Before: The View From the Middle The New Term
Look at all the eager faces, all hopeful and bright-eyed. The summer was with them still. Being back at school hadn’t sunk in yet.
Mostly they were familiar; some of them had had procedures over the summer but they were not unrecognisable. Just that little bit closer to gender perfection. It was allowed – encouraged even – as long as they kept within the realms of Commandment 9. Eventually, they’d all look exactly the same – perfect girls and boys. Some of the girls were thinner as was the current feminine ideal. Did they diet or could they afford to have all the fat sucked out if needed? The latter probably. After all, money was no object here.
There was one new boy. He was dark haired and wearing a moody expression. Of course, no one was glad to be back but there was something about him that suggested it was habitual. I glanced at the E-reg. Billy Laing. Moved from North West One. Probably his parents had come South for the business opportunities. Although for the Upper Third the differences between North and South were less pronounced, it was still better down here. There was more money for a start. It was a traditional belief that the South was better but because people believed it, it had become a sort of truth.
I scanned Billy’s grades and they were low. His family was in steel so an engineering career was likely but his science grades were terrible. That may have been another reason for the move. This was an officially excellent school. Ofsted recommended, no less. The best in the county. (You did not just see me roll my eyes. That must have been your imagination.) I was glad I was not responsible for the gap between his grade and his target for science. History was less important for him and the gap was also smaller.
Reluctantly, I pulled on my headset and they mirrored me. It was official now: summer over. I informed them of the first topic – The Obesity Crisis. They were too polite to groan but I could see a certain amount of despair in some of their re-shaped eyes. Not that any of the topics were fun to teach. Or learn.
“So who can tell me anything they know about the Obesity Crisis, what it was, when it was?” I spoke as I typed. Unnecessary but it was too clinical not to talk to them.
If I was better at maths, I could probably give you some statistic about the likelihood that Gina Richardson would be the first to type an answer. It flashed up on the board so the whole class could see.
It was in the 2030s and what happened was, children started to die before their parents. They died because they were too fat.
I pressed the key that indicated she was correct and a giant tick appeared beside her answer. She almost smiled. She was a bright girl, good at all the subjects. It was a shame her science grades would be wasted. They were far better than Billy’s. Far better than most of the boys, in fact. But that route was closed to her. Her family was also in engineering. (They were one of the top families and there were some rumours about how they had got there, weapons manufacturing was sometimes mentioned. Not that I had any particular information about it. Not that I was particularly suspicious.) The running of the company would fall to her older brother, Lachlan, even though he wasn’t nearly as smart. Maybe that was why she looked annoyed so much of the time.
Not to be outdone, James Patterson added:
It wasn’t the fat that actually killed them. They were dying of heart disease, problems related to diabetes and issues due to immobility.
Another tick and James grinned. He was sporty but bright as well. He was the source of much envy particularly as he had Gina on his arm. (They were an attractive pair. I didn’t think either of them had had procedures. Why would you when you were so near to perfection anyway?) They were a strong match – two top families – although maybe a little young to make it all the way to marriage. No doubt their parents had the paperwork written up already so whether or not their feelings changed was irrelevant.
“Okay. Open a new document and we’ll analyse the causes.” I said. Some teachers never speak to the kids but I liked to think that it made me more human. Sometimes, I liked to imagine what it was like in a twentieth-century school where all you had was a board and your own wits with which to teach. Imagine what that must have been like. Nothing between you and them. Even in Lower Third schools, they had computers although they didn’t always work. I put the main causes up on the board.
The Five Official Causes:
Cheap fatty food
Selling off playing fields
Rise in technology
Rise in eating out / takeaways
“In the exam, for each cause, you need to explain how it helped to fuel the crisis, find stories, articles, examples that support your argument and also explain what the Government has done to improve matters. Remember that you will need ten examples in the exam in order to achieve a pass. For a B it is twelve, fourteen for an A.” All of them needed to get the top grades, of course. It would be harder for some than others but their parents felt entitled to expect that they would get them. This was an officially excellent school after all. Not to mention officially expensive.
We ran through an example. I always started with Stranger Danger because it was the easiest to get to grips with. I asked Tabitha Reynolds to explain, trying not to be amused by the startled look in her large doe eyes. Had she had her nose done? Something was definitely different.
It’s like danger for kids from like people they don’t know.
I was impressed that she actually knew what the lesson was about. Maybe her medication had finally started to work. Or maybe they’d upped her dosage. She didn’t look any more alert than normal. In fact, her gaze had already wandered away from her monitor. Who to ask next? It was tempting to keep torturing Tabitha but that would be like kicking a cute, little gen-pup and I wanted to see what the new boy was like.
“How does it relate to the obesity crisis, Billy?” He eyed me balefully over the top of his computer before answering.
It’s a lot of nonsense actually. The Government claimed that children weren’t safe and the media helped fuel the fire with stories of murdered kids. Parents became frightened about letting their kids play outside. At first, they allowed them in gardens but eventually, it was inside or nothing. In fact, you are far more likely to be hurt by a member of your own family. However, it suited the Government because they were building on all available playing spaces.
Okay, so he was clearly showing off but it was correct so I congratulated him. (Also, a bit Anti-Gov., I’d have to have a word about that if it continued. It wouldn’t do for him to write that in his exam. They’d pick him up straight away.) A surprise given his grades. New boy syndrome? Taking his new start seriously? James looked around, his expression half-angry, half-admiring. He’d been top dog for a long time. He wouldn’t take any challenge well.
I explained the media panic that followed the famous cases at the beginning of the century – Madeleine McCann, Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells – and how that led to a number of cases of parents tagging their children. Finally, the Government banned outdoor play altogether. Not that it made much difference to this lot. They had their servants and their huge grounds regardless. No chance of them meeting a stranger anyway. It was further down the social scale that they suffered.
They worked independently for the rest of the lesson. Apart from periodically disabling Tabitha’s games, they got on and I didn’t have much to do apart from watch them. I glanced over at Billy again. His answer had piqued my curiosity. Why were his grades so bad? What had brought his family here? He was looking intently at his computer, his brow furrowed in concentration.
It was tedious. The seconds were slow. How long before the Government decided I was only needed to set the work then mark it? Before the kids stopped having to leave the house altogether. Easier all round, no doubt. Less money need be spent. More control could be had. (I ought to be careful what I say, right? After all, I don’t know you or whose side you are on. Although quite who you’d report me to these days, I don’t know.)
Of course, these were the important ones. It wasn’t hard to imagine. The future leaders of industry, the politicians, lawyers, doctors of tomorrow. Already they had that sense of self-importance. Their education was second to none, of course. The best that money could buy. (And that was why we had to hit the targets. To prove it was money well spent.) Last year, they’d been given their pathways. They were all on academic, of course. As were all the Upper Third. But there was some variety depending on whether they’d go into medicine, law or business but it was all serious. Like I said, the important ones.
This was my third year here, my eighth as a teacher. I’d worked my way up from a Lower Third school (which was all that was available to you at first) through the Middle to here at the very top. Ofsted Approved, it said above the door. Which meant we were only inspected every ten years. And it was cursory. Nowhere near the depth of inspections at Lower Third schools which could go on for weeks and weeks. And take place every six months. Of course, Ofsted knew those schools weren’t as good. How could they be? They had no money for a start and the families had no money and not a lot of time. (Not that the Upper Third had time for their children but they did have servants.) Not fair to compare with this place. Not that you heard that from me.
I looked up in time to observe Billy not working and when I looked at my screen, I saw he hadn’t looked at any of the sources. He was studying the back of James’ head quite intently. Focus was total. I sent him a warning:
Get on with your work or finish it after school.
He looked up surprised at having been caught. He smiled and nodded. Stupidly, I assumed that he got on. I didn’t check what he had done straight away. I was used to them doing as they were told. Even Tabitha. They were obeyers. There was little way not to be.
I checked through the work once they had all filed out. Gina had done more than was necessary, beyond even what the exam board expected for the top grade. James had done exactly the requisite, nothing more, nothing less. He wasn’t lazy just practical. History had to be passed. It did not need to be enjoyed. He preferred Science and Maths as was considered appropriate. Tabitha had barely done anything and what she had done was muddled. I contemplated whether she had had her dosage changed. She’d seemed quite sharp at the start of the lesson. They all had various levels of dosage, various mixtures of drugs, vitamins and oils. It was a sign of money and class to medicate. To have a child with a syndrome conferred status. Only Tabitha was officially ADHD. However, the other parents liked to pretend that wasn’t the case. I contemplated her work. She’d never pass if this were allowed to continue, that was for sure.
Then I came to Billy. After he’d answered so well, I had been wondering how it was that his grades were so low. Of course, I had seen him daydreaming, which was a clue. Now more understanding. He hadn’t even really started the work although I had no doubt if I questioned him, he would be able to answer me perfectly. Instead, a drawing of James. Using one of those art apps. Drawn with clear affection and with no little talent. No wonder there was concern. Art was considered frivolous and it was certainly not proper for The Upper Third to have any part of it. It wasn’t just that, of course. If someone found this, they would make assumptions. Assumptions that might be right but which would definitely lead to punishment. I wondered if James was aware he had an admirer.
It didn’t take me long to decide what to do. I messaged Greg Thornton, their science teacher, to ask him to send Billy back to me. After a small amount of grumbling, he did as he was asked.
Once Billy was stood in front of me, I made him delete the drawing and warned him what people might think if they saw it. Did he have any awareness of the danger he was putting himself in? Did he understand that everything was public and anyone could (and would) check? He nodded whilst not lifting his eyes from the floor.
“You need to be more careful, ” I said. “They’ll make it impossible for you if this gets out.” He nodded his head again. He left without speaking; his head still bowed and cheeks pink. I felt awful and I wished I could say what I really wanted to. I wished I could say I’m on your side. I could help. I know where you can go. But I barely knew him. I had to be able to trust. I comforted myself with the thought that if someone else had found it -Thornton, for example – he wouldn’t have hesitated. He’d have reported it to The Head. I’d done the right thing but the guilt still sat heavily in my gut.