complicated issues that led to my painfully smart students dropping out reduced to the insipid platitudes of “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers.” I didn’t want to see Tony Danza portrayed as the great white hope encouraging his students to rage against the dying of the light or some nonsense like that. I didn’t want to see Tony Danza portrayed as a hero for showing up briefly and impersonating a teacher while the real teachers and administrators, who have dedicated their adult lives to bailing out the sinking ship of urban education, get portrayed as a lazy greedy horde by politicians and talking heads who know that because of systemic failures on state, local and federal levels (and yes, within the teachers unions themselves) teachers are left as the punching bags for a restless and frustrated population. Most teaching experiences don’t end with a perfect graduation rate like that of Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver” or with your classroom breaking into song, and I didn’t want to see another program that tricked people into thinking it was the other way around. That wasn’t what I saw. Apparently I was suffering from the soft bigotry of low expectations for Tony Danza. MORE

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