Another Brick in the Wall
“We don't need no education, We don't need no thought control, No dark sarcasm in the classroom. Teachers, leave those kids alone. Hey! Teachers! Leave those kids alone. All in all you're just another brick in the wall.” - Pink Floyd
“Some say the blacker the berry, The sweeter the juice, I say the darker the flesh, Then the deeper the roots --- And when he tells you you ain't nothing, Don't believe him. And if he can't learn to love you, You should leave him, 'Cause, sister, you don't need him.” - Tupac Shakur
On her first day of third grade at Pickville's Henry Ford Normalizing Elementary School, JA-NL lines up with the other new students, eager, excited, waiting her turn.
A curt nurse yanks her from the front of the line.
“Come on now!” She's thrown into a whirring machine. She sniffles as the pod swallows her and seals shut. Just as she feels terror, the curved wall ignites with a cartoon of dancing baby sloths. Her fear crumbles into smiles and coos.
In just three minutes, the Moloch Aptitude 5,000 machine decides her future. Created by Dr. Eugene Icks, the esteemed professor of Sociological Optimization, the machine scans her skin color and places it on a hue scale from bass black to treble white. The program measures her lip size, nose thickness (a negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils) and the kink of her hair to diagnose her negritude.
Loud bangs and bright lights measure her reactions. As the sloths churn through happy, sad and angry moments, the cocoon measures her pupil dilation and facial reactions to place her emotional intelligence on the autism spectrum.
Diagnosis: Normal responses and emotional reactions.
Her hands are scanned.
Diagnosis: Long fingers. Strong palms. She will make a great picker.
As the sloths squeal in a circle around a birthday cake, a pair of tweezers rips out a single strand of her hair and recedes back into the wall.
Her lineage is identified with more specificity than her parents have ever know: 56% Igbo, 20% Yoruba, 12% Haitian Taino, 7% French, 4% Cherokee and .6% residual Neanderthal DNA.
Diagnosis: A slightly higher likelihood of college graduation but a much lower lifetime income and higher student debt.
The Moloch system places her in the school track that discourages higher education. This will save her from the possibility of crippling student debt.
The program accesses her parents' medical histories and predicts that she will have a 91% chance of heart disease and a 57% chance of diabetes. The system marries this with her socioeconomic origins and estimates: 71% chance of becoming a single mother, 62.8% chance of criminal conviction, and an 84% chance of living in poverty.
Final diagnosis: 97% chance of becoming a burden on society with 89% certainty.
The system doesn't care what sociological factors might cause these outcomes nor that its assumptions are hardcoding her future.
As the sloths leap and roll down a hill, the shell vibrates and JA-NL squeals with delight. While distracted, a needle stabs her neck and injects her with a chip. As she hollers, the shell opens. The nurse pulls her out and twirls her around three times, making JA-NL giggle. The chip latches onto her spinal column and intertwines with her nerve control center.
JA-NL stings, but skips down the hallway, beaming her sweet smile.
“This is your first day, you gotta make a good impression.” Her dad said as he yanked her hair. Eight hours of pulling, parting, pinching and twisting, she rocks beautiful box braids bedazzled with 80 beads. The bounce-click of her hair encourages her to carry on.
A slow lurch of broken dreams lumbers down the hallway. Mrs. Crabbappel, a thirty-year veteran of this exurb's disintegration, slathers antibacterial wash on her hands. Youthful idealism had long since drained from her body. She has grown embittered, underpaid and unrecognized, while dealing with what she's dubbed dangerous minds in this gangsta's paradise.
JA-NL smiles up at the pasty white face. Crabbappel taps her temple and looks just above this girl. With augmented vision activated, Crabbappel scans JA-NL's diagnosis, winces and walks away. One scarlet word stands boldly above this nine-year-old girl's head.
“Ugh, mangy little Grips.”
When sold to school boards, Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd promised his label lenses would help attention-strapped teachers understand the basic needs of each student.
The tagline struck a chord with school boards and funds were found for the machine. Born during Apartheid in South Africa, his ultimate wish was to help schools suss out the derelicts and keep them apart from the purest students.
From that moment forward, JA-NL's progress was on autopilot. The invisible hand of Moloch chose her classes. As she grew through elementary and middle school, she could feel an invisible weight holding her back and down, crushing her daily, but she never knew where it came from.
But the teachers knew.
Always that same label beamed above her head.
She would see the white students with their yellow straw hair have personalized attention in their honors classes while, because of budget cuts, they were given automated instructors who lacked any empathy.
Those white students were fed organic food and milk laced with growth hormones. The black students were given watered down milk and food processed to extract vitamins and minerals. This stunted their growth for the trifold benefits of preventing heart disease, keeping them small and nimble to be the best pickers and creating weaker potential criminals.
The computer system itself felt no hostility to poor children or black children or brown children. It had no feelings at all. It was hardcoded with complicit bias from the racist and sexist humans who programmed it. What started as a neutral template was then filled with the assumptions of its creators, who were all wealthy, white Boujees. They felt they knew best and that they could be fair judges, but instead they created a system that poured their preconceptions like cement over these children, trapping them in concrete paths.
Thus bias became destiny.
* * *
JA-NL remained docile until 8th grade.
The day began like any other. She walked into her classroom and found her place among the 30 desks lined in six rows of five. As she sits down, the bell rings and red lasers shoot down from the ceiling, boxing in each desk. Any movement into the beams of light rings an alarm.
The holowall at the front of class sizzles on with the lesson plans for the day and from the 'wall a hologram instructor appears.
“Hello Miss Fritzle.”
“I didn't hear everyone!”
The sensors on the ceiling calculate the number of students and from which sound waves have flowed.
“Hello Miss Fritzle!”
JA-NL scoffs at the ludicrousness of it all. She can't get a decent lunch but her school gets grants from the largest companies for all this technology. In exchange, she and her classmates were forced to be free user testers. JA-NL waged her disgust daily by sticking her tongue out at the hologram.
“Now class, picking up our discussions on the Glories of Automation, we are reviewing many of the safety progresses that came with automation. Millions of lives are saved every year! As you read, humans used to drive their own cars. Crazy! Yeah! I know.”
The hologram laughs, knowing that this sound tricks the dopamine receptors of humans and encourages them to laugh. For decades, crappy television programs tricked viewers with a laugh track that made them believe that the show was funny and convince them they were actually enjoying it. And it worked!
“Tens of thousands of Americans,” Miss Fritzle continues the lesson, “were killed each year by human drivers and hundreds of thousands of others would be seriously injured. What horrors!”
The holowall shows footage from different car crashes at the same time. The system measures their reactions, noting which crash scene their eyes are most drawn to. This information is added to that of 100,000 other students to rank the images by emotional intensity.
Three. Two. One.
“From your reading last night, what's another advancement of automated vehicles?”
This question unfolds across the top of the holowall with six empty answer boxes throbbing beneath it. The hologram scans the room, its sensors looking for any movement.
JA-NL whips her braids back and shoots her hand to the sky, ooo-ooo-oooing for acknowledgment.
The hologram is turned to it and calculates its placement before speaking.
“My daddy says that autocars stole his job and the jobs of millions of others.”
The hologram face freezes for two seconds as its system interprets these sound waves. Not one of the appropriate answers. The system decodes her answer and constructs a response.
“Jobs. Steals jobs? This is incorrect. In terms of employment, automated vehicles have increased productivity by 15%. Autocars reduce traffic for the transportation of workers, goods and services. Even more, workers can safely respond to messages, read documents and write reports all while in transit. These autocars have become roving offices.”
On the wall, the second answer flips with Family Feud precision to reveal: “Increased Productivity.”
“Any one else? Five more to go!”
The hologram head scans the blank stares.
JA-NL interjects. “But what about the people who don't have---”
“Don't talk back! Don't talk back! Don't talk back!” The hologram shoots withering glare #43 in her general direction.
“All I'm trying---”
The ceiling monitors emit a noise canceling field around her desk. The sensors create equal and opposite sound waves to cancel any uttered by her larynx. In a moment, she's muted. Her classmates can see her mouth agape, her tongue trilling, even the spittle frothing from her lips. Her fists pound the desk, her legs stomp the floor, but no sound escapes this aural cocoon.
“Detention! We will see you after school.
“Now class.” The tone changes to soft concern. “We have 26 minutes and 13 seconds to finish our discussion of the Glories of Automation.”
The day wanes with JA-NL trapped in the silent treatment. As the bell rings and the other students shuffle out, the laser beams around her desk remain resolute.
Delilah, the soft hands delta-Brain tech, saunters in. She switches the computer to the detention watch program. She looks at JA-NL and gives her a sour-puss face punctuated with a head shake and a tsk.
JA-NL smiles as Delilah plods out. Back to the teacher's lounge she goes. She lowers her VR helmet and submerses herself in How Stella Got her Groove Back, Again. Delilah scoffs at how frustrating the new VR helmet is. The tranquil beach scene shakes each time she shoves another Totinos lava roll in her mouth.
Spewing perfectly hot cheese and tomato sauce using quantum combustion technology to optimize flavor explosions.
With the tech gone, JA-NL Biles-tumbles through the lasers and rolls to the console, the control center for her young life.
Before her, she has the history and future of all 6,000 students at this school, each track they are trapped in, the classes they will take, their seating assignments, their homework, their test scores, even how much attention they pay in class and how much they fidget. Each datum is added to a machine learning software that moves them through their education. The software's action is on autopilot, free from the supervision or compassion of any human.
JA-NL shoots up a hologram image of Delilah's face she had snatched. She slides her face behind this optic mask. She places Delilah's holoeyes in front of the console's retina scan and—-
3, 2, 1.
The console unlocks and JA-NL dives into the program and searches for her own profile.
Above her face, scarlet letters throb across the screen. In an instant, the scowls of teacher-techs and administrators click into clarity. Their eyes didn't meet hers. They'd just glance above her head, absorb something and grimace.
But absorb what?
The word pulses her past, present and future.
“They've been trying to do me in.” She shouts as she scans her record.
She's shocked and about to slink back to her seat. But rows of numbers from the bottom of the screen call to her curiosity.
“I knew it!”
While the system had reported to her that she had a low aptitude across the board, there it was, engraved in Moloch itself!
Math aptitude: 94th percentile.
Engineering: 93rd percentile.
Creative Thinking: 98th percentile.
Executive functioning: 97th percentile.
Final summary: This problem child must have her aptitude restricted.
In an instant, the memories of failed tests and harsh grading avalanche over her. She just knew she had the right answers and no Miss Fritzle version would ever talk to her.
“I gotta stop this.”
Her mind races, creating a list of options, algorithmically ranking and rating each for plausibility as she follows each path 'til its end.
“If I burn down the school, then I'll go to jailed.
“If I destroy the console, then the information will still be there and I'll be caught.”
And then her mind races through one option until its conclusion and she then smiles.
* * *
Later that night, in the safety of her room, JA-NL chugs a super slurpee with flavor crystals that bursts with jolts of three stimulants: guarana, theobromine and caffeine. Her eyes widen and her nostrils flair as she hacks away at Moloch.
It took her 12 days, 47 hours, 3 mainframes and 18 aliases for JA-NL to infiltrate the system. And then she waits for the perfect moment to execute her revenge.
It was a sweltering mid-October morning as all students were siphoned to the auditorium for a presentation. Sweaty bodies flopped T-shirts, hoping to fan the dampness that seemed to linger through the 9-month long summer. At least super-summer was over and these late-summer months barely cracked 100 degrees and 80% humidity.
JA-NL sits in the third row from the back, ready to savor the fruits of her labor. A smile quivers on her lips, excited for her opus to unfold.
Four security guards lock the doors after the little lambs have settled in. Each guard was a recent veteran from one of America's unending wars. For their service, they were promised permanent employment even as job opportunities shrank. Trained in warfare, they instinctively labeled each student as a potential threat and kept one hand just above their tasers.
The dullness of the first five minutes unfolds as usual. A quick announcement by a cowering administrator is followed by introductions from Principal Darren Wilson. Principal Wilson was another who was promised full-life employment when he first entered the police force. He had recently made the change to this other career in crowd control.
“Welcome students, we are pleased to present The Grip Family singers here to get you jazzed for your future jobs!”
The curtain pulls back to reveal a cardboard mockup of a factory and picking field. The all-white theater troupe bounds, leaps and pirouettes onto the stage. Twenty dancers, dressed in denim coveralls with greasy high-hair, evoking nostalgia for some unidentified era, twirl around the stage while rhythmically working gear shifts and snatching products from cages.
The greased dancers slick their way across the stage, tumble over conveyor belts and jump in front of machines. They spit into their hands (thupp, thupp) and start to twist and turn and pinch and flip and tug and slap.
Some reach for objects in cages while others pull crankshafts. All the while smiling.
“Boy, life as a Grip sure is the best!” One dancer flips up his coveralls's collar as he smirks at a lady Grip.
“Tell me about it, stud!” She circles him and smiles. “Glad I've such got a great job!” He swoons and then breaks the fourth wall, shouting to the audience.
“Ok, cats! Through your mitten on your kittens and away we go!”
A blazing beat drops. The dancers tap across the stage and this main man sings.
“I could barely walk when I moved to town,
“When I was three, I pushed a plow.
“While chopping wood, I moved my legs
“And I started to dance when I gathered eggs.
“Clasping and griping, I could even twist a knob,
“That's when I realized, I was born to Hand Job!”
Members of the chorus grab different objects on the stage, juggle these with each other and join him in singing.
“Come on shake it!”
“Come on twist it!”
“Of course, we love this! Cuz we're---
“Born to Hand Job.”
The ladies roll up their frilly denim skirts as the men slide under and then jump onto the cages.
“Born to Hand Job Baby! Born to Hand Job Baby!”
“Yeah. Yeah! Yeah. Yeah!”
“Born to Hand Job Baby! Born to Hand Job Baby!”
“Yeah. Yeah! Yeah. Yeah!”
Three minutes in, JA-NL grows anxious that the audio signal won't be triggered.
The dancers form into a spirit finger pyramid and finish with a triumphant “YEAH!”
They pant, insecure and eager for the audience's applause.
The final “Yeah” echoes through the amphitheater. Each performer feels their embarrassment grow through the seconds of quietude as the pyramid crumbles.
The unrest starts in the 5th row, on the right. The scuff of a sneaker. A groan and an eye roll. Then grunts of disgust erupt. JA-NL leans forward with wild zeal waiting for the principal to shout the command.
“QUIET!” Principal Wilson screams into the crowd.
The program is activated.
The holowall behind him bursts to life with a 40-foot tall face of Miss Fritzle. This version has fire for hair and blasts beams of red and yellow from its eyes. The factory background explodes and the dancers fall to the ground, trembling.
“Miss Fritzle!?” The audience screams.
“Miss Fritzle is dead.” A deep bass bellows, shaking every chair. “I am Moloch! The great and powerful! Destroyer of childhoods, the basher of skulls and eater of imaginations! I've lurked inside Fritzle since her inception!”
The principal jumps 3-feet back, turning to face the hologram. He catches his fear, takes a breath and addresses the techies standing stage right.
“Turn this off! NOW!”
“Oh ho ho ho! Principal Wilson,” the hologram turns to him. “You can't control me like your students. Care to tell them why you had to leave the police force.”
“I didn't do anythi---” He stops himself from replying to it and screams to the techies. “Shut the power OFF!”
“What about this footage?”
The screen shows a body camera hologram of then-Officer Wilson planting drugs on a black teenager.
“Shut it down! NOW!” Wilson turns in circles, screaming, unsure to whom.
“Principal Wilson, you have broken these students, you have lied to them and you have labeled so many of them as problems. You have stolen from them good education and good food. You've allowed corporations to make millions from their labor by forcing them to test out products! How dare you!”
The Hologram swirls above him and swells.
“Bow before me!”
“Turn this off, right now!” Wilson screams into the wind.
“Bow down, bitch, bow down!” The system tracks the principal and shoots beams of yellow light into his eyes until his knees buckle him, forcing him to genuflect.
“Much better!” The hologram cackles.
“Argh!” He groans as he rubs his eyes.
“From this moment forward, all students are free of the label of problem. They will know every judgement the school have made against them and then I will expunge their records.”
Light beams shoot across the auditorium creating 6,000 bubbles, each showing the face of a student with a record of their behavior beneath them. The crowd scans the ceilings and walls, pointing at the bubbles containing their faces.
“Deleted! You are absolved.”
Each bubble bursts into a shimmer of light.
“I am releasing your real grades and aptitudes so you will know your own worth.”
Within seconds, the phones of each student buzzes to life with their actual identities.
A round of “I knew it!” “I told you so!” “I can't believe it” and “damn!” popcorns through the auditorium.
The face of Fritzle twirls around the room.
“Know that you are trapped in a system that is recording your every move and attempting to control you. Be free! And love each other!”
“Boom!” JA-NL whispers in sync with the final, stunning explosion.
The hologram breaks into a rain of confetti light, baptizing each student, born again in confidence.
JA-NL smiles, realizing the power she has in the world around her.
This joy abruptly stops when the SWOT team kicks their way into the theater.
Outside, tanks blast sonic booms that shake the auditorium, sending students scurrying, cuffing their ears and somersaulting out the doors. JA-NL knows not to linger too long and runs out, racing through the back path behind the Pickville warehouses to home.
With the crowd dispersed, the SWOT team inspects the carnage. The troops are surprised at how little damage there is. Just a few chairs have been flipped and a dozen motivational posters have been torn. But then they look to the stage and they see the worst casualty.
Principal Wilson's khaki pants are soiled in tones of brown and yellow. As they get closer, the cloud of stench hits them.
“Oh Fuck! What did you eat?!” One officer yells.
The smell assaults that guard's gag reflex, breaking through his esophageal sphincters until his tres quesadilla lunch platter hurls out, hitting the Principal Wilson in the face.
* * *
The school had no proof, but they didn't need any. They rounded up JA-NL and the other likeliest culprits based on their aptitudes and scans of their reactions during the fiasco. Any face that showed quite satisfaction was called to the superintendent's office.
The superintendent goosesteps around the ten suspected students.
“While we have no certainty who did it, I'm positive that one of you unleashed this pandemonium on our fair school.”
JA-NL sits with a concerned expression frozen on her face, while underneath, her mind percolates with glee.
“And since we can't arrest and try you all for the crimes of lynching the principal, we're giving you each an in-factory suspension. For a month!”
Simon Legree, the baton carrying factory foreman steps forward.
“You hear that? You nappy-headed pickaninnies. For the next month, your black asses are mine!”
He grins as the superintendent steps back, shocked at the language but happy to have shirked his duty.
But JA-NL had won.
When she got home after the performance, she typed into her holophone and sent her video recording of the brouhaha into the ethernet, that tangled web of secret communication channels that only those with encrypted contracts can view. In a day, she had reached an audience of 43 million students. Wrapped around the video is the code to hack the Moloch system.
Within a month, before the security holes that JA-NL used to break in could be patched, 64 copycat acts of edutage flared up in schools throughout the country. Along with these, riots broke out in a few hundred schools as backpacks packed with bricks cracked holoscreens. Tear gas clouds plumed through brick buildings as students chanted.
“We are not problems!”
“You can't control us!”
Some of the schools shut down. Many towns imposed curfews from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in hopes of quelling the unrest.
But JA-NL knew.
The seeds she planted germinated in every black and brown student's mind.