What a robot learned at school

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“I’m not going to listen to any more of this nonsense, Anon,” Mom shouted. “Androids don’t go to school!”

“Then why was I designed to look like a child?” I wondered out loud.

Dad sighed and gave me a sad smile. “We wanted to fit in with the rest of our friends. We couldn’t have biological children, so we selected you.”

Mom took a cleansing breath and lowered her voice. She looked so beautiful when her face was relaxed, which wasn’t often. Long shimmering black hair with rebel white strands framed her symmetrical face. Her large brown eyes were filled with tears. What did I do to hurt her this time?

“Anon, there is no reason for you to attend school,” she said. “You’re already programmed to know everything you would ever need to know.” She patted the synthetic skin on my hand. “You’re a big help to me at home. How would I finish all my work for the corporation if I didn’t have you to do research for me?”

I did help Mom a lot. Not only did I research properties for the corporation to absorb into its ever-expanding empire, but I also did the house chores that couldn’t be completed by the cleaning bots.

Knowing I was useful made my core swell with pride, but it wasn’t enough.

“All the other kids go to school,” I insisted, accessing my sulky voice program.

Mom and Dad looked at each other. Did they have a form of mind speak I didn’t know about? Mom sniffed. Dad set down his tablet and took a sip of coffee.

“It might be instructive for Anon to experience school,” Dad said.

#

The next morning, I stood at the bus stop with a crowd of children, my backpack hanging from my shoulder and my Avengers lunch pail clutched in my hand. Although I would not require food and bathroom breaks, my realistic human design should allow me to fit in as a normal child.

“New kid, back of the line!” A large stocky kid pushed me on my chest compartment, causing me to lose my balance and tumble to the ground.

“Leave him alone, Mikey,” a soft but firm voice said. I looked up to see a tiny girl in a pale pink dress standing in front of the boy who pushed me, her hands on her hips.

“Who’s gonna make me?” Mikey retorted.

“A little girl in a pink dress,” she said, touching his arm.

Zap! He jumped back like his circuits were overloaded. With a murderous glare, he shuffled to the back of the line. The girl took my hand and helped me up.

“Is this your first day?” she asked as we sat in one of the front seats. It seemed most of the other students preferred the back section of the bus.

“Yes, it is,” I confirmed. I watched her buckle her seat belt and then I did the same.

“I’m Adeline,” the girl said, her dimples deepening with her smile. “Don’t pay any attention to Mikey. His parents knock him around at home, so he has to bring it to school. I always carry a zapper with me.” She showed me the small device she’d used on the boy. I scanned its circuits to construct one for myself later. It seemed wise to add a nonlethal weapon to my arsenal.

I attempted to smile back, but my program only allows a slightly upturned mouth. “Thank you for defending me, although it is not necessary. My name is Anon.”

“Nice to meet you, Anon,” Adeline said.

When we got to school, Adeline walked me to the office where I was assigned to Mrs. Roberts’ fourth grade class. How Mom determined this was my appropriate educational level I do not know, but Adeline was in my class, and that made me happy.

We walked around the playground and Adeline introduced me to her many friends. Then the bell rang, and we lined up outside our classroom portable.

“Welcome to our class, Anon,” a tall lady wearing a “Learning is an Adventure” tee shirt and jeans greeted me. Mrs. Roberts smiled, and then added, “Class, we have a new student, Anon. Please help him adjust to our class routines.”

My programming made classwork easy. At first, when Mrs. Roberts asked the class a question, I eagerly raised my hand. After the first five questions, I noticed some of the students frowning in my direction and giving me what Adeline would later describe as “the stink eye.”

“Give the other students a chance to speak,” Adeline whispered.

That’s when I realized being in class was not about showing everything I knew. I was part of a larger machine. Mrs. Roberts’ class was made up of many moving parts, or students. We had to work together. 

But then there was recess. I stood in line at the ball room to get a bouncy ball, as per Adeline’s instructions. Just as the playground supervisor was going to hand it to me, Mikey pushed in and grabbed it. He ran out to the hand ball court, a posse of boys behind him.

“He can’t get away with that,” Adeline grumbled.

“I’ll go get the ball from him,” I offered. How I was going to do that, I had no idea. No matter how many questions I answered in the classroom, I wouldn’t be successful until I learned how to handle a bully.

So I walked up to Mikey, who was on the court playing hand ball. “Stop this game!” I said firmly, walking in the middle of their court.

“What are you doing?” the other boy on the court complained. Several kids in line at the side of the court started grumbling.

“Mikey, I stood in line to get that ball,” I said, reaching out.

“That’s too bad, you whiny weirdo!” he shouted. “Get off my court!”

Suddenly, I felt overtaken with strong emotion. My parents had never spoken to me with disrespect. I had been programmed with courtesy protocols that I suspected Mikey had no familiarity with. I was an intricately designed android with capabilities far beyond normal children. Why was I allowing this bully to dictate my actions?

“If you don’t give me the ball immediately, you will regret it,” I warned, choosing a low growl voice.

“You gonna make me?” Mikey scoffed.

“Yes. I will,” I replied. As I raised my arms toward him, I hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble for overriding safety protocols. My wrist cannons popped out, each barrel as wide as Mikey’s arm. “And you better not bully anyone else at this school. Give me the ball!”

Mikey’s eyes bugged out, and he handed me the ball. His supporters scattered. Adeline and her friends walked up. “Let’s play before the bell rings,” she said. No one said anything about my guns.

That night when I sat with my parents at the dinner table (not that I ate anything, but they wanted me to keep them company), Dad asked, “How was your first day of school?”

My circuits flashed. “I met a new friend. She taught me lessons outside the classroom that were not part of my original codes. Damaged humans threaten other humans smaller than them, and you have to defend yourself.”

“That’s terrible! You shouldn’t have to put up with that,” Mom said, wringing her hands. “You’re staying home with me.”

“Please, Mom. I want to stay in school. Friends, classmates, and bullies are essential to learning how to be human.”

Calla Lily

“Don’t doubt your value. Don’t run from who you are.”

Aslan

 

Another boring day in front of my screen. I seriously think my history teacher runs searches for “most boring details from early American history” before making her lessons. Wow! Crazy boys rode horses at breakneck speed to deliver mail to California. Who cares what happened five hundred years ago before there were aircars or globalnet?

I sighed and started drawing on my notekeeper. Ever since I took that virtual tour of the LA Arboretum, my doodles took the form of various flowers I had seen. Not seen in person of course since there were no flowers outside of state-run sanctuaries. I loved drawing all their varied shapes and colors. My favorite was the calla lily with its graceful sweeping hood and bold yellow stamen.  

“Ms. Stamly.” I heard my voice and jerked my attention back to the class display on the screen wall. Oh no, she was calling on me.

“Yes, Ms. Hill,” I said as I frantically paged back on my notes trying to discover what we were talking about in class.

“I thought maybe your audio went out,” she droned. “My question was whether you thought the railroads were unfair in their domination of early California transportation?”

So that’s what happened after the Pony Express. All I had were sketches of flowers.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Hill, I think I missed that part. Globalnet problem,” I offered.

My teacher’s face scrunched up like she’d just tasted something sour. She straightened and wrote something on her notekeeper. “Well, you’d better get the newest update.” Then she called on someone else, and my mind drifted away.

I hoped she wouldn’t message my parents. They had big plans for me after secondary school, and getting a bad grade in American History was not part of them. If I did badly in school, they’d take away my screen time, my only escape from our apartment’s sterile white walls. I would go crazy in less than a week, and then they’d put me on those pills that most of my friends took.

It’s not my fault my mom and dad were doctors at the university hospital and my destiny would be to join them one day. The thought of sealing up a bloody wound with a Sealit wand made me want to swoon like a lady wearing a corset in those ancient texts.

Locked up in our sanitized apartment tower, I longed to feel dirt on my hands. Hear the drone of bees and cheerful gurgle of a rushing stream. Like the rest of the ill-fated children of my time, we were quarantined to our homes until our secondary graduations. Viruses and bad influences they said. When she was home, Mom would tell me stories about how teens used to drive cars and meet for bonfires at the beach. Going anywhere seemed a fairy tale. Fires? I couldn’t imagine the government allowing anyone to set one for personal use.

I needed to get out of here. Maybe I could get Amy to go with me. I texted her on my watch.

“Log out of school, and meet me in the rec room.”

She wrote back right away, “Are you crazy?”

“Just the right kind.”

A few minutes later, a tall girl with spiky yellow hair met me by our apartment’s pool. Without a word, I waved her over to the changing room, the only place without cameras. I unpacked the duffel I had brought, dumping out adult clothes, wigs, and makeup.

“What is that for?” she asked, her voice wavering.

“We’re going to smell flowers,” I said.

A short time later, we were riding in an Uber aircar on our way to the LA Arboretum. Mom and Dad would probably blame Amy and never let me speak to her again if they found out what we were doing. They refused to believe I would resist any of their plans for me. My heart was racing, but it would all be worth it.

The car dropped us off without a word. I was so glad self-driving aircars were the norm, as the AI wouldn’t see that we were teens under our disguises. However, we would still have to get past the front gate.

I exhaled in relief when I discovered the entry kiosk was only a machine. I waved Mom’s spare cash card that she left for emergencies and the gate opened with a click. 

“Come on,” I said as I pulled Amy with me into the Arboretum.

Wild pungent aromas overwhelmed us. Competing layers of sweet smells combined with a musty undertone, scents that I had never experienced. Some reminded me of candy or cakes, while others were dark and mysterious. The plants were so green they hurt my eyes. Not only green, but so many shades of green I lost count.

And flowers! In every shape and size, shades of red, purple, yellow, orange, and a white so brilliant it must have been copied from a cloud.

“Penny, are you alright?” Amy shook me by the shoulders.

“I’m more than alright. I’m perfect.” I had stopped in front of a long stemmed white flower, its curving bell shape holding me in awe.

“I’m not going to medical school,” I said almost like a prayer.

“Penny, these flowers are making you dizzy. Every child has to take their parent’s place. What if all doctors’ kids decided to choose a different career? We wouldn’t have medical care.”

“But that’s not who I am,” I insisted. I waved my arms toward the paradise surrounding us. “I belong here. Caring for plants and flowers. Adults can make laws and control what kids do, but we’re born with our own talents.”

“We’d better get back,” Amy said, looking around to see if anyone was close enough to hear us.

I nodded, and called up the ride service on my watch. “I’ll be back,” I whispered on the breeze.

The calla lily bobbed its head in reply.

 

The Space In-Between

Background, Bay, Beach, Beautiful, Blue, Calm

 

September in Southern California is the space in-between. It’s past summer, not yet fall. We still endure triple digit heat while the rest of the country cools down. No special holidays except Labor Day, and that’s just another excuse to have a BBQ by the pool. Teachers and students sweat through the inclement weather schedule, patiently waiting for relief. Even though I have a pool, this month I rarely dip in, cooler nights dropping pool temperature into the cold range.

In-between. Not yet Halloween or Thanksgiving. Already yearning for Christmas break.

When I lay down at night, I dream of sweaters and boots, grey stormy skies, and hot cocoa. I usually love summer, but when September comes, I am eager to pack away my swimsuit and sunscreen. My jeans whisper “Pick me,” in my closet, my umbrella calls my name. But not yet. Not when I have recess duty under a blazing sun.

Patiently we wait. Sweating through September days. Going to school and work, teased into wearing a jacket early in the morning, only to tear it off before 10:00 a.m.

Other places, the leaves turn colors and fall. But not here in the desert. We outlast the scorching heat while waiting for cooler days.

Sunny, pleasant days that make us forget that many other places will suffer the pangs of winter that will pass us by. Rainy days that wash away dust and smog.

But for now, we are in-between. Waiting.

Back to School in the Fiery Furnace

 

Desert, Sand, Sand Dunes, Sahara, Gobi

A million years ago, when I was in elementary school, we didn’t start school until after Labor Day. My hot, muggy Iowa summer days were spent at the community pool, riding bikes, watching “Dark Shadows” and staying out until the streetlights came on.

Fast forward to the present. Now I’m teacher instead of student, and we go back to work the second week in August. What? I have to put real clothes on instead of my swimwear and go to work when it’s over 100 degrees outside?

Whine, whine, whine. You have air-conditioning, what’s the big deal?

True, but this isn’t Iowa anymore. Back there, we had closed hallways between classrooms and a gymnasium due to inclement weather. In California, we have to cross the frying-pan-hot playground several times a day to get to the cafeteria, teachers’ lounge, library, and bathroom. Not to mention the air-conditioning unit in my portable sounded like a Harley when it started up this year. (Gratefully, it has been fixed. Thank you again to that kind M&O guy in the white truck- you’re my hero!)

Summer isn’t over. You can still jump into your pool when you get home from school.

True, except for the part where you don’t get to go home when your contract hours are over at 4. It’s the beginning of the year, and there are so many BOY things that are due at the same time. You’re lucky if you lock up and go home by 5:30.

But teachers are so lucky. They get summers off.

Seriously, if we didn’t have summers off, we couldn’t do this job and keep smiling. You had your kids all summer. Are you still smiling?

Anyway, there’s nothing to be done for it. High schools want early summer starts so they can finish finals before Christmas break. You notice they don’t have recess duty in August the way elementary teachers do.

And I guess it’s nice to be out of school for the summer right after Memorial Day. June in Southern California is a much kinder month than August. And I guess it’s not that bad to have your makeup melt down your face as you lead your students up to the front gate after school.

So here we are, back to school, and made it through August. By Halloween we’ll get down to two digit high temperatures before it starts raining.

Rain. Something to look forward to.

Changes Fall

Autumn

 

Today when the piano alarm on my phone crescendoed until I obediently rolled out of bed, something felt different. Through my slitted eyes, dawn’s light through our open windows remained black. Birds chirping outside startled me, and I realized my husband had turned off our room air conditioner sometime during the night. A strange impulse coursed through my body, traveling through me like a crowd doing the wave at a baseball stadium. My throat scratched when I asked my husband if he wanted a banana packed in his lunch, so I took a drink from the water bottle on my night stand. The water was still cold!

Then I realized the source of strangeness—the air inside my room was cool. For the first time in three months, I wanted to put on a sweater. Usually I would wake up soaked with sweat, barely rested due to constant demand for cold water during the night. My body had no idea how to adjust to more moderate temperatures. In dim light, I searched through my closet, digging deep before feeling the zipper of my hoodie. Gratefully, I pulled it on and zipped it up to my neck. My shaking ceased.

The aroma of coffee dripping into the pot in the kitchen combined with crisp coolness and whispered promises. The summer sluggishness I had strained beneath disappeared, and my steps became light. Ambition kindled in the cool morning. Suddenly hope swelled in my chest, and I began to believe again that my life would change. That my fourth graders this year would love to write. That my book might be picked up by an agent. That I would find the perfect writing critique group. That I would lose those last five pounds.

Officially fall begins on September 22nd, but in my bedroom, on this day, the changes of fall began.

Changes and Why I Hate Them

calendar

You’ve heard people say, “I don’t like surprises” and that’s not what I mean when I say I hate changes. If you want to secretly invite all my friends and throw me a surprise birthday party, I would love it, just not held at my house when I am out having dinner (really happened to me).

In a world filled with anxiety and chaos, I cling vigorously to my structured plan. Each day as a teacher I follow my lesson plan grid, minute by minute. Every ding on my iPhone is a gentle reminder that all is going according to my schedule. Even on my busiest day, I can keep up with meetings and errands, as long as I enter them into my phone. On Sunday nights, I like to preview my week so I can plan which days I can cook and which days will be heated up leftovers.

But trusting in my own agenda doesn’t leave room for divine guidance. Slowly I become confident in my own abilities to manage my life, a house built on sand. In the back of my mind I think “Wow, if this is going to work out, everything’s got to happen as I planned it.” Then the storm blows in.

It could be a literal storm. When it rains during the school week, my schedule is shifted by the infamous “Inclement Weather Schedule.” On these days, students come to my class ten minutes earlier in the morning, and they’re in the room with me all day except for 30 minutes at lunch. Those of you who are not crazy enough to be teachers will say at this point, “So what?” Maybe you should spend all day cooped up with thirty kids who need to play outside and are distracted by the wet stuff coming out of the sky.

Or it could be a minor car accident that creates all kinds of phone calls, coordination with my husband to drop off and pick up the car, and reports to fill out. Sick family pets, rained out Harley rides, and non-functional ovens at Thanksgiving all crash my well thought out schedule. Of course, I must face these challenges as they come, but sometimes I have to swash my grumbling.

And then there are the opportunities I don’t even realize I’ve missed. Times that I should have called that friend who posted a melancholy Facebook paragraph. Times that my grown children needed to hear a word of encouragement. Times I didn’t even notice that my husband was having a bad day. I wish I could have looked up from my carefully planned day to see what really needed to be done.

So I sigh, and enter a new event on my calendar—Make time to see what’s really going on, Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. Not exactly opening up my schedule, but it’s a place to start. Even for a person who hates changes, this is one change I need to make.

 

 

 

The Problem with Rain

rain

I know that someone who lives in a state that continually suffers drought should not complain about rain. But there’s something you should know about the effect of precipitation on southern California.

First of all, our cities have not been planned for actual water to flow through our streets. Any drainage system that exists is mainly ornamental, and when the gutter rivers begin to rise, the sewers are quickly clogged. This results in instant lakes blocking the intersections of major roads.

Added to that, and perhaps because of that, drivers in southern California don’t know how to operate their vehicles in the rain. Possibly it hasn’t rained since they passed their drivers test. But I believe that these drivers are so accustomed to bright sunny days and clear nights that they tend to throw tantrums if the weather doesn’t cooperate. So they speed through flooded streets, creating tall rooster tails of water on both sides of their cars. Or they panic and stop in the middle of the street, unable to proceed due to the drops of water on their windshields. And their windshield wipers have rotted away in the sun long ago, and the screeching sound of the wiper arms adds to their menace.

Another effect of long-awaited rain is mudslides and falling trees. We never do anything half way in California, so when it rains, it rains solid for three days straight. Those ash-strewn hills trying to recover from wildfires become chocolate pudding that rushes to join the rest of the water blocking the drains at the bottom of the hills. Huge trees come tumbling down on houses and cars. Even houses groan and shift down the hill. The effects of rain can be more devastating than the drought.

Children stay home from school as parents don’t want to battle the rain to drive them, or don’t want their kids to stand soaked at the bus stop. One rural school district even called a “Rain Day” and closed their schools, as buses got stuck in the mud on back roads. Teachers wish they would have stayed home when they are stuck with kids in the classroom all day, California kids that are used to playing outside.

But I hope you understand. I’m not complaining. There’s snow on the ski slopes and water in our lakes. The hills surrounding me are bright green, bringing back memories of Ireland. But our gift of water always comes with a cost. So I guess we just have to be ready to pay it.

 

The Hardest Day

backpack

Today was the hardest day of the school year. After a grueling week of meetings after meetings spiced with a dash of time actually working on our rooms, it was time for teachers to meet the parents, and the kids hanging on them.

This is a magical, almost Christmas-like, day- kids with new clothes, unscuffed shoes, and bright colored backpacks overflowing with school supplies. It is probably the only day in the entire school year where all your students have a sharpened pencil.

Once inside your room, there is a hush in the air, as your new students size you up for meanness and hawk eye. It’s so much fun to give 3 timed reading tests to each student and call out someone in the back row for off task behavior at the same time. It is important to cultivate the myth that you have x-ray vision and hearing as sensitive as a hound dog. Call it like you see it. If they didn’t do it, they’re probably guilty of something else.

So many important lessons are taught on this special day, such as how to walk up the stairs and how to write your complete name on a paper. It takes me 2 hours to instruct how to correctly make labeled tabs for their binders. No matter how long it takes, my class will do everything Correctly. Routines properly taught from now to Thanksgiving will save my life, and blood pressure, for the remainder of the year.

When the final bell rings, and I escort my new class down to the gate, my job is still not over. The bus kids have to find their way to the right bus in a line of five identical buses with a postage stamp sized number by the door to indicate which route. The after school program kids must be herded reluctantly to the cafeteria. The rest have to locate their parents in the maze of cars and buses.

Some of my former students from last year stop to give me hugs, which makes me smile. They look so grown up and responsible now. A sigh of relief escapes my lips. There’s hope for my new students. I just have to remember- it is the First Day of school.