Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favourite episodes. Each week in January a different member of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2016.
We hope you enjoy assistant editor Dani Daly’s favorite story from 2016, Problematic by Brian Hurrel, narrated by Tatiana Grey. The story originally aired September 27, 2016 as Episode 215.
by Brian Hurrel
The Main Office is as spartan as the the rest of the campus. Three plain gray metal folding chairs arranged in front of Headmistress Dinali’s equally plain and unadorned wooden desk. In one of the chairs the slim ten-year- old frame of Luna Vega-MacPherson squirms restlessly, twisting strands of dark curly hair around a forefinger, and not at all trying to disguise her boredom. In the other two chairs sit her parents, looking equally uncomfortable but for different reasons.
I confess to taking some degree of pleasure in the final phase of the application process. Call it a guilty pleasure, but I do so enjoy seeing overbearing parents humbled. Since the Banks Institute is self-financing, and offers only full scholarships or flat out rejection, those of means have no more influence than those without.
The Headmistress’ face is deeply lined and wizened, her gray hair drawn into a severe bun. Through a pair of ancient wire-rimmed bifocals– complete with a thin chain securing them loosely behind her neck– her dark eyes regard the three seated guests intently.
“I understand your concerns, Mister MacPherson,” she says with all-business crispness, her Gujarati-spiced lilt sounding far more youthful than one might expect. ”But don’t let the lack of bells and whistles fool you. Our graduates include more than a dozen current and former state representatives, two governors, three founders of Fortune 500 companies, and more scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and artists of varying stripes than I can recall without having to look them up.”
That’s utter hogwash, of course. Ms. Dinali knows the current professional disposition of each and every student that has ever passed through these unassuming halls.
“Our athletics program,” she continues, “despite its limited size, competes on equal footing with all of the local high schools in team sports. In individual sports, we surpass them. And, of course, our academic program is, without a hint of exaggeration, second to none.”
The father pauses, shifts, straightens. “Yes, yes, I know.” He clears his throat with a cough, looks down and briefly picks at something invisible on his tie. “But the academics…well…”
The mother, her face twitching with impatience, steps in and blurts, “Gregory is concerned about the…” she pauses, inhales as if preparing to hold her breath for a deep plunge into a cold sea. Then spits out, “The problematic parts of the curriculum.”
Is the hint of a smile twitching at the corners of the Headmistress’ tightly pressed lips? I can’t be sure.
“Problematic parts?” She feigns confusion. “Dear me. Have we gone and let problematic parts infect our curriculum? I had no idea. Some Headmistress I must be.”
“We heard–” the father begins.
The Headmistress ignores him, her sharp enunciation flowing over and dousing Mr. MacPherson’s brief hesitant stammer. “As a private institution,” she states, “We are not bound by Amendment revisions, nor subject to the Trigger Act as are public schools.”
“But,” protests the father, “Surely there must be some materials and–”
“Mr. MacPherson,” Ms. Dinali again cuts him off. “There are no half measures in a Banks Institute education. In for a penny, in for a pound. This is an all or nothing opportunity.”
The Headmistress has not raised her voice beyond conversational levels, but the father nonetheless shrinks into his chair like a chastened schoolboy. He glances questioningly at his wife. She nods.
“Okay,” he concedes. “Okay. But how long before we know if she’s accepted?”
“It will take some time to weigh the various candidates. You must understand that competition for slots is fierce. And, unfortunately, even some of the best and brightest are not accepted.” She looks down at Luna’s open file folder spread across her desk. “This is, of course, no reflection of their abilities. Were your daughter not already an outstanding student, she would not have made it this far.”
I nod sagely to add emphasis to Ms. Dinali’s words. The parents smile at the compliment, looking over at Luna, who is studying intently something fascinating on the hem of her sundress.
“Now, there is a waiver we are required by law to provide. But it will be the only one. After that, if your daughter is accepted, there will be no turning back, no preferential treatment, no cherry-picking literature, no special dispensations.”
Again the father looks to the mother. Again she nods.
“Very well,” says the Headmistress, turning to me. “Miss Kulik, would you be so kind as to escort the young mistress to the library while we continue?”
“Yes Ms. Dinali. Come along Luna, and let’s have a look around the school.”
Luna jumps to her feet, obviously overjoyed to get out of the cold hard chair in the cold hard office with the cold hard old lady. “Everyone calls me Lunita,” she sings.
“Well, then I shall call you Lunita as well. And you may call me Miss Kulik.”
As we walk out I hear the rustle of paper as the Headmistress begins reading. “You are hereby advised that should your child be accepted to attend the Banks Institute, they will undertake a rigorous course of study. Further be advised that your child will be exposed to works of art and literature that might include depictions of violence, substance abuse, broken families, misanthropy, misogyny, suicide, matricide, patricide, fratricide, potentially upsetting depictions of privelege, colonialism, sexism, homosexism, heterosexism, cissexism, class warfare, global warfare, harsh language, cruelty to animals….”
The door closes behind us and we start down the hall.
“What’s matricide?” asks Luna.
Over the years I have amassed a vast catalog of canned responses to such inquiries, as there is an ever-growing list of trigger words which, by law, I cannot discuss with or define for anyone under the age of twenty-one without a signed release.
I reply without hesitation. “You know those tags on mattresses that say it’s against the law to remove them?”
“Yeah. My brother says you’ll go to jail if you rip ‘em.”
“Exactly. That’s matricide. And right at the end of this hall is the library.”
Luna gazes at the rows of book-lined shelves and scattered tables and chairs with a frown of blank confusion. “Where are all the computers?”
“There are none.”
“I thought this was a library.”
“How do you download books then?”
I smile at that. “You download them here.” I tap my left and right index fingers on my temples.”With these,” I add, moving the fingers inwards to point at my eyes.
“Oh,” says Luna simply.
I step to the shelf and pull out a book. The title, by law, has been blacked out. But the cover illustrations have been allowed to remain. “See?”
The young girl twists her mouth in a frankly quizzical grimace. “There’s no screen.”
“It’s not that kind of book.”
Her mouth drops open in silent awe, eyes widening, a sudden awareness flashing within her bright green eyes. She flinches visibly, recoils back a step. “These are those books,” she gapes, her voice barely above a whisper.
“The… the ones that are..” she hesitates. “Problematic.” She pronounces the word slowly, sounding out the four syllables.
“Yes. Potentially harmful. Do you know what potentially means?”
“Of course,” she says, regaining her preteen composure. “It means it might be or it might not be.”
“It looks like a box. Like a big flat box of chocolates.”
“It’s very much like a box.” A Pandora’s box, perhaps, though I dare not say it, as that can be misconstrued as a sexual reference. Her parents are likely still listening to the seventeen page list of actionable content and have not yet signed the waiver.
“What’s in it?”
“Oh my, where would I start? Let’s just say a story.”
“There’s a big man and a boy on a raft.”
“Yes, and they’re on a journey. And this tells that story.”
“Is this one of the books that can hurt you?”
“Well, it has things that might make you feel bad.”
“Well…” better to change the subject. I place the volume on the table and pull out another.
Her face twists into a grimace of horror. “Is that man going to kill that whale with a spear?”
“You’d have to read it to find out.”
Another book. “They look like firemen. But they’re shooting fire instead of water.”
Another. “That’s a dragon.” A flicker of enthusiasm edges into her voice. “And a little person.”
And one more. “That’s just a half bald guy with a ruffly collar. Boooooooooooring!”
“Perhaps,” I laugh. Shakespeare alone fits into no less than 73% of the actionable content categories. “I have to organize some shelves. You can look around if you like while we wait for your parents to finish up. But whatever you do …“ I sweep my hands dramatically over the scattered books and with a conspiratorial whisper say, “Be very careful with these.”
She stares at me exactly as one would expect a pre-teen to stare at an adult who has just made a big show of stating the stupidly obvious.
I turn and walk off, stepping between two sets of shelves and making a show of examining and rearranging the volumes. But I watch her through the gaps.
She looks around, then wanders away from the table to the windows. Gazes at the woods beyond the soccer field. Turns and comes back to the scattered books.
She slowly circumnavigates the table, examining the covers. Occasionally her hand darts out and delicately brushes the faded gilt page edges. She ignores The Bard completely. Shuns the firemen and their flamethrowers. Avoids the harpoon aimed at the white whale. But the unlikely pair on the raft and the little person facing down the dragon hold her attention.
“C’mon kid,” I silently implore, not daring to even mouth the words.
Luna slips her fingers under the edge of a buckram bound front board, the one emblazoned with the red dragon. Yanks the hand back as if it has been singed. Tilts her head.
Reaches out once more.
We return to the main office to find Headmistress Dinali and Luna’s parents in the hallway. She shakes their hands, thanks them for coming, and tells them they will be informed as soon as possible whether there will be a place for their daughter this coming fall.
“Goodbye Lunita,” I call after them as they collect their daughter and head out.
Ms. Dinali watches them go, then turns to me, eyebrows arched. I say nothing, but my face tells her all she needs to know. She nods curtly, then disappears into her office.
I walk the long walk back to the library, my mind awash in memories of the day I had first stood before that little round table. Five books. Five illustrations. Five blacked out titles. I remember the battle of wills between my childhood curiosity and the warnings of peril and pain. Of how words could conjure up my darkest fears.
As a child I had imagined that the books were living things, imbued with a magic great and terrible. Had even fancied they had trembled and shivered, barely containing the mysteries between their rigid covers, the dreadful unknowns which might be released by the mere act of opening the cover and laying bare the words within. Words which once seen could not be unseen. Sometimes, even now, I’m not sure it was my imagination at all.
I stop at the small round table. Upon it lay the five volumes, resting exactly where they had been set down.
Dear Ms. Vega and Mr. MacPherson,
I wrote in the graceful looping cursive that Ms. Dinali had painstakingly taught me not so many years ago. The flowing and elegant script I now taught my own students. Would teach to all the new students who would arrive in the fall.
But Luna would not be among them.
About the Author
Brian Lawrence Hurrel is a lifelong science fiction fan, and is especially fond of Golden Age stories from the forties and fifties. His fiction has appeared in the science journal Nature and magazines such as Daily Science Fiction and Bete Noir. A former high school English and History teacher, he now makes a living as a technical writer and communications consultant. His previous occupations over the years include machine assembler, carpet installer, cab driver, and US Marine. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and son. You can follow him on Twitter.