The Inflatable Hammer

 

By Douglas James Troxell

 

 

 

            Winnie Tran sat in the back of the classroom trying to keep her insides from spilling outside. She scanned the reading passage displayed on her desk’s digital display and tapped her finger next to each type of propaganda technique found in the passage. She didn’t even read the next question before choosing an answer and swiping left for the next one. Inside, a buzz saw worked its way through her intestines.

            Had to be the coleslaw, she told herself. Her mother warned her not to eat it, but it passed the smell test so she thought it would be fine.

            A tiny moan, almost inaudible, escaped her lips but in the silence of the room it might as well have been a thunderclap. The fingers in the room stopped dancing over the desk displays only briefly before returning to pressing and swiping.

            Winnie checked the timer on her display. Nine minutes. She was not going to make it. She tried to focus on something else in the room but the Cortex Charter Corporation believed in a minimalistic approach to education so besides the giant interactive whiteboard (the iBoard) at the front of the room displaying the test proctor’s larger-than-life face, there wasn’t much else to focus on besides the “Students Must Wear ID’s at ALL TIMES” signs littering the bulletin boards.

            Winnie tried to distract herself with her memories. She remembered a time back in elementary school where the walls of the classroom were covered in color and pictures. There was singing and crafts and laughter. The teacher was a real-life human being in the room with the students, not an anonymous face on an iBoard. That changed when public education was privatized and the corporations took over.

            The grinding of her bowels returned Winnie’s attention to the present. She tried swiping to the next question without answering it, but a harsh beep in her wireless earpiece let her know it wasn’t possible. She chose a random answer and swiped. Even though she knew it wouldn’t work she tried the “bathroom request” button, but it was always canceled out during assessments. She removed her lanyard and ID badge from around her neck and bit down hard on the plastic to keep from crying out again. Her friend Colton turned around with a questioning look, sensing her distress, but a soft beep in his earpiece returned his attention to his display.

            Winnie swiped, answered randomly, swiped, answered, swiped again. But there was no end in sight. No one ever reached the end of the assessment; they just ran out of test time. Most students assumed the questions were endless to make sure no one sat around waiting for others to finish.

            Winnie pressed the “Need Assistance” icon on her display but the voice in her ear piece only read the test question aloud. Her bowels could no longer be ignored. She decided to do something she hadn’t done in years.

            She raised her hand.

            It was something she hadn’t done since elementary school. The interactive desktops had made the procedure obsolete, but it was the only thing she could think of. She raised her hand high into the air and wiggled her fingers until the proctor on the iBoard noticed her. The assessment proctors were always strangers...as were the instructors. Cortex brought in the best instructors from around the globe to lecture students but students never saw the same instructor twice. The proctor’s eyes lingered on the left side of the room before scanning back to the right—and right past Winnie. Winnie stood for the next pass but again was ignored.

            When it happened a third time Winnie gave up and made the hard decision to suppress every instinct she had and ignore protocol. She spit her ID out onto the desk and marched out of the room. She powerwalked down the hall, her footsteps echoing in the empty corridor. Then she remembered the bathroom door. They could only be opened with a student ID and she had left hers in the classroom.

            Luckily fate smiled upon her because someone was coming out as she reached the door. The girl (who Winnie did not recognize) gave her a suspicious look as she blew past her. The school’s bathroom scheduling system only allowed one student in the bathroom at a time so a chance meeting in the bathroom never happened.

            The girl was erased from Winnie’s mind the second she was past. She was undoing the button and fly on her tan slacks (the standard uniform attire across the school) before she even made it to the stall. She threw open the door, pulled down her pants, and sat all in one motion. Then she let go.

            The relief was immediate. When it was all over, she returned to the classroom and slunk back into the room. She felt her classmates trying not to look at her. She wanted to apologize so she waited for the proctor’s eyes to meet hers so she could explain why she had walked out in the middle of an assessment. The proctor looked her way and looked right through her. His eyes moved over her as if she didn’t exist.

            She returned to her seat in time to watch the final sixteen seconds click off the test timer.

            “That’s the end of the assessment window,” the proctor said.

            Her score appeared immediately: 29%. She was assigned over a dozen remediation assignments. She didn’t bother with them, though. Instead her gaze remained focused on the stranger and his soulless eyes peering out from the iBoard.

 

***

 

            At her assigned lunch period, Winnie filed into line behind the other students. She had no appetite but there was no other procedure for entering the cafeteria except through one of the four lunch lines. The last thing she wanted was to place more food into her body. When she reached the front of the line the screen directed her to food dispensary station #7. She went to the station where the screen directed her to swipe her ID. She tried to walk past but a high-pitched beep let her know that wasn’t possible. She swiped her card and the food options tailored to her nutrition plan appeared on the screen. She checked for an option that would allow her to skip the meal, but there didn’t appear to be any such option.

            The machine beeped to let her know she was taking too long and issued a “suggested meal” based on her usual tastes.

            “No. I don’t—no meal,” she said loudly to the screen (which she realized was pointless since it wasn’t voice activated). She looked around for assistance but of course there was no one who could help. The machine beeped again to hurry her along. She felt eyes watching her. She accepted the meal, grabbed her card, and marched her tray straight to the dishwashers.

            She plopped the tray, full of food, onto the tray conveyor belt but knew immediately something was wrong. Then she realized what it was: the belt wasn’t moving. It was too early in the period. She peered inside for assistance but there was no one manning the dishwashing station. Then she realized she couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone back there. The entire process was completely automated.

            “Students Must Wear ID at ALL TIMES” the sign above the dishwashing station read.

            Winnie grabbed her tray and walked to her usual table. She sat down next to Colton who was finishing his honey and cashew chicken. Winnie dumped her tray onto the table and scanned the room. The black bubbles of the security cameras were everywhere but there wasn’t a single human lunch monitor in the room. She found Colton’s eyes on her.

            “What?” she asked.

            “What happened with you in class? It’s all anyone’s talking about.”

            Winnie scanned the room. Everyone was speaking in their usual subdued drone. No other eyes met hers. Phones were prohibited inside the building so there wouldn’t be any chatter online—yet. She told him what happened, leaving out the more embarrassing details.

            “But how did you override the assessment protocol?” Colton asked. “You’re not supposed to be able to request a bathroom break during an exam.”

            “I didn’t.”

            “You didn’t?”

            “No. I couldn’t.”

            “So you just left?”

            She nodded.

            “And you didn’t get in trouble? No one said anything to you?”

            “Who would?”

            “I don’t know. Someone.”

            “I don’t think anyone was watching.”

            Their conversation had attracted the attention of the others around the table. To say they were friends would be an overstatement. They were friendly with each other but their gathering at the same lunch table was little more than routine. It’s where they had all chosen to sit at the beginning of the school year and they had all been sitting there since.

            “Of course they’re watching,” Colton said. He motioned to the cameras embedded in the ceiling every ten feet. “They’re always watching.”

            “There’s cameras, sure, but that doesn’t mean someone is watching them.”

            “But the iBoards! They can see us.”

            “Sure...when they want to.”

            Colton looked around nervously. The others at the table glanced from camera to camera. They seemed to instinctively know where each one was. Winnie was staring straight into Colton’s eyes.

            “What’s it matter anyway?” Colton asked. “They’re watching, they’re not watching. Why take the chance? If you step out of line, they’re going to come down on you.”

            “Who is?”

            “Security!” He thrust his finger to the corner of the room but the security guards he pictured being there—weren’t.

            “Security left months ago,” Winnie said. “As far as I can tell there’s not a single real-life authority figure in the entire building. We’re basically prisoners in a jail that the guards have abandoned and no one bothered to tell the prisoners they’re free yet.” She paused and glanced over her shoulder. “Here. Let me try something.”

            She slowly stood on her chair.

            “What are you doing?” Colton hissed through his teeth.

            She let out three short but deafening hoots. Then she quickly sat down. The cafeteria fell silent. None of the students would allow themselves to look at Winnie. After thirty seconds the murmur of subdued voices picked up again. After a minute it was as if the outburst had never happened. She sat back down next to Colton, who had moved his chair a few inches away.

            Winnie pushed her full lunch tray over to him. “Take care of that for me.”

 

***

 

            Winnie spent the next few school days in a fog. The words coming from the instructors on the iBoard meant nothing. Her thoughts drowned them out. It was easy to do since they were strangers. She felt unchained, lighter, like if she leapt into the air she would smash through the ceiling and soar into the atmosphere. She failed another weekly assessment and received another half dozen remedial assignments but the deadline for the assignments came and went without her completing any of them. That weekend her parents confronted her about her academic performance over breakfast.

            “We received a text from your school,” her mother said. “It said you failed some assessments and you haven’t been completing your remediation assignments.”

            “Who sent the text?” Winnie asked. “Who was it from?”

            “I’m—I’m not sure. It was just from the school.”

            “The school?! The school?! Who is that? Who is the school?!”

            “What’s it matter?” her father asked in his slow, baritone voice. It always reminded Winnie of a wolf’s howl and instilled the same kind of fear. Her father didn’t speak much but, when he did, it was best to listen. “Would who sent the text change your recent performance?”

            She answered with her silence.

            “It’s the message your mother and I are concerned with, not the messenger. Fix it.”

            “Okay.”

            That would usually be the end of the conversation. Winnie had always done what her parents asked so they had no reason to think this would be any different. No one spoke for the rest of the meal until Winnie finally summoned enough courage to ask the question burning her tongue.

            “Mom? Dad? What was high school like back when it was still public education? Before the corporations took over?”

            Her parents shared a look, daring each other to answer.

            “Well,” her mother began, “it was—different.”

            “No discipline. Huge waste of money,” her father said. “Teacher unions run amok. High pay with test scores in the toilet. It’s much better now. More efficient and cost effective.”

            “But...wasn’t it better to have a teacher actually in the classroom? To have class discussions and do projects and not just sit and take tests and listen to strangers on the iBoards lecture us?”

            “It was just—different,” her mother said.

            “But—”

            “But nothing!” her father exploded, smashing his fist onto the table. “It is the way it is. Now stop making excuses for your poor performance!”

            The silence that followed had actual weight to it. After a minute her father stood and left the table. He’d return in exactly five minutes. It was his usual procedure after an outburst, after he felt like he had lost control.

            Winnie continued eating, trying to finish her meal before her father returned.

            “I remember my freshman year math instructor,” her mother’s voice said, crashing through the silence. “Mr. Heffner. He didn’t want anyone to be afraid of being wrong in his class so he kept this giant inflatable hammer on his desk—like one you’d win at a carnival. He’d randomly call on students to answer questions and if you got the answer wrong, he’d bop you on the head with his hammer. It was ridiculous, really. But no one was afraid to be wrong in his classroom because the only bad thing that was ever going to happen to you was you were going to be bopped on the head by a giant inflatable hammer. I still remember that.”

            Winnie didn’t press her for more. Her mother usually wasn’t one for sharing so it was enough. Eventually her father returned to the table. Winnie ate the rest of her meal in silence. She never once raised her eyes from her plate but she could feel her father’s eyes, watching her.

 

***

 

            By Monday morning, Winnie had made her decision. She waited until Language Arts and Basic Communications class. The class was taking another 90-minute assessment. The stranger on the iBoard scanned the room, her eyes sweeping from left to right and back again. Winnie stared at the proctor for the first half hour of the assessment. The woman’s eyes registered nothing, saw nothing, looked but did not see.

            Then Winnie decided to make her move.

            She stood at her seat in the back of the room. She stared down the anonymous proctor for a full minute, trying to meet her eyes with no success. She waved one hand at the screen. Then two. Nothing. She breathed deep and marched toward the screen.

            She only made it halfway across the room before the overhead speaker beeped and a man’s voice growled, “Student 318744! Return to your seat! NOW!”

            Winnie scampered back to her seat and threw herself down into the chair. The room was dead silent. No one’s fingers moved over their desktops. Everyone’s focus was on Winnie, but no one dared glance back at her. Eventually their fingers went back to work.

            Winnie tried to erase the red from her face through sheer force of will.

            How could she have been so wrong? she thought.

            She stuck her ID badge in her mouth and bit down hard. Her teeth slid into the indentation marks from months of biting in the same place. She answered a question on her desktop without reading it. She was terrified of looking up. She knew the proctor’s eyes would be on her, burrowing into her skin. But worse than the eyes was the voice. The voice! She would hear that voice forever echoing in her nightmares. That deep, hate-filled voice. So much like her father’s. A man’s voice...

            Winnie glanced up. The proctor’s eyes were nowhere near her. The woman’s eyes continued to scan the room indifferently.

            She didn’t see, Winnie realized. It was someone else. They knew she had been out of her seat. But how?

            She bit down hard on her ID. Then her mouth fell open and the badge fell and swung like a pendulum from the lanyard around her neck. She glanced over at the “Students MUST Wear ID’s at ALL TIMES!” poster on the bulletin board.

            Then she knew.

            She removed her lanyard and dropped it on her desk. She stood. She moved into the row and took a step forward. Then another. Colton reached out and grabbed her arm, shaking his head. She gently removed his hand and took another step. Then, after a long exhale, she walked down the center aisle until she was only inches from the iBoard. The proctor’s eyes moved toward her, passed over her, and kept scanning.

            Everyone in the room looked at Winnie but did not look at her. They answered questions without answering them. They waited for that horrible voice to fill the room, to wash over them like a tidal wave and wash Winnie away forever.

            But it did not. Instead it was Winnie’s voice that filled the room.

            “We deserve better,” she said. “This isn’t learning. We’re not products coming off an assembly line. We’re human beings and we deserve to be treated like human beings. I want that. But you need to want that for yourselves.”

            Several students, including Colton, allowed themselves to look at Winnie. She had her hand pressed against the iBoard. She pretended to pick the proctor’s nose. Then she laughed.

            She turned and faced the class. “C’mon. You’re free. Come up here. Leave your ID’s on your desks. It’s how they’re tracking us.”

            No one moved.

            “Get up,” she said. When no one moved she repeated the order. “Get up!”

            Colton slowly rose to his feet. He left his ID on the desk and joined Winnie at the front of the room. He placed his hand on the screen. Then another student joined them. Then two more. Soon everyone stood together at the front of the room. The desktops began to beep incessantly, complaining about being ignored.

            “What do we do now?” Colton asked.

            Everyone stared at Winnie, waiting.

            “Now we free the rest of them.”

            She led the class out into the hallway. They moved together from room to room, liberating the students in each classroom. It was always Winnie in the lead, removing one student’s ID from his or her neck and then beckoning everyone to follow her into the hallway. The students gleefully joined the faceless mob which grew and grew until it clogged the arteries of the school.

            “Return to your classrooms at once!” the harsh voice that lived in the loudspeaker demanded.

            Everyone froze. Winnie knew eventually they would notice what was happening. It had taken much longer than she had anticipated. She already had half the student population behind her.

            “Return to your classrooms at once or there will be severe consequences!” the voice warned.

            All eyes turned to Winnie. Then she heard something she did not expect.

            “Winnifred Tran, tell these students to disperse immediately!”

            A name. Her name. They knew her.

            She looked up into the nearest black bubble hanging from the ceiling. “No,” she heard herself say in a loud, clear voice. She waited for a response but when there was none, she repeated her answer. “NO!”

            This time other voices joined hers until a single chorus of “NO!” filled the hallway.

            The voice did not speak again.

            Winnie freed the rest of the students from their classrooms. No one even bothered to remove their ID’s anymore. The lobby of Cortex Charter Academy #325 was all glass and sunlight (in stark contrast to the windowless holes that were the classroom) and that is where they gathered. Winnie ascended the stairwell leading to the second-floor while the other students gathered below. The sunlight shone through the glass and illuminated the lobby, making Winnie look like Joan of Arc.

            “Speech!” someone from below shouted.

            Winnie certainly didn’t have anything planned, but that didn’t matter. She knew exactly what to say. She would set them free for good.

            But before she could say anything, the front doors opened and a platoon of Cortex private security guards dressed in black uniforms and armed with batons marched into the school. They pushed and shoved their way through the crowd making a beeline for the stairwell. Winnie opened her mouth to address the crowd but a guard stopped her with a strike to her stomach. Her breath left her. She was dragged down the stairs by her hair and surrounded by the guards. As she looked up from the floor, delirious with electrical charges of pain crawling along her skull, she thought she saw an inflatable hammer in each of the guard’s hands, ready to playfully bop her on the head.  

Then the lobby was flailing arms and the wet smack of metal again flesh over and over and over again. Winnie’s cries echoed in the lobby.

            When they were finished with her, one of the guards turned to the crowd and screamed “Back to class!” The students stomped and trampled over each other to return to their classrooms. Except for Colton. Colton remained. He eyed Winnie’s quivering body on the cold, linoleum floor. He listened to her soft whimpers through her bloody lips. He wanted to go to her—but he didn’t.

            A guard stood before Colton peering through the glass of his riot helmet.

            “Back to class,” the guard growled.

            Colton glanced around the guard. The other guards picked up Winnie and dragged her out of the building to a waiting ambulance. Then he was alone.

            “Time to go,” the guard said.

            Colton turned and returned to class. There were still a few minutes left in the assessment. Colton read each question carefully and answered as best he could.  A guard walked the perimeter of the classroom. Colton glanced back at Winnie’s empty seat.

            The timer on the desktop hit zero and the screen flashed Colton’s score.

            “Great job,” the proctor said. “Give yourselves a pat on the back.”

            Every student in the room, including Colton, raised one hand, reached across their bodies, and patted themselves lightly on the back.

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