Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Using What I Fear

Fear changes with age. When I was a kid, I remember this red bull monster (an actual crimson beast; not the crack-in-a-can energy drink) from this movie “The Last Unicorn” being utterly terrifying. The night I saw Halloween 5 in middle school, I saw Michael Myers’ vacuous white mask in every shadow.

The special effects haven’t aged well. That stuff looks silly now.

As an adult, or at least an older human, I fear different things. I fear failure and mediocrity. I fear bills and debt. I fear disappointing people I love. You can’t slap a white mask on any of that abstract shit, but that only makes it scarier.

Another abstract fright is fascism – that insidious merger of corporate and government interests. We came very close to it in the post-9/11 years. Our institutions are still too powerful, compared to the individuals whose needs they’re supposed to serve.

Fascism in schools is the topic of my latest 99 cent story, “Equality Chair”. The speaker is Charles Vance Cohen, a “Corporate-national school inspector” (also, a prick), and he’s documenting the test run of a device meant to ensure students receive equal access to the teacher. Of course, being designed with the bottom line in mind, little thought was given to how it would affect the humans it was allegedly built to serve.

Just on time for back to school, here’s a preview of “Equality Chair”. Click the link after to purchase the full story.

Equality Chair


Today was revelation. It occurred in the least likely setting for epiphany – a school. Not even an enclave school, one of those red brick monstrosities in the outlands.

My young wife worries when my duties take me beyond the Enclaves. It isn’t her fault. To her it’s just a rational opinion based on limited world experience. We go to Jamaica and we’re behind the walls – beige with meandering tropical ivy. We go home to Pleasant Edge and we’re behind the walls – nude tombstone granite. My wife, like so many of my old mates from Central Academy, she’s traveled pocket-to-pocket, never really seeing the world.

In my duties, I must venture out to the other America. As I tried to explain that night she was hurling emotional artillery – our polished ceramic souvenirs, a man’s work sometimes supersedes his safety.

Besides that, I’ve always felt the outlands held a certain primal charm. There’s something about knowing I’m out there, exposed, where a Miserable with a sophisticated enough improvised explosive device could rip my armored limo in half. It makes me feel so vital, so present and alive from moment to moment.

Miserables – that’s the right name for them – those sorry souls who’ve given up on bettering their own lives and seek only to ruin ours.

I should stop. My feelings are immaterial. This document is for the schools.

The Jennie Oakes School – that was the setting. Their front gates are a black iron psychological baby blanket – security theater. The grounds are kept trim and green by standard keepers, rewarded with a life of safety, or, at the very least, a life free of starvation, a life behind gates.

All of that was pedestrian, tedious.

It was the sign that first piqued my interest: an old world rectangle light bulb with black trim and letters. I read aloud, “The Jennie Oakes School: Every Child Special as the Next.” I laughed.

Old Jim, my usual driver, he actually asked me if I was feeling alright, sir. I stopped laughing.

“Park here,” I said.

The building itself was nothing remarkable – the same baked brick that contains all the outborn children looking to earn the label “lettered outborn.” Their atrium, a bland square where two hallways ended, featured a mural of “character models.”

There they were, immortalized in oil: Rockefeller, Trump, Reagan, all the heroes of history I’d approved for the atriums of the 37 outborn schools in my zone. The first sight any student entering the building would behold: titans of business; men of near-limitless vision and ambition.

I heard the clopping of freshly-soled shoes.

The principal, Dolores Harpe, appeared from the hallway on my right. My administrative psych course at Central taught me how to judge someone: it’s all in the shoes and neck. The fresh soles on her second-rate flats revealed a woman trying to hammer class onto her peasantry. The smeared gleam of imitation pearls on her neck confirmed my initial suspicions.

Shoes and neck. That’s all you need.

She wrapped her pudgy hand around mine and squeezed lightly. “I’m so glad to have another administrator in the building today,” she said. I smiled. I wondered how much make up it took to coat her bloated face.

Another administrator, she said. 

Like so many of the other lettered outborn, she reminded me of a cow placed in charge of chickens. Being in lower management, she thought she was no longer livestock, perhaps even a farmer. She saw me as a peer. I didn’t know whether to laugh or smack a half-pound of concealer off of her meaty cheek.

“I’m honored to be here today,” I said. A Corporate-national school inspector must be cordial, though there was one piece of fun I couldn’t let alone. “Tell me about your sign,” I said. “The one out front. Is it serious or was it intended as some private joke?”

She frowned. “Well, no, that’s our school philosophy.” The poor woman didn’t understand.

I explained to her, “My dear,” I said, “if every child was special then no child would be special.” She blinked like a micro-fiber of shrapnel was burrowing through her cornea. I proceeded. “To be special means to be unique, apart from average, distinct. If there were no average children, no normal children, there would be no standard with which to judge excellence, to judge who was, in real terms, ‘special.’” 

Her response: “Every child at the Jennie Oakes School is as special as the next.”

A man in my position is often prone to this kind of error. Miss Harpe was a product of her institution, as much as my wife and I are products of Enclave parents and Enclave schools. She would respond to criticism of her institutional platitude by repeating it verbatim, as if to do so was to verify its philosophical foundation. I could point to the mud on which such a sentiment rested, and tell her, “This is mud” and she would blink stupidly. I could shove her wide face into it, until I pulled her up, muck-faced and sputtering, and she would just look at me like I was some powerful sorcerer, capable of changing the density of substances at will.

It would never occur to her the structure of her beliefs had always been wobbling precariously, on a bedrock of pure shit. 

Then again, look at the institution that molded her. Her happiest memories were probably sitting in a desk in this very building, pleasing the impossibly tall figure at the front of the room with a raised arm, a predictable insight, a sugary grin. She was always going to come back here. I ought to disregard her. Our society is built with a hundred thousand Dolores Harpes, pledging passionate allegiance to some platitude on a light bulb sign. 

I apologized and told her it was a wonderful slogan. Every child was indeed special and we merely needed to unlock their potential. She smiled a prescribed smile and led me to the left, down the main hall.

She boasted the triumph of their architecture first. 

As we walked, she explained:  “At the turn of the century, the curriculum determined what had to be taught at each grade level and at each subject. It also determined the degree of depth, whether a student was to be exposed to a concept, should be extending their use of a concept, or achieving mastery of it.”

“Fascinating,” I offered. I didn’t remind her that the past needn’t concern her. I didn’t scold her that she should focus on the present, where what is taught, when it is taught, to what degree and for how long it is taught, comes directly from Central, directly through me. I allowed her to rant and ramble. The capacity to self-delude is what keeps women like this from baking cakes instead of bombs.

“There was also a device called an I.E.P. This stood for Individualized Education Plan…”

I endured her speaking to me like a child, reminding myself again to whom, and what, I was speaking. In her mind, she was now the impossibly tall figure at the front of the room, and I was the adoring little girl in the desk. She never guessed she was being indulged. This is my gift.

“…so why not eliminate the curriculum and give everyone an I.E.P? Why not treat everyone as special as the next?” She beamed at me.

“A revelation,” I offered. We continued walking.

“A Corporate-national University study found that one of the key portions of the I.E.P. was that a student with special needs be given preferential seating. The more a student’s attention was likely to wander, the closer they should be to the front of the room, where the teacher is likely to be. We are the first school in the nation to take this idea and work it into the very structure of the building.” We arrived at the first classroom Dolores wanted to present me. She unlocked a plain oak door.

It wasn’t a classroom as I understand the term. It was another hallway, running sideways. Students scribbled right down the line. Dolores’ wide frame blocked the instructor. 
(End of free preview)

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