Master Class

Master Class

by Christina Dalcher


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From the critically-acclaimed author of the international bestseller VOX comes a suspenseful new novel that examines a disturbing near future where harsh realities follow from unreachable standards.

It’s impossible to know what you will do…

Every child's potential is regularly determined by a standardized measurement: their quotient (Q). Score high enough, and attend a top tier school with a golden future. Score too low, and it's off to a federal boarding school with limited prospects afterwards. The purpose? An improved society where education costs drop, teachers focus on the more promising students, and parents are happy.

When your child is taken from you.

Elena Fairchild is a teacher at one of the state's elite schools. When her nine-year-old daughter bombs a monthly test and her Q score drops to a disastrously low level, she is immediately forced to leave her top school for a federal institution hundreds of miles away. As a teacher, Elena thought she understood the tiered educational system, but as a mother whose child is now gone, Elena's perspective is changed forever. She just wants her daughter back.

And she will do the unthinkable to make it happen.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780440000839
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/21/2020
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 398,032
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Christina Dalcher earned her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from Georgetown University. She specializes in the phonetics of sound change in Italian and British dialects and has taught at several universities.

Her short stories and flash fiction appear in more than one hundred journals worldwide. Recognition includes first place for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, nominations for the Pushcart Prize, and multiple other awards. She lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with her husband.

Read an Excerpt



It's impossible to know what you would do to escape a shitty marriage and give your daughters a fair shot at success. Would you pay money? Trade the comfort of house and home? Lie, cheat, or steal? I've asked myself these questions; I suppose many mothers do. One question I haven't asked, mostly because I don't like the answer. Not a bit. I have too strong a survival instinct. Always have.


Last night, I spoke to Malcolm again after the girls had gone to bed. I tried to put a light spin on things, to not turn him from phlegmatic to angry with my words.


"I've had enough of this, Malc," I said. "Freddie's had enough of it."


He looked up from his paperwork long enough to meet my eyes. "Had enough of what?"


"Of the numbers. Of the pressure. Of all of it."


"Noted," he said and buried himself again in pages of reports and memos. I think I heard a relieved sigh when I left to go to bed.


Things haven't been good here for a long time.


I almost can't remember how it felt before we all started carrying the Q numbers around with us, like an extra and unnatural print on the tips of our fingers, a badge of honor for some, a mark of shame for others. I suppose, after more than a decade, you can get used to anything. Like cell phones. Remember not having the entire universe in your back pocket? Remember sitting on the floor, talking to your best friend about nothing, unwinding a curly cord only to watch it kink up again? Remember all that? I do and I don't. Blockbuster two-day video rentals and bookstores the size of an airplane hangar are distant memories, faded impressions of life before streaming and same-day delivery.


It's the same way with the Q numbers, although we've carried numeric strings with us in one form or another for most of our lives: our social security numbers for tax returns; our home telephone numbers in case an emergency call to Mom became necessary; our grade point averages that would fill boxes in dozens of college application forms. Men, in a clothing store, became thirty-four long or sixteen-and-a-half, thirty-three. Women became dress sizes: six, eight, fourteen. In the more upscale shops, we were our measurements. In doctors' offices, we were our height and weight, watching one number creep down while the other number crept up.


We've always been our numbers. DOB. GPA. SSN. BP (systolic and diastolic). BMI. SAT and GRE and GMAT and LSAT; 35-22-35 (Marilyn, damn her); 3 (the Babe). PINs and CSCs and expiration dates. Jenny's phone number from that old song. And, for the extreme among us, the entire sixteen-digit sequence on our Visa cards. Our ages. Our net worths. Our IQs.


I think about this in the grocery store, while I stand in one of the priority lines with close to a hundred bags and cans and boxes in my cart, enough to get my family of four through a few days. Yesterday, at Safeway, five other women glared at me from three lines over. One of them, I remembered from high school. I think she was a cheerleader. Pretty, thin, not too bright. What the hell was her name? Paulette? Paulina? Patty? Patty. That's it. She was fifth in line at the only open nonpriority checkout, holding a carton of skim milk. Patty's one item compared to my one hundred. I nearly let her cut in before me, but the cashier shrugged and shook his head in a hopeless no.


"Her card won't work in this line," the kid said. "You know."


He scanned my card, my magic card with its magic number encoded on it. Nine-point-something. It's the first digit that matters.


Patty didn't say a word. She would have, once. She, or one of the other women, would have rolled her cart over and refused to move. I saw a fistfight break out at a gas station once between a short man in a suit and that guy who worked at the hardware store down on Main. No competition there. The suit checked over Mr. Ex-High School Football once, got back into his Lexus, and drove off. When his card wouldn't work, Mr. Ex-Football punched the gas pump display until his fists were bloody and the police showed up. I don't know what his Q number was, but it sure as shit had to be below nine.


Now we're all used to the lines and the tiers and the different strokes for different folks.


I guess, if I think hard enough, people can get used to anything.




There are nine alarms in my house now. One next to my bed set for five o'clock, one that chirps an hour before Anne's school bus arrives, three more to mark the final thirty minutes, fifteen minutes, and seven minutes. Same for Freddie's bus, which shows up slightly later. Nine pings and pops and chimes, five days a week. I feel like I'm on a goddamned game show.


All so my daughters don't miss their ride to school.


When I was a girl, my mother would call up the stairs. Her voice walked the fine line between gentle and firm as she spoke my name, spurring me on to get up, get dressed, get ready. I still failed to reach the bus stop on some days, only arriving just in time to watch it turn the corner, see the red taillights disappear in the morning fog. Everyone missed a bus now and then. No big deal.


There weren't incentives to make sure you got on the bus-the right bus. Not back then.


Malcolm's already out the door, ensconced in a bright office with some junior aide bringing him coffee and whole-grain bagels glazed with nonfat cream cheese. He never sees his daughters, two contestants in the daily Who Won't Make It to School on Time? show, on weekday mornings. It's too bad, really. The prizes aren't anything to get worked up about, but the penalties bestowed on the losers make for solid motivation.


"Freddie!" I call from the kitchen, sounding less like my mother and more like a desperate lioness with a pack of hyenas circling my cubs. "Anne!"


Her thirty-minute warning pings while I'm spooning yogurt from a quart-sized tub and teetering on one leg to hitch the ankle strap on my left heel. Anne pokes her head around the corner and gives it a quick, silent shake.


Freddie's not ready, not even close.




On the second testing day of the school year, I'm running late, my daughter hasn't shown up for breakfast, and all I can think about is the yellow bus idling up the street with the Child Catcher sitting behind the wheel.


When I was young, I had dreams of the Child Catcher from that old musical, the one with the flying car and Dick Van Dyke stumbling through a bad British accent. He lurked outside my house in predawn shadows, grease-slicked black hair and Pinocchio nose. Waiting.


The Child Catcher wasn't immediately scary, not when his wagon tinkled with bells and lights, or when he danced around in a Technicolor coat, or when he promised all good things and sweets to children. After all, what child shies away from bells and colors and sweet things? And you didn't know the first time around that the wagon was really a cell with iron bars, or that the Child Catcher wore black underneath his robes, or that he would take his prey to a dark cave.


But you knew the second time you watched the movie. And the third. And all the times after that.


You knew exactly what he was waiting for.


In my early forties, I learned there's still such a thing as the Child Catcher.


He's old, and his hair is a blurred froth of white through the windshield of his bus, the one with Federal Schools printed in black along the sides. Instead of colored robes, he wears a plain gray uniform with the Department of Education logo embroidered on twin shoulder patches, a peace-symbol design in three colors-silver, green, and yellow. Around it are the words Intelligentia, Perfectum, Sapientiae. Intelligence, Perfection, Wisdom. I'd know two out of three even if I didn't speak Latin. The yellow paint on the bus-Chrome Yellow, they used to call it when it still contained lead, but it's been National School Bus Glossy Yellow for a while now-is chipped and peeling around the fenders and the accordion door. I guess no one gives much of a shit about what the yellow buses look like. It's not essential, given where they're headed, or what their cargo is.


The green ones and the silver ones are always in good condition, polished to a high sheen, not a dent or scratch or mark on them. When the doors open, they slide silently and smoothly, unlike the creaking doors on the yellow bus that rumbles along our street this morning. Drivers of the green and silver buses smile as children climb aboard, dressed in uniforms advertised as Harvard Crimson and Yale Blue, even for the five-year-olds.


There's something else about the yellow buses. You don't see them every day, picking up their cargo in the early fog of morning, dropping off in that time that could only be called the after-school show-and-snack hour, that limbo when the kids are no longer temporary wards of the state but once again home and settled with their families.


The yellow buses come only once every month, always the Monday after testing day. And they don't return in the afternoons.


They never return. Not with passengers, anyway. Also, they don't roll into neighborhoods like ours.


If I'd kept newspaper headlines from the past ten years, they would tell the story better than I could.


Immigration Rates Climb-Projections for 2050 Dire


School Overcrowding, Teacher Shortages:

Lawmakers in Standstill over Solution


Genics Institute Partners with Department of Education, Offers Expanded Q Software


Fitter Family Campaign Releases Guidelines


No Child Left Behind Means All Children Suffer!


Initial Directives to Be Rolled Out in Coming Months


It started with fear, and it ended with laws.


I pour a third cup of coffee and check the clock. "Freddie! Please." I'm careful to keep my voice low and steady, mom-like. Anything I can do to keep her calm.


The yellow bus is idling across the street, two houses up, at the end of the Campbells' driveway, which is strange, since Moira Campbell doesn't have children anymore, not at home anyway, and since today is testing day. Still, across and up the street is better than in front of my own house, whether or not the bus is on schedule. The thought makes me shiver, despite the heat wave from a late Indian summer. When did something as banal as a yellow school bus become such a threat? It's like taking a smiley face and giving it fangs. That's so fucking wrong.


"Freddie!" I call again. "For chrissake!"


Here's the thing about nine-year-olds: As bad as the pain in the delivery room was, as hair-raisingly chaotic as night feedings and croup and terrible twos were, as much as you now dread that first I've got a boyfriend, Mom! from a kid who seemed to be waddling around in diapers just yesterday, there is nothing worse than the pretween girl. Mainly where morning bathroom routines are concerned. I know I shouldn't get my temper up, not with Freddie and the way she is.


Note to self: Change tone. Take it down two octaves and a million decibels.


"Hurry up, hon! Test today!" I say, this time with more sugar in my voice, wondering if I'm going to make it to my own job on time. I try leveraging the big sister, making her the bad cop. "Anne! Get your sister out here in two minutes. Matching barrettes or not."


This seems to work. Anne, when she isn't nose-to-screen on her iPad, scouring the Q rankings of every boy in town for a homecoming dance date, is the responsible one. Always ready, always on time, always coming home after testing day with that insouciant little smile on her face and beaming when the app on her phone or tablet pings its pass alert later that night. It's Freddie who stays in the bathroom, worrying over her bangs, washing her hands five more times than necessary. Once, I found her slouched over on the toilet, head between her knees, shaking, refusing to leave.


"You have to, honey," I said. "Everyone has to take the tests."




Why? I tried to think of an answer that would calm her. "So they know where to put people." And then, "You've always done fine."


What I never said was, "You've squeaked by each time. You'll squeak by again." That wouldn't do a bit of good.


Anne emerges from the hall, still glued to her iPad, swiping and pinching and expanding, reciting numbers. "Nine-point-one. Quel dud," she says. "Oof. Eight-point-eight. Major dud." And "Oh, Mom, you should see this one from that school in Arlington. He's down to eight-point-two-six and doesn't look like he could pass a blood test. Gag."


"Eight-point-three used to count as a B," I remind her.


"Not anymore, Mom."


She's just like her father, I think, but I don't say it out loud. As far as Anne is concerned, the sun rises and sets on-and probably revolves around-Malcolm. There is that, at least.


"Where's your sister?" I ask, buttoning my raincoat. Anne tells me she's on her way.


Anne's silver bus, the one that goes to the top-tier school with the rest of the nine-point-somethings, has turned the corner and starts to slow, its stop-sign wings unfolding as it approaches the pickup point. There's a trail of cars behind it, students clutching shiny identification cards in the backseats, waiting to be let out. A steel gray Lexus SUV, the first in line, pulls to the curb, and the rear door swings open. I've seen the girl before, at one of those parent-teacher days they hold at Anne's school every fall. Today her hair hangs in thick, uncombed ringlets around her face, but enough of her eyes show that I can see the whites of them, the look of a frightened dog, when she catches sight of the yellow bus up the street.


Anne joins me at the front window, backpack slung over one shoulder, silver passcard clutched in one hand.


"That girl," I say, "she looks nervous."


"She shouldn't be," Anne says. "Sabrina's Q is fine. Then, in a confidential whisper: "Not like Jules Winston. Jules barely passed last week's advanced calculus test." She takes a bite of apple, swipes again at her iPad.

Reading Group Guide

Readers Guide
Master Class by Christina Dalcher
Questions for Discussion

1. The author discusses the use of numbers to judge ourselves and others. Can you think of any other numerical standards that we use today for evaluation? Do you think they are effective or do more harm?

2. The schools and buses are all labeled as colors. Why do you think the author chose to use colors? Do you think they symbolize anything or have any meaning?

3. Children in a household can grow up to be very different people, as evidenced by the household in Master Class. Yet the expression “blood is thicker than water” is prevalent and true in many cases. Did you feel that way when you read about each child in this household and how they evolved throughout the book?

4. There are obvious stereotypes in the book, from the geeks in school being ostracized to the jocks being the most popular kids in school. Can you relate to the stereotypes? Could you imagine a world where Qs would be useful?

5. The love between a child and a mother is an unbreakable bond. Could you have done what Elena did and sacrifice everything to be with your child?

6. Government intervention is a major theme in the book. Do you agree the government should play a role in education? To what extent?

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