While living in Colorado Springs between 2015 and -16, I wrote a novel on power, alienation, and education. I never gave it a title, but the work describes a high-powered Academy where children are taken away from their families, then trained in a series of exercises that culminate in the ability to “Produce,” meaning manifest physical objects using their minds. Along the way, students are tested in increasingly dangerous ways by people who call themselves “Observers,” and students who fail these tests are catapulted outside the school area, into a zone known as the “Wasteland.” The Wasteland is populated by a brand of sub-human creatures known as the “Externals,” and the school and other institutions exist within glass bubbles, shielding themselves from the Externals’ supposedly toxic air. While enrolled in the Academy, everything about the students is subject to scrutiny and change: the reader never even learns their names apart from the various attributes which have been assigned them as a result of their testing.
I had already applied to graduate school twice when I wrote this work of fiction, being rejected both times. Before eventually attending, I would apply a third time, this time being accepted, but then declining to attend. Even when I did apply, get accepted, and attend—this fourth time being to UW-Madison—I experienced intense anger and confusion about the prospect, laying up nights in my Denver apartment telling myself how stupid it was that I “had to go” to graduate school, feeling that I would do so only because, with my skills and in our society, I didn’t know what else to do. The academy of my real life, like the Academy in my untitled work of fiction, felt like a monolith from which there was no escape—its control over my life was inevitable.
. . .
In the untitled work of fiction, some Academy students gain superpowers around the time they hit puberty, most of these superpowers being unique expressions of anger. For instance, a student who’s been bullied for his obesity gains the ability to transform into a Hulk-like creature, eventually using this gift to kill his bully; a student who’s been sexually abused awakens to find herself and her surrounding room lit on fire. Hoping to remain enrolled in an Academy where these superpowers would be viewed as aberrations—they are not part of the curriculum—most of the characters learn to suppress them, forfeiting their true selves in the process. Some characters, however, are cast out of the Academy while in the thrall of their unique powers, later turning these powers on the Academy and its products as terrorists.
My own attitude toward school has always been quietly destructive, whether in elementary, middle, high school, or now higher education. Even in preschool, my mother tells a story of going to a graduation ceremony for me and my classmates, and noticing that one student was pretending to strangle himself with his tie to throw off the ritual. She leaned over to my father, saying that she felt badly for whomever’s child that was. She hadn’t yet noticed that it was me. In elementary and middle school, I remember talking to and playing incessantly with my classmates, so much so that I spent many hours isolated from my peers; and in high school, I cultivated a habit of taking my tests and completing my other classwork as quickly as possible, a subtle protest to the monotony of the work I was asked to do. I still carry this latter habit with me to this day.
In my novel, there is one character cast out of the Academy who learns a deeper truth than becoming a terrorist. His name is Helper, and the gift for which he is being primed in the Academy is helping others: “Producing” great works which will somehow aid the participant. However, after failing one of the final exams Helper is cast from the Academy’s bubble, and it’s in the surrounding Wasteland that he finds many others who’ve been thrown from Academy walls. After fashioning encasements to protect themselves from the Wasteland’s supposedly toxic air, these characters do nothing but sit and stare at the Academy, wondering when they will be noticed and brought back in. This was my own attitude in the years when I had twice been rejected by graduate school, and didn’t know what else to do with my life; I was transfixed by the academy’s image and felt abandoned.
. . .
Seeking to make himself more attractive to his would-be Observers, Helper flies around—this is his anger-bequeathed superpower—grabs an armful of Externals, and creates an Edenic valley in which they can laze, eat fruit, raise children, and prosper. This is Helper’s vision of “Helping:” he uses the Externals as his test subjects to create a helping mechanism, hoping that the Academy’s Observers will take note of this and that he will be seamlessly readmitted to the Academy. However, no one comes.
While waiting outside Academy walls myself, I had experiences that deeply changed how I thought of myself and what I valued in life. I have written of these experiences numerously on this blog as well as spoken of them in a podcast interview: the mass shooting that showed me the conclusion of isolated, self-serving consciousness; the therapy I did following it; spiritual experiences and relationships that began to illuminate a different way of living. Through these experiences, I came to know that it did not necessarily matter whether I was ever readmitted to academia, or simply lived a life outside and did other things: what mattered invariably was relating to other human beings, something I could do no matter where and with whom I was. My pretensions to elitism shattered, and I recognized all forms of knowledge and all ways of being as legitimate.
How this same realization overcomes Helper is dramatic, and was actually predictive of some of the above events in my life: while trying to fix up his Edenic creation to impress and attract his would-be Observers, Helper trips on a tree root. The entire time he’s been outside Academy walls, he’s been wearing a television set on his head in order to self-protect from the Wasteland’s air, and in his fall this TV set smashes into a million pieces; however, rather than asphyxiate and die as expected, nothing happens to Helper. Noticing that the Externals who’ve run up to aid him have faces resembling his own, Helper realizes he’s been told a lie by the Academy about the sub-human nature of Externals: they are people just like him, even if they exist outside Academy walls; in fact, the air they breathe is no different from his.
Helper’s transformation of consciousness takes away his power of flight, but it gives him something greater: intuition, the ability to converse with himself from the level of his soul. Inhabiting himself in this way, he snatches up a cane and wanders the Wasteland, enjoying himself at every turn. Where does he want to go? What does he want to do? He simply asks himself these questions, and from his soul there is always an answer.
. . .
It’s in this state that my novel reaches its conclusion: a different pupil who’s been cast out of the Academy, this one known as N/A (Not Applicable), has cultivated superpowers of flying while turning his entire body into metal, and this pupil takes it upon himself to kill the people who’ve graduated from the Academy curriculum. Above I mentioned the mass shooting which occurred in my own life; that had happened by the time I wrote this novel, and I was using the fiction to work out my own understanding of how this kind of violence comes to be.
Striving to destroy that which has rejected him, N/A targets successful Academy pupils in the towers where they make their living, shooting his metal body through them one at a time in order to convert their hulls to swiss cheese. He does this several times with several major characters before turning his ambitions on Equilibria, Helper’s former lover and a person for whom he still has feeling. Watching this happen from afar, Helper sets down his cane and runs to Equilibria’s tower to save her, arriving just in time to confront N/A as he prepares for his final lunge as living bullet.
In this moment, Helper delivers the words which serve as the final proclamation of the novel: he tells N/A that his identity as terrorist is nothing but an inversion of his identity as successful pupil, meaning that so long as he lives in fidelity to that identity, he remains a slave to the Academy. In other words, the Academy still defines him. As Helper puts it, all the Academy identity ever was was a “wall to really knowing yourself at all.”
N/A hears but is not moved by this, and he kills Helper and Equilibria where they stand. Luckily, the two get to look each other in the eyes before this happens, and there is a moment of recognition between them. The novel ends with an alien creature pontificating on how to save a planet whose inhabitants are as lost as these.
. . .
My own journey in relation to academia has seen me exhaust the dispositions in this novel: the “good” pupil, who succeeds within given metrics; the reject, who can’t wait to be let back inside Academy walls; the terrorist, who hates the entire project and positions himself as a sort of kamikaze; the transcendent one, who recognizes that no matter where you go, people are people, knowledge is knowledge, and there is really nothing that special nor important happening in the Academy. This latter position is the revolutionary one, the only one of the set with the capacity to liberate us: knowing it, we retain our connection to all beings regardless of their placement within community, their relevant status, and as such we acquire the power to do things barred from people who derive their power from status or anger. Yes, we may lose the ability to fly, but what we gain is the ability to act from the heart, a source that is limitless and that connects us to all other beings rather than isolating us from the whole. In possession of this gift, what we achieve is infinitely more meaningful, even if less dazzling than something we could achieve as isolated—even angry—individuals.
Even now, as I contemplate going on from my Masters program into a PhD program, the old fears and angers have reared their heads: the fear of being controlled, of losing sight of and ceasing to know myself; the anger at myself for forgetting my true power, for appealing to external structures in order to legitimate me. Underneath these feelings, there is the quiet, soulful substrate on which Helper ultimately rests, the truth that in the end these kinds of choices do not matter, a truth which liberates us to focus on what really does. How do we best love? How do we most heartily appreciate the divine reality to which we are witness? We can do this anywhere, in any situation, and it is infinitely interesting to do so.