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Literature / The Homework Machine

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"Seen a lot of strange stuff go down in 10 years working here, probably has something to do with being so close to the canyon. Having a mile deep hole in your backyard brings out the weirdness in folks. I remember that time the gambler from LA lost a bet in Las Vegas, and his friends drove him up here; forced him to parachute into the canyon, guy almost died. You get all kinds in this part of the country, the canyon attracts 'em like flies to dog doo... But this recent situation involving the children, was one of the stranger cases I ever ran into..."
Police Chief Rebecca Fish
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In an interview room sits a police officer, and a girl named Kelsey; the latter of which is considered guilty of a crime. The child is demanded to give a testimony and is being recorded by cameras and microphones, all eyes and ears on them. The girl parts her lips, and begins to talk.

Pause, rewind.

Brenton Damagatchi, Judy Douglas, Sam "Snik" Dawkins, and Kelsey Donnelly are all 5th grade students that only share one thing in common: their last names all start with a "D". Apart from that, they're nothing alike, Brenton is the typical smart kid who gets perfect grades, Judy always looks up to the teacher, Sam is a class clown who doesn't play by the rules, and Kelsey doesn't care enough about her grades to do any real work. Despite this (and largely because their teacher assigns seats in alphabetical order), they're all forced to sit together in class, with only their last names keeping them together...

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At least that's what you may be led to believe.

All these kids (who cheekily named themselves "the 'D' squad" due to their last names) do share something else: a secret that if revealed, could have massive repercussions within the school district and within the county itself.

A 2007 novel by Dan Gutman, The Homework Machine is about the social repercussions of the eponymous device, and a commentary on the inner workings of the American Education System. The book's narrative is told in a series of testimonies provided by the 4 lead child characters, as well as their parents, the teachers, and the staff of the school they all attended. The testimonies are provided in the order they were taken, but said testimonies do not tell the story in the order that the events took place.

Was followed by a sequel in 2009, Return of the Homework Machine.

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The Homework Machine contains examples of:

  • All First-Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: Zigzagged. They do spend a fair amount of time discussing not-exactly-homework-machine-related things, but for the most part, the cast of narrators talk like people, not like novelists.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Precociously brilliant and antisocial Brenton.
  • Bonding Over Missing Parents: Kelsey starts crying when she finds out about Snik's dad, because she's lost her own father.
  • Child Prodigy: Brenton
    Brenton's mom: He spoke very early. He had no interest in watching television or playing with other children. Instead, he would play chess against himself. He taught himself how to play the piano as soon as he was big enough to climb up on the bench. When he was just six, he wrote a concerto. Really! And that's what he called it, too. "My concerto." I don't know where he got the word concerto. I still don't know what it means. He was very special.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Snik
    1. We live in a democracy, where we have freedom, right? We're entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So how can I pursue happiness if I have to spend every night doing home-work? Homework is cruel, totalitarian punishment created by grown-ups to take away the freedoms of poor, defenseless children.
    2. Nobody ever saved a life, won a war, stopped a crime, or cured a disease while they were doing homework. Think of all the good things we could be accomplishing if we didn't have to spend so much time doing homework.
    3. Doing homework causes eyestrain, fatigue, insomnia, and other physical ailments.
    4. Thomas Edison went to school for four months. He never did any homework, and look how he turned out.
    5. There's a name for working without getting paid. It's called slavery, and it was banned during the Civil War. If kids are forced to do homework, they should be paid for it.
    6. Homework is proof of teacher incompetence. If a teacher is any good, students would learn the stuff in school and wouldn't have to learn it again at home.
    7. Doing homework wastes valuable natural resources. We have to use lots of energy to keep all those lightbulbs burning. We have to cut down trees to make paper and pencils. We'd save a lot of energy by banning homework.
    8. I keep hearing that American kids are way too fat, and that's because we don't get enough exercise. For every minute kids are doing homework, we are getting fatter. Kids should be outside running around and getting exercise, not inside doing worksheets.
    9. Virtually every known murderer, bank robber, and criminal did homework when they were children. How can we be sure the homework didn't cause the criminal behavior?
    10. Homework sucks. There should be a constitutional amendment banning it.
  • Deconstruction: Brenton is a Child Prodigy, but he's not one to the absurd levels many books and television shows depict them. He was only able to build the Homework Machine in the first place because he got ahold of an advanced supercomputer by a fluke, and despite his nerdiness he's not capable of doing things that are outside the realms of plausibility. At the end of the day, he is still a kid.
  • Four-Man Band: The D Squad
    1. Only Sane Man: Judy
    2. The Smart Guy: Brenton
    3. The Pervert: Snik
    4. The Butt Monkey: Kelsey
  • Four-Philosophy Ensemble: The D Squad
    1. The Cynic: Snik, who hates homework with a violent passion and refused to do it for a time at his old school
    2. The Optimist: Judy, who really doesn't mind homework and thinks it has educational value
    3. The Realist: Kelsey, who does homework even though it sucks
    4. The Apathetic: Brenton, who doesn't really mind homework but admits it's time consuming and thus invents the homework machine
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: The D Squad
    1. Choleric: Brenton (the genius)
    2. Melancholic: Judy (the perfectionist)
    3. Sanguine: Snik (the class clown)
    4. Phlegmatic: Kelsey (the slacker)
  • Framing Device: The story is told through testimonials given by the D Squad, their teacher, their parents, and occasionally other people. It's framed as the police putting the story together the following summer.
  • It Won't Turn Off: The machine runs unplugged, and only turns off when thrown over the Grand Canyon.
  • Military Brat: Snik, who's new at the beginning of the story because his father is assigned to Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix.
  • Mood Whiplash: When Snik's father dies.
  • You Gotta Have Blue Hair: Invoked: Kelsey dyes her hair pink.

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