By Dana Diehl & Melissa Goodrich
Gold Wake Press
198 pages, $17.95
Review by Bailey Drumm
Diehl and Goodrich create twelve stories that are fun and lighthearted on their own—after all, they do take place in a children’s classroom. The authors lured me in with their good hooks, vibrant characters, and simple language, but kept me reading with the intrigue, which built as I thought about what the situations truly represented. But as the plots develop, they reveal under the whimsy a series of difficult, complex (and more adult) issues of the modern day.
This is clear from the collection’s opening story, the Black Mirror-esque piece “The Boy Who Arrives in a Box.” The story begins as the mother explains the process of purchasing ALEX, a fourth-grader humanoid child, and the steps they need to take to prepare him for the real world. They have to load data into him, everything from motor skills to interpersonal relationships, and about 40 plus other traits, before he can start school. It’s an absurd, yet comical hyperbole on the world we live in today. Just close enough to reality for the subject to sting. In loading her son’s information, she realizes she has a bit of control and assists his thoughts innocently by adding character thoughts such as “I like the beach,” and “It feels good when the waves wash over my toes,” into his data. You see where this could become a problem as he grows older, right?
Other stories retain the fanciful, even paranoid qualities, but vary in tone. In “The Classroom Beneath Our Classroom” there’s a sense of innocent mystery that reminded me of the Adventures of the Bailey School Kids or Goosebumps books. Children from a class hear whispers from students in the basement, which they refer to as “the students that learn beneath,” even though there is no basement. They put together a plan to get them out by sneaking into the school at night and plotting an escape. The only problem? The student sent to find them gets trapped, too. “The Mascot,” the title story’s more mature sibling, is told from the perspective of a teacher who observes both gossip in the hallways and in the break room, the biggest question is who is underneath the mascot uniform performing at all the games and pep rallies. It reminded me of another streaming anthology horror series, Hulu’s Into the Dark, specifically it’s infamous “Pooka!” episode, which has a similar premise of a furry children’s character toy whose two settings are “naughty” and “nice” — the two poles that many of these stories track against.
The anthology show analogy feels apt too: much like these shows that build on themes through a variety of story styles and narratives, this book thrives on Diehl and Goodrich choosing the appropriate narrative voice and representation for each story. There are teachers that have boyfriends, mothers that have wives. These relationships are never used as plot devices, but rather exist in the book, because relationships in the world vary. Sometimes children are speaking, sometimes adults. By alternating between, the authors explore the little curiosities that captivate us when we are young (do teachers live in the school?), and show how their truths may chip away as we grow. This is woven together by their care to consistency in the writing: the adjectives are always age appropriate, while the language is never superfluous. This allows the world to have depth and variety that feels genuine and organic, which generates concrete qualities to otherwise abstract stories.
As if to probe deeper into this idea, the collection is set up like a workbook. Each chapter ends with a worksheet related to the contents of the story and brings the reader back into the classroom. For example, in “Anything Can Be a Weapon,” the men of the world have been overrun by zombies, and it is up to the women to protect mankind. A portion of the story touches on the human brain, and how it works to cope with unfamiliar situations. At the end is a labeled diagram, but rather than scientific terms though, the authors chose to characterize sections with memories of the character not included in the story. It gives a sense that these characters experience things outside of the stories they’ve given us, yet give us a window into who they could truly be. There are also frequent uses of lists that break up the narration give a work a sense of academic rigor and orderliness.
There are two stories that feature students attending animal school [the School for Gifted and Nervous White Rabbits & the School for Insecure and Underfoot Woodland Creatures], which have the mantra of “If you act victorious, you will become victorious. If you act like a human that can’t turn into woodland creatures, you become a human that can’t turn into woodland creatures.”
Just like that Orwellian dogma, the stories in The Classroom mix an eerie sense of confinement and force of its titular space against the spirited natural being cast. Children have the center of attention, but sometimes teachers need it too. Both are learning and growing. Though things may sometimes feel ordinary, there is always another layer forming, another story that could be peaking through. In The Classroom, there may be more to a story than what presents itself in the first read. Allow yourself to learn.