Thursday, July 4, 2013

How the School Reform Commission Ruined My Dystopian Novel (Part 2, of 3)

Last year, when I was teaching Fahrenheit 451, one of my 9th grade students proffered the following insightful criticism: “This book is a terrible novel, but it’s a great essay.” The same, apparently, is true of the dystopian young adult novel—entitled Blank Slate (Tabula Rasa, for you pretentious Latin fans out there)—that I’d started writing last summer. Shockingly enough, my skepticism about the so-called “Educational Reform” movement didn’t exactly generate the intrigue that’s typical of New York Times best sellers. It turns out that public school closures and the proliferation of cyber charters don’t exactly make for a scintillating page turner.
One of the problems with the book, besides its lack of—what’s that thing that sells books, again? Oh yeah, plot—was that I wasn’t quite sure how my dystopic world had actually evolved. Most dystopic novels include some neatly-encapsulated synopsis of how our comfortable, normal society mutated into the horrific vision portrayed in the book. In Fahrenheit 451, for example, Bradbury includes a lengthy, didactic diatribe in the voice of Fire Chief Beatty, which serves to explicate the shifts that produced his anti-literate world.
If I’d just waited a few months, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) could have charted the genesis of my book’s dystopia for me, in what they euphemistically called the “Facilities Master Plan.” The following is an outline of how the back-story of my dystopic novel has been put into motion over the past year. The similarities are quite remarkable, making me think that perhaps SRC chairman Pedro Ramos somehow got hold of the notes I’d jotted for the book.
In my would-be novel, Blank Slate, Philadelphia's public schools are ubiquitously closed, and the city is filled with abandoned school buildings, known as Hulls. These Hulls are vilified by politicians and residents, as the remnants of an old system that was antiquated, dangerous and—horror of horrors!—inefficient. In my drafts, I included long, florid passages describing what I imagined the insides of the destitute Hulls would look like. They would be distressing scenes of dereliction and waste, uncannily combining war-like ravages with comforting, familiar academic images. I imagined an eerie juxtaposition between icons of education—desks, books, computers—and consuming mold, peeling paint, and ominous graffiti.
When I sat down to write Blank Slate, I couldn’t decide what policy decision could have possibly precipitated this austere and draconian turn in the city’s history. After all, public schools are the bastions that defend urban neighborhoods against the ravages of blight; they are sites for shared history and shared discourse, places where fragmented communities can still come together with a common cause.
It turns out, however, that I could’ve placed a pin in my dystopian timeline, sticking the point at the exact date of March 7, 2013. This is when the SRC voted to close 23 of Philadelphia’s public schools, despite the fact that there is no conclusive evidence of school closures saving money or improving student outcomes. Two of the closed schools include Germantown High School, which my mother graduated from in 1961, and Bok Technical High School, which was one of only four technical education programs in the district.
If I’d known how simple and streamlined this process could actually be, the convoluted and labyrinthine history of my dystopia would’ve been a lot easier to plot out.
Imagine the lecturing, pompous voice of some stock character recounting the following, in order to provide the book’s readers with necessary exposition. (This, by the way, would’ve been the obviously-contrived passage that most readers would’ve skipped over, looking for the point at which something more interesting was going to happen.)  
Once historic institutions like Germantown, and vital programs like Bok’s, began closing, more schools were starved into failure by a lack of funding from the local and state governments. First, a cabal of corporate interests and avaricious politicians got together and emptied public schools of everything that makes them communities. Claiming economic necessity, they reduced—and then eliminated—sports, libraries, counselors and clubs. Next, schools became nothing more than brick-and-mortar boxes, enclosing a random collection of disengaged, demoralized kids and grownups for 8 hours a day. Finally, the same diabolical crew that created this untenable situation stepped in, and declared schools to be nothing more than useless buildings—nothing more than vacuous Hulls that voraciously consume public resources.  Once schools were defined in this reductive language, it was easier to shut them down. Schools ceased to be schools, and were simply bullet-points on an austere “Facilities Master Plan.”
This speculative slope of history would bring readers up-to-date with the dystopian  world depicted in Blank Slate. In this Philadelphia, Center City was thriving with the pulse of electronic commerce; it was a glittering refraction of glass, a nexus of economic success. Dozens of skyscrapers had sprouted up (cough, cough, facile metaphor for hierarchical society), their ziggurated and pyramid-like forms juggernauting the sky. Meanwhile, the surrounding neighborhoods of North, South and West Philly had attenuated into bizarre wastelands, arid landscapes of cracked concrete and rubble. This atrophied city, this dread geography, was the sort of thing today’s urban planners have nightmares about.
When I was writing Blank Slate, I’d just read The Road, and, as a result, I was considering populating my already-depressing world with ruthless, drooling cannibals. However, I got really stuck on how to connect the eating of human flesh with standardized testing and educational reform. Without roving bands of gorging, Kurtz-like savages, I wasn’t quite sure who my antagonists would be. Would I go for a diffuse ideological entity like Big Brother, or a creepy, death-breathed figure like President Snow?
Given my natural distrust of insatiable corporations, I had some inclination that my MWHAHAHAHA-ing bad guys would be executives who sat in swivel chairs and looked out on panoramic views of the city that they had consumed. But how, I wondered, would ravening Capitalists be able to pick up their knives and cut out hunks of public education? And, moreover, what would motivate them to do so? It seemed untenable, and I was afraid of stretching my readers’ credulity to the breaking point.
But—as with every other aspect of this story—the spurious and staggering events of my paranoid imagination proceeded to play out in Philadelphia’s increasingly implausible public policy. Not only has the line between essay and novel been blurred in a Bradburian fashion, the line between novel and newscast has also been collapsed. However, since I am apparently attempting to make this series as long as the actual book would have been, I’ll save the bad guys for my next and (I promise!) final post.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, so just set it in the future, but have Now happen in it. I want to read. Also, the cannibals could be the alienated people who have no sense of community or citizenship. They could be the products of the new education! I'm so excited for your book.