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The Interactive Classroom

by Phillip Donnelly

Hardly a half hour into the lesson, the teacher received his first message; flashing up on the left lens of his infospecs: invisible to all but him, but stored permanently, like all other messages, on his performance file. It read:

Dear Mr L. Cohen,

My edumonitor software informs me that you are devoting a significantly lower percentage of your time to my daughter, Edna, than to the other students.

This is the third time I have had to formally email you on this topic, and I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that not devoting equal time to all students is an offense under the Equal Opportunities in Education Act.

Moreover, I suspect that your inadequate inattention may be due to my daughter’s lack of physical beauty, as officially recorded on her low Beauty Index Score.

As a concerned parent of a disadvantaged child, I must also inform you that I am considering lodging a complaint with the Equality Enforcement Committee.

Yours concernedly,
Mrs De Laney

The school’s email scanning program was triggered by the use of the word ‘complaint’ and a copy of the email was forwarded to the teacher’s supervisor, but he was receiving over ten automatically generated emails a minute and did not have time to read this one, which lay unread for now in the sub-folder ‘non-optimal performance queries’.

The teacher was angered by the email but was careful not to let this show on his face. He knew that Mrs De Laney was sure to be zooming in on him using one of the four webcams in the room, but he had no way to confirm this.

Half the city could be watching him right now, or no one at all: there was no way to tell. He would have to wait until his weekly lesson stats feedback sessions with his career facilitator. So, he assumed he was being watched and directed a question to ‘Edna the elephant’, as he referred to her in the privacy of his mind. It was the one place they could never look, just so long as he controlled his face.

He approached her desk, trying to wear that air of professional educator that all the best-scoring teachers seemed to have indelibly stamped on their face. He had spent hours studying videos of the the city’s Top Ten Teachers, and tried to copy their facial gestures and body language, even spending what little savings he had on the latest face analysis software, FacUSee.

He bent over her writing and complimented her penpersonship, and hoped that his falseness was not apparent, since her handwriting was as misshapen as she was.

His attention was drawn to Ury, a short boy with pasty skin and lips that seemed born to sneer. The young hood was gripping his pen as though it were a weapon.

“Ury, please pay more attention to the way you’re holding the pen: do not clutch it as if it were a dagger you see before you, the handle toward your hand.”

“Yes, sir,” the boy replied, careful to mispronounce ‘sir’ as ‘sewer’, hamming up his ghetto accent.

He was hoping the teacher would make an issue of it, so he could report him to the Racist Appeals Tribunal. He had sent three teachers to the RAT in his last school but had so far failed to make a single case here.

The teacher didn’t take the bait, and Ury returned to scraping the pen across the paper, robbing the poem he was copying of all beauty in the process.

The teacher paced his way around the classroom, monitoring his students’ work with one eye but most of his attention focused on the interface behind his infospecs. And as his feet patrolled the classroom cell he scrolled and tapped the front side of the lens to navigate his way through the information fields updating themselves in real time.

He noted with dismay that 19% of his students were not sufficiently engaged and a further 6% were severely under-engaged as revealed through the lack of pupil dilation, slouched posture, and shallow breathing; not to mention three incidents of repressed yawning and one example of open yawning; another challenge from Ury the Unctuous.

The teacher tried not to sweat, knowing that students probably already knew his stats were painfully weak, since teacher stats were public knowledge. He knew all too well that the wolf within this adolescent pack would be easily awakened by the slightest sniff of weakness.

As much as he tried to push it to the back of his mind, the teacher was aware that if his one quarter disengagement rating rose to one third, it would mean another automated email to his supervisor, and since this would be the second one in a single lesson, it would be red starred, and unlikely to be ignored.

The teacher’s lens flashed red and displayed a lewdness alert, coming from desk 16.

He took off his infospecs and refocused to long-distance, real-world vision, and approached Ury quickly, but not fast enough to stop him slipping a piece of paper into his trouser pocket.

“Ury,” the teacher said with a false calm, “I want you to give me that piece of paper.”

The teacher stood over Ury to emphasise his authority, but he was also careful not to invade Ury’s personal space, which was the highest in the class, at 1.6 meters. He also tried to keep his voice low so as not to distract the attention of the other students.

Ury, on the other hand, wanted exactly this, and replied in a loud way that was sure to grab the attention of each student, but not loud enough to register as aggressive verbal behaviour.

“What piece of paper?! I don’t see no paper,” the boy insisted, holding his shoulders up and his arms outstretched, with a look of righteous indignation that he had perfected in primary school.

“Ury, you know very well I could access the memory banks and obtain an image of what you drew and a live recording of you hiding it in your pocket,” the teacher said, still keeping his voice low and looking Ury straight in the eye, but also aware that other students knew that a good piece of class cabaret was about to unfold.

He didn’t need to check the body language monitors on the infospecs he held in his right hand. He could feel eyes straying from their alloted tasks, but in any case, the teacher received an auditory warning from his earcomm, the cold mechanical voice telling him over half the class were no longer on task and informing him that his supervisor had been alerted.

The message also asked him if he required any pedagogic or security support, which he declined with a deft double click of the button at the top of the earcomm.

“What’s the story? Why are you picking on me!?” the boy demanded, masking himself in the body language of victim, a mask he had learned from experience to be most frightening to teachers.

The phrase ‘picking on me’ sent a Bullying Accusation Warning alarm to his supervisor and this combined with all the other warning messages for that lesson triggered a red-alert screen and made him drop what he was doing and focus on the events in Classroom 101.

He remembered that his response time to Crisis Events was one of the areas that was felt to be in need of attention in his last performance review, so he acted quickly and sent an audio message to the teacher’s ear piece. Or at least he tried to, but he had barely begun to express his ‘concern over this serious allegation’ when the teacher took the unprecedented but still technically legal step of deactivating his earcomm.

Ury noticed the triple click and the disappearance of the red light from over the teacher’s ear and felt on edge. He had never seen a teacher do this before and knew that he was entering uncharted territory. Although they both knew that the lesson was still being monitored by a series of other microphones and cameras they also knew that the teacher was no longer taking instruction from the world outside the classroom.

Inasmuch as it was possible in 2020, they faced each other down one-on-one, freed from technology, reenacting that primordial struggle between the head of the tribe and the pretender to the throne. They were fighting for control of the class and the class looked on, and beyond that the world at large followed events through flat-screen monitors, no-one knowing who would win.

“What’s the point of this bleeding pen crap in anyways? I ain’t no third-world slumdog. No-one uses pens nomore!” the boy exclaimed angrily, the adrenalin pumping though his small body driving him to press home the attack.

He looked around at his classmates, calling for support, but they merely looked on. He was new to the class and had not yet forged alliances that could be called upon in a class war. However, the existing top dogs in the class watched with interest, curious to see if this new arrival to their tribe was going to become part of the leadership.

“Graphology is a core syllabus item, Ury, as you know. You are entitled to register a curriculum query through the usual channels, but this is not the time or place.

“I think you are disrupting the lesson and preventing the students from achieving their prescribed learning targets. I formally request you give me the piece of paper I asked you for and return to task,” the teacher stated, as calmly as was possible.

“You’re not answering me question. You’re denying me rights as a student!” the boy declared hoarsely, pointing the pen at the teacher, his nostrils flaring and his anger evident in his squinting brown eyes: cold, reptilian eyes unblinking and incapable of empathy or pity.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Ury, but I have made my decision. You must go back to the set writing assignment. All sixteen-year-old students are required to be able to write 10 words-per-minute with a graphological instrument. It is a formal requirement of...” the teacher went on, measuring his words and taking deep breaths to try to slow his accelerating heartbeat, which he could hear pounding like a war drum inside his head.

“You can stick your pen up up your hol... instrument! Me phone’s voicerec is signature enough, and you knows it. Pens are for the past-its!”

As if to prove his point, the voice recognition software was noiselessly and digitally transcribing every word spoken in the class, and in the classrooms around it, and in offices all over the developed world. Tiny data banks recorded the speech acts and cross-referenced the conversations according to speakers’ digital signatures. Everything was written without pens and without hands.

“Ury, this is the last time I will request that you go back to copying from your workstation. If you do not, it will be considered a refusal to adhere to the class contract and disciplinary measures will have to be taken,” the teacher said, laying down the final ultimatum.

He moved closer to Ury and entered his zone of personal space, an old-fashioned but still permitted disciplinary procedure but one not found among the Top Ten Teachers, the Triple T’s.

The boy fidgeted in his chair, unable to sit still, adrenalin-soaked nerves jerking his limbs into spasmodic twitches.

The seconds ticked by and every student waited to see the outcome, enjoying the moment and preparing themselves for the class blog debate that would inevitably take place that evening.

Some of the alpha males in the group began to feel the need to participate in the clash and their fevered minds sought a point of entry into the gladiatorial struggle. They wanted the spoils of war but were still not convinced they would be on the winning side, and so they held off a while, but the teacher could feel dark forces massing against him and knew he must win this battle quickly.

Disciplining one student was permissible; disciplining a whole class was dismissible.

He took one final step and Ury and the teacher were now close enough to smell each other.

The adolescent warrior could resist the call to arms no longer. He stood up and threw his shoulders back and jutted out his stubbly, pimpled chin. He saw that he was still a foot shorter than the teacher, but having grown up in some of the poorer quarters of the city, he had some experience of physical violence and he knew he could easily take down the bony academic before him.

His heart urged him to lash out, to break the aquiline nose of the tribal leader and declare himself sovereign, but his mind held him back. To hit a teacher, he knew, would lead to exclusion, and this would make him unemployable and condemn him to a life of petty crime and inevitable imprisonment.

‘Cameras catch crime’ was the government’s current slogan, and its core message, that omnipresent surveillance meant that crime simply could not pay, had filtered through even to Ury.

And yet these logical thoughts and conclusions were dissolving in the testosterone that surged through his brain. The brutal instincts of the medulla oblongata, the reptile brain within the human one, screamed for violence and vengeance.

“I-want-you-to-sit-down, Ury,” the teacher said, marking every word, but also forced to suppress the vortex of primal emotions within. He could feel his mind swirling, the animal within rising through the veneer of 21st-century civilisation. The dirty nails of the caveman were ripping through the outer skin of homo-webicus.

“Sit on this, ya old fart!” Ury spat, holding up the sharp point of the pen.

The supervisor, hunched over his monitor, had already alerted school security and told them to wait outside the classroom and to be ready to act on a moment’s notice.

He sat rigid, his finger poised over the microphone button, fearing a legal action for preemptive exclusion on the one hand, but even more afraid of an act of classroom violence, both of which would scupper his promotion prospects and send him back to the classroom he had laboured so long to escape from.

The teacher leaned forward to within centimeters of Ury. They could feel each others breath on their faces, and this mingling of mouth vapour was enough to push Ury over the edge.

He quickly leaned his thick skull back and head-butted the teacher’s nose, which broke like a dessicated chestnut under an army boot and spluttered blood over the assailant. Ury pressed home the attack with a devastating punch to the teacher’s ribs, incapacitating him and making him fall to the floor on his knees between two desks and gasping for air.

Ury would have gone even further, but by this stage security had swept into the classroom and a burly guard had caught him from behind and forced him down onto his desk. One of them held his arm in a lock, but the boy was still difficult to control because the guard was being careful not to be sued for using excessive force against a minor.

Recovering himself slightly but still heaving for air, the teacher picked up his infospecs and placed them on his bloody nose, too shocked to feel any pain and unconsciously craving the support of the outside world that they represented.

He switched on his earcomm but the garbled messages made no impression on him, and he was only dimly aware of one of the security guards helping him to his feet.

The infospecs display went in and out of focus and his last thought was of a world of information cracking apart, but the thought had no time to properly form itself before the plastic pen pierced his eyeball and went like a spear through the soft flesh of his brain, scrambling it like the shards of bloodied silicone glass of the infospecs below.

The security guards forgot their previous qualms about excessive force and legal suits and used their electro-chemical arsenal. A stun gun collapsed Ury and mace made what few muscles still lay at his disposal squirm in agony.

Ury and the teacher lay for a monent side by side on the tiles of the classroom floor: victor and vanquished united in defeat.

In the weeks that followed, the teacher’s supervisor was demoted once more to teacher and the youschool video shot into the top five but was quickly censored. However, illegal podcasts were file-shared for years afterwards and it became a gore cult classic.

More sober pedagogic professionals in the ivory towers made the entire incident a textbook lesson in correct discipline procedures at the teaching academies, in which groups of teacher trainees watched excerpts of the lesson and analysed the teacher’s errors.

Mrs DeLaney successfully sued the school for her daughter Edna’s emotional turmoil and is in daily email contact with her new teacher to ensure that she is given the attention she deserves.

Copyright © 2010 by Phillip Donnelly

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