Synopsis (with spoilers!)
By Nilaja Sun
Jackson Baron Copeford, a janitor at Malcolm X High School, introduces himself as the story's narrator. Setting the scene for the arrival of Ms. Sun, the protagonist, Baron mentions the school is situated in the poorest congressional district in the U.S., in the Bronx, where metal detectors and academically challenged youth share the space equally.
Before class, Ms. Sun has a conversation with her landlord about her late rent. She is about to teach a six-week workshop on Our Country's Good, a play about convicts putting on the play The Recruiting Officer. Ms. Tam, a newly appointed teacher, introduces Ms. Sun to her English class of foul-mouthed Grade 10 students.
Mrs. Kennedy, the principal, has booked their school's auditorium for the play's performance. Lessons begin: Ms. Sun teaches students to use theatrical techniques, like Method acting and vocal projection, to bring out the play's themes. She also privately muses on her choice of play, wondering if subconscious bias had resulted in her selection.
Baron reflects on being the first black janitor at the school, and the long history it has had through the political history of the U.S., from the pristine institution that it once was to the neglected structure it has become.
Ms. Tam quit after her bag was stolen, replaced by a new teacher, Mrs. Projensky. Jerome, a student in the class, acts out in response to this and flings chairs in anger. He incites classmates not to perform the play; two others, Phillip and Chris, still want to. Ms. Sun quits, saddened that she cannot help kids in the city she grew up in.
Jerome apologizes to Ms. Sun by proving he had his part memorized; she has a change of heart and returns. The class gets a new teacher, Mr. Johnson, who has managed to keep order. It is discovered that Baron had suffered a heart attack and died in his janitorial closet. He revels in his role as a dead narrator.
Ms. Sun tries to contact Jose, a student who has been absent; his grandmother reveals his brother had been killed by gangs. It is opening night of the play: Jerome can't perform last minute due to babysitting obligations, so Phillip offers to take his part. Jose makes it in time.
The show is a success. Jerome finally makes it but is too late; as he will repeat his grade regardless, he can be under Ms. Sun's tutelage again. Baron narrates the future fate of students and teachers in an epilogue.