Monday, May 14, 2007

Simulating terror

Some of my most visceral memories of elementary school are of tornado and fire drills. I remember vividly so many things, including the arcane debates over whether, during a tornado, it was a better to take a few seconds to grab a heavy book to hold over one's head before evacuating to the hallways or if one should simply make for the hallway and assume the practiced protective position with interlaced fingers protecting the back of one's head (I even remember the subspecies of that debate: whether to hold the book closed over your head or to open it for maximum coverage). It was all very, very important at the time. Later, in junior high and high school, it seemed that the extra minutes of unscheduled time created by a fire or tornado drill had a kind of intense and surprising sweetness--like reaching into your backpack and finding an unanticipated candy bar. There were conversations you could have only during fire and tornado drills. Whatever we were preparing for was abstract and impossible, but the rehearsal was welcome and pleasurable break in the day.

Apparently, memories of disaster drills--now expanded to encompass man-made catastrophes, as well as natural ones--will have a decidedly different flavor for many present-day kids. Check this out from; the video is interesting, too (thanks, BoingBoing). Maybe, rehearsals are now terrifying because the real thing isn't so abstract or impossible anymore.

I'm assuming the teachers and administrators who dreamed this drill up aren't sadists or even particularly stupid people. I'm more inclined to believe they're caught up in a larger cultural obsession with fear and preparedness. (And if you need any more evidence of this obsession, check out the banner ad that was running on the right of the article when I read it. I circled it).

Despite the themes' relative popularity in adult fiction, YA fiction that deals directly with terror and our current state of perpetual emergency (what color are we today?) has not yet been commercially successful, and I haven't noticed that anyone is acquiring it aggressively. Ultimately, it's not for me to say whether the marketplace of YA readers wants a YA take on the material that has occupied the likes of adult-fiction luminaries like Jonathan Safron Foer, John Updike, and Don DeLillo (with not inconsiderable commercial success, I might add). But what I can say is that terrorism and fear and our national obsession with preparedness must, I'm sure, be apparent in some form in day-to-day teenage experience--and anything that's there in real teenage experience is fair game for the fictional versions. In other words, even if you're not writing about terrorism, fear, paranoia, etc., how can they not affect the worlds of your books?


Sam said...

My own cold war memory on this line is getting to know what the feet and rump of the kid in front of me smelled like every time they lined us up in the hall.

Play acting that the threat is real an present is just nuts. Lunatics were in charge.

zee said...

That is highly disturbing that any teachers would do that to their kids. What is the world coming to?