Published — “Blue Winter High”

Seeing as only contributors received print editions of Writ in Water Issue 4, I’ve posted my story, “Blue Winter High,” in its entirety here.

Ms. Fountain parked her Camry before a cavalcade of snow, the glaze pushed by plows into mounds around faculty parking. She pulled her purse string over her shoulder, picked up her lunch bag, and nearly slipped on ice. The air was cold, the bone shiver kind. She strolled quickly over the pavement, only giving the mountains—purple beneath the sunrise—a glimpse in her periphery. She would appreciate their beauty on a warmer day.

Those early hours before school were devoted to Zero Hour, a psychological trick to add a class period. No one wanted periods one through nine. Zero through eight, however, was poetry. Fountain had to sneak soundlessly because classroom doors were open. Students reclined, their heads pointed at the ceiling, fingers playing invisible instruments. Each was engaged in a lesson, their eyes coated in degial plastic. The only movement was their hands. This was the latest trend in differentiated instruction. With pre-recorded lessons, students could pause or rewind with the twitch of a thumb. The teacher walked along the aisles, catching students when they leaned too far.

Ms. Fountain sped up in the English Hall, but it was no use. There was Mr. Tseng, standing by his door, greeting students as they sauntered by.

“Good morning,” Fountain said.

“I am fine. How are you?” Mr. Tseng replied so quickly it could have all been one word.

“Good,” Fountain said. She reached her door, opened it.

“Good, good,” Mr. Tseng repeated. His head was already scanning four boys down the hall. Possibly he was using facial recognition software to confirm their enrollment. Fountain eyed his hands anxiously. She knew he possessed the strength to rip her spine from her back.

65% of the teachers at Blue Winter High were automated. As machines emerged for nearly every task, teachers had hoped their profession was a bastion of human ingenuity. That human mentorship was necessary. Then Nagata Incorporated created an android that could teach more efficiently, if their research was to be trusted, than any person.

Mr. Tseng was a construct. A bipedal machine. Glass skin, its interior imprinted in friendly human colors. Mrs. Xu down the hall was an older model, her body like blue bones. Students would complain to Fountain: “When will you have our annotated bibliographies graded? It’s been five days.” But Mr. Tseng could grade 160 essays in ten minutes. Each paper took a nod of his head. His cycloptic eye—really a glowing blue lens—scanning the words to calculate the frequency of errors, the mechanical flow of language. His comments would sound like this: Your paper utilized 37% of vocabulary from Category 2, 48% of vocabulary from Category 3. Claim is at Proficiency 4.2, while Support [Analysis, 2.8, Text Evidence 1.3] remains In Development.

Ms. Fountain had barely settled into her room when the bell rang and students filed to their seats. She pulled a jar from beneath her desk. Eyesite was curled in cursive on the side. Unlike her colleagues, Fountain collected contact lenses at the start of class. If students had a case, they could hand the case to her. Otherwise, everyone dropped their lenses into the jar of saline. Often her students groaned loudly and complained, and some tried to hide their oculars—purple irises giving them away eventually. Not to mention the blank stare, the whittling hands beneath the desk.

Of course, allowing the contacts meant ‘EdTech was being implemented in the classroom,’ which meant ‘students were developing real-world life skills.’ So, she always received a 2.1 on her teacher assessment in the category of ‘Classroom Technology.’ But the contacts were perverse. They killed interaction outside of degial space. Didn’t humans need to talk to each other once in a while? And certain apps let her appearance be replaced by a digital skin. She might not know it, but students could be giggling at a talking giraffe in front of the classroom. There was even an app that reskinned teachers with a prognosticated nude body. Wrinkles, rolls, everything. Perverse.

Each class was the same: bellringer, agenda, objective, instruction, activity, exit ticket. Every day was the same—the absurdities, failures, stresses, and frustrations. Ms. Fountain began class with “I’m happy to be here with you.” She ended with “Your mistakes today reset by tomorrow.”

Beside the serenity of colleagues’ classrooms was Fountain’s wilderness. Students, stressed to be pulled from degial space, to be seen, reacted either in stunned unfriendliness or highly-energetic mischief. But it was good stress, wasn’t it? One of those emotions like fear that people should experience from time to time.

This day was no different. The children were a ruckus. Her only consolation was the period after lunch usually chilled, digesting meal packets like snakes pumped full of rats.

Ryleigh Jewett was one of those kids who contributed very little noise. Every First Period, he sat in the far corner, by the blue marker someone had scribbled on the wall. Four letters: BRUH. The boy lacked the motivation to complete anything except his drawings, which he materialized on the backs of poetry analysis pamphlets and short answer response boxes. The Jewetts were too poor to afford holo-lenses, even a drawing tablet, so one of his academic accommodations was to have all assignments printed on paper.

This is what Ryleigh would return to her: bubbles unbubbled, fill-in-the-blanks left blank, and starships in greater detail than an artificer’s blueprint. Cruisers circling Jupiter. Pock-marked skiffs in the Belt. Warships docked with Luna. All those great exploits of the solar system inscribed in black ink on white paper.

Ryleigh was not statistically attractive. Black hair, freckles that blended with acne, some plump in his rump. His reading comprehension, his writing ability—his total academic profile had a pessimistic prediction about Jewett’s future. A 45% probability of substance abuse, a 67% probability of committing four misdemeanors before eighteen. His most optimistic career path was as a laborer on a farming station out west.

But any conversation with Ryleigh inevitably blasted into space—to his desire to go up there someday, to draw warships not from docu-dramas but a satellite near Callisto.

When Fountain discovered the boy’s interest, she did her best to circle his attention back to work. A cosmonaut needed a foundation in math, science, basic communication. (They would need to be healthy, too.) But at some point, Ryleigh had incepted the idea that talent—unbridled, artistic talent—would be enough to land him among the stars.

Ryleigh was always late in leaving. Somehow the contents of his satchel would spill onto the floor, his paperwork assaulting neighbors’ tables. Then Ryleigh would linger by her, presenting his latest work, and she, with some chagrin at having her lessons ignored, would pretend to appreciate them. There was the Titanic III and its fateful journey through (but not totally through) Saturn’s rings. The U.S.S. Picard hovering by Ganymede, firing on pirates. Pill boats battling over Pluto. The drawings were good, which helped her smile through her frowns.

Today, however, Ryleigh had not drawn, and there were dark swellings beneath his eyes. Bruises? Fountain settled on sleepless contusions when he said, “I need you to approve this. I’ll be missing Friday and all of next week.”

Ryleigh held up a slip of ePaper requiring a fingerprint.

“Why?” Fountain asked, immediately worried. “Where will you be?”

“My mother died,” Ryleigh said. “I’ll be in Florida.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“It’s fine.” Ryleigh was looking at her desk. “I didn’t really know her.”

“Your parents weren’t together?”

“They split when I was ten. Dad came here for a fresh start. Mom was just—she was into bad things.”

“I kind of understand.”

Fountain stood up and hugged Ryleigh. Then she disengaged. They were alone in the room. Anyone watching the cam-feeds might get the wrong idea. She sat and put her thumb in the appropriate box. A glowing blue print remained as she pulled away.

The rest of the day was a blur of children trying every conceivable means to coerce her into losing her temper. Someone in Fourth dropped gum on the carpet, which could never be fully removed, leaving a goopy black stain. A student covered a desk in sticky notes. Someone hid her laptop while she was in the hallway, greeting students as they entered for Sixth. And while she had long developed a proverbial preternatural sense when her back was turned (earning her that petrified description of having ‘eyes in the back of her head’), Fountain lacked the constant surveillance of her colleagues. Robots could catch, document, and assign Saturday School within a heartbeat.

Fountain had to tell herself that trouble-makers weren’t bad people. These prankers were merely ‘exploring the limits of possibility.’

Period Seven was a conference period, which meant Fountain met with her PLC, or Professional Learning Community. These were the teachers who taught the same subject, English III: American Literature. When she entered, Mr. Shields was sharing data on a module that reduced ignorance about the term verisimilitude by 73%. The teachers turned to Fountain, who’d arrived late, having stopped by the restroom on the way over. (None of the units needed to excrete any matter whatsoever.) She looked at shining faces.

“Your report?” Mr. Corocoan asked. He was a stout android, reminiscent of a gold-plated trash can.

“I—” Fountain pulled up her datapad. “I’ve noticed my students are having a hard time crafting thesis statements—”

“Your numbers?”

Fountain sent her report, and the constructs scanned the glow of graphs.

Mr. Shields leaned back in his chair. “This is less than ideal.”

“Let’s jump to today’s essential question,” Mr. Corcoran said, switching away. “What results do we want to see in the upcoming week?”

The teachers digitally shared their expectations, all of them except Fountain, who sat smiling vacantly at glass heads. She had forgot to put together an expectation plan, another useless chart in a slew of useless teaching tools. Her smile broadened and she swiped away from this cynical injunction. As Ambrosia Har in First Period might say, no need to grode. Then Mr. Corcoran (she’d always thought his head looked like a fire extinguisher) touched his pad, sending the accumulation to everyone’s screens.

“Looks like our weekly goals are an increase in Timeliness by .8%, and Collaboration by .47%. I hope to see some progress by next week, along with an efficacy review.” Then he shut down the pad and stood up. The others stood as well, collecting belongings.

They had noticed the absence of Fountain’s report, and said nothing.

“Don’t forget Breakfast of Champions in two weeks,” Mr. Shields croaked to the dispersal of glass skin and blue bones. “Make sure you nominate a Student of the Quarter. Someone who exhibits the values of Blue Winter High.”

According to the admins, no one exhibited the values of Blue Winter High quite as much as the mascot, known as The Rebel, an infantryman from the Revolutionary War.

The silver mannequin wore a blue coat, tricorn hat, and a non-gender-binary posture. Fountain remembered when he carried a musket, but a few years ago the weapon was calculated to be causing a 9% stress uptick. That was the year of the tragedy at Access High in Washington and everyone was nervous about the appearance of guns in school. The Rebel’s musket was replaced by a staff, converting the mascot from soldier to shepherd.

A rebel, according to administration, was not an anarcho-punk, but someone like the founding fathers. A person of society, political ambition, and (non-binary) strength. The Rebel endorsed every sports game with his presence, and advised students in tube feeds to complete their homework and be kind to teachers. Maybe try an eBook. His core values were commitment, character, country. His motto was “I will contribute effectively to my future employers and the community’s overall success.”

On Friday, someone slipped an unsealed envelope into Fountain’s mailbox. Within the envelope was an e-invitation to attend the upcoming breakfast. Fountain spent some of her conference period looking at student’s faces on her seating chart. The expectation was to invite academically-sound students like Ja Ha Soon, Alex Kamahl, or Remington Jen. Then Ryleigh Jewett appeared, a sloppy haircut and shy smile. He was flying to Florida today, his spot in the classroom empty. She typed his name on the letter.

A week passed. Students read excerpts of Great Gatsby—the book considered too long to be read in its entirety. Soon Ryleigh was back in his seat, his countenance dark.

Per tradition, in the rush between periods, Ryleigh hovered by her desk. He had no drawing to show her, had nothing to say. There was just an interim of time in which he seemed to want to be close.

“How did it go?”

“It was weird,” he said, looking at everything but her.

“I have something for you.” Fountain produced the envelope.

Ryleigh smiled at the drawing on the front—a poorly rendered orbital drone. The unmanned kind that looked like squid.

“There’s something inside,” she said, realizing he wasn’t too familiar with envelopes. Ryleigh opened the flap and pulled out the invitation. He read, then blushed, his skin matching the spots across his face.

“What is this?”

“I’ve nominated you for Student of the Quarter,” Fountain said. “You might not be my most productive student, but you are kind and friendly and a joy to have in my class.”

Ryleigh had a screwed-up expression on his face, so she wrapped him in more words. “You don’t have to do anything. Just meet me before school by the cafeteria. They’ll have a table full of eggs and muffins. We’ll eat, the principal will talk, and we’ll head to class.”

“Why me?” he said quietly. Fountain realized there was something like fear radiating from his face.

Honesty, then. “Because I like you, Ryleigh, and there’s no other student I’d rather eat with for twenty minutes.”

Silence. Then Ryleigh gave her a long hug. At some point she patted his back awkwardly, exchanging looks with Second Period as they slunk into the classroom. Then Ryleigh released a whispered thanks and walked out.

But Tuesday he was chatting with his neighbor, an environmentally-concerned girl with dreams of hydroplaning the Pacific trash fields. There seemed to be an immense pressure lifted from Ryleigh’s shoulders, from his eyes, from his hands. He also drew a NASA shuttle—a relic of ancient history. The boy lingered per usual. He wanted Fountain to pin the picture to her bulletin board. They talked about the man-made ring around Neso.

And there he was Wednesday before breakfast, waiting by the stair. Together they marched down the buffet and sat by other champions. Ryleigh grew excited about an eBook he was compiling. A sketch collection of planetary vehicles, like asteroid hoppers or the sedan designed exclusively for Martian freeways. The project was called ‘Star-Crossed Rovers.’

The boy returned all aptitude tests with renderings of space battles. But he had a mind for design, for entrepreneurship, for the future. And she was the only one who saw it.

Then the time came for the principal to speak. Mr. Krulish, a man with a dazed smile, the sign of a competent but perfectly useless administrator. A datapad rested in the crook of his arm as he walked among the tables.

“Naomi Halls here,” he consulted his datapad, “has a GPA of seven-point-one. In November she sent applications to John Hopkins, UCSF, and Baylor to continue her studies in nano-medical radiology. Noami was accepted to all three.” Polite clapping.

“We are blessed to have raised so many successful Rebels here at Blue Winter. Kaiser Czaplinksi (I-hope-I’m-pronouncing-that-right) recently received a planetary defense scholarship to research missile feeds on Ganymede.” Applause. “Isabella Bakken will be an intern this summer with the Prime Minister of Luna.” Applause.

The principal swung by their table. “And Ryleigh Jewett here—” He checked his pad, gave Fountain an odd look, and kept walking. Ryleah, his mouth full of blueberry muffin, made no sign he’d noticed. “Fenny Charice here will be celebrating her acceptance to New Sol University.” Fenny was wearing a New Sol hoodie emblazoned with the university logo: let there be light. “Truly, the Rebellion continues.”

After breakfast, Mr. Krulish took Fountain aside. Ryleigh, she could see, was ambling up the grand stair slowly. Not one for athletics.

“Why did you bring Ryleigh here when—” he consulted his pad “—nearly 98.9% of his classmates are worthier candidates? I’m looking at his record here and we’ve got high forecasts for drug use, crime, and early death, unless we can get him stationed at one of the Utah plantations—”

“Ryleigh doesn’t fit into the system,” Fountain replied. “But sometimes we need that.”

“I’m not even sure he’s all there. Look at this psycho-profile.” He held up a pie chart, with small slices of yellow, green, blue, and one sweeping chunk of gray.

“Those tests are inaccurate. Ryleigh never completes them. He’s a bit of a rebel.”

“A Blue Winter rebel is someone who succeeds within the system.”

Fountain suddenly hissed, her face reddening with anger. “I invited Ryleigh because I wanted him to know that he’s good enough. I think we’ve become obsessed with predicting success and not allowing children to dream the impossible.”

“Dreaming the impossible was a fad. It had a success output of 48%.” Mr. Krulish pulled up a bar graph. “Prognostication is a more reliable system. 96% of students are assessed and projected with complete accuracy.”

The bell rang. Mr. Krulish started walking toward the central hall out of habit. Or, if Fountain were to use school-sanctioned terminology, habitude.

“Stay up-to-date, Ms. Fountain, and don’t be an enabler,” he said. His datapad, still in the crook of his arm, gleamed with her face, her info, her achievements based on student progress. “Good enough is not good enough.”

Outside, the wind rattled the long glass that barricaded the cafeteria. Without the chill to hurt her eyes, to sneak beneath her skin and freeze her bones, Ms. Kimberly Fountain could see the mountains with clarity. White plains, purple peaks. A world not to be trapped by percentages, predictions, or fake smiles.

Ms. Fountain seethed, then she straightened her blouse, smoothed her hair (she always prone to fly-away strands), and stormed to class.

During First, Ryleigh Jewett stuck to his corner, drawing absent-mindedly on a worksheet about West Egg and East Egg. A transport shuttle was blasting from a land dock, its black tip pointed to the sky. Was it headed for Luna? For Mars?

Ms. Fountain imagined there must be room aboard the shuttle for Ryleigh—for his life, for his dreams. But the ship was not going anywhere—forever bound to black ink, white paper.