The Best Short Story I Read This Month: “Take Your Child To Work Report” by Maya Beck
The format of an academic paper—double-spaced, Times New Roman, twelve-point font—is familiar to many. Before reading a single word, the reader expects grades, comments, corrections. By formatting her short story “Take Your Child To Work Day Report” like an actual report, Maya Beck uses these shared expectations to examine power dynamics in the classroom and society as a whole.
Appearing in the Spring/Summer 2017 Issue of PANK, Beck’s story is exactly what the title suggests: a report that the student Maya Beck has to write for her social studies class about the day her mother took her to work. Set in 2047, the world of this story contains thousands of different time streams (think alternate universes). Some time streams are similar to the world that Maya is living in, the only difference being that a dropped nickel spun once rather than twice. But others are drastically different, like a world where Africa colonized Europe or “the whole world is matriarchy rule.” These time streams, of course, must be watched over by the government, which is what Maya’s mother does as the first black, female time clerk.
Maya doesn’t even get one sentence into the paper before the teacher, Ms. Hill, has a comment. “On April 27th, I went with my mom to her work place for Take Your Child To Work Day,” the report begins, to which Ms. Hill writes, “Remember what I told you about opening sentences.” At first this comment may seem simple enough, conjuring images of an enthusiastic teacher standing in front of a classroom, reading students the best opening lines from literature. But, when considered further, another darker translation of the comment starts to take form: “You’re not doing what I said.”
As the story and the comments continue, it becomes more apparent that the latter reading may be closer to the truth. About halfway through the report, Maya writes that she and her mom peeked in on a protected time stream, an action that brings with it a certain amount of danger. “If you touch anything, though, the temporal police will basically erase you, so I’m going to be careful.” Ms. Hill doesn’t let Maya get away with such a statement, writing the following comment in the margins: “Maya, you’ve got to rise above all the self-loathing and distrust I see in your writing. I don’t know where you picked up these ideas, but the temporal police are necessary to protect us.”
Not only is Maya incorrect in the eyes of her teacher, these inaccuracies about the temporal police are brought on by Maya herself, her own self-loathing and disgust. “You’re the problem,” Ms. Hill is saying here. “The problem begins with you.”
Towards the end of her report, as Maya explains the politics of times streams—the monopolies held on them by the wealthy, the “better” streams banning immigration from the “lesser” streams, the rampant violence that is often ignored (sound familiar?)—she starts to break away from just reporting on what her day was like and begins to analyze these problems. But any time that Maya actually starts to think, Ms. Hill is there to tell Maya that her ideas are merely speculation and irrelevant: “You’re going on some very large tangents here. Please try to remain on topic.” When the person in power tells you that your ideas don’t matter, how can you dispute them?
This story doesn’t answer that question, however, only asks it, and Ms. Hill gets the last word: “Please make an appointment to see me in office hours.” But the reader is left wanting to add a comment right under Ms. Hill’s final, terse words: “You’re on the right track, Maya,” the comment would read. “Don’t stop.”