Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How the School Reform Commission Ruined My Dystopian Novel (Part 1)

Spoiler alert: They ruined it by making the catastrophic events I predicted ACTUALLY HAPPEN
Last year, I—like many boys and girls, ages 12 to 17—got utterly enthralled with the breathless spectacle known as The Hunger Games. I have to admit that I quivered and twitterpated more than once when reading about Katniss and Peeta’s sensational kisses. When spring break began, my big exploit was to buy myself a copy of Mockingjay, wrap up in an afghan, and barricade myself inside the house until I finished it. Approximately seven hours later, I was ready to join the world again, but I was a changed woman. For the next two weeks, I thought incessantly about that winsome twosome, and their wrong-constellated debacle, and the book’s bowstring-taut tension between justice and injustice.
Somewhere in the midst of my middle-school-esque reveries about what Katniss and Peeta’s wedding would be like, the idea dawned on me that I could write a Young Adult novel set in a grueling, yet fascinating, dystopia. The formula was simple enough. I just needed:
-       A plucky, brooding, slightly saucy girl heroine
-       At least one, but no more than three, equally plucky, brooding, slightly saucy love interests (genders to be determined)
-       A really, really shitty setting for her to live in
It turned out that dreaming up a shitty setting was the easiest part of the project. After working in public education for nearly a decade—after watching the progression of the insidious “educational reform” movement—I’ve reached almost Orwellian levels of paranoia. I figured that the dystopian genre was a perfect fit for my disillusioned, cantankerous self.
Dystopian books—from 1984 to The Hunger Games to Super Sad True Love Story—have all sprung from a fine tradition of incisive cynicism, of prophetic pessimism. The dystopian cannon, ironically, is one of unflinching social realism. Despite the fantastical, futuristic settings of dystopian books, they descry the injustices of today’s society with an acute and prescient eye. And I—having gone through the transition to No Child Left Behind and the Ackerman Era—had plenty of fodder for gloomy prognostications.
            At the beginning of last year’s summer break, I sat down in a chair next to my bay window, and started writing the book. As I was trying to dream up a cohesive vision for my dystopia, I realized that I literally could glimpse the book’s setting by just looking out my window.
The abandoned West Philly High building is a mere three blocks from where I live. This indomitable, soaring Gothic fa├žade dates back to 1912—an era when there was actually reverence for, and faith in, public education. Its ornate stone scrollwork rolls and spires up into the sky. Faces peer from its lace-delicate carvings; these visages look out with wondering, almost-curious expressions, and have gazed down over decades of students. Marble lintels above the doors facing Walnut Street are inscribed with the words “Boys” and “Girls,” demarcating the school’s antiquated gender-separated entrances.
            In an instant, I had a panoramic view of my entire dystopic world. Before I had even finished the first chapter, two shimmering words hovered on my mind’s horizon. Those words were MOVIE DEAL. I was so convinced of Paramount Pictures’ interest, I even drafted the trailer for the film; the super-exclusive preview-of-the-preview follows below:
Aerial shot of futuristic downtown Philadelphia. The whole city bristles with skyscrapers; each giant building reflects the sapphire shimmer of the next. The Comcast Center has expanded to a complex of 22 buildings. Basically, think Death Star proportions. The date 2052 flashes over the scene.  
            Inside the glassed-in Grand Atrium of Comcast City Hall, the CEO of Philadelphia gives a celebratory speech. Just imagine Mayor Nutter in futuristic lycra. A nicely-coiffed woman in an aluminum business suit stands next to him. She looks a lot like Michelle Rhee.   
CEO: Today, we close the last of those dirty, violent storehouses of injustice. Flash to an old public school building. The clang of metal as workers affix steel over the school’s windows and doors.
CEO: Today, we phase the students of Hull #23—formerly known as Central High School—onto Slates. He holds up a tiny i-pad looking device. Today, we begin a new era of accountability, equity and efficiency. He hands the device to an African-American teenaged boy, who shakes the CEO’s hand, and then holds the device above his head.
CEO continues: Every student in Philadelphia—rich, poor, black, white—now has access to the same engaging curriculum. Every student in Philadelphia now takes the same assessments. Every student in Philadelphia now has the same opportunities.
Voiceover: Imagine a world where every kid is getting the same education…
Zoom away from the atrium, in a flying shot that takes us over the Schuylkill and through West Philly. Zoom into a pried-open window of West Philly High.
Voiceover: Every kid…
Zoom up the decrepit marble staircase. Zoom in on a girl hunched on the top step, clothed in rags.
Voiceover: Except one… Zoom in on her pretty, movie-dirty face, her stylized dreadlocks.
Voiceover: And she’s about to find out the truth.           
“The truth” was—prepare yourself for a big shocker—that this high-tech, streamlined, Reformed approach to education was actually just a duplicitous machination. Our heroine would uncover a Machiavellian plot, wherein the ostensibly altruistic Reformers were actually in cahoots with avaricious corporations. By moving the delivery of public education into the private, technocratic sector, the so-called Reform movement was able to undermine the very workings of democracy. The supposedly “equal” instruction—delivered in digestible packages, broken down into isolated, simplistic “standards,” and measured by multiple-choice tests—was actually created with a clear purpose in mind. And what was that purpose? The replacement of critical thinkers with consumers; the replacement of citizens with low-wage workers.
The book—and subsequent movie—was to be called Blank Slate (Tabula Rasa), which I thought was quite clever. I was thrilled with the premise of the book. What I didn’t realize, however, was that in order to write a novel, one has to do more than think up a really, really shitty setting. One has to actually make things happen, which, it turns out, I wasn’t very good at.
Here’s the thing. Over the course of the past year, while I was trying to brainstorm the plot of my novel, THE DYSTOPIAN NOVEL ACTUALLY STARTED HAPPENING. I watched as one, and then another, and then another, of my predictions came true. It was beyond surreal.
In the spirit of Blank Slate’s cliff-hanger trailer, I’ll save my explanation of how this occurred—how this is occurring right now—for my next post. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. While you're waiting for the explanation, you can read a dystopic novel set in Philly that actually HAS a plot. It's called Nobody Says Hi Anymore, and it's by my high school friend, and colleague, J. Shepard Trott.


  3. I still think you should write that book! But until them I'm eagerly awaiting the next blog post.