The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell

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The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell

A Newsflesh Novella

Mira Grant

 

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www.orbitshortfiction.com

This work is dedicated to all the amazing teachers working to create a better future, but especially to Roy Hagar, Gail Brewer, and Judi Miller. Thank you so much for all you do, and have done. You are true heroes.

The changes brought on by the Rising echoed through every layer of American society in the years immediately following the event, and have continued to echo ever since, inexorably changing the way in which we live. Some of the changes were immediate and obvious—the relaxation of gun control laws, the cessation of the “war on drugs” that had done so much to swell the American prison population in the early years of the twenty-first century, the dramatic increase in the minimum wage necessitated by the country's sudden economic transformation—while others were more subtle, and were, in some cases, not fully understood for years. Other changes are ongoing, and will no doubt continue indefinitely. That which has been transformed does not revert to its original state just because the illusion—or reality—of danger has passed.

Perhaps the most transformed of the so-called “American institutions” has been the primary education system.

While the majority of college-level students have proven more than happy to turn to a wholly virtual educational experience (excepting those students entering hazardous, hands-on fields such as medicine, biology, and food preparation), concerns regarding the social skills and overall development of younger children have kept the elementary and middle-grade schools open, despite legitimate concerns about the safety of those facilities. As the events of the 2036 tragedy at Seattle's Evergreen Elementary demonstrated, those concerns should not have been left unaddressed.

—from
Unspoken Tragedies of the American School System
by Alaric Kwong, March 19, 2044

>> AKWONG: HEY BOSS?

>> AKWONG: I THINK I FOUND HER…

—internal communication from Alaric Kwong to Mahir Gowda, After the End Times private server, March 16, 2044.

*  *  *

Wednesday, March 19, 2036, 7:16 a.m.

If there was any nicer place to be a schoolteacher than Seattle, Elaine was sure she didn't want to know about it. Knowledge might lead to the desire to see if the rumors were true, and that was a path that could lead to poor decisions and winding up stranded a few hundred miles from home, packed into some Idaho or Montana classroom and dreaming of the evergreens. No, it was better to accept the blessing that was her homeland for what it was: a paradise of gray skies, emerald hills, and the deep blue wonder of the Sound, which could be seen from the back of the blacktop on clear days. There were more of those than people from outside Seattle would have ever dreamt, even if there weren't as many as she remembered from her time in Southern California, where it seemed like the sun only went away at night, and then only grudgingly.

Too much sun was bad for the heart, in Elaine's opinion. It made it harder to enjoy the rain, whereas a surplus of rain just made the sun all the more precious. Maybe it was a Hallmark card way of looking at the world, but honestly, what was the point in keeping things sunny and sanitized all the time? Let a little rain in.

The alarm pad next to her classroom door was flashing on and off when she entered. She propped the door before entering the code and taking her second state-mandated blood test of the day. The first had been required to get her through the front door, and more would happen at both regular and irregular intervals until the final bell rang and signaled the return of her precious first-grade charges to their parents, older siblings, and nannies. Blood tests for students were thankfully less common; while the government needed to know that the children she taught were not in the process of converting, there was also a general understanding that forcing five- and six-year-olds to prick their fingers repeatedly throughout the day was a good way to make them afraid of school and resistant toward additional blood tests.

There was a bill up before the state senate that would grant teachers the power to request their students provide a clean blood sample whenever there was “reasonable suspicion” of conversion. Elaine was sure the bill would pass without any major opposition. Bills that traded on the words “student safety” and “think about the children” generally did, especially now that the Rising was far enough in the past that people were starting to acquire a vague sense of perspective.

The classroom's fluorescent overheads revealed small, sturdy desks scarred with pencil marks and ink stains, the plastic seats worn smooth by a decade of buttocks. It was almost possible to ignore the restraints built into the legs of the chairs, and the manacles tucked away under the edges of the desktops. She generally tried not to think about those things, or about the set of military-grade Kevlar gloves stored in the top drawer of her own desk, waiting for the day that they would be needed. She'd gone through the R&R training like every other teacher in her class—how to react when a student started showing signs of conversion, how to remain calm during the process of restraining and securing them—but after eight years on the job, she had never needed to put on the gloves for anything more severe than a skinned knee.

Not all the teachers she'd graduated with had been so lucky. Betsy Emkey had been teaching a class of third graders when one of her larger boys had managed to slink off to the back of the room and amplify. Betsy had been able to get him restrained, but not without suffering multiple bites to the arms and torso. Her school's vice principal had been the one to shoot her, after getting her students out of the room and into the care of the school nurse, who had performed blood tests on all twenty-one of the remaining students, and who had been forced to administer lethal injections to the three who came up positive. Betsy's memorial service had been small, private, and filled with people who couldn't meet each other's eyes. “There but for the grace of God” was the first thought on every teacher's mind when one of those articles showed up in the news feeds, when one of those unavoidable tragedies sparked a moment of silence from the president and a whole new round of legislation aimed at getting kids out of classrooms and into bubbles, where they could grow up safe and secure and unsocialized.

“They can learn math and reading and history anywhere, but we're the ones who have to teach them how to be a part of the human race” had been one of Betsy's favorite sayings, right after “The early bird catches the worm” and “Bless your uncultured heart.” Elaine had always thought Betsy was on to something—although maybe not so much with the thing about the birds. Humanity, though, that was a thing that needed teaching. Her first graders came to her every year, standing in the doorway and looking terrified of the prospect of spending a year in Miss Oldenburg's class, which seemed so grown up and structured and strange from the perspective of their limited experiences. And every year, she gathered them close and she lifted them up, showing them the bright sun of human society, the joy of friends who didn't just exist on a computer screen, and the virtue of spending time playing in the summer air and splashing in mud puddles.

The dead might walk, and the world might be a dangerous place, but as far as Elaine Oldenburg was concerned, that was no reason to live your life in fear. Joy was the only thing that would really make the future better.

She was walking around the room, checking the supplies of construction paper, crayons, pencils, and zip ties, when a knock on the door alerted her to the fact that she was no longer alone. She turned to see the school's night custodian, Guy, standing and watching her, a smile on his broad, bearded face. His ever-present black leather cap was tilted back on his head, concealing his bald spot without hiding his eyes. The children didn't like it when they couldn't see people's eyes. Too many horror movies and news reports focusing on the ocular effects of a full-blown Kellis-Amberlee conversion, making it harder for people whose eyes were naturally black or who had developed retinal KA through no fault of their own.

“Morning, Miss Oldenburg,” he said with a tip of that same cap. “Any trouble on the grounds?”

Elaine couldn't help but smile. He started every day with the same question, as regular as the blood tests at the toll booth between her house and the school. She didn't know what she would do when he reached retirement age at the end of the year—something that had been lowered to fifty for people who worked directly with children, including teachers, administrative staff, and yes, school janitors. The higher your chances of suffering a heart attack or something similar while you were at work, the sooner you would find yourself shuffled off to pasture. There were always positions teaching with the virtual schools, and hospitals were more than happy to absorb the support staff that the schools were legally required to dismiss, but still. Guy was part of the school, as much a fixture as the water fountains or lockers, and it wouldn't be the same without him.

“My next door neighbor still won't cancel his newspaper, even though he only brings it in once a week; the rest of the time, it's just an expensive eyesore announcing to the world that he's too hip to get his news online like the rest of the world,” she reported dutifully. “How about you, Guy? Any trouble on the grounds?”

“Not as such, and I can't complain,” he said, with a sunny smile that showed off his dentures. “Everything's shipshape and ready for the students. Do you have an exciting lesson planned for today?”

“I was thinking we might read a little, maybe learn some American history, maybe have a snack.” Elaine shrugged. “I'm playing it mostly by ear.”

“You always do,” Guy said and laughed. Elaine laughed with him. “You have a nice day, Miss Oldenburg, and call me if you need anything. My shift doesn't end until nine.”

“I'll do that, Guy, thank you,” said Elaine. She watched as the janitor turned and continued on to the next classroom, where another version of their daily talk would no doubt play out. She knew that some of the teachers found him less endearing than she did, but as far as she was concerned, it was best to know and be friendly with as much of the staff as possible. It would make it easier to tell if something was wrong with them.

The clock above her whiteboard made a small chiming noise as the display turned from 7:29 to 7:30. Half an hour before she had to go out to the front of the school to collect her students and escort them back to the classroom, settling each one with a coloring sheet and a handful of colored pencils before going back to get the next. Once, that sort of arrangement would have been an invitation to chaos—leaving a classroom full of first graders alone not just once, but multiple times, was like dangling a carrot in front of a hungry rabbit and expecting it not to jump. The restraints in the legs of the desks had taken care of a lot of the problems. Students couldn't get up and race around the room; students couldn't get up at all. There would be no physical bullying while the teacher was out of the room. That was, as far as Elaine was concerned, the only small blessing to the arrangement.

There was still teasing, of course, and bullying of the verbal kind; Elaine couldn't prevent that, and the laws regarding constant surveillance in the classroom were stalled in committee as lawmakers argued an endless loop of student privacy versus public safety. Even the teachers were divided on the topic. Privately, Elaine thought the cameras couldn't come fast enough. As far as she was concerned, anything she did on school grounds was fair game for the bureaucrats. Getting qualified teachers was hard enough that she wasn't going to get fired over something as small as swearing when she jammed her finger in the door or snapping at a student who ran a little too fast in the hallway, and having those videos might make the antibullying statutes easier to enforce.

In the meantime, she walked her students one by one into the classroom, and she watched them like a hawk throughout the year, quashing bullying wherever it reared its ugly head. Everyone on campus knew that Miss Oldenburg ran a tight ship, something that very few parents would have guessed during orientation, when they were confronted with a red-haired slip of a woman in a flowered dress, who looked like she could be one of the school's student teachers, not the leader of a whole first-grade class.

There was a time when those parents would have been thrilled to meet a teacher like Elaine Oldenburg, who was still bright and vivacious and engaged after eight years in what was widely regarded as one of the toughest jobs in the world. That time was before the Rising had come along and changed all the rules. First grade was a tricky year, filled with kids who might not fully understand the importance of sterile conditions and avoiding contact with classmates who suffered from bloody noses or skinned knees. By second grade, the students generally understood the dangers they would face in their adult lives, at least academically, but first graders were still carefree and immortal, unable to accept that there was anything in the world more powerful than Mommy and Daddy and Teacher. Even that wouldn't have been such a big problem—kindergarteners were worse, so confident in their own indestructability that it was a rare month without at least one full decontamination cycle in the kindergarten wing—except for the small and immutable factor of age.

First grade was the year when the top fifty percent of students crossed the forty-pound threshold, growing into amplification range. A blood-soaked kindergartener was a walking biohazard, but it was a
safe
one, inasmuch as any biohazard can be considered “safe.” The affected child wouldn't amplify. Once you hit first grade, that was no longer a guarantee. First grade was where teachers were lost.

Elaine Oldenburg smiled as she gave her classroom one last assessing look, checking to be absolutely sure that everything was in its proper place. Then she smoothed her skirt, checked to be sure that her pistol was properly holstered at her waist, and went to begin bringing in the students.

*  *  *

Classroom sizes reached their peak in the last years before the Rising, with as many as forty students per teacher in lower-income areas. This teacher/student disparity would later be blamed for the high fatality rates in those same schools: with too few adult authority figures to tell the students what to do, every exposure became an immediate crisis. Many great educators met their deaths in the chaos, and far too few of them managed to save the students they were fighting for. By the end of the Rising, America's educational policy was shifting toward an attitude of self-preservation over self-sacrifice: an infected student could not do as much damage as an infected teacher. It was thus the duty of those adults to shoot first, in order to save themselves and avoid becoming a threat.

The standard class size at Evergreen Elementary was eighteen. Eighteen students to each teacher, not counting student teachers and college-level aides, who—when distributed across the school—brought the actual adult/child ratio to something closer to one adult for every eleven children. When secured to their desks during the morning loading phase or during an unavoidable teacher absence from the classroom, the students were unable to reach one another. The desks were bolted to the floor to guarantee that there would be no unsupervised physical contact of any kind.

When we look at the events of that terrible day only eight years in our past, it is important to remember that the teachers of Evergreen Elementary did everything they could: they took every precaution and followed every rule. If there were any justice in the world, they would have been rewarded with long lives, successful careers, and eventual retirement to the virtual education system, where they could have continued to teach until they chose to retire. There would have been no need for them to be lauded as heroes. They would have been forgotten by the march of history, quietly wiped from the memories of all save for the students they mentored, taught, and freed into their own beautiful futures.

There is no justice in the world. There never has been.

—from
Unspoken Tragedies of the American School System
by Alaric Kwong, March 19, 2044

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