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   a r i s t o t l e 's    a r t h u r

---   D A N I E L   L I P O W I T Z  

Principal Mr. James Callow wiped the perspiration from his forehead even though the room temperature was environmentally stabilized. "Uh-oh," whispered Arthur Higglesford, "this is not going to be pleasant. The last time Jim sweated was the announcement of Aristotle Incorporated's buyout of the Delaware public schools."

The faculty were gathered in the planetarium. Faculty meetings were usually reserved for wedding and birth announcements or events of grave concern.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," Mr. Callow said. "I know you are all busy with your end of the term analysis, but I attended the Board meeting last evening and I wanted you to hear the news from me first. Our Board has accepted bids from Aristotle Inc. for purchase of Lincoln Schools."

"This is madness, Jim," Genetics specialist Kerri Miller cried out. "What are the parents saying about this?"

Arthur leaned over to Rodney Donnelly, chair of the Holographic design department. "We're done for. The same announcement closed the Chicago schools last April."

Rodney nodded. "I've been anticipating the end. That's why I've been working on a portfolio of my designs." He turned to Arthur. "Your seniority will give you some leeway. What are you going to do when your time comes?"

"Please everyone, let me have your attention." Mr. Callow still snapped his fingers when he wanted order. It was a habit left over from his elementary school days. "You are guaranteed to finish this year and there is a chance of, at least, another term. The law requires community input and a six month appeal after the Board accepts a bid."

Jim looked at his feet. "I would recommend that you expect the worst. When we became educators we thought the technology would ensure our employment." His eyes became misty. "No one knew. How could we know that it would make us obsolete?" He looked up at each member of his faculty. Some were weeping; others stared straight ahead.

"Try to have a better evening. Good day." Mr. Callow walked briskly through the aisle and out the door.

Slowly, the eighty member faculty rose from their seats and followed their principal out the door. Alyce Santoni bumped the light switch. The image on the planetarium's ceiling was the reenactment of the Artemis nebula supernova from 2034. The faculty who remained to watch the explosion stood, transfixed.

"Good morning, Mr. Higglesford."

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen." Upon his greeting the class took their seats and put their helmets upon their heads. Lincoln High School students stood when the teacher entered the room. The parents demanded it and the teachers expected it. Arthur Higglesford, generalist, ordered his computer on and began to review each student's work. Lincoln High still employed teachers unlike the other schools in the county who hired software analysts. Software consultants were brought in to the schools to fix the occasional program crash. The software today assessed the student's diction, syntax, grammar and writing level. Spelling errors were automatically analyzed and corrected. The editing process offered students different points of view and a myriad of other writing suggestions. Holographic dissections of animals and humans gave students information about physiology, anatomy, zoology and biology. Space travel had changed the attitude toward astronomy. Students who were interested followed Halley's comet from the space station or visited the settlement on Mars for hands-on space study. Tests were composed and graded instantly so that the student could proceed to the next level. Mastery of 95% of the information was the acceptable level for advancement.

By the year 2050 the wealthiest families were removing their children from the private schools when Congress passed the voucher bill, providing these families with "choice." Those students were given $25,000 in state grant money for every $10,000 they could front toward the purchase of individually designed software. The educational pundits promised that the illiteracy rate would drop and our students would be able to compete with those Turkish and South African "whiz kids" who soared to the top of every international test.

Hundreds of private schools closed as students chose to leave school for home. The promised competition between schools never emerged. Shortly thereafter, public schools began to shut down or merge. The President of the United States promised the weakened teachers unions that money would be allocated for teacher retraining. As was to be expected the poor still went to school. Envious unemployed educators watched their colleagues, brief cases in hand, walk into a classroom to teach. Helpless, they flocked the once forbidden Board of Education offices of these "bad schools" with resumes in hand.

Arthur coded the assignment for Mary McNalty. He placed the helmet over his head and snapped the visor in its place. The visor allowed him to see the rest of the class and still take individual messages. Mary was trying to solve the murder of President John F. Kennedy. She was visiting the grassy knoll in downtown Dallas and viewing the oncoming presidential caravan. Mr. Higglesford appeared next to her in Dallas.

"Hi, Mr. H," she said warmly. "It's almost time."

"Have you calculated the speed of the bullet and the angle of entry?" Mr. H inquired.

"Aww, do I have to?" Mary moaned.

"Send me your analysis when you complete the task." Mr. H smiled at her electronically and disappeared. "I need to check on Mr. Kalopinus."

Peripatetic, Arthur thought. Ironic, isn't it. I visit with each student and we walk and we talk. Aristotle would be proud, though cyberspace wasn't what he had in mind when he took his students for a stroll around the Lyceum.

Yanni Kalopinus was the top mathematics student at Lincoln High. Yanni swore his advanced math skills were due to his heritage. He claimed he was descended from Pythagoras. Actually, Yanni's "genetic reason" for his interest in geometric theory and application amused Mr. Higglesford. He suggested that Yanni trace Pythagoras' life to see how theorems are developed.

The flashing light on Mr. Higglesford's screen indicated that Randall Badham was off task again. "Randall, though baseball is the ultimate spectator sport, playing in the World Series is not part of your cerebellum development assessment." Randall left the game and returned to President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. "Baseball does more for me than this junk."

"You know what you're supposed to do. Now, do it." Mr. Higglesford stayed with Randall for the next half-hour to prod him along and keep him on task. Arthur knew about Randall Badham. Arthur took off his visor and looked at Randall. He was the type of student who needed school. If his parents get that matching grant, he'll be playing holographic games all day. "Why don't these people realize this?"

Some of his students looked up at Mr. Higglesford. "Did you say something, sir?"

"No, Justine, just thinking aloud. Continue your alchemy task until group discussion."

Every bit of news about Aristotle Corporation's intentions was gobbled up and digested by the faculty. Rumors were flying constantly. Days and weeks passed with little change. Senior teachers like Arthur Higglesford faced their classes each morning and did what they did best,teach. They tried to keep their emotions out of their classrooms. At home one did not need to be so detached.

"Aargh!" he sputtered. "This isn't what I asked for, you stupid machine. Grapefruit juice, I said. G-R-A-P-E-F-R-U-I-T, not vodka. For Chrissakes, it's seven o' clock in the morning, Molly." The molecular food translator or Molly, as it came to be known, was introduced three years ago, and though its success rate was good, the machine had had an occasional mishap or two. The most famous one was the annual Thanksgiving feast when Rabbi Metzenbaum ordered turkey and received the Hawaiian pig roast. The red-faced company representatives apologized to the gathering of rabbis and their families. Nevertheless, the late night talk show hosts had material for days. Checking his wallet, Mr. Arthur Higglesford headed out to Molly's RealFood for a container of some already squeezed juice. The name brought a copyright lawsuit by the molecular machine company. The judge chastised the company lawyers with a terse "Don't waste my time again" remark and dismissed the case with a wave of his hand.

A cult of young urban munchers (YUMs) organized in response to the molecular food translator. Naturally, growers around the world denounced these machines for their lack of real taste. However, hundreds of abandoned fast food establishments around the nation attested to the increased consumer preference for "think food," as it is commonly called. After all, this process is faster than fast food.

I hate it here, thought Arthur, as he put on his sunglasses before entering Molly's. Arthur had a profound distaste for anything with a hint of cultishness as he so readily communicated to his students, whether prompted or not.

As they were walking toward Lincoln High, Randall "Tuffer-Buffer Boy" Badham turned to his sidekick Vernon and suggested they bag school this day.

"I can't Tuffer, man, if my mom finds out, I done for. Besides, I'll fail Higgly Piggly's class if I'm caught. As I recall, you ain't in such good shape yourself."

"What are ya talkin' about, Vern? A few smiles and a wink and Sarah opens up her screen durin' every test. She loves me, ya know." He gulped down the remainder of his apple juice. "C'mon," he shoved, "let's head over to Molly's. She pays twenty-five cents for any returned can. I'll treat you to somethin'."

"All right, all right. You don't need to push."

Arthur stealthily picked up a bottle of Johnny Appleseed's Apple juice. Fruit as Mother intended, the label boldly exclaimed. In its effort to preserve resources, Molly's discouraged bagging. Rather than cause a scene, Arthur paid for his juice and left quickly. "Great, he muttered, "I have to walk through the street with this stuff." He bumped right into Randall Badham; the juice smashing upon impact.

Randall blurted, "Hey , pal- Oh! Good morning, Mr. Higglesford. I did not realize you frequented this establishment. Please, let me replace it."

"Never mind, Randall. Just look where you are going. I'll see you in one hour." Arthur took note of the way Randall spoke. He thought, Why does he pretend to be something less than what he is? Maybe he'll outgrow Vern. One can only hope.

"The meeting will come to order." Campbell Jefferies spoke commandingly and the noise in the packed auditorium dropped to an occasional whisper. Mr. Campbell Jefferies, president of the Lincoln County School Board, ran for office on a "more bang for the buck" platform. As salaries of the teachers crept steadily toward his own level, Mr. Jefferies believed "something needed to be done to control our skyrocketing taxes." He was not considered a friend of educators, though his response to this charge was always an affable "I am pro-child, pro-teacher and pro-taxpayer."

Standing by the molecular food translator installed in the teachers' lounge, Arthur Higglesford said, "Jefferies was profoundly disturbed."

"Citizens and taxpayers of Lincoln County, our community is under siege," Jefferies said. "Congress recognized the educational crisis almost forty years ago when it passed the Voucher Bill. Unfortunately, as so often happens when Washington gets involved, the wealthy prosper and working communities like our own suffer. Our children deserve the best education available. I have always said that and this Board-"

"Enough talk," shouted Hazel Lamfere as she bounded to her feet. "What about our kids?" The other parents sitting around Mrs. Lamfere applauded her interruption.

Mr. Jefferies reddened and his voice exploded. "No one, I said no one will disrupt the procedure. Madam, take your seat until the chair recognizes you."

Mrs. Lamfere stood a defiant moment, then complied.

Mr. Jefferies wiped his forehead. "As I was saying, this Board has done its best on behalf of our children and our taxpayers. The reality of our economic situation is this: with a tax base that represents seventy percent of its citizens with no children in the schools and with increasingly higher staff salaries, the Lincoln School District will be bankrupt in three years unless we make a change."

Mrs. Lamfere called out, "Your first priority is the children. Don't forget that. You know as well as anyone that good schools are vital for maintaining high property values."

Those in the auditorium heard the word, bankrupt, clearly. Twenty miles away stood the abandoned buildings that were once the Rousseau School District. Financially strapped families remortgaged their homes to get their children the software that would keep them educationally competitive. No one present had to be reminded of the growing divorce and suicide rate in Rousseau County. Campbell Jefferies knew that any reference to Rousseau would diminish any dissenting point of view. "Our tax rate is too high right now," Jefferies said. "As you know, there is a solution and this Board believes it is Aristotle, Incorporated."

The following day Mr. Callow, the principal, called another faculty meeting. "Ladies and gentlemen, you will be noticing many official-looking men and women in your classrooms over the next two months. Please answer their questions honestly and openly."

"Who are they, Jim?" Kerri Miller inquired.

"Aristotle's advance team, Kerri`," the principal replied.

"Yeah, they represent the end of the world as we know it," Arthur Higglesford sneered.

"Not exactly, Arthur."

"Come on, Jim, don't be such a company man. Leave that to these efficiency experts." Arthur stood up and faced his peers. "Our 'pro-teacher' Mr. Campbell Jefferies wants our jobs. Who needs a teacher when a software program will do virtually the same job. He said as much last night."

"Look, everyone, I'm relaying some information from the Board," Jim Callow protested. "Don't kill the messenger."

The first pink slip arrived three weeks after the efficiency experts finalized their report for the School Board. Rodney Donnelly was prescient in organizing his holographic portfolio. "I'm going to miss the kids, Arthur." He removed the original sketches from the wall. "Nothing I do will ever replace seeing that first smile of accomplishment." He stepped down off the ladder. "Nothing."

"What are you going to do, Rod?" Arthur's question would be repeated frequently throughout May. Only the name will change.

Aristotle Incorporated's on-site manager was Beverly Sharpton. Like her name her manner was precise. She was all angles.

"Pointy," Arthur remarked to Tim McMann, another generalist. "Everything about her is pointy."

"She is well suited to her position, " Tim said. He ordered a tuna sandwich from the Molly and received an egg salad. "This is how my day is going." He pointed to the sandwich. "Maybe I'll start my diet today."

"Day forty-four of the death watch," Kerri Miller wrote in Arthur's mailbox. Arthur replied, "Kerri, you scared me. You know what mailbox messages have been like lately."

The new school year commenced with sixty of the eighty faculty receiving their dismissal notices on their computer mailboxes. Beverly Sharpton found that personal conferences were a waste of time. The layoff was inevitable. Watching teary-eyed employees was inefficient. Classroom walls were removed to provide for the merging of classes.

"Look," Beverly told Campbell as he toured the high school facility, "the children are working independently anyway. We have moved from a teacher-student ratio of one to twenty-five to one to four hundred. I promise you that there will be only a slight decrease in the International Aptitude Test. In two to three years that downward slide will reverse itself with our plan in place."

"What's the bottom line, Ms. Sharpton?" Campbell Jefferies asked.

"I'll show you when we get to Mr. Callow's office." As they walked down the hall stride for stride, she said, "You won't be disappointed."

"Good morning, Mr. Jefferies," Leila Maas chirped. "You, too, Ms. Sharpton." Leila was the secretary to the principal.

"Morning, Leila," Mr. Jefferies said. "Is the conference room available?" Leila checked the sign-up sheet and saw that the room was unoccupied.

"Oh," Mr. Jefferies said, "when Jim stops by, send him in."

"Surely, Mr. Jefferies. There's a fresh pot of real coffee in that room to the left unless you want some from Molly." Leila pointed to the room off the hallway.

"No, thank you," Ms. Sharpton said.

Applause thundered through the class as sixteen year old Milton Lowell returned to his seat, a trace of a smile edging its way across his mouth.

"Brilliantly done!" Mr. Higglesford exclaimed. "Milton, your statistics are magnificent. One point to correct, though. The American medical profession stopped prescribing synthetic drugs eight years after the new health plan made them pay forty percent of the costs of any drug they prescribed. You reported it as three years."

Mr. Higglesford rubbed his hands together. "Okay, those who need to get a hard copy of Milton's charts, do so now." The students returned to their screens. "Everyone else, send your comments to Milton in ten minutes. Review his graphics and consider the implications, economic and social of no health care on the new settlements on Mars."

"Are you joking, Beverly?" Campbell Jefferies needed to hear her analysis again.

"Campbell, you know me better than that. I do not joke."

"I'm, I'm sorry." Mr. Jefferies looked at her face. She's right, he thought. She has no laugh lines. "This is wonderful. I believe I could sell these numbers to the rest of the Board. Oh, good, here's Jim now."

"Good morning, Campbell. You're looking particularly pleased. Beverly, how are you?" Jim Callow took a seat.

"Listen to what Beverly is proposing," Campbell said, smiling. "I think I'll have some of that real coffee now."

The teachers lounge was shifted to the old janitor's closet when the room expansion was ordered again. Two months passed and by November, fifteen more notices were issued.

The bitter river breeze blew Arthur's hat off his head. He chased it, picked it up and sat down on the bench at Penn's Landing. He buttoned his collar to ward off the cold and stared across the Delaware River at Camden. "Maybe, I'll be able to afford to live there one day."

"With that raise you received, one day won't be so far away," Tim McMann replied. "Things are always better on the other side of the river. Isn't that the old expression?"

"What a mess, Tim m'boy?" Arthur faced his former colleague. "Who would have ever thought?"

Tim stood and motioned Arthur over to a stone engraving laid in the ground. Arthur got up and followed his friend. The brown leaves crunched as he cleared them off the stone with his foot. "1689," the plaque read: "PHILADELPHIA OFFERS THE FIRST FREE PUBLIC SCHOOLS."

Arthur shoulders drooped. His posture had worsened over the last six months. He pulled his hat further down on his head as the wind bit deeper. "Four hundred years, Tim. Four hundred years exactly and we've gone from William Penn to Beverly Sharpton and Campbell Jefferies."

From the monorail Lincoln High-Aristotle division looked almost the same to Arthur. The transports in the faculty parking plaza were gone. In fact, the lot was now replaced with a structure that proclaimed ARISTOTLE INCORPORATED. Leila Maas, the new building manager, told Arthur that the south annex, as the company called it, was the training facility for the next generation of software consultants. Arthur greeted Leila every morning in what used to be Principal Callow's office. Leila is the only familiar face for Arthur.

"The message to Jim was pure Beverly," Leila told Arthur. "Right before Christmas he gets a mailbox message that says 'without a faculty you can understand how inefficient retaining a principal would be. Good luck.'

"Nice Christmas gift, huh."

Arthur echoed, "Pure Beverly." He removed his coat. "Are you still making real coffee? The company gave me a Molly for my student review room. I have more trouble with that thing."

Leila's eyes welled. "You're the last one, Arthur."

"I miss everyone, too. They saved a buck and lost the soul." He placed his hand on the door handle. "The sad part is that the Beverly Sharptons get the perks and promotions, and the Kerri Millers and Jim Callows get the door. Everyone has gone through school, so each one thinks that what was good then is suitable now. We get a Campbell Jefferies in a position of authority and a clean, empty building is the outcome.

"I never thought I'd see you get bitter, Arthur," Leila said.

"I never thought that teaching would be a job," Arthur replied. He raised his fingers to place quotes around "job." He then tucked his briefcase under his arm. "I always viewed this profession as something loftier. Maybe I was naive." He paused for a moment, reflecting on what he just said. "No, there's no 'maybe' any more. Of course I was naive. Just walk out in the hallway and listen. It's quiet. Cemeteries are quiet. Hospitals are quiet. Schools shouldn't be quiet."

Perry Ronstill peered anxiously out the door, waiting for the familiar click-clap of Mr. Higglesford's shoes on the tile. Perry, a freshman, had a job to do, and he wanted Mr. H to be proud of him. He turned to the group and gave the signal. As Mr. Higglesford entered the group learning pod, the voices chanted in unison, "Good morning, Mr. Higglesford." The students rose obediently, waiting.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," Mr. Higglesford replied. "Please send your work to the analysis sector for processing." Upon his greeting row after row after row of students took their seats and placed their helmets upon their heads. From the podium Arthur witnessed the uniform movement in the hall. The carpet was installed after the contractors removed the physical science sector. Carpeted rooms were an Aristotle Corporation trademark. He remembered one of the company's advance team commenting on the purpose of the carpeted room. "A quiet school is a thinking school," he said to Arthur.

Arthur walked into the student review chamber to read the test analyses. As the numbers rolled onto the screen, he took his marker and scrawled, "It's quiet. It's too damn quiet" across the screen.

A solitary figure sat on the bench, gazing across the Delaware River at Penn's Landing. The waves and the sky were a shimmery gray as the icy wind blew the snow in swirls around the Camden Aquarium. From the other side of the river, Billy Penn's statue was majestic on its perch. Still, Arthur, the last teacher, sat and stared, hoping, wondering and praying for a better time.

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