At age 13, I sat down at my parent’s kitchen table with a spiral notebook, determined to become an author. With a choose-your-own-adventure plot in mind, I needed a main character. I started page one with this:
Your name is Jeff Remington and you are a retired pro football player. You are 27 years old and had an early retirement because of a back injury. You now work as a janitor for the local YMCA.
So begins Escape From Cell 7346, my 30-page debut. It contains several different plotlines – dependent on the choices made at the end of each page. Yet in the beginning, every reader starts on the same path: imprisonment in cell 7346 for a crime you didn’t commit.
The way I designed it back in 1983, only one series of choices leads readers to a successful escape. All other roads lead to dead ends. As I wrote it, I had no idea that in my future profession as an English teacher, I’d read the book aloud to every class I’d teach. What started off as a goofy novelty act, with each fork-in-the-road decision based on a class vote, has grown into an opening day tradition. Year after year, the students change, but the book remains the same. Roughly 130 different classes have tried to guide Jeff Remington to freedom. So far, no winners.
The longer the streak goes on, the more I play it up: “This book has been undefeated for the past 24 years! This is your chance to make history! You can succeed where every class before you has failed!”
The longer the streak goes on, the more I play it up: “This book has been undefeated for the past 24 years! This is your chance to make history! You can succeed where every class before you has failed!” Most classes buy into the hype, hoping to go down in history. But again and again, they fail to make the five consecutive correct decisions needed to find freedom. Somehow, the psychological mind games engineered by 1983-me continue to outwit today’s much more sophisticated teenagers.
Enter the 2020 school year.
On the opening day, starting my 25th year as a teacher, I sensed that my book was on the verge of defeat. First of all, I faced eight classes instead of the usual five, which offered a few more chances for the students to triumph. Plus, the longer any streak goes on, the more it feels like a Jenga tower that can’t hold one more block without collapsing. On top of that, there’s all the 2020 voodoo that has turned everything in the world on its head. Why would Escape From Cell 7346 be any exception?
Last year, interest varied from class to class. Some students looked shellshocked, muzzled with masks, wondering what happened to the school they once knew. All things considered, I could see why not everyone was overly concerned about the fate of Jeff Remington. Still, some classes enthusiastically debated the choices and character motivations.
The first seven classes did their best. Jeff Remington made attempt after attempt, yet the book held strong. But when my eighth and final class entered the room, something told me that Jeff Remington would bust free. It’d be fitting, since the class roster included a girl whose dad was in the first class I ever taught back in 1996. Back then, I was on the same wavelength as the kids. I liked Pearl Jam; they liked Pearl Jam. Now, none of the kids in my classes have even heard of Pearl Jam. Around these kids, I’m a relic from another time, and so is this book.
Sensing this was the end of the line, I gave the introductory speech a little extra drama, making sure they understood the significance of what they were about to accomplish. The kids of 2020 were about to pull off the great escape.
Turned out, my gut feeling was wrong, and my 1983 master plan was right. The class was foiled, like so many before them. While over 3,000 students have escaped my class and gone on to become business owners, janitors, pilots, writers, delivery drivers, counselors, soldiers, teachers, doctors, and dentists, Jeff Remington and I remain here year after year.
Wait, does that mean I’m actually Jeff Remington, trapped in this classroom, where nothing ever changes?
Hardly. The old ways have been replaced over and over again: the fads, fashions, teaching methods, technologies, and presidential terms. Escape From Cell 7346 has outlasted them all.
Now, as the 2021 school year begins, I will hold its frayed pages up in front of another class, for the 26th straight year.
Choose wisely, kids. Your future is waiting.
Ken Szymanski is an English teacher, a father of two, and the current Writer in Residence for the City of Eau Claire.