Short on Story
Review by Mike Smith
Education in Albuquerque
Ann PiperArcadia Publishing
Many of my favorite nonfiction books take a single thing, explore that thing, and then leave their readers knowing more than they did about more than just whatever it was the book was about. Aspen Art of the New Mexico Highlands, by James B. Dekorne, for example, looks only at words and images cut by shepherds into aspen trees a century ago, but damn if it doesn't fill you with an eerie feeling that must be reminiscent of how that time and place actually felt. Century of Faith, by Suzanne Sims Forrest, just tells the history of the old Presbyterian church up in Placitas, but it's maybe the single best history there is of the northern end of the Sandia Mountains. The Place Names of New Mexico, by Robert Julyan, ostensibly offers only the origins of New Mexico's place names, and yet somehow delivers an entire history and image of the West. I know that a place or a subject can be explored well in these ways because I've seen it done. Every thing is a small part of everything, and a good writer should be able to pick up a rock and find in it the story of the Universe.
Now, if that caught your interest, and you'd like to read 125 pages of that sort of information presented with that sort of prose, accompanied by pictures that seem to be mostly just the fronts of buildings, then you really might enjoy this book, and you should get it, and read it, and we should all live our lives happy in the knowledge that taste is subjective and not everyone finds the same things interesting and that's okay.
Education in Albuquerque, by longtime area educator Ann Piper, is a new book in Arcadia Publishing's popular Images of America series and presents some of the story of Albuquerque's schools through a collection of archival and modern photos and an accompanying text. The book's images are presented in eight chapters that more-or-less move forward in time as they go (“Schools in Albuquerque: 1955-1989,” “Schools in Albuquerque: 1990-Present”) or are structured around a theme (“Parochial Schools in Albuquerque,” “Private Schools in Albuquerque”). But not only does Education in Albuquerque not tell the story of education in Albuquerque in a very compelling or engaging way, its information often feels completely detached from the city itself—it feels myopic, small, and like the work of a bureaucrat interested only in cramming in as many names and details as possible. It's a hard, often dull read for anyone not already deeply interested in the subject.
I did learn some things from this book—and it does have some strengths—for instance, the whole text momentarily leaps to life when it gets to the student riots at UNM in 1971. I had no idea those were so dramatic—buildings burned, cars flipped over, shops looted, insanity.
Take a look at a representative passage from the book: “In 1975, APS [Albuquerque Public Schools] opened the Career Enrichment Center, above, on the south edge of the new Albuquerque High. Named after former superintendent Charles Spain, the center focused on creating vocational and advanced academic paths for the district's high school juniors and seniors. This mission continues today, and has expanded to include concurrent college enrollment and a variety of other options for students, including advanced language learning.” Now, if that caught your interest, and you'd like to read 125 pages of that sort of information presented with that sort of prose, accompanied by pictures that seem to be mostly just the fronts of buildings, then you really might enjoy this book, and you should get it, and read it, and we should all live our lives happy in the knowledge that taste is subjective and not everyone finds the same things interesting and that's okay.
But personally, I thought a lot more could have been done with this topic, and this book left me disappointed. I think I've retained more facts about education in Albuquerque from Marc Simmons' excellent Albuquerque: A Narrative History, which I read a decade ago, than from this, which I read this week—the presentation is just not clear, the prose is flat, and no obvious narrative lines emerge as the work progresses. It's just facts meted out, photos described, names that needed mentioning mentioned. Also, the photos selected, for the most part, could not have always been the most interesting ones available—I know I've seen far better ones of UNM and of the schools up in the mountains. The ones in the book are typically static and show little that couldn't be seen today—and sometimes they're just modern pictures taken by the author. In places the text feels like fine print on an advertisement, but in others, there's only a sentence or two with an awkward amount of white space that apparently would have required serious research to fill. Arcadia Publishing has really been cranking these books out in recent years, and the quality varies wildly from book to book.
I did learn some things from this book—and it does have some strengths—for instance, the whole text momentarily leaps to life when it gets to the student riots at UNM in 1971. I had no idea those were so dramatic—buildings burned, cars flipped over, shops looted, insanity. I learned that the developer Sam Hoffman, namesake of all things Hoffmantown, including an elementary school, killed his wife and then himself in 1959. And I learned that APS had the same superintendent, John Milne, for 45 years, and that almost all the APS elementary schools are named after local figures, the middle schools after presidents and the high schools after geographic features. I also learned that famous architect John Gaw Meem designed UNM's duck pond in 1937, and I learned that my old high school, Manzano, used to be a part of Sandia High before breaking away. There are definitely some things in here that can add a bit of richness to your experience of Albuquerque, and it's nice that a portion of the book's profits go to the Albuquerque Public Schools Foundation, a relevant charity, but overall, I'd say this book is mostly for people already interested in the subject or for local history completists who could use this as a reference.