By Mark Kodama
It was the last day of school. Horace Mann High School was closing for good. The school – only twelve years old – was the model for the future. That is why they shut it down.
I am a janitor so I am, of course, an essential worker, or should I more accurately say less expendable than others. So I will be one of the last employees to be laid off which will be next month. Imagine that. I am more important than the principal. My salary is one half of that of the average teacher and one quarter of the principal. Job security of sorts.
The school was the model high school of the model school district, one of the richest, most educated counties in the country. The school’s enrollment and performance was at an all-time high. It had the best teachers and best equipment. But it was also the most expensive school built on one of the most valuable tracts of land in the county.
The school district jumped at the prospect of selling the land and turning it into a giant apartment complex, a modern commercial district with a multi-cinema complex, coffee shops and restaurants and retail discount stores.
I drove my 20-year-old Japanese car made through security. It is not a fancy car but it is durable and great at getting me from point A to point B. I put my face up to the camera so it can be scanned.
An electric fence topped by barbed wire rings the school. Evenly-spaced concrete pillar barriers prevent suicide bombers from smashing through the perimeter of the school.
“Good morning, Mr. Edukos!” the computer cheerfully said.
“Good morning,” I said back. The steel security gate opened.
Security cameras and rail guns tracked my car as I drove up the road. Signs flashed telling me I was driving at 15 mph.
Five years ago, a student got out of his car armed to the teeth. He did not get far. When he raised his assault rifle, he was taken out by a rail gun. He never stood a chance. After the police removed the corpse, we had to finish cleaning up the mess. We could not wash all the blood from the asphalt road so we had to blacktop the surface.
When I came to the door of the underground garage, I leaned forward so the security camera could scan my face. The ten-inch thick steel opened. I parked my old car in a handicapped space, next to Dr. Dietrich’s Maserati. Dr. Dietrich or the Great Satan carried a copy of The Prince in his jacket pocket. In his words, that was his Bible.
Although the superintendant parked in a handicapped space, the police never ticket him. Dr. Dietrich was a golfing pal of the chief of police. Who can fault him for parking in the most convenient spot at the high school? He is a busy man. He is the superintendant.
I put my face into the camera, clocking in. I made myself a latte in the automatic coffee machine in the teacher’s lounge. The little robotic vacuum cleaners looked like little rabbits, quietly cleaning the carpets. I called Mr. Rodriguez on the radio about the ceiling lights being out but he said not to replace them since the school was closing.
The television automatically came on reporting headline news from around the world: the stock markets were at a record high and so was unemployment; another school shooting; war threatened in the Middle East as refugees flowed into Europe; crime was up.
Most of the computers and furniture stood on the loading dock packed in boxes on pallets waiting to be shipped to Dr. Dietrich’s private company to be resold. When it came to Mr. Dietrich, people always looked the other way. Why not? He was rich and successful. He was clever. He was a self-made man who lived by his own rules: the Clint Eastwood of school superintendents.
I began the day picking up the trash at the football field. I missed the rich smell of freshly cut grass. The school district replaced it with Astroturf two years ago. There were more sports injuries because of it but the change save the school district tons of money. Nowadays, there was little to clean up. A lost baseball, a chewing gum wrapper and plastic bag. It was sad in its own way.
At 10 a.m., the principal Edgar Rodriguez was to give speech. He was angry the school was closing. He was one of those liberals, you know. I felt sorry for him. I was unhappy myself: I was soon to be out of a job. But I was grateful. At least, I had a pension.
Many people were out of work these days – truck drivers, retail clerks, doctors, lawyers. On the upside, prices were very reasonable. You shouldn’t whine. You can’t stop progress.
When I got to the auditorium, it was nearly empty. Mr. Rodriguez was on stage with his wife, the superintendent of the school district, our local representatives from the county and the school board and Mr. Johnson, the head of security and Mrs. Smith, president of the PTA.
There were a few teachers and a handful of students in the audience. The assistant principal was transferred to another high school slated for closing for next year. He was to serve as the interim principal until the school closed. It was cheaper than hiring a new principal.
The member of the board of supervisors kept glancing at his watch, his right leg bobbing up and down. He was bored as hell. Finally, Ms. White, the local representative of the school board stood up at the podium. Ms. White had a puffy beehive hairdo from the 1960s and wore a in a green pants suit and a vacant face.
She smiled radiantly through her red painted lipstick. “Welcome,” she said, her eyes sparkling in the stage lights as she looked at the lone reporter from the local newspaper, sitting it the audience. “Well, it is a sad, sad day,” she said and smiled. A small fleck of red lipstick was stuck to one of her front teeth and moved as she spoke.
After she finished her speech, there was a smattering of applause, mostly from the people on the stage. Mr. Kennedy, the member of the board of supervisors, left the stage to make some phone calls on his cell phone.
Dr. Dietrich, the superintendent of the school district, then strode to the podium. When he smiled at Mrs. White. She nervously touched her hair as her eyes melted like a school girl. His hand-made Italian suit hung nicely on his square shoulders.
He flashed his winning smile and Rolex watch. His European wife was a former fashion model. Why shouldn’t he be paid like the CEO of a major corporation. He earned it. The school district was lucky to have him.
“We are going to save, save, save the tax payers dollars” Dr. Dietrich said as he smoothed back his perfectly coiffed hair. Rumor has it that his haircut by celebrity barber Fifi cost him $500. “This is the wave of the future: safer, better schools at lower costs. Think of it: no principals, no teachers, no security, no maintenance workers. A 21st century school for the 21st century.
“We can deliver classes by cell phones provided by the best people in the fields of study. High-level standard classes to all students – all pre-recorded – produced by leading Hollywood filmmakers. It will be entertaining. There will be no disparities between the rich and poor. It will be the same lecture and the same materials.
“The student can text our education centers with their questions and we will have trained graduate students to provide answers. We can pay the graduate students minimum wages and give them college credit.
“Tests can be given and graded by computer. Feedback can be provided instantaneously by the computers, error free.
“Just think in five years, we can close down all our schools. No one will have to go to school. Imagine how much we can save.
“We will no longer have to worry about car accidents or school shootings. Everything can be done from home.
“This is the wave of the future. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency This is the fourth industrial revolution. It is already here.”
Afterwards, the audience, clapped politely.
The principal Mr. Rodriguez shuffled to the podium. His face was tired, dark circles hung beneath his eyes. His sports jacket was tight around his shoulders and his paunch hung in front of him. He dabbed his sweating face with his handkerchief before returning it to his pocket.
“Closing our schools is not progress,” he said. “Indeed, we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction. We are setting ourselves back. Knowledge is power and ignorance is dangerous.
“The rich are getting richer and the powerful are consolidating more power into their own hands. People now more than ever need to be able to think for themselves and act in their own interest.
“Education is more than book learning. It teaches us how to be a part of a community and how to be good citizens in life. Most importantly it teaches children how to think. These are the intangibles that will be lost when our schools are closed.
“Success cannot be measured solely in dollars and cents and statistics,” he said. “It is measure by our hearts.”
The few in the audience stood up and clapped enthusiastically. One teacher cried. Ms. White, frozen plastic smile painted on her face, clapped too. Mrs. Rodriguez embraced her husband.
Dr. Dietrich, forced a smile, resembling more of a sneer, and shook the hand of Rodriguez. Dr. Dietrich was eager to prune deadwood like Rodriguez, an overly sentimental relic of the past.
Hearing the enthusiastic applause, Mr. Kennedy, the member of the board of supervisors, pocketed his cell phone, hurried to the stage and shook Dr. Dietrich’s hand. “Great speech!” he said.