It was a room of tables: a long table on a slightly raised dais, facing outward, for the five-member Council of Supervisors, plus two other, smaller tables, one for a representative from AERA, the Agency for Educational Research and Administration, and the other for Mrs. Agnes Mims, who was the reason for today's hearing.
Hearing, Agnes thought, looking down at her lap as she waited for the session to begin. This is no hearing. A trial is what this is—but a trial with only one possible outcome: guilty.
Of course, she had known the consequences of her actions, if discovered; she had known also that the chance of discovery was high. Yet twenty-six-year-old Agnes—tall, fair-skinned, with her long red hair pulled back in a bun—had chosen to take the risk and, well, here she was, preparing to be judged.
So let's get it over with, then.
But the Supervisors, now filing into the chamber, weren't the sort of people to be hurried. The three men and two women—graying, well-fed mandarins appointed based on their wealth and social prominence—seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in having all eyes in the chamber on them, and so they took their time getting seated, shuffling papers around, chatting amongst themselves. Agnes could only wait, occasionally glancing around, while they got comfortable. In addition to the AERA representative—a plump, bespectacled man with thinning brown hair—she noted the presence of three others: Mrs. Anders, the fortyish brunette who was the Director-General of Knowledge Delivery Center 81 and until yesterday Agnes' boss; a female Council-appointed stenographer; and Mr. Sidney Sydney, the Council Secretary. It was actually a lot of people for this windowless, gray-walled room, the sole illumination for which came from three fluorescent lights buzzing overhead.
At last the Council of Supervisors had settled into their chairs. Supervisor Donahue, the Chairman of the Council and its most senior member, gaveled the hearing to order. "The Petitioner and the Respondent will stand," he intoned, gravely serious.
Agnes and the AERA man, whose name tag read "Peters," rose from their seats.
Reading from a sheet in front of him, Supervisor Donahue said, "The issue submitted for our consideration is whether to uphold the finding of the Petitioner, the Agency for Educational Research and Administration, that the Respondent, Agnes Wayne Mims, has violated Article 4-B of the Governing Articles of Accepted Pedagogical Methods, and should therefore be subjected to the plan of corrective action that the Petitioner has set forth." He looked over at Sidney Sydney, the thin, balding, painfully young man the Council employed to handle the majority of its administrative functions. "Sidney, will you please describe the nature of the case?"
Sidney, also reading from a script, answered, "The Petitioner has duly certified the charge of subversion, as described in Article 4-B of the Governing Articles of Accepted Pedagogical Methods, against the Respondent, Mrs. Agnes Wayne Mims, formerly an instructor of early grades education at Knowledge Delivery Center 81. The Petitioner holds that the Respondent willfully attempted to undermine the Established Regular Curriculum, and recommends that the Respondent undergo a program of extensive rehabilitation as well as accept a lifetime prohibition from employment with any institution under the supervision of the Petitioner."
"Thank you, Sidney." He nodded toward Peters. "You may be seated."
I guess that means me too, Agnes thought. She also sat.
Supervisor Donahue rested his hands in front of him on the table. "Mrs. Mims," he began, "do you dispute the events that took place on the afternoon of April 2, 2064?"
"No, sir," Agnes said quietly, avoiding eye contact with him.
"No, sir, I do not," Agnes answered, louder, this time meeting his gaze.
"So you agree, then, that you engaged in an activity that was expressly prohibited under the Governing Articles of Accepted Pedagogical Methods."
"I agree," Agnes said, "yes, sir."
"Were you aware at the time that such activity was prohibited?"
Here Mrs. Anders chose to interject. "Oh, yes, sir," she said, rising in the back, "I can personally attest to that. I make all of my instructors take a quarterly refresher course on the Governing Articles. It's in my portfolio of work. I can show you."
Supervisor Donahue ignored her. "Agnes?"
Funny, Agnes thought, I don't remember giving you permission to call me by my first name, but I guess there's nothing much I can do.
She attempted to answer his question. "I thought it might be. I wasn't sure."
"Excuse me," Mrs. Anders began, "but I promise you, sir, that our materials are quite explicit in the matter of—"
"That's enough, Mrs. Anders," Supervisor Donahue snapped. "I'm speaking to Agnes now. This is your second interruption and I won't tolerate a third. Be quiet or leave." But then, addressing the young schoolteacher, his voice grew kind: "Why weren't you sure, Agnes? Did you not pay attention during these refresher courses?"
"Yes. I mean, no. I…I paid attention."
"Then you had to have known that what you were doing stood in direct contravention to those Articles," concluded Supervisor Donahue. "There's no way around it."
"I thought I could…" The young woman's voice trailed off.
"You thought you could what?"
"I thought maybe I could…reinterpret the Curriculum."
There were several gasps in the room. Agnes, feeling the hostility all around her, once again stared down at the table.
"Agnes, look at me," commanded Supervisor Donahue.
"What gave you the right to make an interpretation of your own?" he asked her.
"Nothing" was the answer Agnes wanted to give, and felt sure Supervisor Donahue would have agreed. Instead, though, she stammered, "I…"
Supervisor Donahue silenced her with a wave.
"I've reviewed your personnel file, Agnes," he said. "You only went as far as a Basic Instructor Certification. Why on earth did you think that you, of all people, could interpret the Established Regular Curriculum?"
Agnes did not reply.
"Well?" The Supervisor's voice had turned hostile.
"It was such a pretty day outside," she began.
The room broke up in mocking laughter.
"That's your excuse?" Supervisor Donahue was incredulous. "It was a pretty day?"
Agnes, stoic so far, felt her composure crumbling. She blinked back tears as her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Come on now, she urged herself. Be strong.
Shaking his head, Supervisor Donahue opened a folder in front of him. "I must admit, Agnes, I liked your previous attempt at justifying your actions much better. As I recall you—" he rummaged through the folder, found a slip of paper "—ah, yes, here it is." He put his fist against his mouth for a moment, seeming to suppress a chuckle. "You claimed you took the children outside in order to give them a lesson on native animals, one of which was—" again he appeared to fight back laughter "—the fiddler crab."
And once more the room erupted in dry chortles.
"I take it," Supervisor Donahue began, "you didn't know that Level-2 students receive an Introductory Seminar in Crustaceans."
"A student asked me a question about them," Agnes responded feebly. "He asked me what the names of the little crabs were that we saw at the edge of the marsh. And so I told him they were called fiddler crabs."
Supervisor Donahue, still perusing the sheet in his hands, continued, "According to an eyewitness account, you then had—oh, this is simply unbelievable—you then had the children imitate the way a male fiddler crab waves his claw in the air to ward off intruders. Is this correct?"
"Yes, sir, that's correct."
Supervisor Donahue' lips drew back in a sneer. "Why don't you perform that movement for us now, Agnes? I'm sure it would be quite educational."
Agnes understood that Supervisor Donahue only meant to humiliate her, but she complied with his request anyway. She lifted her right arm partially into the air, made a slow, up-and-out motion.
As she'd expected, her performance was met with derisive laughter.
"Bravo, Agnes," Supervisor Donahue said. "Thank you for adding a note of levity to the proceedings today. Now, let's delve a bit more deeply into your work history. This is not, I understand, your first infraction."
"No, sir," said Agnes.
"You originally taught in the middle grades, correct? Level 8, was it?"
"But after a year you were sent to Level 1 to teach."
"For the benefit of those who may not be aware, please describe the offense that resulted in your transfer."
Agnes answered, "I assigned my Level 8 students to write stories."
"It was a bit more than that, Agnes. Be honest."
"When I made the assignment—" Agnes faltered. She was too upset.
"All right, Agnes, I'll describe it for you," offered Supervisor Donahue. "In making that assignment, you failed to consult the Index of Approved Themes for Responsible Written Creative Expression."
"Outrageous," moaned one of the other, heretofore silent Supervisors.
"You simply told your Level 8 students, 'Write whatever you like,'" Supervisor Donahue continued. "Isn't that true, Agnes? You allowed them to write stories of any kind. Why, they could have written anything!"
"That…" Agnes felt her strength coming back to her. She had an answer for him; she just needed one last burst of energy to get it out, to speak the truth.
"Yes, Agnes?" Supervisor Donahue pressed her. "What were you about to say?"
"That was what I wanted them to do, sir. I wanted them to write about anything they wanted to write."
Agnes had anticipated another gasp from the room. Instead there was deadly quiet.
After a long moment, Supervisor Donahue asked her in a carefully controlled voice, "Agnes, do you realize what you're saying?"
"I thought it would be good for them, sir, just to let them write whatever they felt like writing."
"And, for that reason, you willfully ignored the Index of Approved Themes."
"I didn't want to limit their imaginations, sir."
"Limit their imaginations?" Supervisor Donahue exploded. "How would choosing from a compendium of topics assembled by the finest minds in educational theory limit their imaginations? That's preposterous!" But before Agnes could respond, Supervisor Donahue switched his attention at Mrs. Anders. "What happened to these stories?" he demanded.
"The works were immediately confiscated and destroyed," replied Mrs. Anders, beaming with pride. "I personally made sure of
that. I have witnesses. I can—"
"So, Agnes," thundered Supervisor Donahue, "I think the pattern is clear. In the last four years, on two separate occasions, you have deliberately set yourself up as an equal to the greatest minds in educational theory in the nation. Even one time was plenty to earn you a stint in rehabilitation and a lifetime ban from instruction. You were fortunate indeed to have a Director-General as forgiving as Mrs. Anders."
"Sir, if I may say, I pride myself on being sympathetic and understanding with my staff," Mrs. Anders chimed in. "Why, just the other day I had a—"
"Shut up!" Supervisor Donahue barked at her. Then to Agnes: "The nerve of you, young lady, the absolute nerve."
Agnes said nothing.
Supervisor Donahue glanced over at Peters. "Is there anything the AERA, as Petitioner, wants to add?"
"We think the evidence is self-explanatory, sir," Peters replied. "Mrs. Mims has already admitted that, on the afternoon of April 2, she took her students on an unauthorized walk outside to—as she phrased it in her statement—'enjoy the beauty of nature.' And it's already been determined that the Established Regular Curriculum makes no allowance for this. While we'll never know for sure what was going in the mind of Mrs. Mims, I believe in light of her previous disciplinary event—for encouraging creative expression outside acceptable limits—the only reasonable conclusion we, as an agency, can draw is that Mrs. Mims does not support the Established Regular Curriculum and wishes to change it. Therefore, we ask this Council to uphold the charge of subversion."
Supervisor Donahue, calm now, gave Peters a curt nod. "Thank you. Are there any questions from the other Supervisors present here this afternoon?" He glanced at each of his colleagues; all shook their heads.
Then a woman Supervisor said: "I move we endorse the Agency's recommendation."
Another Supervisor, a man, followed up with, "I second that motion."
Supervisor Donahue nodded. "We have a motion. Is there any discussion?"
The Supervisors were silent.
"All in favor say 'Aye,'" he said.
To which the other four Supervisors answered "Aye."
"The 'Aye's' have it," Supervisor Donahue concluded. "The Respondent will be subjected to the plan of corrective action as recommended by the Agency for Educational Research and Administration. We so find. This hearing is adjourned."
Agnes lowered her head.
A few tears fell from her eyes onto the surface of the table.
It's all right, she told herself. You knew it would turn out this way. You'll survive.
Absently she listened to the conversations of the Supervisors as they packed up their papers and started to exit the room.
"So when's our tee time tomorrow?" Supervisor Donahue asked one of his male colleagues.
"Eight," the other man replied.
"You're getting us started pretty early, aren't you?"
"Hey, sorry, I know you need your beauty sleep."
"It's just that these things can be so exhausting," she heard Supervisor Donahue say, seconds after he was out the door.
A shadow rose next to Agnes' chair. The young woman looked up and saw that Mrs. Anders was now looming over her. "Transport has already been arranged to the Rehabilitation Facility. It's waiting for you outside." Then she reached into her pocket, pulled out an old-fashioned smartphone. The design was probably fifty years old. "I have the discretion to allow you up to a five minute phone call," Mrs. Anders said, handing the phone to Agnes, "so I'm giving you fifteen seconds. After that, security will escort you to the transport vehicle."
The vehicle that's probably been out there since this morning, Agnes mused, since this was a done deal already.
She called her husband. She had spoken to him once, briefly, when she was detained yesterday. After today, it would be a long time—a very long time—before she could speak to him again. For that reason, she had already decided what she wanted to say.
"Dan," she whispered when he answered the phone in the middle of the first ring. "Dan, I have to go away."
"No, Agnes," he started. "Please, can't they—"
But she cut him off. "File for a divorce from me tomorrow. It's all right. I don't want you to have to wait for me"
"I won't do that, Agnes."
"I want you to, though. Now go and live a wonderful life. Just, please, don't forget me."
"I love you, Dan. I love you."
"No! Agnes, I can't—"
Mrs. Anders snatched the phone away from her, terminated the call. "That's enough of that."
The high speed magnetic train now taking Agnes Mims to the Southern District Rehabilitation Center was surprisingly comfortable for being, essentially, a transport system to and from the many prisons—ahem, rehabilitation centers—that dotted the national landscape here in the latter half of the twenty-first century. It would be a good many years, five or maybe ten, before Agnes caught the train home. Or she might just "disappear" while in residence at the Center, as troublesome people were occasionally known to do.
I took them on a walk, Agnes remembered, leaning back in her seat, watching the trees and hills and houses glide past her cabin window. That's what I did. I took my kids for a walk into the schoolyard, which sat next to some of the prettiest saltmarshes you ever saw, so I could teach them a lessor or two about the natural world.
Amazing, how old fashioned that terminology sounded—"kids," "teach," "lessons"…
Yes, I know they're not my kids; they're my knowledge consumers. And, yes, I know my job isn't to teach them their lessons; it's to manage their data inflows. And I know what I did was wrong, at least according to the people who control the system.
Agnes took a deep breath, put her hand against the glass, and then dropped it.
It's easy to see why they have to be so strict, why they have to punish even the tiniest offenses so severely, because if they don't, if they give in even slightly, the whole thing would collapse. My crime was serious; I admit that. I showed the children in my class things they weren't supposed to see yet, under conditions that the people who run our lives didn't control. I gave them a glimpse of the world outside the system. The AERA, the Council of Supervisors, the Director-General—they were justified, from their own standpoints, in treating me harshly.
And they're right to be scared.
She smiled because of something she remembered: something that had happened just after she was arrested in her classroom during her afternoon break, while the children were at lunch, and marched out of the building under armed guard.
Because I'm absolutely guilty of what they accused me of.
The path from Agnes' classroom to the police vehicle that bright, blustery day had taken her past the cafeteria, affording her students the traumatic sight of seeing their teacher perform what folks way-back-when had called a "perp walk."
No question about it.
Shoved into the back of that vehicle, Agnes had directed one last, mournful glance toward her students, who had rushed to the cafeteria windows to see what was going on. The vehicle had sat idle while the arresting officer filled out some paperwork, which gave Agnes time to make eye contact with one of her students, a towheaded boy named Devon Jones she had come to love dearly.
For a moment the two of them had just stared at one another, each behind a pane of glass, neither moving.
But then, suddenly, Devon had lifted his arm in the air.
It was the secret sign, the forbidden sign: the sign of the fiddler crab, which Agnes had taught them the previous day, when she had led them on their little expedition into the outdoors.
Then another student, next to Devon, made the same motion in the window, followed by another student, and another still, until perhaps half the class was doing it.
Because they remembered.
And these kids would continue to remember, she imagined, well into the future—a future Agnes recognized she might not live to see, but one she knew was coming, despite the best efforts of her society's rulers to stop it.
I think it's called "subversion."
Agnes closed her eyes, hoping to get some sleep.