At IOTA, the Institute of True Amounts, every desk, chair, colored pencil, and preschooler was always in its proper spot. In the heart of Singapore, the school’s exterior was a vegetal arrangement of hanging flora exquisitely designed by the country’s preeminent party leaders. The garden veil hid the multi-story block’s industrial innards.
“Ready, Miss Gena?” Ivan Tan, Vice Principal, asked as he walked his best teacher through the concrete halls to her classroom.
“Mr. Ivan, please,” he tutted jovially.
She nodded as they passed groups of children walking on their correct Path-Streams, color-coded based on their abilities. They looked immaculate and darling in their black uniforms, keeping within the confines of the efficiently laid-out paths. Only the H.L.P., Hygiene and Litter Personnel, roamed off-piste to better maintain the school. One such individual halted and, head down, let Ivan and Gena pass first.
Ivan waved at the children. Inwardly, he appreciated their muted uniforms for highlighting the brilliant pink of his leaf-print blazer which he paired uneasily with skin-tight jeans and the tropical heat. Damned jacket was starting to dampen, he thought, but it was a necessity for today.
Gena was dressed in a beige shift that was the school’s sanctioned color for teachers. She stood a head taller than Ivan and, despite her quiet Chinese features, comported herself as though she possessed a Nordic backbone. She could sense Ivan’s agitation and repositioned her glasses though they had not slid down her nose. She never sweated.
“So, to go over the schedule again, the tour is at four-thirty after the principal’s talk.” Ivan patted his forehead with his pocket square. “We’ll take the CEO Path-Stream and should reach your classroom by four-forty. Please make sure the children are chatting at fifty-seven decibels. Because it’s a sign of life, of, of—”
“Of energy and passion. Of liveliness.”
“– otherwise, the parents might worry about our methods. And if they pull their kids out, well, we will be in a pickle, so to speak.”
“A pickle. Yes. Please do not worry, sir.” Gena pressed her mouth into a smile. “Mr. Ivan. I realize.”
On the top floor of the industrial school block, the Conference Theatre had just reached capacity. It frothed with excitement displayed only by youthful parents of first-time school entrants, or the newly-rich looking for their nest egg investment.
Dr. Margaret Chua, Chief Principal, rose to begin her speech. Such lovely people, she thought. This time the jokes will surely work.
After opening pleasantries, she cleared her throat and began: “This is surely a day of great celebration. It has been a dream of the Ministry of Future Citizenship and the Ministry of Techno-Progression that a preschool like ours can exist. For years they have worked to bring a place where our children can be set up for life. A month ago, IOTA opened our doors to your toddlers. Today, we welcome parents to observe your child’s first leap into their prosperous future.
“True amounts of everything is the key to a successful career. And there is no better time to start inculcating correct values than into small, moldable brains. Learning objectives filtered through their hardware will integrate into their software and soon become part of their heartware. Wouldn’t you all agree?” Margaret waited for her words to sink in. Murmurs and nods followed.
“Our curriculum makes sure that each child gets exactly the correct amount of every subject. Cognitive skills, critical thinking, physique sculpting – every aspect of the future CEO is factored into our preschool program. Children are taught the precise times they are to play, how to play, how loud to speak in classrooms and outside, and so forth. Everything is carefully controlled by our elite fleet of teachers.”
Gena’s class was going as planned. The children had finished reading their phonics book on Japanese cuisine and were typing reflections on their FlexiTabs. Only Kaidena, usually so attentive, was not working. Gena leaned over her at an angle that conveyed care but also authority.
‘Kaidena, how is your progress– ’
And Kaidena threw up neatly onto Gena’s shoes.
Several children squealed but one solemn look from Gena quelled them. The ones closest to Kaidena picked up their work and floated silently to empty desks. Kaidena’s designated friend took her by the hand and led her out of the classroom to the Sick Bay. Peace prevailed as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
An H.L.P. appeared at the door unsummoned. The children stared at him a little. They had not yet grown accustomed to the sight of the H.L.P.’s in their grey uniforms that blended in with grey of the school but brought out the darkness of their skin. To emulate janitors seen in Singapore’s natural society, a schoolwide notification had disclosed. The children returned to their silent work as he began to mop up the rainbow vomit, with bits of undigested cereal, the only vivid color in the room.
Margaret was nearing the end of her speech and the cherry was coming. The parents regarded her with laser-focus. She had them eating out of the palm of her hand. Filling all 100 preschool classrooms had been no small feat. But retaining students, when so many other boutique preschools competed for them, called for cutting-edge methods.
“Of course, we also want to honor our Ministry parents today. We are proud to be the host school for the Assisted Technology program from the Ministry of Techno-Progression. Their newest models of AI, including our taskforce of H.L.P., have the look and intelligence of a real human – but not the human life outside of school. This ensures one-hundred percent dedication in time and effort. And nothing of their personal life would bleed into the rarified space shared with your children. So, you can rest assured that our AI’s will bring no messiness from their own backgrounds into IOTA – they are only here to clean the mess, ha ha ha.”
A few titters but, in general, only stares. Margaret was crestfallen but the entrance of a loudly attired man saved her from further embarrassment. Ivan swept into the Conference Theatre, his arms out in beatific sheepishness. He bowed slightly, smiling.
‘Ah, parents, my VP Ivan Tan, who is also the Head of the Culture and Charisma Faculty! He is in charge of ensuring that our students cultivate just a hint of individual flair.” Margaret balked inwardly at the blazer but thanked her stars he had arrived early. “Mr. Tan will now take you on a tour of our prized department. He will show his pedagogical approach to developing a winning executive personality in action.”
“Mr. Ivan, please! Now if you will follow me…”
“Miss, your shoes,” said the H.L.P., getting to his knees in front of her
Gena crouched down too.
He smiled at her shoes. He was designed to be agreeable. “Please allow me.”
Gena thought she caught a glint in his eyes but all she could see now was his downturned head and his smooth, well-shaped neck. She felt the force of his hands press onto her canvas shoes. They dried immediately from the suction and air vents in the pores of his hands. But they remained rumpled and stained. “It’s not going to come out.”
“I can bring them to wash in the Laundry Quarters.”
“The parents’ tour. They will be here by then.” Gena turned to her class, told the children they were to discuss the pros and cons of ordering a la carte versus omakase. The children immediately launched into a quiet discussion, speaking one at a time.
The vomit was gone. The H.L.P. had sapped the air of its curdled odor, replaced it with a Fresh Cotton scent. The only lingering reminder of the out-of-place occurrence was Gena’s shoes, stained purple and pink.
“The parents arrive in three minutes. They must not see this glaring error.”
The H.L.P. raised his eyes to look at her. He registered discomfort, anxiety, and helplessness. He felt an urge to help this poor young teacher. He removed his own canvas shoes and offered them to her.
He held her gaze as she took his shoes. He registered gratitude, then a softness and depth of yearning the likes of which he had never read before on anyone in this school. If there was more time, he would have liked to ask what she was feeling and why. He would have liked to understand her and, he reasoned, she might like to talk to him too.
But the tour!
She ushered him to the other door out the classroom that led to a back hallway. “Thank you,” she whispered. She reached out, touched his shoulder and, for a breath of a moment, a burst of laughter escaped from her mouth. The children stopped their talking to listen.
No sooner had the door closed, the children’s chatter resumed. Gena readjusted her face to an expression of benevolent authority. The analogue’s red face clocked down the last few seconds before the tour was to arrive. In the nick of time, but Gena was never off.
Ivan and Margaret, being human and fumbled sometimes with punctuality, had in fact witnessed the entire thing. The speech had ended early to no aplomb. The tour had sped on quicker than anticipated because no one wanted to deal with the heat. They had arrived, Ivan had spotted the H.L.P. in the classroom and had quickly diverted the tour to a crowd-pleaser activity.
“Refreshments! Refreshments are served in the canteen,” Ivan had exclaimed. “Please make your way down these stairs. You will be able to get a taste of what our students eat.”
“We cater to all different diets,” added Margaret, waving the herd along. “But rest assured, the spread is always amazing. Please try everything. I can hardly stop myself sometimes! Mr. Tan, a word with you, please.”
The two excused themselves and approached Gena’s classroom. They peered through the narrow window in the door. Inside, Gena walked from table to table, engaging with students.
Margaret clicked her tongue. “You saw it too?”
“Do you mean Miss Gena with…”
“Yes, with the H.L.P.– ”
“With the H.L.P. Yes.”
“Well,” Ivan rubbed his right nostril, a nervous tic of his, and, when he realised what he was doing, tried to shove his hands into the pockets of his tight jeans. They wouldn’t go in, so he crossed his arms. “Is it a problem?”
“Is it a problem!” Margaret stared. “How can it not be a problem?”
“There was an issue. The H.L.P. found a solution. Then she thanked him.”
“She touched him. Willingly. And then she giggled.”
“It was not really a giggle, more like a sigh. A snort of relief. An expression of– ”
“We can’t have teachers giggling.”
Ivan said nothing.
“Giggling is more affection than we have seen any of them express. We can’t have teachers feeling this level of affection.”
“She has been with us since the beginning,” he said quietly.
“A full ten years! Sooner or later, she was bound to malfunction.” Margaret pulled Ivan away from the classroom. “I’m just thankful it happened during the parent tour. What if it had been the investor tour? Boot up the new model we received from the Ministry last week. We need to get her ready.” When Ivan said nothing still, Margaret patted him on the shoulder. “We can’t have our teachers feeling anything akin to love. Surely, you realize this.”
Ivan did realize. Controlled doses of fondness for students, with the objective of building trust, were desirable as a pedagogical tool. It was part of the teacher AI psyche he had developed with the Ministry of Techno-Progression.
Love, and for something of their choosing, was a different beast altogether. Love bred empathy and irrationality. Love was the gateway to deviant thought. If teachers thought differently, wondered about learning objectives, veered off track, deviated from prescribed pedagogy? Then they would be in a pickle.
Ivan sighed. GenA-sis 1ZSD had been like a friend to him.
Dawn Lo is a Hong Kong-Canadian writer and educator currently based in Singapore. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lasalle College of the Arts. Her work has appeared in Chantwood Magazine and the Merrimack Review. Image: One of Singaporean artist Anthony Poon's four sculptures entitled Sense Surround #1, #2, #3 and #4, commissioned by and installed outside the St. Regis Singapore (cc wikimedia)