Sci-fi and horror master Dan Simmons has only one real character in this short story: Ms. Geiss, dedicated fourth-grade teacher extraordinaire. She seems to be one of the very few remaining humans following the frequently mentioned, but never-explained, “Tribulations” that had some role in creating an environment where zombies roam the planet.
This Year’s Class Picture opens rather bluntly:
Ms. Geiss watched her new student coming across the first-graders’ playground from her vantage point on the balcony of the school’s belfry. She lowered the barrel of the Remington .30-06 until the child was centered in the crosshairs of the telescopic sight.
But don’t get Ms. Geiss wrong. All of her students are zombies, and without proper precautions, she could easily become one of them. This is Ms. Geiss’ thirty-sixth year of teaching. And apocalypse or no, she is teaching her “children.”
Her school is protected by razor wire and a gasoline-flooded moat that acts as a layer of protection against the random few zombies who still roam the area surrounding her school. Her supplies go beyond typical elementary school fare. She has a capture pole, pliers, police handcuffs, heavy gloves, and a rubber apron; not to mention a nice range of weapons and solid supply of ammunition to keep herself and her school-fortress well protected.
Ms. Geiss is pragmatic and focused, going about her work in an organized and methodical manner — whether she’s cautiously chaining her students to their desks, moving them to the playground for recess, or even when she’s cutting in half the rotting zombie-corpse of a former students’ abusive father. When she secures a new “student,” she pulls out all of their teeth and fingernails to lessen the risk to herself. Again, it’s all very pragmatic. They’re zombies: there’s no blood, no pain. They’re dead.
Her students never react to her geography lessons, though she watches for any spark of a purposeful reaction from her cadre of flesh-eating academics. After each lesson, Simmons writes:
Ms. Geiss would look up and no intelligent gaze would be looking back. There would be only the dead eyes, the slack faces, the open mouths, the aimless mindless stirrings, and the soft stench of rank flesh. It was not too dissimilar from her years of teaching the live children.
The title comes from the annual school picture Ms. Geiss dutifully takes and processes. Her rituals of teaching, on a daily and annual basis, continue ever on. But she’s weary of the pretend-teaching. And following a late night attack by a mass of zombies that leaves her utterly exhausted and almost completely out of ammunition, she nears the end of her patience.
You’ll recognize many a trope from zombie- and apocalyptic-lit in This Year’s Class Picture. But Simmons’ writing is fluid, his descriptions crisp and clear, and he develops a sweet and relatable endearment to the lonely Ms. Geiss. An alternative title for this engaging little story might be: “A scene from a zombie apocalypse.”