New York: Random House, 2017; 288 pgs.
Lindsey Lee Johnson's novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is likely to cause one of two emotional reactions in you.
Either you will sigh and bemoan the inadequacies of our education system. You will roll your eyes at the way it crushes the student's innocence and the educator's best intentions.
Or you will grin and count yourself fortunate or maybe superior for having survived your time in a place so fraught with danger.
Is it possible that you'll do both? Probably. Depending on which chapter you just finished.
The book tells the story of the six-or-so years between puberty and college for one class of southern California students, flipping every few thousands words to a new point of view. The telling almost bounds through time, pausing to linger on the more eventful moments, and practically skipping what was evidently a banal freshman year.
Untrustworthy narrators are in vogue, and this story has a ton of them. The reader would be wise to treat every telling with a bit of skepticism. If you can't be sure of what really happened, just wait. You'll get the other side of the story. Last chapter's villain will have their chance to set the record straight in just a few pages.
And isn't that how the real world works? The person you thought was your nemesis last year suddenly becomes a vital ally. Your grade school rival grows up to become the person who understands you better than anyone. Your trusted best friend turns out to be a little more self-centered and self-serving than you thought.
That's the central theme of this book, I think—nobody is just one thing.
But the novel also ponders the worst possible outcomes when we cram a group of complex humans into close proximity every day while they are still half-baked. What happens when the biggest influence on an insecure, immature adolescent is another insecure, immature adolescent?
I know that sounds grim. It's a grim book. This is a book that calls the public high school, "the most dangerous place on earth." And it makes a pretty believable case.
So then what can we do? For those of us who work in education, or cover it, or have high hopes for our children's future that depend on it, is there a better way forward?I don't know. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but I assure you that this book doesn't make me want to stop working. It makes me more aware of the magnitude and complexity of the dysfunction we are trying to address. It makes me believe that now, having acknowledged the problem, we have taken the first step toward fixing it.
For parents, this book is a cautionary tale.
For kids it's a horror story.
And for an educator, this book just might be an intervention.
And in any case, it's a worthwhile read.