Thursday, December 2, 2010

English Class, 2598 CE

The students all filed into the Grade 6 Pan-American Literature class.  The timer on the front screen counted down to the beginning of class, the numbers duplicated on each station.  The students talked softly amongst themselves, but as they sat down their talking ceased as they switched back over to the text communications they’d been having in the last class. 

As the numbers ticked down to zero the instruction unit came to life, its dimly illuminated face taking on the vague appearance of a human face and animating.  Its arms came up, and it made an electric noise not entirely unlike clearing its throat.  The students all quieted. 

“Good afternoon, children,” the instruction unit said. 

“Good afternoon, teacher,” the children repeated back out of habit.  None of the teaching units had names because none of them were distinct outside of what class they were teaching at any given time.  But the social ritual had to be upheld all the same.  It developed good manners for the units out in the world that were distinct.

“Today’s lesson is brought to you by Amazon,” the unit began, “with over twenty billion locations on Earth and Luna, Amazon is the galaxy’s largest known retailer. Expand your horizons, take an adventure, all from the comfort of your own computer.  Amazon.” 

The students perfunctorily listened as they continued to type on their workstations.  They had heard this advertisement a thousand times before.  Amazon was the only company that bothered advertising text-novels anymore.

“Now then,” the unit began as the ad ended, “this weekend’s reading assignment was the last part of book two.  Today we’re going to have a discussion about the implications of this book before we head into book three tomorrow.”

There was some groaning from the students, especially the male students.  This was to be expected.  This was a gender-biased literature choice, though within acceptable parameters. 

“Who would like to open discussion?”

One of the boys, a more aggressive type who sat near the front, spoke up first.  “This book sucked worse than the last one.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Nobody acts like that.  She’s just moping around the whole book.  It’s stupid.“

“Now, now,” the unit said.  “It’s not stupid.  You have to remember, this took place in an era where emotional adjustment was done naturally, and often with near-disasterous results.”

“Naturally?” Another student chimed up, this one of the more curious girls.  The teaching unit turned to address her point. 

“Before we began to account for the mood swings of human beings by more harmonious chemical alterations to environment and diet, people were left to deal with their emotional states on their own.  This proved dangerous, especially among adolescents.  There are reports from that time of children not unlike yourselves or unlike the characters in this book indulging in self-mutilation or even suicide.”

The children seemed disturbed by that.  The teaching unit made a note of that, though a certain level of emotional disquiet was to be expected.  The intensity of feeling was one of the reasons this unit was only taught to students once they had reached a certain level of emotional maturity. 

“I like the book,” one of the other students said. 

“Of course you do,” the first boy said.  “You’re a girl.  Lovey dovey stuff is what you do.”

“Now, now,” the teaching unit said.  “We’re not about to indulge in gender stereotyping.  Certainly there are those among your number, Stephen, who would also claim to enjoy the book.”

The boys all looked around for a moment, waiting to see who would step forward and claim to enjoy their material.  Finally one of them spoke up.  “I enjoyed the book,” Daniel said.

“See?”  The teaching unit went on.  “One must remember that such themes as unrequited love are universal.  We could go all the way back to Shakespeare if you wanted to get particularly ancient.  A thousand years ago people were writing the same stories we read and respond to today.”

“But this would never happen,” one of the other girls said.  “I’d never jump off of a cliff for a boy.” 

“You say that now,” the teaching unit said, “but who can tell what will happen?  People do very peculiar things when their infatuations aren’t indulged in.  If you’d like more information, I suggest you watch the film adaptation of the material.”

The students universally rolled their eyes.  The one thing they hated more than ancient Pan-American literature was ancient Pan-American films.  Getting them to sit still for two hours for a non-interactive, flat visual presentation was nearly impossible.  The teaching units had given up even trying to show films to students before their Sophomore year of high school, once the less-intellectual students had moved to more vocation-centered schools. 

“Don’t discount it so readily,” the teaching unit said.  “The films were well-received by fans in their time. They were considered by many to be one of the more successful literary adaptations of the new millennium.  And they can also be seen through your Amazon media subscriptions, free of charge.”

The students shrugged in indifference.  The teacher paid it of no mind.  It was required to work the sponsor in at least three times during the lesson.  How well received the marketing message was was for consumer sociologists to decide. 

“Either way,” the teaching unit continued, “never doubt the impact of romance in human interaction.  It remains a cornerstone of modern media.  This book isn’t that different than Xenthia and The Man With No Body.”

Many of the students nodded.  Stephen, still obviously not engaged in the lesson, spoke up.  “Yeah, but this doesn’t have any space battles.”

“There were no space battles back then, idiot,” one of the girls said. 

“Hey, at least I’m not gaga over a bunch of make believe,” Stephen retorted. 

“Children,” the unit said, its volume increasing to get their attention.  “Do not argue.  We will discuss this in a civil manner or you will both be sent to the administrator for behavioral reprimand. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” the students said. 

“Good,” the unit replied, turning on its wheels and gesturing to the screen where it pulled up the relevant pages of the document.  “Now, if you’ll look at the files on your workstations, we’ll begin with the first part of your assignment for this weekend.  Let’s start with the miscommunication between Bella and Edward, shall we?”

The students listened as attentively as could be expected.  Classical literature was a low-investment class for many.  The teaching unit did its job admirably anyway.  This was education that had to be done to instill culture into young minds, it didn’t mean they had to like it. 

The class continued.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


The faucet continued to leak, despite his best efforts to the contrary.  He had tightened both knobs as much as he could to no effect. He had under tightened them, to the moment before they would start producing water. That didn’t help either.  Instead the only sound in the bathroom was the steady drip drip drip as the faucet contributed its percussive commentary in the otherwise silent bathroom.

He watched the drip from between his knees, the only part of him other than his face that broke the surface of the tub.  Under the water, the sound of the faucet was all-encompassing, the heartbeat of the water, a pounding rhythm that served as the counterpoint to his own inaction.  For every drip, he’d take a breath, until the faucet seemed to be dictating the rhythms of his life more than his own heartbeat. 

At first he was so fixated on this constant reality, narrowed to a single sound and motion, that he couldn’t begin to process anything else.  But over time, as the sound grew more insistent, he heard the knocking that came from outside, the alien sounds from the great beyond, a sharp erratic rat-a-tat of someone insistently knocking on the bathroom door.

He rose above the water slightly, ears exposed to the air, cold and bereft of the womb-like comfort of the bath.  And indeed, here in the open space, the door sounded loud and shrill.  He longed to sink back into the water, but knew that he couldn’t fully retreat.  No, the invasion would continue until he finally relented.  Better to face it. 

“What do you want?”

“You’ve been in there forever.  I need to use the bathroom.”

“Then use the bathroom,” he said.  “I don’t care.”

The door opened and with it came a blast of cold air from the outside.  He instinctively sank into the warm, inviting water.  “Shut the door,” he snapped.  She shut the door behind her. 

“How can you stay in there so long?  Doesn’t your water get cold?” 

He didn’t answer her.  She was questioning him just to nag, not out of any sense of genuine curiosity. He had done this enough that she was well familiar with his ritual of slowly draining off the water and refilling it with fresh, hot water when needed. 

He heard her move over to the toilet and sit down.  He didn’t bother opening his eyes.  There was nothing new to see here.  He did keep his head above water enough to clearly hear her, should she speak.  He felt that was enough consideration. 

“How long are you going to be in there?”

“No idea,” he said softly, a monotone murmur as he tried to focus on the drip of the faucet.  Hard when she was speaking, when he could feel her pointedly looking at him.  He wasn’t ashamed of his nakedness, that would be silly at this point, but the focused attention disrupted the calm watery dissolution of self he was seeking.  “As long as it takes.”

“As long as it takes for what?” 

He couldn’t begin to put what he was seeking into words.  So for a long while, he didn’t answer her.  She didn’t seem too interested in hearing an answer anyway.  But finally he spoke up, raising a hand to gesture to the faucet. 

“The faucet leaks.”

“Well, you should probably fix it,” she said. 

“That’s not what I meant,” he said, trying to compose his thoughts.  “I lie here and I can hear the dripping of the faucet, but each drop doesn’t really amount to anything.  I can’t tell that the faucet’s dripping.  It’s never enough to make the tub overflow.  Each drop is singular, eventful, but in the end it amounts to nothing.”

“What are you even talking about?"

“You asked what I was waiting for,” he said.  “That’s my answer.”

There was a pregnant pause.  Silence.  The sound of the faucet dripping began to fill his thoughts again, a small, insignificant plok plok here above the water.  He opened one eye, squinting against the light, looking over at her sitting on the toilet looking at him and through him, lost in her own thought. 

“Haven’t you gone yet?” he asked her. 

“I’m getting there,” she said.  “You make me nervous.”

“I know,” he said.

“I’m not talking about nervous about using the toilet in front of you, either.”

“I know,” he said again.

He could almost hear her mentally grasping for a response. He let her writhe on that answer, closing his eyes again.  He hesitated a moment, seeing if she’d say anything else, but then slid back down into the water again. 

The numbness, the warmth, as welcoming as his oldest friend.

The drops of water, loud again, the steady tick of the clock of the universe.