Reviewed by Jason Teal
198 pp Gold Wake Press Collective
The classroom has always been a space subject to interpretation and influence. It, and likewise its occupants, can be both malleable and unclean. Inspired yet unsure. There is great innovation in the classroom that goes unacknowledged every day, and it can be a place of censure. Budget cuts provide roadblocks to meet minimum standards of learning. We all learn in different ways. The fights over toys in kindergarten. The retreating confidence in myself as a graduate student, unable to complement discussion with improvisation or participation on Tuesday nights. The classroom is a site for spectacle and demonstration, yet it is a space I struggle with professionally and creatively.
But the classroom has often proved a wellspring of hope, if not sustenance. For instance, as an instructor and a writer, I often don’t seek out fiction which pontificates on my profession, but there is something vital in reading a book which makes strange again the perspective of authority centered in the general classroom setting. I am fed by the deconstruction of my professional role, and this service of fiction can inspire or entrench beliefs held by the leader of any classroom. I am no longer hungry, dreaming of escape from the classroom, reading a fiction about nonexistent worlds. With this book, the fiction of the classroom is made clearer than our ambiguous reality.
Authors of a combined four books, Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich have surfaced from a sea of New York stories to create characters and situations full of lyrical constraint and wondrous plotting. The Classroom is a collection to be treasured for its limitless determination of the short story model. It continually subverts the space, abandoning fixed settings so we are forced to consider new directives and implications of the structures of the classroom. For instance, “Anything Can Be a Weapon” recounts a world without “crossword dads. Whiskery and nearsighted,” dads who have now all become infected ravenous hordes forcing their offspring to study the formal art of zombie killing, a scene straight out of a Hollywood script.
Another story improves the arc of a Magic School Bus outing, wherein the substitute teacher becomes responsible for lost students in the prehistoric lesson they time travel to. Another teacher struggles to maintain the attention of bees, who, in a surreal twist, have replaced the students we normally encounter, and brushes with parenting and gender identity are covered as well, as a child comes direct to the home with software the parents must learn to install and operate. There is even a classroom beneath a classroom, leaving the boundaries between four walls wildly open to interpretation. Throughout, Diehl and Goodrich manage the mayhem and inspire in us a capacity for both empathy and lawlessness which can activate rebellion and revolution (not only in the classroom) when properly considered.
The collection posits a boundless imagination inherent in the school setting, where brains have been tested and challenged. The teachers may be flawed, and students may be worried, but everyone is trying to make sense of things around them. We develop as human beings in the classroom. Within the classroom structure, tension is evinced every minute: Students work hastily to recall impossible dates and names, glancing too often at the clock, willing release from the concentrated energy of the room. Students on social media posting in solidarity with a planned teachers’ strike against administration during contract negotiations. Teachers being rewarded for disincorporating the space from binaries, envisioning new systems of information within the drabbest of architectures. Teachers buying their own supplies and using their own technology in the facilities. It is a wonder anyone can succeed with the obstacles stacked against them in the classroom. Still, the students come to class or cut. The teachers take attendance and lesson plan.
Diehl and Goodrich bypass the tedium of lesson preparations to make their school settings deliciously weird. In the collection, story metaphors are poignant and quirky and breathlessly new. A girl turns into rabbits when anxiety strikes so the psychological detail of the classroom experience is explored more faithfully. “This is the only way I know how to not turn into white rabbits,” the narrator intones, hoping to not be placed into a mysterious white room as a consequence of rabbit-forming. “I think of my little white bones and the roots of plants and the soundlessness of earthworms and of a place without teeth … I will end up bones. I’m okay with ending up bones.” In a sort of spiritual sequel, students learn to control their own natures in “The Boy Who Turns to Toads,” as a reaction to dropping out, once they are forced to resume learning in the very real jungle beyond school programming. The stories are always relevant and nuanced portraits of learning experiences, not simply imposed by the physicality of a brick, administrative building.
In “The Mascot,” Diehl and Goodrich heartbreakingly cover teacher/workplace gossip, refusing common cruelties as both the teachers and the school mascot become embroiled in a magical situation which details the existential defeat of the star athlete in school. As the teachers joke about the mascot grabbing asses, that the costume is haunted by the ghost of the school’s founder, Ms. Cardinal/Hannah silently retreats inward, away from this tenuous social element. The world around her is made strange again by pep rallies and Important Swim Meets. Her purpose as an educator is pushed perilously close to the limit as she imagines herself “someplace quiet, someplace dark”:
Today she saw a man she didn’t recognize in the hallway. He looked shorter than her, stocky, faded blue jeans baggy around the crotch. She watched him through her classroom window for five minutes, watched the way he moved, the way he chatted with students. She asked herself if he seemed slightly Roadrunner-like, before remembering that he was the custodian who empties the trashcans during second period.
The Roadrunner is more in disguise outside of his costume than he is in his costume, she thinks. She thinks she also feels this way: Ms. Cardinal the teacher is someone different from Hannah.
The creepy Roadrunner mascot offers her the ability to reflect on her current station in life, until the reality of such a connection becomes nightmarishly real. Characters feel full of depth yet often displaced within the edifice of the classroom that looms over the stories.
With these stories, Diehl and Goodrich are consistently original, expert collaborators, and publisher Gold Wake has included bonus teaching materials throughout the text, a testament to the book design, ephemera such as worksheets and postcards and diagrams and blueprints. The fiction is a collaborative gesture, sure, but implied throughout the book is the group effort of learning, rendered with plentiful detail to scale the broad focus. The Classroom is a novel collection which unboxes a premise universal in flare, and succinct in delivery. There are no bloated characterizations here as the peculiar situations become increasingly unconfined to the structures of our world, seeing even the school float away into space.
My only criticism of the collection, an immensely pleasurable engagement of the unreal grounded in the real, comes from a disdain for the bureaucracy of the job. I may falter at the gates of my school daily, and I don’t always relate good feelings about the impact I am having on my students, but it is my lingering wish that, among the captivating worlds of magician boys and spy girls, there was a story addressing the mountains of grading I am always drowning under.
Jason Teal edits Heavy Feather Review. His first book, We Were Called Specimens: An Oral Archive of Deity Marjorie, is forthcoming in July 2020 from KERNPUNKT Press.