By John Agliata
“Have a seat,” Mr. Polson said.
And so she sat.
Cheryl’s backside sunk into the chair, and the cushion expelled a humiliating whoosh of stale air. She tugged at her flowered calf-length dress to unpinch it from the too-tight sides of her seat and smoothed it over her thick legs. No chair was comfortable to Cheryl. But this was uncalled for.
She removed the pristine white gloves from her hands, first the left, then the right, and twisted them in her grip as she looked up at Mr. Polson, balding, lightly sweating, dressed in brown — lots of brown. Brown pants, lighter brown shirt, darker brown corduroy sports coat, socks that might just cross into the “tan” category, and tightly tied brown dress shoes. He stared at her with narrow brown eyes — more brown — his hands on his hips, his lips pursed in a look of disapproval and scorn.
Cheryl eyed Mr. Polson nervously, furtively meeting his piercing stare for brief moments before returning her gaze to take in the rest of this dark room that was just slightly tinned with body odor. So much brown, she thought. An oversized mahogany desk loomed in front of her, almost over her, its surface level with her ample bosom. Mahogany bookcases, filled with texts of unimaginable knowledge of the way things used to be and the way things were now, stretched upward, stopping just short of the ornately designed ceiling. In front of them stood a high-backed brown leather executive’s chair. Real leather, Cheryl thought. Not the imitation guest chair she continued to try to settle herself into. More mahogany all around this considerable office. Cabinets filled with the files — the permanent records — of who knew what on who knew who dating back who knew how long. And on top of one of those cabinets, behind Mr. Polson’s substantial frame, a clock with a blindingly gold body that contrasted starkly with the darkness of everything, a silver face and black hands with a seconds timer sweeping noiselessly around the dial. Two forty-three, Cheryl noted, looking past Mr. Polson’s left hip before nervously glancing up into those eyes and then turning her gaze to her lap.
Brown, brown, brown. Mahogany, mahogany, mahogany.
Mr. Polson remained perfectly still, staring down at her, crushing her, making her feel small, a word that had been useless to describe her since she was maybe a seven-year-old girl. Intimidating. Ruthless.
“We both know why you’re here.” His voice, booming, echoing despite the lush carpet and walls adorned with historical pictures of the school throughout its 125-year history. Kids walking stoically through the front doors for another day of education. Teachers of generations past using antiquated smartboards to teach concepts now long ignored for all but a handful of Woodrow Wilson Senior High School’s students. Sentence diagramming. Calculus. The construction of cells.
Portraits of notable previous principals formed a diamond pattern on the windowless wall to Cheryl’s left, the pinnacle being of the school’s first leader, Mr. Harvey Stone, who served from 1950 to 1965. His bespectacled eyes cast straight ahead, high above anyone who would ever stand in that room, giving him the visage of a visionary eyeing a future only he could see.
And perhaps he could. But not this future. For all of the reverence of Mr. Stone, he was Old System, the first overseer of an educational model that had slowly, painfully, though not all on its own brought the country to its knees before the true visionaries of the New System — visionaries like Mr. Polson — changed things. In silent, solo moments, Mr. Polson would stare at that picture of a man from an era only history remembered kindly — useless, sentimental history. He would study it with a scientist’s intensity and inwardly sneer at the man’s slick-backed hair, wide-collared dress shirt and fat-knotted paisley tie that hung stiffly until it left the frame, leading the eyes of those who found themselves in Cheryl’s unfortunate position to the ridiculous portrait of Mrs. Kathryn Douglas, the only female Old System principal deemed worthy of having her image hang on this wall of an antiquated definition of greatness.
Were it up to Mr. Polson, there would be no celebration of Old System. Stone, Douglas, the rest of them, their portraits would be in a box in the school’s storage area in the darkest reaches of its cobweb-strung basement. Or, if he truly had its way, burned along with everything else that had nearly destroyed this great nation.
Old System was the problem. New System was the solution.
Mr. Polson walked slowly, purposefully behind his desk and positioned himself by his chair, his eyes never leaving Cheryl’s pitiable frame, so sunken and small in its enormity, scared in the seat now in front of him. With a pompous flair, he flipped out the bottom of his sports coat as he simultaneously sat down into his chair — the chair he had brought with him from his previous principalship, the place where he led the first integration of New System. Integration that was truly elimination. Elimination of Old System. Mass firings of its adherents. Grand welcomes of fellow revolutionaries who understood what it took to bring the country back.
The outcry — the unions, the parents devoted to Old System educators — had been as loud as they had been wrong. New System worked. New System saved the country. The first generation educated based on its precepts had gone forth from the halls of senior high schools all across the country and dominated their fields, solving problems long believed to be “just the way things were” in late twenty-first century life. These soldiers of rejuvenation and rebirth had saved an economy that had failed its citizens in spectacular fashion, an economy that had dragged the country from its position as sole superpower to that of just another nation subjugated to the whims of a new one.
Yes, New System graduates were the best of the best, and they had made the biggest difference on the grandest stages — politics, academia, science, business. But the true success of New System was in the ranks of the masses. Freed from Inconsequential Teachings, bright and promising students excelled where the Monitors saw they would and now filled roles at all levels of business and industry with levels of knowledge, logic and critical thinking unheard of with the last generations of Old System.
What Mr. Polson had started there, he would continue here. And he would do so right now.
The principal eased his chair forward, his knees disappearing under the desk, and folded his hands on its surface.
“It’s time for Jeremy to Transition Out,” he said softly, tinged with a pity he did not feel. This was not a new conversation to him, and never were feelings a part of them.
The sudden change in tone caused Cheryl’s eyes to lift, just time to see a gentle smile spread across Mr. Polson’s face.
“This should hardly come as a surprise,” he continued, now that he had her full attention. “The Monitors have been in touch. The test scores are what they are. Placement Expectations are done. And your life is what it is, what it has been and what we’ve been more than gracious in trying to overlook because of what Jeremy initially showed.”
“But Mr. Polson…”
“Please,” Mr. Polson interrupted, unfolding his hands and raising his left toward her to stop her from embarrassing herself. “This is not my first meeting like this. Hardly. I’ve been having meetings like this for a generation now, and I’ve heard it all. What you are going to say is not going to change anything. So let me just give you the facts.”
Mr. Polson put his left hand down and reached for a manilla folder on top of an eight-inch-high stack neatly organized at the left-front corner of his desk. Opening it with unnecessary flourish he took a pair of reading glasses from the inside pocket of his sportcoat and fixed them in place.
“Jeremy Ludwig. Age 15. NSGPA — that’s New System GPA, Ms. Ludwig — is 3.2. Not bad. But, of course, not good. The Monitors have seen no progress in his Placement Area and have seen no new Placement Areas emerge. Frankly, New System knows no new area will emerge. Our track record proves it. There are no mistakes, no misrepresentations,” Mr. Polson said as he turned the page.
Cheryl shifted uncomfortably, and she felt a trickle of sweat trace its way downward from her left armpit. Mr. Polson saw it, smelled it.
He continued: “But here? On this page? Let me just make the argument you are going to make — that the Placement Expectations are wrong, that the Monitors are wrong, that the entire New System’s educational wing is wrong. Because I know you’re going to argue that. They all do. Even if you were right — and I can assure you, you are not — there’s still the matter of … you.” The last word fell like dripping venom from his lips.
“What do you mean, me?” Cheryl said, her back stiffening as she sat up straighter in the chair and tried to project a confidence she did not feel.
Mr. Polson looked back at the file and steadied his glasses at the end of his nose. “Did you or did you not sign the parental agreement required of all parents under New System?” He knew the answer. Cheryl knew the answer. She didn’t respond. “Let me read from that agreement.” He flipped to the deepest recesses of the folder, back to the beginning, to when New System began for Cheryl and Jeremy. “‘As parent slash guardian of student Jeremy L. Ludwig, I affirm my role in promoting his slash her education for the benefit of New System and the United States. I affirm my commitment to ensuring my student’s success in New System as outlined in Section Four, subsection three point two.’ Do you know what is included in Section Four, subsection three point two, Ms. Ludwig?”
“I…. I… I don’t remember the specifics…”
“Let me tell you the specifics. In fact, let me tell you the way you are violating the specifics. Because there are many, many ways. To start off with, you are violating subsection three point two’s morality clause through your, shall we say, after-hour activities with one other than your child’s father. In fact, as Jeremy’s Home Teacher has reported, Jeremy’s father is no longer living in the home and, though you are still married, another gentleman, a Mr. …” Mr. Polson paused and scanned another piece of paper, the Home Teacher’s report. “… a Mr. Knott is residing with you and Jeremy. Not only does that violate subsection three point two’s morality clause, it fails its stability clause. New System has made it no secret, Ms. Ludwig, that those two clauses are very closely linked. In fact, we see few people who fail one without failing the other. And you have failed both.”
Cheryl set her face in defiance. “I don’t understand what business it is of you or the damned Home Teacher who I spend my time with and how dare you suggest that this somehow undermines the stability of Jeremy’s…”
“How dare I?” Mr. Polson interrupted again. “I dare because that is precisely my job — to dare to think differently than the permissives of the past who led our country to the brink of destruction. It is my job, Ms. Ludwig, to enforce New System and all… all… of its requirements. All, Ms. Ludwig. Why? Because we empirically know that when the requirements are violated, the student suffers, and when the student suffers, he or she ceases to achieve what is necessary under New System for the benefit of the country. So I warn you, Ms. Ludwig, do not get indignant with me. You are the one who signed this agreement. You and your no-longer-present husband.”
“Surely there are exceptions to what New System finds when one of your million requirements is violated,” Cheryl shot back. “There have to be exceptions. Our situation is different.”
“Do you think this is the first time I’m hearing that argument?” Mr. Polson laughed. “Ms. Ludwig, it’s not the first time I’ve heard that argument today. And judging by my appointment calendar, it will not be the last.”
Mr. Polson paused. Silence. Loud, excruciating silence.
“Ms. Ludwig, let me state this to you clearly: There are no exceptions. New System was founded after extensive analysis by the top minds in the world on what conditions must exist for a child to develop into a productive member of society, one who will not be the leach on our resources that so many coming from Old System were and are. We — yes, both of us, Ms. Ludwig — we are paying for the sins of Old System, for thinking that no child should be left behind, that every child deserves equal opportunity to precious limited resources regardless of his or her performance and projections for success, to this silly notion that it is better to spend a dollar to bring the least up to average than it is to help the good become the great and the great become exceptional, to become difference-makers, to become agents of growth and change.”
“All you care about is performance, Mr. Polson. There’s more to a child’s education than performance on test scores,” Cheryl angrily retorted.
“In that you are exactly right, Ms. Ludwig. And this is something you would also know if you kept with the clauses of subsection three point two, which includes Continuing Education on New System Philosophy. In fact, this is New System one-oh-one, Ms. Ludwig. This is the easy stuff, from the classes you attended and signed an acknowledgement form that you would uphold as part of young Jeremy’s education.”
Mr. Polson rose from his chair and walked around his desk, perching his substantial right buttock on the left-front corner, his enormity looming over Cheryl, who noticeably lost her newfound courage and shrank back into the chair.
“I want to make this very clear, Ms. Ludwig. You? You are wrong. In fact, if I had to say who is most to blame for Jeremy being Transitioned Out today, I point the finger squarely … at… you.” Three jabs of his pudgy right index finger as he punctuated his sentence. “Jeremy is a fine boy, and he will do well in Out-School. He will surely do something with his life. But it won’t be via New System.”
“But Mr. Polson. Please. He loves New System. His Home Teacher? His Home Group? Those five kids? They’re like brothers and sisters. They’ve been neighborhood friends and now classmates for a decade. Why don’t those relationships matter? What is he supposed to do now?”
“The answer to your question is in your question. Those relationships don’t matter because they don’t matter. Home Groups were set up because that’s how New System works. Home Teachers spending two hours a day with a group of five New System kids from kindergarten through graduation, co-educating them with the family members — that would have been you and your husband, Ms. Ludwig — to produce five fine representatives of New System who take this country as it is and make it better. When a student loses the ability to do that, loses his or her ability to make the country better, they lose their place in New System. And they land in Out-School. Which is exactly where Jeremy is heading starting tomorrow.”
A tear slipped out from Cheryl’s left eye and rolled slowly down her bulbous cheek. “But those other four kids…”
“Those other four kids are officially no longer any of your concern. Again, Ms. Ludwig, you know this. You went to the classes. You signed the agreements. For as long as a student is in a neighborhood Home Group, parents are responsible for each other’s children. And might I add, you haven’t exactly been stellar in your duties here either. But once your child is moved to Out-School, you are not to have any contact with the other children, their parents or their Home Teacher.”
“But their parents… their parents are my friends, the only friends I have. You can’t possibly expect me to…”
“Not only do expect it, Ms. Ludwig. I demand it. We simply cannot have Out-Schooled children and their parents infecting New System prospects. The risk to the country is too great were this to become widespread. This is backed by federal law, Ms. Ludwig. Law. I am trusting fully we will not have a problem with you regarding this.”
Another tear chased the first down Cheryl’s left cheek. She said nothing.
“If there is nothing further — and I can assure you there is nothing further — I require your signature on the last page of this document acknowledging Jeremy’s transfer out of New System and into Out-School. Lots of legal language, yes. But the truth… the truth of New System is all throughout it, and New System is not a mystery to anyone.” Mr. Polson reached back and picked up a clipboard with a stapled packet of papers on it. He handed it to Cheryl and took a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket, thrusting it at her.
“Sign the paper, Ms. Ludwig.”
Cheryl looked up at the principal. She saw his finger perched ominously over the red button on his desk. She knew what that meant, what awaited her, what awaited Jeremy if she said another word.
Cheryl signed the paper.