Science Fiction Social Commentary education teaching

Teaching

By James Van Pelt · Apr 12, 2019
4,814 words · 18-minute reading time

Photo by Michael Prewett via Unsplash.

From the author: People often say that teaching is a noble profession, and it is. It also has a huge dropout rate as teachers walk away from their jobs. Whatever positive pressures that keep teachers working and the negative ones that push them out, the future is unlikely to change. Chaucer once said of a character in his stories, "Gladly would he learn and gladly teach." Maybe that's the quality that keeps teachers going, that sense of gladness in the giving and taking.


 

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure

them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause

in his lecture room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wandr'd off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

 Walt Whitman

#

William stared at the DeskTop unit for a long minute before sighing wearily and opening it.  It was the latest release of the hardware, and its shiny surface felt softer than his old one, like leather, and it opened easier too, popping slightly as the fold vanished into an unmarked screen.  The keyboard flopped open and the unit, no thicker than a sheet of cardboard, was ready to go.  His earphone squeaked in his ear, then announced that beside the normal traffic of essays, tests, video demonstrations, speeches, and other student work which the DT had already evaluated, commented on and recorded into student profiles, he had received sixty-four messages since yesterday, two which might require his attention.  He eyed the three column list: mostly run-of-the-mill correspondence that included a couple of thank-yous from departing students and eight petitions for admission into his class from the retiring Leslie Franklin's roster.  None seemed out of the ordinary, so he okayed the virtual-William's, handling of them and the unit instantly sent pseudo-personal replies that mimicked his style and provided the individualized, educationally appropriate prompts to each student.  V-Bill, William thought, a friendlier, more professional, patient and approachable version of myself.

The two flagged messages he put aside for the moment, though a flashing reminder in the corner of the work space reminded him not to forget them.

Eight new students pushed his class list over six-hundred for the second time this month, so he called up and signed a standard request for numbers reduction and sent it to Central Education; as he expected, the reply, with its somber logo of Socrates teaching a group of rapt students, scrolled instantly on his screen acknowledging his request while extolling the virtues of the profession and how "We must each make the sacrifices in these challenging days of tight budgets."

He ran the numbers over again in his mind.  If he spent only five minutes on each student, and he worked ten hour days, he would get to each student once every five days.  That was assuming that all he did was contact students, but most days, he'd spend the morning handling unique student problems, addressing paper work concerns or corresponding with Central Education.  Only in the afternoons that he wasn't sitting in on group hookups through the D.T.'s or going on field trips like today's could he contact his students individually.

William sighed again and let his eyes rest on Leslie's photograph that sat on the shelf above his table.  He thought, she always knew how to handle the load.  Her dark eyes focussed somewhere to the side, behind the photographer; a strand of red hair blew across her cheek and she was laughing.  In the background, a fountain sprayed into the sunlight, each drop catching a glint of brightness.  She'd signed it herself and real-mailed it forty-four years ago when they were both students in the first totally DT school to graduate with teaching degrees. 

While pouring coffee from his single cup brewer, he thought about how controversial and cutting edge school had seemed then.  The DT monitored and measured their progress every step of the way, providing instant feedback.  No waiting for papers to be graded.  No weeks of not "getting" the material until some the teacher noticed (if she or he did at all) the problem.  No moving through the curriculum at the "average" student's pace while the slower ones fell farther and farther behind and the quicker ones grew bored.  The teacher, through the DT, recognized their strengths and played to them; identified their weaknesses and helped them address them.  It had encouraged William to do group projects with Leslie.  their learning styles complimented each other well, and they'd pushed each other to co-valedictorian status. 

Through the DT, education had become again that visionary ideal: one teacher to one student.  Grades were replaced by competencies.  When they demonstrated they knew the material they moved on.  He remembered when students were "graded," and the whole idea seemed ludicrous now.  He and Leslie had joked about it.  Leslie had said, "Any grade other than an "A" indicates that learning isn't done yet."  William agreed then.  He still agreed, but he couldn't muster any passion for the thought.  He put his coffee down.  It tasted dull and flat this morning.

Although William had never physically met Leslie--she lived in Vancouver while the farthest north he'd gotten was Wyoming--they'd kept in close contact since graduation through their DeskTops.  Over the years, gray streaks gradually marked her auburn hair, but she laughed the same way and often.  Every once in a while, he'd see a glimpse of the pose in the photograph.  His fingers ached to type her code to tell her "Hi," to find out how she would face the day, but she'd told him that her DT would be locked away for months while she real-toured Europe.  "I'm going to touch the Arc de Triomphe," she'd said crustily to him last week.  "And I don't want some voice in my ear telling me anything that I can't learn by being there."

Six-hundred students, he thought, and Leslie's not here to lighten me up.

He tapped the blinking reminder, calling up the two problem messages the v-Bill couldn't handle. 

Fourteen year old Kimo Yu's mother died yesterday, the first message said, and she wouldn't be able to make today's field trip to the canyons of Canyonlands National Park.  William scrolled through her history: generally a type four, aggressive/abstract learner, she'd made good progress in spatial visualizations and practical math.  Her current area of interest, geology, didn't fit her vocational potential profile well, but the DT had planned a course of study that would funnel her back into her strengths by the time she was sixteen.  The DT highlighted a closeness to her mother and recommended a two week suspension of instruction, followed by a gradual reintegration into the program with an emphasis on spiritual and grief relieving literature.  William noticed Guenther's Death be not Proud on the reading list and deleted it.  "Too grim," he muttered.

He studied her image for a moment: thick glasses--glasses were in again as a fashion accessory--covering non-Asian looking eyes, then he recorded a personal condolence and sent it.  He couldn't recall ever meeting her, and the DT confirmed that in her six years of study under his guidance, they'd never crossed paths.

The second message came from Jonas Wynn's father.  Jonas, the note said, had dropped his student DT out the window of the Tampa to Denver transrail at better than one hundred and forty miles an hour.  Not only did Dad have to explain to transrail officials how his son could get what was supposed to be an unopenable window open, he also had to replace the DT before today's field trip.

William tapped for Jonas's picture and profile.  A hard-eyed boy stared back at him angrily.  Twelve years old.  Type six, passive/defiant.  Something about the boy's face seemed familiar, and William searched his personal attention records for the last six months,  finding that five weeks ago he'd spent a few minutes trying to come up with an appropriate response to an awful short story the boy had written that involved, among other things, a legless cow cattle drive.  Two months before that, William saw, he had tweaked the DT's recommendation for medical treatment for what the boy's doctor had called "willful attention deficit disorder."  Neither Biomeds or Chemmeds helped, and even the new attention/retention hormone enhancements made no difference.  William thought, in the old days, before DT education, Jonas would have been labeled "learning disabled."  Now educators recognized that everyone was learning disabled in some form or another, and more than half the population received meds as part of the curriculum. 

For Jonas, the meds were dropped and the DT had been reduced to situational learning prompts since the boy was ten, offering information whenever Jonas appeared interested in anything.  As a result, the DT reported, Jonas showed interest less often and responded to the prompts less appropriately as time progressed. 

William frowned.  The boy should have been flagged months ago.  Why not?  He ran a quick diagnostic and found that the DT had labeled the boy as fitting the type six profile perfectly, and that his behavior was not outside of that learning style's norm.  Since Jonas's Individual Education Plan, or I.E.P., corresponded to his progress, attitude and actions, there'd been no flag.

"Of course," murmured William.  "If the damned computer says he's not learning anything, and he actually doesn't learn anything, prediction matched the outcome and nothing must be wrong."  William arranged for a replacement DT to be ready for Jonas at the park entrance.

He called up the day's progress monitor which showed him responding to each of his six-hundred students' I.E.P.'s.  The DT, through six-hundred v-Bills, simultaneously lectured, directed reading, contributed to a network panel discussion, asked questions, offered advice, emotionally counseled, annotated literature, praised achievement and motivated the underachievers.

Messages flicked by so fast, he couldn't keep track of them.

The DT cleared; his earphone sounded an attention ping, then reminded him that the shuttle to the canyon and his awaiting field trip would be leaving in fifteen minutes.  While he dressed, the phone continued to tell him facts about the geology lesson and to fill him in on the fifteen students he would be leading in this real-lesson.  The only student who sounded even vaguely interesting was Jonas.  "And he dropped his DT out the window," said William to the empty room.  "I've got to get out of teaching."

On the hour long shuttle trip to the park, an elderly man sitting next to William drew him into a conversation, discovered he was a teacher, and before long, with the gentle whoosh of tires on the road as a backdrop, the man was rhapsodizing about school when he was a child.  Filling the rest of the seats, other travelers swayed with the shuttle's motion.  Some stared blankly out the windows; some leaned over their DT's, keying in information or studying their displays.  Gray privacy shields hid the occupants of some seats.

"Loved my school," the old man said with a tremulous voice.  "Solid brick building.  We used to wait outside until the bell rang.  That's when school began, with a bell.  No bells now a days.  Not nearly."

William nodded, watching cactus and patches of brown desert grass slip by.  "School doesn't really begin or end anymore," said William.  "Learning happens when the opportunity arises.  Individualization is the key, so there's no need for a structure to meet in."  He thought idly about querying the DT on the subject.  He could call up pictures of old schools and the history of building based education if wanted. 

"We had classes," continued the old man.  "I still meet with my graduating class every other year.  We used to do it every five years, but we're getting older, you know.  No guarantee that we'll all make jumps that big."  He laughed to himself.  "Loved my teachers too.  Not all of them, of course, but most of them.  Overall, they did me good.  Got some good grades.  Got me my diploma."

No grades any more, thought William, only descriptors of progress.  No diplomas, only knowledge and performance profiles that changed from day to day.  No classes, as in "The Class of 2045."  A student never graduated.  "We're lifelong learners now," said William.  This is the "party" line, he thought, and he couldn't say it with any enthusiasm.  His own "class," all six hundred plus of them, ranged from eight years old to seventy-nine.  Except for special occasions, like today's field trip, they had no reason to meet each other, and very few of them had.  Central Education matched students with teachers based on teaching and learning styles, so that his students were spread all over the globe.

The old man pointed at the DT.  "Of course, with those you know a lot more about your students.  I could hide out in the back of my class.  Could pass notes, you know.  Wasn't a very efficient system, I guess."

"Yes, I guess not," said William, tapping the DT's cover.  "I've got all the information . . ."  He paused.  They crossed the state line into Utah.  " . . . But I don't know any of them." 

The old man sighed and sat back in his chair.  William didn't understand why he'd said that.  Leslie's retirement, he decided, had thrown him off stride.

"Well," said the old man, "teaching's still a tough job."

After a while, the man went to sleep.  William pulled a privacy shield down from the ceiling, cutting off sight and most of the sound from the shuttle, and called v-Bill.  The work area shimmered for a second, then his own features focussed in the DT on his lap.

"Hi, William," v-Bill said.  He signaled to somebody off screen.  William suspected that the v-Bill was married.  V-Bill never said anything, but the gardenias on his desk that William would never have on his own, or the sense that he was interrupting a conversation to talk to William, hinted to some presence in the house other than v-Bill.  William guessed that the DT added these touches to make the v-teacher seem happier and more content than William felt.

"How's everything?" said v-Bill.  "Been working hard?"

William didn't answer, but studied his electronic double for a moment.  His hair line had receded over the years, drawing a line higher and higher on his forehead.  Not bald really.  Definitely aged though.  In v-Bill's eyes, William could still see his own youth, a kind of sparkle, a liveliness as v-Bill waited for William to speak, as if v-Bill was expecting William to get a joke they shared, to join him in laughter.  William wondered if he still looked like that, or if the face on the DT was totally counterfeit, false not only in content, but appearance too.

William said, "You're not real, you know."

"Oh," said v-Bill, sounding disappointed.  "So you're in that state of mind again, huh?"

"If you were real, you wouldn't always be so damn self confident."

V-Bill leaned back in his chair and made a steeple of his hands in the middle of his chest, a gesture that William lately had felt looked patronizing, so he'd quit doing it.  The DT hadn't picked up the change in his behavior yet, but it wouldn't be long before v-Bill quit doing it too. 

"I have bad days just like anyone else," said v-Bill.  "We could talk about it if you'd like."  He appeared concerned, as if William's aggressiveness puzzled and hurt him.  What was weird, William realized, was that even though he knew that v-Bill was only a construct, a brilliantly concocted amalgam of his own personality, mannerisms and DT augmented expertise, he found he almost wanted to tell him what was wrong: that he wasn't positive that he should be a teacher anymore, or if he had ever been a teacher.  He caught himself feeling sorry he'd been rude.

Suddenly angry, and unsure of why he'd called him in the first place, William said, "I'm not in the mood, for this kind of self gratification."  He cut the connection.  Instantly his earphone squeaked and a warning flag flashed in the corner of the work area.  William tapped it, and the DT reported his own interaction with v-Bill as problematic and needing his personal attention.  William smiled.  The DT couldn't handle his conferences with himself, which was probably why Central Education frowned on teachers communicating with their alter egos.

The shuttle lurched, and William raised the privacy shield.  They had entered the park and had begun the long, winding climb to the visitor's center on the rim of a canyon.

Naturally, all his students recognized him when he met them in the main lobby.  They gathered around, DT's tucked under their arms on in backpacks, to shake his hand.

"William, at last, we meet face to face," one said.  William's earphone whispered the student's name and a personal fact that he could use to establish rapport, and William greeted him as if they were old friends, which, as far as the student was concerned, they were.  As the rest made their hello's, the earphone prompted him continuously.  All the time he shook hands, though, commenting about each student's progress or asking about their hobbies, William scanned the crowd looking for Jonas Wynn.  Hundreds of people filled the lobby: his own class and others, but also what looked like a couple of retirement groups, families and foreign tourists, all waiting patiently for their chance to walk one of the many guided trips into the canyon.  The logistics of running a national park must be staggering, thought William.  But he didn't see his reluctant learner.

Finally, just as the visitor center dispatching officer announced his class' departure gate, William spotted Jonas.  Smaller than his picture implied, and much, much more frail, the boy moved uncertainly toward their gate, making labored progress as he squeezed between other people in his way.

"Over here, Jonas," William shouted.  The boy scanned the crowd blankly for a second, then his eyes settled on William.  Some emotion flickered across Jonas' face, an unreadable grimace.  He pushed past the last intervening groups to join the class just as their gate whooshed open and the visitor center tour program started in their earphones.

William turned and followed his class out the door under the "STAY ON THE TRAIL" sign.  He'd done this tour several times before, so he knew that they had to move rather smartly to keep up with the park's description of where they were.  He wouldn't speak to them as a group until the first "meditation" rest a half mile farther along the canyon rim, just before the trail wound down into the canyon itself.

The sudden brightness of the noon sun made him blink away tears as he walked on the cement path.  He wiped his eyes.  To their left, a sandstone talus slope spotted with juniper, rose to the road they'd arrived on.  Beyond that, a pale bluff of soft-curved rock marked the horizon.  To their right, on the other side of a guard rail, the canyon, a thousand feet deep and a mile wide gaped invitingly.  A pair of canyon swifts swooped in the updrafts.  A bird called, a lovely trill of notes that died hauntingly away on the last tone, but he couldn't tell if it were virtual through his earphone or if a real bird had made it.

Jonas walked just in front of him, his thin shoulders tightly bunched under his shirt.  His glance darted to each side, as if he were afraid someone would catch him looking, and twice he turned back over his shoulder and caught William's eyes.

"Nice day for this, isn't it?" offered William.

Jonas jumped, and said nothing.

At the first rest stop, William gathered the class and recited some Edward Abbey and Thoreau from memory.  He didn't need the earphone to prompt him on this, but he felt programmed just the same.  Behind him, he knew, sunlight danced in the canyon, and his students were reacting to the real-lesson by contrasting it to the v-lessons.  Later, they'd all ooh and ah about how much more profound their moment with nature had been compared to the vids from their DT's.  This was experiential knowledge and fit exactly into each of their DT driven I.E.P.'s.

But he didn't feel as if he were learning anything.  Not only did he feel that he was indistinguishable from any prerecorded presentation, but the canyon itself felt virtual.  He saw what the park determined he should see.  He heard what the park determined he should hear.  The tour controlled all of it, and he felt no hint of exploration any more, no hope for discovery. 

As he reached the end of the Thoreau piece, and their attentive faces were focussed on him, he noticed Jonas at the back of the class, looking down at his shoes, scuffing some sand on the trail back and forth, and he felt exactly the same feeling about Jonas that he felt about the park.  Where's my chance to teach him? he thought.  What can I do that the charts and diagnostics haven't already told me?  I am, he thought, predigested.  My path has been determined.

The class applauded when he reached the end with Thoreau's words, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."  But William mouthed the words emptily, and realized that like v-Bill, he too was all form and no content.

His earphone pinged, and the park program urged them to proceed down the trail into the canyon.  There, it said, they could see the "sands of time cut away" and that they'd "pass through million of millions of years with each downward step."

His class turned away obediently and filed onto the narrow stairway with its protective handrails.  William watched them leave.  I can give you nothing, he thought.  He knew that for the next twenty minutes, their earphones would direct their attention to the rock formations, to the pinion pine that clung precariously to tiny outcroppings, to the vistas beyond, and when they reached the next rest stop, where he was supposed to speak again, that the DT would recognize he was not there and fill in with something appropriate.  The class wouldn't know that he was supposed to accompany them the whole way.  They'd never miss him.

Jonas, the last student, vanished down the trail, and William remained, leaning against the cool sandstone rock he'd lectured to them from.  Within a minute, he heard the footsteps of the next group coming down the path, so he climbed over the low restraining fence and hurried out of sight up the canyon rim.

Within fifty yards of where he'd left the path, his earphone chirped, and an official sounding voice warned him that he was violating park rules and must return to the marked trail.  William pulled the earphone out and placed it on top of his DT.  His hand seemed strangely empty without it; a breath of air cooled the sweat in his ear.  Then he continued walking the rim.

He thought about Leslie Franklin.  They'd talked every morning for the last forty-four years, but they'd never met.  She'd married twice during the years.  He'd attended the ceremonies electronically.  He'd consoled her when the first marriage fell apart, and then when her second husband passed away.  They exchanged gifts on Christmas and birthdays.  They'd co-authored papers together.  He wondered what she smelled like.  He wondered what it would have been like to have touched her hair. 

In places, the rock slope fell gradually down in a confusion of crevices and boulders.  He could see the deep fall in the gaps between them.  In other places, long tables of rock, broken sharply away told him where the edge was.  Further up canyon, some of them protruded beyond the cliff wall, so if he stood at the precipice, he might actually be dozens of feet over the drop already, with nothing between him and a thousand foot plummet except the lip of stone that supported him.  He walked as close to the edge as he could; at times letting the edge of his shoe overlap, not really paying attention, feeling no vertigo, but his right hand waved airily over the nothingness beyond.

He blinked slowly, still walking, so for two or three steps at a time, he couldn't see where he was going, but the breeze brushed his face, and he felt an almost bat-like sense of where he was, as if he was flying on the edge, not walking.  Sand scrunched.  Branches creaked.  Leaves rustled.  Real air!  Real sand!  Contact! he thought, and he pictured a stride into wind, into real stone.

William stopped and faced the canyon.  He closed his eyes.  Sunlight pressed warmly on his face.  Stone rested solidly beneath his heels, and he could feel the naked pull of the canyon in his chest.  He let the breeze sway him back and forth.  This is good, he thought.  This is real and proper.  Tears rolled off his cheeks, but he didn't feel sad right now, he felt better than he'd been all day.

After a while, feeling very centered, a long, long reach away from his class and the DT's and forty-four years of teaching, he looked where he faced.  A dozen feet away, balanced on an updraft and as still as the rocks around him, a raven floated in the air.  William stared back.  Nothing moved, and for a spooky, surreal second, William thought that he'd slipped out of time; the world had stopped and he was the ghost in the eternal and unchanging now.  The raven cocked its head from one side to the other seeming to examine him with shiny, black glass eyes.

Then it dropped a wing and glided swiftly away.

Leslie had said that she didn't want to learn anything that she couldn't learn by being there.  And he wondered if she had meant by that that she wanted to learn the things that couldn't be tested, measured or described.  How do you evaluate seeing the raven?  How do you teach it?

The tears began to dry on his cheeks, pulling at the skin, and he realized where he stood, toes suspended over the rocks far below.  He stepped back.

"You're not supposed to be there, are you?" a voice asked.

William didn't turn immediately.  He tried to hold onto the feeling that possessed him, but the immediacy of the question drove it back.  Not completely.  He could still sense it, a tinge of connection.  Real world.  Real lessons.  Real learning.

He turned.  Jonas stood beside a clump of sage, his serious face inscrutable.  "This is off limits," he said.

William sighed and pressed his hands into the small of his back.  The muscles there ached suddenly, and it took a concentrated effort to make them relax.

"You're not supposed to be here either," said William.

"I know.  What were you doing?"

In the canyon, William saw the raven, now just a black dot sliding along a cliff wall.  "Well," he said, "I'm not sure."  He thought about all the things he could say to the boy, all the things the DT had told him about learning style and modes of instruction, and he decided just to answer the question.  "I think I was thinking about who I am."

"Really?" said Jonas.  He approached the edge and sat down, his feet dangling over the precipice.  "What did you learn?"

"I don't know yet."

Jonas seemed to absorb that for a moment.  The floor of the canyon spread out beneath their feet.  William let his heels bounce off the unyielding wall.  In D.T. conferences, William always answered questions quickly, or formulated advice for his students even as the student spoke so there would be no wasted time, but here, with Jonas on the edge of a cliff, he didn't want to speak.  He had nothing to say.

Finally, as if to fill the silence, Jonas said, "Did you see that crow?"

"Crows have fan shaped tails."  William scrunched his fingertips against the rock.  Gritty bits rolled beneath them, and he knew that if sat there forever and kept rubbing his fingers back and forth in the same spot, he'd eventually wear away grooves in the stone.  He would leave a mark.  "That bird's tail was like a wedge.  It was a raven."

"Oh," said Jonas.  "I didn't know."

They talked for a half hour more.  Cloud shadows moved across the floor of the canyon.  Swifts dove by, cutting the air with abrupt rips.  William's legs grew cold against the stone, but he felt no urge to move.

Finally, an angry voice called from behind them,  "Hey!  You two are way out of bounds.  What do you think you're up to?"  It was a park ranger.

Jonas said, "This is my teacher.  He was teaching me something."

William nodded.

This story originally appeared in Star Anthology #1.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."