I am part of a colossal social experiment. At first, I was unaware of the part I would play in the drama and blithely wandered into the maze like the token rodent I am, cleverly assigned a rodent number stamped on my schedule: “369482.” There are no windows. Not a single ray of coveted natural daylight is allowed to blemish the floors of the maze. Simply the overhead fluorescent opulence of the laboratory overhead.
Walls of the maze are graced in cardboard-colored faux paneling, circa 1972, and are rumored to hide the ultimate kingdom of roaches, as is evidenced now and again by an inquisitive antennaed head appearing through puncture wounds in the yellowed ceiling tiles.
Another day of The Experiment begins promptly at 7:35 a.m. A flurry of worksheets are passed from one guinea pig to the next until the only sound in the room is the scratching of pen to paper, an occasional slurp from a Starbucks cup by the Attendant and a cheerful ping from the Attendant’s phone as she gazes at the screen with a sanguine smile.
The Experiment continues, punctuated by an Attendant reading from an intensely dull textbook (in case the subjects forgot how to read), while the background sounds take on the muted waffling of a subject deep in REM stage behind the same intensely dull textbook, tapping of a ballpoint pen against a disfigured melamine tabletop, and quiet snapping of gum being chewed from several directions. The posterior of the subjects slide lower in the cheery tangerine plastic as the day wears on to prevent nerve damage from slouching in an unnatural pose.
Routine continues as the subjects pretend to listen to the Attendant lecture about lack of pay and fairness. It’s the seventh day of The Experiment and what has happened to Attendant 4? Abandoned The Experiment for better pay at a local university. Proctor 2? Lived up to the promise to retire with a full pension and never look back. No replacement has been found.
The monotony is relieved by the quick staccato of dress shoes upon dated linoleum in the hall. We know what this means. We watch the Attendant spring into action, fear apparent in her wild-eyed gaze as she frantically lunges for a laptop. As the face of the Proctor appears in the shatterproof glass of the lab door, the Attendant removes all traces of angst and launches into a lecture by rote.
“Welcome, Proctor,” she says. “We were just talking about the Spanish Inquisition.”
“Excellent!” the Proctor replies pulling an electronic device from his shirt pocket. “You don’t mind if I stick around a while, do you?”
Recognizing the rhetorical question, the Attendant replies, “We’d love to have you.” And carries on with her lecture, the first anyone has heard of the Spanish Inquisition from her. My fellow rodents and I have entertained ourselves in her laboratory by secretly playing an online AP World History trivia game amongst ourselves with our magical devices for the past several months. It was created by the many rodents who came before us, and we are delighted to add to the knowledge bank. We throw answers back and forth in silence with our calloused electro-device thumbs in a fierce Kahoot competition. The Spanish Inquisition has been a main topic in the game for the last few days. We are experts.
The next Attendant laments the lack of iPads and states that we cannot take a quiz because without them, he’ll have to grade our tests manually. Sigh. We do worksheets instead. Next, we have a class with enough iPads.
Exciting! We dissect electronic frogs, then endure the droning of another textbook reading.
I smile behind my intensely boring pile of squished dead trees. I have a secret. As the years have passed in The Experiment, I have perfected the art of self-teaching. An online course is a luxury. Contained, precise, divine. I am a member of Generation Z. The first generation to never even consider using a textbook for reference. I have the power of the world in my own pocket in the form of a Magic 8 Ball oracle I affectionately refer to as Morpheus. I can ask Morpheus anything, and she doesn’t judge me. From how to change a tire to the meaning of the word ayudar, I know everything, instantly, all the time. I know the best recipe for pad thai and have plenty of suggestions for birthday gifts for the person who has everything. Thanks to Morpheus, I am instantly informed, endlessly entertained, astonishingly adept, and viewed universally as a thoughtful gift-giver.
I am released temporarily from this dystopian world at 2 p.m. My rear is numb and the wart-like callous on my middle finger from hand-writing page upon page of transcribed information throbs. I blink into the unfamiliar daylight. I am unaware of anyone outside The Experiment who writes by hand. It seems to be an archaic pastime kept alive as a means of torture. I embrace the heat of the sun on my deprived skin.
I live at the crossroads of Attendant obsolescence and worth. I wonder, why then am I part of The Experiment at all? What precisely is the purpose of a brick-and-mortar classroom in this day and age? I am painfully aware that I have Morpheus to thank for my success in self-teaching, despite my attendance at The Lab. I suspect the only answer I might get should I ask an Attendant why I must appear in a classroom would be, “Because I said so.” But I dare not ask an Attendant. It seems this might be the equivalent of pointing out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. On this same topic even Morpheus remains stubbornly silent. Perhaps she cannot believe I would dare ask such a blasphemous question, or perhaps, as enlightened as she is, she truly does not know.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.