February 9, 2020

“Surgeon General’s Warning,” by A. R. Farina

“Surgeon General’s Warning,” by A. R. Farina

When the warning first appeared, we were already addicts. It was total and complete saturation. I never knew anyone who wasn’t using although, I found out later, some people weren’t. The kids who were fed free lunch used. My parents used. Hell, they were worse than anyone I knew. All the parents were terrible. There was an old jokey Public Service Announcement that came from when my grandparents were young about a kid doing drugs because he learned it from watching his dad. I saw it a few times as a meme. “I learned it from watching you, Dad!” It would be funny if it weren’t so true.

The morning the warning came down, I was in school. First-period classes had just begun when the smartboard turned on. Like every other morning, Jake, the admin who read the announcements, appeared on our screens. He looked flustered and kept clearing his throat. “Excuse the (throat clear) interruption students, there is (throat clear) a very important announcement that you all need to hear (throat clear) right now. Please report to the gym. Use the restrooms before you come as no one will be excused during this announcement for any reason. First-years, (cough), please sit on the floor to ensure there will be room for everyone.”

I remember it so clearly, coughs and all, because we never had everyone in the school in the same room at the same time. There wasn’t room unless people sat on the gym floor and, due to issues regarding skin sensitivity and all-around chaos, everything—including pep-rallies—happened remotely. The teams and the fourth years went to the gym while the rest of us watched on the smartboards.

So that day, when we were all taken into the gym, and the first-years were forced to sit on the floor, I knew we were in for a whole bunch of bad news. News that would be so explosive, or terrible, or whatever adjective you want to fix to it that the administration was risking all the messages from first-year parents. I know there is no way in hell I would want to talk to my parents when I was a first-year. Nothing was good enough for me and everything was wrong. Honestly, I don’t know who they thought I was. I wasn’t anyone special. At least I didn’t think so and if I didn’t think so, why would anyone else?

I swung by the locker I shared with Vee. We had been locker buddies in elementary and we got along so well, we just stuck with it. I threw my Calc books in. I knew that there was no way first period was going to happen at all, so I grabbed Vee’s stuff.

There was a saying I first heard in middle school history: “Trust but verify.” It was a big deal back when idiots thought nuclear power should still be used for weapons. Apparently, it was a Russian proverb, but our President at the time liked to use it to make sure the Russian leader he was working with was actually doing what he said he would do. Seems funny now to think that people used to distrust the Russians. I mean, the second Russian revolution changed the way everyone sees the world. You can’t keep people down like that forever.

Anyway, I loved that saying because I was always like that. When my teachers told me stuff, I double- and triple-checked. I knew that no matter what we were going to hear that day, we were going to check our feed to find out what the “real” story was. Vee, the master of all things with a mechanical brain, would get us the real information. That is just what she did.

On my way to the gym, I swung by the bathrooms. I didn’t really have to go, but he made it sound like it could be an ordeal, and I didn’t want to be trapped in the gym having to go and I didn’t really want to have to fight my way in afterward. The lines were already long. The His line was moving pretty quickly, but the Hers and Xers lines were backed way up. I never understood why public bathrooms didn’t have more room in the other two. In the His, we just all pissed in a trough. It was disgusting, but it was quick. Clearly, the other two needed more stalls but I can’t think of one place on earth where that is the case. Sometimes, when people are trying to make things equal, they forget that equal does not mean the same amount. Equality isn’t math.

As I sped out of the His, I saw the same faces in the other lines give me dirty looks. I just shrugged my shoulders. What could I do? We have been taught that we are born the way we are born. I was born to piss in a trough apparently. Besides, I didn’t do bathroom design. I hoped to one day, not just bathroom design, but architecture.

I got in line to the gym because I wasn’t worried about where I was going to sit. I knew Vee would have us covered. So, I just took my time and looked around. It was clear that no one really knew what was going on. Some first-years just sprawled out on the floor. A few others were clearly bugged and were trying to plead with the teachers. Of course, they were having none of it. Generally, the teachers were pretty scared of the administration. They knew that a few districts over they were automating high school to save resources. Because of that, they did pretty much whatever the higher-ups said. It was a form of automation anyway. Teacher bot with a pulse or teacher bot with a mechanical brain was irrelevant. Either way, they were being manipulated. There were a few, like my middle school history teacher and my high school social science teacher, who told us the truth and didn’t really follow along. Of course, they were my favorite teachers. They were also the first to go when the unions were busted up, but I still have what I learned from them regardless of how things went down.

Ms. Wishaw, the superintendent, was there and she looked smug. That was strange because she normally looked disgusted to be around us. Smug was a new look for her. Her hunch was gone, and her back was ramrod straight. Her arms were crossed. She was wearing khaki everything. She could have been going on a safari. Somehow, standing up straight made her seem younger as though the years that were weighing her down were no longer there. She had a closed-mouth smile that was obviously holding in the secret of that unprecedented day. That lady hated kids, and everyone knew it. She thought we were soft. This wasn’t some conspiracy theory we made up to hate on her, it was a fact. She told anyone who listened the stories of her childhood, pre-addiction, when she rode in the back of a pick-up truck not because she was being rebellious, but because her parents put her back there. It was common practice during her childhood apparently. That seems like BS to me. I suspect her parents were just trying to get rid of her and they failed. She was a Gen Xer. There weren’t many of them still working, but she just hung on and refused to quit.

Mx. Wayne, the principal, dressed in xer standard black suit, white shirt, and school colored ascot, took the mic said, “Students. Settle down. I apologize to those of you who need to sit on the floor. Had we more time, we would have made sure the wrestling mats were put down, but this is very important, and we need you all to settle down and pay attention.”

Really? Wrestling mats? Those things are as old as Ms. Wishaw and smell like her too. I suspect there would have been more skin sensitivity complaints if the first-years had to sit there. 

Xe extended xer arms and pushed xer hands down to mimic that xe wanted us to sit down, calm down and just be down. Honestly, I have no idea how xe got the job. I have never met a person who was less built to be in charge of thousands of raging hormones. I suspect that Wishaw handpicked xer based on controllability. Again, the difference between a mechanical person and a real person was pretty slim. Plus, just like Wishaw, Mx. Wayne actually wanted the job. Xe thought it was a step up from middle-school math teacher. I don’t know, I would rather try to wrangle a bunch of 12-year-olds into seats to learn basic algebra than whatever it was she had to do.

My dad thought Mx. Wayne was a minority hire who was “unqualified but has the right pronouns and skin-tone.” It didn’t matter that he was wrong or right because he thought that about pretty much everyone who was not him. I swear, his brain was so addled by the crap on his feed that I don’t understand what my mom saw in him. I guess he was some big bleeding heart in college, but after a while, he turned into his dad and the hate monger he is. I always told Vee that if I ever started down that road, to go all Of Mice and Men on me. She always responded with, “Tell me about the rabbits again.” So, I knew we were good.

Once I was done lollygagging and sightseeing, I climbed the bleachers and sat down at the top row next to Vee. She was in gym when the assembly was called, so she ran up to get “our” spots. We always sat in the top of the visitor’s bleachers for every event be it academic or athletic. She discovered a crack in the faraday cage up here in the gym. We sat in the same place in the outside events too so as not to raise attention. People just thought we are weird, which may or may not be true. While Mx. Wayne tried in vain to get everyone to quiet down, Vee leaned over and asked, “You got my shit?”  She wiggled her overly shaped eyebrows at me while she made grabby hands at me.

I pulled her phone and headphones out of my hoodie pocket and gave them to her. She held the phone up to scan her green eye and it unlocked for her. She stuck the left airbud in her ear and handed me the right one. I shoved it in and pulled up my hood. My buzzcut did nothing to hide contraband, but her unkempt mane of curly hair made it hard to see her face, so her ears were safe. Before she could start scrolling through our feed, Ms. Wishaw’s voice came booming over the speakers. “SIT DOWN AND SHUT YOUR MOUTHS. NOW!” 

My teeth rattled as we were sitting right beneath one of them. That did the trick as she knew it would. I can only imagine how many insensitivity reports would be flooding her feed once all these kids got home. I never bothered complaining too much because nothing had happened to her so far and she was the superintendent when my mom was in school. Obviously, someone thought she was doing something right or she had a file of dirty pictures of someone. Well, it was either that or the fact that she did a job no one wanted. She managed one of the last school districts in the state that had an entirely human population of teachers. It was such a nightmare job that she pretty much could do and say anything at any time and be safe.

“There is some important news from the government. Normally, we would wait and let your parents and guardians tell you this news or let it come to your feeds at the end of the day. But since only a handful of you would actually stop and listen to this…” she glanced up at us and I swear she could see my soul, “…and we simply do not trust your parents with this.” There was muttering when she said that. I am not sure why anyone was shocked; she bad-mouthed our parents all the time. “SHUT YOUR MOUTHS!” That killed the murmuring.

“Now listen.” She cleared her throat and pulled out a sheet of paper. Paper. She actually thought whatever-this-was was so valuable that she could waste a sheet of paper. We found out later that not only was she right to use the paper this way but that she was being proactive by getting things in writing. “The Surgeon General of the United States has officially declared smart phones a health risk. She is clear that there is not a radiation risk. Smart phones are not carcinogens. However, 50 years of research has proven that the use of these devices can cause severe mental impairment and that overuse can have adverse physical effects. She demands that children under the age of 18 stop use of these devices immediately. She reminds us that the internet is not a problem and that computers are still accessible to all children in schools and in public libraries. She cannot stop adults from using these devices, but she wishes to express her desire for all people to immediately turn in their devices to trade-in clinics that will be open as early as this afternoon, where smart phones will be traded in for working mobile phones with texting capabilities. The President has expressed xer support of this report and will be working with Congress to enact legislation that adheres to these recommendations.”

By the time she took a breath, the student body was in a panic. Everyone was whispering about the implications. A few thousand people whispering sounds like a few thousand circular saws. From our vantage point, we could see the first-years starting to move around like a swarm of insects. The kids in the bleachers were leaning forward and turning around trying to talk to their friends, to everyone and anyone. People who never spoke to each other were clamoring to be heard by anyone. I looked over to Vee, who was surprisingly calm. She was not going to believe it until she got into her feed. I wasn’t too sure either, but as terrible as Wishaw was, a liar she was not.

“There is more.” That knocked the wind out of the room. “While you were here, the security officers have gone through your lockers and taken your devices…” The riot was inevitable, and she knew it.

***

A.R. Farina is an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Siena Heights University in the College of Professional Studies. He has been writing since he was 12. He has co-written several songs with Wally Pleasant. The most recent can be found on the album Happy Hour. He writes reviews for DC Comics News and Audiofile Magazine. When he is not writing or teaching, he and his wife, a librarian, read books and watch the sunset from their lanai. This is his first time publishing on The Fictional Café. He can be found on Twitter here.

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