An Exploration by Brian Dugan
The short story “Our Education” by Lincoln Michel represents issues rooted within society and human nature. It depicts a young man’s life in a school that has been abandoned by the faculty, leaving the students trapped in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The protagonist, whose name is never revealed, begins by describing how time appears to fluctuate at the school although the bells ring in exact clockwork. At first, the school appears to be extremely run-down: books are used to keep a fire going in the cafeteria and the students do not learn the specified curriculum. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the school is completely devoid of faculty and, therefore, an education system. It is eye-opening for the reader to realize this: it seems to be popular opinion that the public education system does not teach children, but merely socializes them. Despite the change in circumstance of the “student” presence in school, the social system still stands. There are specific cliques, each residing in a different part of the school. The jocks, as in the stereotypical school environment, dominate the other cliques. The protagonist’s clique consists of only a few misfits, including Beanpole Paula and Timmy Thompson. It has clearly been years since the teachers vanished, although it is unclear exactly what happened to them. The protagonist has been working on an assigned essay which, if they return, will allow him to graduate and leave the school. However, the majority of the school begins to argue that the teachers never existed, or if they had existed, they were terrible to the students. After informing the jocks of suspicious cables leading away from the abandoned teacher’s lounge, Timmy Thompson is accepted into their clique. Timmy informs the jocks of the protagonist’s essay. The protagonist is then brought before Clint Bulger, the former captain of the football team and new ruler of the school. When he refuses to stop believing the faculty will return, the protagonist is condemned to the black abyss of the teacher’s lounge and rejected by his friends.
The setting of this short story is definitely one of its most enabling features. There are thousands of stories written about post-apocalyptic society. However, I have never before seen one that focuses solely upon society within the context of a public school. By using a school instead of larger scale environment, Michel is able to focus upon a unique perspective of the way American culture acts upon students. The problems that develop from the school’s social system eerily resemble real-life problems. For instance, there is a class system at work within the school. The jocks hold positions of power, making them the upper class. Most students fit into unmentioned cliques, a possible representation of the masses or different interest groups. Then, there is the lower class, represented by the protagonist and his friends. Much like true caste systems, there are members of the bottom class who will rat on their peers in order to gain favor with the ruling class. This occurs when Timmy Thompson tells Clint Bulger about the protagonist’s essay. The protagonist then plays the role of the scapegoat, which exists in many cultures (the most famous is perhaps the Jews in Nazi Germany). He is publicly punished for going against the will of the jocks, serving as an exemplar for those who have thought about instigating change in the school. Also similar to actual society is that the belief system goes unchanged because it is what is familiar to the students; it is all they know. In the popular cliques, the students have sex. Meanwhile, the lower ranked cliques are hesitant to engage in any intimate activities because only the “cool” or “popular” students have ever done such things. They continue the way they know despite the fact that they are probably at least young adults now, if not older. It is by using the school setting that the author gives rise to this enlightening allegory. Often, people think of secondary school as a foolish time in their lives, and that the social system only existed because of the attitudes people held. By creating a parallel between this superfluous social system and the real systems at work in the world today, Michel causes the reader to question the validity of modern society.
The red bells, affixed in every room, erupt several times each day, yet the intervals between the disruptions wax and wane with an unknown algorithm.
The above sentence exemplifies how the author’s careful use of diction causes the narrator’s voice to accurately resemble the protagonist’s. For instance, describing the bells as “red” instead of just “school bells” drives the reader to share the protagonist’s detachment from their meaning; they still ring, but the protagonist does not recall that they signify a change in class period. Instead, “the disruptions wax and wane with an unknown algorithm.” The use of the word “algorithm” is also a calculated move made by the writer. It is likely that the protagonist would use this word, subconsciously alluding to the educational value that the bells once held. Perhaps the ring of the bells reminded him of algebra, which he no longer fully understands. This fits with a specific characteristic of the protagonist: he cannot entirely recall his days in school. At times, the protagonist goes so far as to speculate whether or not his memories are real at all: “Did we students, in our weakness, fabricate whole memories from these scattered, pointless items?” The words “wax and wane” play a similar role; the protagonist learned them as part of the lunar cycle in school, but has since forgotten their application.
This particular story taught me that fiction can be entertaining and meaningful without being dominated by conflict. Although the protagonist faces a series of conflicts in the story, none seem as captivating or disturbing as the inner workings of the school’s new system. Much how Michel accomplished through this story, a writer can address a complex issue without making it a direct part of the conflict. Sometimes, the most effective way to bring the reader to a realization about a subject is to avoid the subject altogether.