Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes Scorches Meddlesome Parents

Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes (February 2020)
By Kathleen West
Berkley/Penguin/Random House, 384 pages.

This novel is so timely that it should be rushed to market. Kathleen West is high school teacher, and who better to weigh in on helicopter parents, tiger moms, the dangers of unregulated social media, truthiness, and–by extension–the college recruiting scandals?

Allow me to lead with the last of these. Many folks–me among them–have assumed that the offspring of elites were complicit in the schemes cooked up by their parents to secure admission to a good college. How could they not know about faked sports poses and padded personal profiles? Kathleen West made me rethink this.

Privilege doesn’t start when a kid is ready for college. It’s there early on and it takes a strong, perhaps precocious kid to question it. Unless some levelheaded adult–a teacher for instance–plants a challenge, a kid’s reality is assumed to be the ‘norm.’ And if one’s parents are really off the rail, teens often find it easier to pick their battles and go along with things their parents think are important.

Minor Dramas is set in a high-achievers high school near Minneapolis. Parents definitely rule the roost at Liston Heights High School. Principal Wayne Wallace spends much of his day appeasing the various parental groups that set both the curricular and extracurricular agendas. It speaks volumes about the medium family income to say that participation in drama is among the most prestigious things a kid at Liston High can do. Julia Abbott has been pressuring her 17-year-old son Andrew to secure a juicy role in the upcoming play to beef up his student profile. Andrew knows his talents are modest, but what he doesn’t know is that mom and dad gave the school money for its costume shop and have reminded both Wallace and the drama coach of that. Julia is a classic helicopter parent to Andrew and his 14-year-old sister Tracy. She basically traded her dreams of becoming a journalist to become a suburbanite busybody whose current obsession is trying to secure an advance cast list to see how Andrew fared. She texts Andrew incessantly until she can’t stand it anymore and sneaks into the school in time to see the list be posted. When Andrew is given a good role, she does an NFL-style victory dance and elbows Melissa Young in the stomach. Big problem in the age of social media! Julia’s antics were captured on a cellphone and soon the video has gone viral, threatens her husband’s development deal, and some want Julia to face assault charges. In the back swing of an elbow, Julia goes from queen bee to media hooligan and Liston outcast.

As it turns out, Julia and a few other parents have also spearheaded a campaign against Isobel Johnson, an innovative and idealistic English teacher from a working class background. Isobel wants to save the world and makes it her mission to make Liston kids aware of their privilege. She’s also Tracy Abbott’s favorite teacher, but not all Liston parents approve of interjecting identity politics into the curriculum–some because they don’t think it will help their kids do well on college entrance exams, and others because they think her views are Marxist. In other words, Liston is a place where one gets along by watching one’s back. Isobel isn’t cut out to do that, but students love her and she has been a great colleague–especially to first-year teacher Jamie Preston, a former graduate of Liston.      

It all adds up to a school caught up in overlapping brouhahas–much of its own making and the rest fanned by social media. Facebook doesn’t come off very well in the novel, but bourgeois meddling comes off even worse. West structures her novel in such a way as to make Liston’s dual dilemmas collide and entangle. Minor Dramas is also a veiled novel within a novel. Isobel attracts the wrong kind of attention for some of the ways she teaches The Great Gatsby. West has the wisdom not to make her book any sort of gloss of Fitzgerald, but it did not escape my notice that many of the worst traits of Fitzgerald’s upwardly mobile West Egg bear similarities to those found in West’s Liston Heights. This is especially true in the self-centeredness of those with privilege and in decision-making patterns that disregard the impact on families lower down the social class ladder.  

Minor Dramas and Other Consequences is a fine read, though I did find its denouement contrived and too neat. If you wonder, though, if all this stuff could possibly happen, let this former high school teacher assure you that it can. School culture and lack of support rank high among the reasons teachers quit. That data, by the way, comes from Minnesota!

Rob Weir

No comments: