Review of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson

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Personally I’d not class this as a YA (tho’ highly recommend it for younger readers) because an OA like me can not only enjoy it but bring a maturity & historical perspective. Back in the 1970s a delightful work of satirical fiction first appeared in Northern California as a series in a local newspaper, which was collected under the title The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County. The author was Cyra McFadden, who was later to publish a memoir of her own chaotic upbringing by nomadic & somewhat alcoholic parents. Her characters are on the cusp of middle-age, who still think like teenagers themselves even tho’ they are already parents of teenaged children–who might be “living with some turkey in a yurt.” McFadden’s characters may belong to “the Radical Unitarian Church” & subscribe to every New Age practice & belief: EST, Rolfing, T-groups, the Eslan Institute. I found myself reflecting back on The Serial as I read The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, set @ Marin High School, because the characters in The Serial would have been the grandparents of these students. Tho’ these young people enjoy every material luxury–their parents bribe them to get high grades with BMWs & unmaxable credit cards–they inhabit the moral & spiritual equivalent of a toxic waste site. The spirituality in The Serial was utterly bogus, but @ least there was a spiritual dimension in the characters lives. These students, their teachers, & their parents believe in nothing @ all except getting them into an elite college.

Despite their nihilistic world, some try to behave decently. Molly Nicoll is a new English teacher from lower middle-class Fresno who wants to help her students develop. Calista Broderick is one of Molly’s best students, carrying a load of guilt because when in the 8th grade she took part in online bullying a class geek into jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, riding the entire distance on his bicycle. Calista ends up befriending a group of slackers who seem to be only characters with any authenticity. Abigail Cress is seduced by another teacher, Doug Ellison. When rumors reach her parents, he cowers & she covers for him, telling him: “I wanted you to know . . . I could have told them, & I didn’t, & I still could. If you ever try to talk to me again.” That was for me the most chilling and revealing moment in the book. All the guilty teacher had to do to redeem his stature as an honorable man would have been to reply to Abigail: “Tell your parents & the principal the whole truth. Your respect & my honor are worth infinitely more than my marriage & my miserable career. I loved every moment we were together, & I shall never regret our relationship.” I am not @ all sure that I’d have the courage to do that myself, but I know the right choice wouldn’t take long — speak three sentences.

But the most painful episode for me as a former teacher was when Molly was called to the principal’s office for taking too much interest in the welfare of her students. She’s told: “There have been some questions raised by certain members of the staff, questions about your pattern of behavior. It seems the tone that has been set in your classroom, I mean as far as student learning objectives are concerned, has not been especially productive.” That jargon-laced reprimand is bad enough, but it continues: “These are not your kids. These are your students. Last year they were someone else’s, next year they’ll be gone. You can’t be their mother. You certainly aren’t their friend. You are the person who gives them grades. And if you go on caring for them in this way you won’t survive.” Molly takes the lesson in professional standards to heart. When later when Caly asks for her comments on a very moving confessional essay about her part in having helped drive that student to jumping off the bridge, Molly treats it impersonally as a work of fiction & confines her comments entirely to matters of organization & style. I term what happened to her “professional deformation” & unfortunately it is the norm for “educators.”

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth fails to be a complete artistic success. Dividing the story among too many characters made it difficult for me to care enough about any particular one of them, so I never felt I’d really got to know how she would feel. Except for the boy who committed suicide early in the book, none of the boys captured my sympathies at all. It should have bothered me that the outstanding athlete ends up a male prostitute in Los Angeles, but it didn’t. And the boy who hired a ringer to take his SAT exam was equally fatuous. (BTW, the ringer’s formula for an outstanding essay wouldn’t work in real life–examiners really can identify the distinctive features of anonymous essays.) But my strongest reason for recommending this book is what it tells us about American education. Why would parents be content to send their children to schools that teach them to believe in nothing except worldly success and be concerned only that they get accepted by elite universities, bribing them with expensive cars, clothes & accessories to get high grades & score well on entrance exams. Why not instead spend the money to send them to good secondary schools that would provide a moral & spiritual formation, & then let them attend a much less expensive & prestigious public college? It seems counter-intuitive.

I am most grateful to PenguinRandomHouse & NetGalley for a gratis ARC.

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