by Max Gladstone
Situated near the border of Jokertown, on Forsyth St across from the Houston Street Playground, Xavier Desmond High offers the finest in well-meaning (and under-resourced) public education to the youth of Jokertown and New York City at large.
Not every student in Xavier Desmond High is a joker. Just because your card turns, doesn’t mean that your kids’ will—and even if they do, they don’t necessarily turn the same way. The city has plenty of sentient grasshoppers whose egg-hatched offspring wouldn’t look out of place in a central casting call for “Typical American Family.” And while Jokertown formed as a segregated enclave in the chaotic aftermath of the Takis-A pandemic, in these enlightened 21st century days one can find aces, deuces, and, yes, jokers from the Battery to the Cloisters. At the same time, in these endarkened 21st century days, rents in hip, artsy Jokertown have become increasingly unaffordable to economically disadvantaged jokers—leading to the formation of scattered joker enclaves throughout the city, smaller populations with strained access to the community resources and solidarity developed in Jokertown proper during the struggles of the plague years.
Wild Card children need special support. Most classrooms aren’t set up for students who slither, pupate, or sweat lava—and that’s not to mention the curriculum. Even today, “Nat” curriculums still cover the Takis-A virus and its transformations as a human story in which jokers and aces feature, rather than a tapestry of which jokers and aces (and of course the black queens) are an inseparable part. Children whose cards have turned are still often banned from nat athletic leagues—leading to fraught back-and-forth debates about the surveillance of children, and accusations that top performers are “secret aces.” Where does that leave a kid with tentacles for fingers, who really wants to run the 100m dash?
The modern incarnation of Xavier Desmond High is the New York Public School system’s awkward compromise with the realities of the wild card virus. The industrial model of public education, which coughs, shudders, and misfires when faced with the diversity of nat human adolescents, shatters altogether when it attempts to process the profuse (and sometimes bulletproof) bodies of joker and ace children. Many joker and ace kids can and do sweat out their teenage years in neighborhood schools, and many parents of jokers and aces experiment with home schooling, but at some point in their life, most wild card children in NYC hop the B and D to Grand Street—or tunnel, or fly, or take the bus—to the proud if slightly singed and slimed brick halls of Xavier Desmond High, if only for the after-school activities and the robust club scene.
Here, the intramural basketball teams have flying point guards, and spiders on defense. Students are encouraged to hack the schoolhouse’s architecture—not everyone can climb stairs, after all, or use doors—a policy that keeps the buildings’ Facilities team in a frenzy as they try to balance the student body’s enthusiastic imaginations with the limits of New York City building codes. Classes range from core curriculum—math, sciences, history, language arts—to card-specific electives, like Fundamental Transformation, Power Safety, and Machine Shop. Xavier Desmond has always been well-supported by the Jokertown community, and in return the student body has fostered an active volunteer culture, giving back to the neighborhood with bake sales, community theater, art, and renovation.
All this puts Xavier Desmond in the odd and enviable position of being a public school designed around student growth and discovery, with a more robust arts and letters program than most public schools in the city can afford these days. Academically the school is quite strong—for all its nonstandard curriculum, Xavier Desmond’s average testing performance is consistently in the top decile for the state. (Averages, as always, are misleading—Xavier Desmond has many of the best students in the state, and some of the worst.) Joker, ace, and deuce students in New York City can request transfers to XD at any point in their education, but nat kids who do not reside in Jokertown are only admitted through a highly competitive lottery. This policy has been repeatedly challenged in court, and one challenge is under way as of 2023, with an eye toward reaching a sympathetic Supreme Court.
Principal Krupp oversees Xavier Desmond with a fist of eldritch dread. The mysterious principal sees herself as Xavier Desmond’s most stalwart defender from a school board uncomfortable with XD’s autonomy, reputation, and resistance to standardization and “modernization” efforts. She is also an active fundraiser, having gathered a respectable foundation that permits the school a shred more autonomy than might otherwise be the case. The exact nature of Krupp’s mutations and powers is a subject of much debate among the student body, as the principal, and the details of her personal life, remain obscure. Students are rarely called into Krupp’s office, and those who are emerge shaken and chilled, and unwilling to relate the details of their conversation. The day-to-day non-horrific administration of the school falls to a dedicated corps of VPs and admins whose efforts provide the connective tissue that links the school together.
The faculty is a motley band of Jokertown natives and recent arrivals, of system lifers and new recruits eager to prove that they will be the ones to fix public education. While the faculty are for the most part a goodhearted bunch—hardly anyone with any sense gets into teaching for the money or the power (though classroom power has its own corrupting influence)—teachers at XD face real divisions on the subject of how, exactly, the school should serve its students and the broader community. Some teachers favor an approach with assimilationist overtones, trying to produce graduates who can navigate nat society and the nat economy safely and seamlessly—the better to protect themselves. Others favor more radical visions. The world, they say, will do enough—more than enough—to make our students conform. It’s our job to keep them weird, and to give them the strength and resources they need to survive—since accommodation is another form of capitulation. Variations and middle-grounds abound—though for the most part the arguments remain confined to the break room, they form the ideological warp of the many personal alliances and enmities of the XD faculty.
Coaching and counseling forms a much larger part of life at XD than at other schools, because of the pronounced diversity of student needs. Guidance counsellor Robin Ruttiger (“The Amazing Rubberband!”) sees his role as one of holding space, of facilitating students’ quests to say what they are, or what they are for now, in a world that’s all too eager to tell them. Robin might not put it in quite those words, though. He’s retiring when it comes to big ideological statements, preferring to focus on the individual kids that enter his office. When a fifteen year old girl is twelve feet tall with bulletproof metal skin, people tend to assume certain things about her—and act in ways that will drive her to fit those assumptions. Military and private security recruiters take interest; kids on the playground may be more likely to pick fights. Your card, Robin believes, does not have to be your everything. That’s especially important for young Takis-A survivors, since the Card has an eerie and under-studied tendency to reflect underlying psychological traumas and obsessions. When a young man’s grown up in an environment where he felt pressure to be whatever his family needed of him—and Takis-A left him with the ability to shapeshift—how can he honor those powers and that background, while growing into fullness of character and confidence in himself? Robin offers support, a listening ear, and a wide range of resources for career planning and college prep.
That leaves the student body: a batch of vivid, growing young people, sorting out their lives and loves and dreams, and trying to have fun on the way. XD’s kids are in some ways very different from those of nat students uptown, but they breathe the same air and live in the same economy. In recent years have seen a sharp uptick of student political organizing, particularly around climate change and social justice. Social media use (and abuse) has become a central theme in parent-teacher meetings. Between the constantly shifting club scenes, an undercurrent of crime, and a desire for freedom and self-determination, XD students are in many ways united by their divides—and in other ways, divided by what unites them. Aces, jokers, and nats might stand together to protect a beloved bakery, or to support a city council campaign—only to break on lines of wealth and social class when it comes to organizing (and funding) a band trip.
Xavier Desmond is a changing school, in a changing Jokertown, in a changing world. All that change can be unsettling, even disorienting for students and teachers trying to get by day to day—but it also speaks to the school’s irrepressible vitality. And after all, as Principal Krupp says: what is life, but change?