Sunday, May 5, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Arrested - for Science!

Here's one for you: A high school student was arrested for doing an extracurricular science experiment that blew the top off a bottle.

As it happens, the student is black, female, and living in the south.

This is a tailor-made story for the school library market. You have a sympathetic, curious, good-girl protagonist; you have a school setting; and you have Relevant Issues out the wazoo. Security and paranoia, "zero tolerance" policies on school grounds, the overstepping of authority, the meaning of discipline, the nature and interpretation of rules, race, class, gender issues - it's overwhelming! A student not just chastised but arrested for conducting a science experiment at school! A young woman discouraged from doing science! A black person criminalized for behavior that is well within normal range!

Add to that the fact that I was alerted to this story via a petition notification on geared toward freeing the young lady, reinstating her at school, and wiping her record clean. If the situation goes viral, that opens up worlds more of story material, as the world descends (literally or figuratively) on this school.

You'd have to detach from the news story early and figure out how to get a tight enough focus to write a coherent novel without either shortchanging or oversimplifying the issues. You'd have to figure out how and why a school gets to the point that this sort of thing is even possible; not only who the student is, but who the school administrator in charge is; where the student fits in the school social and academic hierarchy; and what else is going on at the same time that makes this incident into a flash point. A comfortable familiarity with high school interior politics would be a great aid in writing this.

In order to produce something more than an issue-driven problem novel, though, you'd have to drill down through the public issues and bring out the personal ones involved. Play with roles. How do the conflicts change when you change the story's heavy - the school administrator responsible for her arrest - from a white man to a black man, or a black man to a white woman, or a white woman to a black one? The protagonist's identity as a "good girl" is emphasized in all the articles I've seen - what does that say about the public reaction?

And what does "good girl" mean, exactly? Perhaps she's not as good as all that, but is primarily good at not being caught. Maybe she's sick of being good and does the bottle-popping stunt to impress someone. Maybe she's been set up...

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