Divine Heritage, chapter 1
part of a novel by David Sims
Morningside Elementary School
YOU don’t know me, but you will. My mom is Helen Hostetter, and through her I’m German and Swiss. My dad is Bren Jones, and his ancestry is mostly English and Scottish. I get my blonde hair from both sides. I’m a girl, but I was named for my dad.
It’s my eleventh birthday, and I have to go to school. I live in Atlanta in the same general area as Druid Hills and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. My home and my school are in one of the nicer parts of Atlanta, though that isn’t saying much. I’d really hate to live on the south side because it isn’t safe there at all. When I asked Dad where he was sending me for middle school next year, he said “Parks,” and I was horrified because Parks Middle School is infested with drug gangs. It’s a place where the teachers rape the students, or the students rape the teachers, and there’s always somebody shooting a gun at somebody else. It happens every day.
But he was only teasing me. I’m going to Inman Middle School next fall, which is bad enough, but not nearly as dangerous as Parks would be. Dad said that a sociologist at Emory University did a study and found out that some of Atlanta’s high schools have higher mortality rates than graduation rates. It used to be that low test scores were the biggest concern.
I really wanted to attend Brookstone, but it’s in Columbus over a hundred miles away, and my parents’ apron strings aren’t that long.
My school is about half a mile ahead. I glance around the bus as it changes lanes, and most of my classmates don’t impress me much. These same boys and girls were reasonably normal people last year, but now they’re all quite immature. I don’t know what happened to them. Of course, some of them are less childish than others, but they all seem pettier and shallower than they should be, fighting over small differences of opinion, casting friendships to the winds over trifles. I’ve seen kittens play pounce games with more dignity.
Dad says that humanity needs a functionality upgrade. He’s a computer technician and software engineer, and that’s just how he talks. He’s right, though. The next version of the human software is overdue. Maybe the improved hardware has to come first.
The bus has turned into the school’s parking lot, and that’s a good thing because the four boys in the rearmost seats are growing rowdy, and it wouldn’t have been long before they started picking a fight with somebody. Now we must gather up our gear and prepare to head into the education mines.
Parked. Begin mass disembarkation.
My name is Brenda Lynn Jones, and I’m heading into Morningside Elementary School on this 20th day of April, 2044, to begin my last month in the fifth grade.
* * *
It took about three minutes to stow most of my books in my locker along the side of Third Hall, keeping only my notebook and my math textbook, since that’s my first class, and scoot into my home room ahead of the first bell.
Then I sat at my desk and looked around. Mrs. Joiner, mistress of my home room and the school’s biology teacher, is reading something. The juveniles around me are abuzz with pre-bell conversation.
We’re approaching the end of elementary school and a long, friendly association, albeit an institutional one, and whereas there are exceptions to which the word “friendly” would not apply, some of the girls in my class are misty-eyed about it. Sentimental. We will soon go our separate ways. Although I’ll almost certainly see familiar faces at Inman next fall, most of my schoolmates there will be strangers. A lot of the girls will be attending private schools in more gentrified areas where they will be less likely to encounter violence. So this will certainly be the last month in which most of us will see each other.
But unlike the sentimental ones, I’m looking forward to getting out of here and going somewhere people act their age, instead of like retards.
“Brenda, please pass this to Cindy.”
“Okay,” I said, accepting the note and handing it to the girl in the next column of seats and one row behind me. I didn’t read it. Besides being discourteous, I can’t imagine what the point would be.
To be fair, though, some of my classmates might be worth mentioning.
The best of them is a boy named Brian Smith. He’s the smartest of the boys, and good-looking too. And he’s well-behaved, and modest (for a boy), and—I guess you can tell that I like him. Last year, his grades were higher than anybody else’s, and I was making B’s and C’s. This year, I’m top of the class, and Brian is number two. The remaining straight-A students in Morningside’s fifth grade are Peter Chu and Sarah Weisman. Brian and I are white kids. Peter is Chinese, and Sarah’s Jewish. We four are the grade point average elite, though some of the other kids are pushing hard to join the club.
A lady shouldn’t be condescending, my mom says. But I can’t help it. I enjoy having the distinction of being first in my class, especially since my having it means that Sarah doesn’t have it. The title of “smartest girl in school” automatically goes to the student who has first in class standing, if that student is a girl. Sarah is jealous. She wanted to claim that status for herself. Last year, she did and made the most of it. This year, she can’t. If I have anything to say about it, she never will again.
Mrs. Joiner began reading a list of today’s announcements from the school administration, which means Principal Tucker, or the superintendent, or the school board. Or the cops. But Morningside doesn’t often need police intervention, and today’s list of imperatives sounded rather run-of-the-mill.
“…and some of you, I’ll mention no names,” said Mrs. Joiner, “are still in arrears for your school insurance premiums. The principal and I expect payments to be completed by the end of the semester.”
There’s a law in Georgia that collectivizes the life-and-disability insurance that students are required by law to buy. Or, rather, our parents are required by law to pay for it. Collectively. Which means as long as the insurance company makes a profit, it doesn’t care whether some had to pay higher premiums so that others could have a free ride. If the insurance company doesn’t get “a reasonable profit” as determined by the courts, the same law enables the company to sue the county to recoup to that extent, and then the taxpayers pay for it. Payouts in the event of a death or an injury are legally guaranteed, whether the affected students’ parents have paid their premiums or not. As a result, some parents don’t pay. Mine always pay on the first day of each school term.
Why do we need insurance at all? The insurance gives you a certain amount of money to pay for your medical costs if you break your leg while playing basketball or if someone blinds you by popping out your eyeballs. That happened to a boy last year, and there was a big ruckus about it. There were reporters here from Channel 11 News, and I thought that it would make the newscasts, but it didn’t. The station’s producer or their affiliated network must have killed the story.
Anyway, the only other purpose of homeroom, as far as I can see, is to sneak in the prayers that the school is technically not supposed to sponsor. The only reason nobody sues them is the fact that they are watered down to the point of vague well-wishing. Be well, my child, and have the blessings of whatever gods or goddesses you like best. But the prayers only happen on Fridays, and today is a Wednesday.
Ah, the bell. It’s time for math class. I headed out the door with the rest of the students. Some of them turned left. Some turned right. And the rest of us, myself included, went straight across the hall to room 306, where Mrs. Johns will try to teach us arithmetic.
I can’t imagine why I ever thought that math was hard. It makes such perfect sense. Mrs. Johns must be a better teacher than any I’ve had before. I wish that she wouldn’t go so slowly though. She isn’t even going to finish the textbook before the semester ends. I finished it weeks ago, including all of the book’s end-of-chapter homework problems. I turned them in just to impress her. The tests are so ridiculously easy that they ought not give anyone in here a challenge. And yet a minority of my classmates keep failing the tests, over and over again. I don’t know how they do it, but they do.
We were in our seats, with me in the second row and the third column. Mrs. Johns, who had been sitting behind her teacher’s desk, stood, picked up a handful of sheets of paper, and…
“Students,” said Mrs. Johns. “Here are your mid-term tests, all graded and, where needed, commented upon. I’m going to give you your tests back, and those of you who are high-scorers should try not to look smug.”
A smattering of smothered laughs rolled through the room.
“A few of you still need to study more. This should not be difficult.”
Mrs. Johns handed out the graded test sheets. Mine had “100” written at the top. I could tell that Brian and Sarah had been similarly accomplished, but Peter was upset. I knew that this meant he’d missed one question, probably through misreading it, and had gotten a score of 98. That would be very upsetting to him. Worse, when his mother heard about it. Several of the questions on the test had intentional conflicts between logic and conventional syntax, and we students were being trained to attend to the logic.
A year ago, I was nobody special as far as grades go. I worked hard and was mostly a B student. But at the beginning of this year, I sailed to the head of the class. I don’t just pass tests. I blast them out of the sky. I’m always the first to finish an exam, and I haven’t missed a question so far this year.
The three other students of the elite aren’t far behind me in GPA, and if I weren’t here Peter, Brian, and Sarah would be vying for first in class. Behind those three notable classmates of mine, there’s the “herd,” of which I was an undistinguished member throughout the fourth grade. And behind the herd, there’s a mass of dark matter that emits no light and can only be detected by their effects (mostly bad) on their brighter peers. The teachers focus their efforts on this latter group most intensively, at the expense of everyone else, trying to make them catch up with the herd. But it doesn’t work.
I’ve met Peter’s mom, a hard-driving woman, demanding of her son. Brian is a self-starter who does as well as Peter without needing his mom to nag him. Sarah is… well, Sarah’s a Jew. To her, schooling is a stepping stone to the power, status, and wealth that she regards as the birthright of the Chosen Ones. And me? I suppose that I do more than is strictly required of me because I want to be an engineer like my dad when I grow up.
The four of us are all taking math class together. It’s fifth-grade arithmetic, where we drill with addition problems involving four- and five-digit integers and study such advanced concepts as fractions and percentages. The dark matter actually struggles with it. The herd has no particular difficulty. Sarah, Brian, and Peter are already pushing ahead into algebra and plane geometry, though they’ve yet to take a course on those subjects.
“Today, we are going to begin the study of coordinate systems,” announced Mrs. Johns.
I wanted to raise my hand and ask “Rotating or inertial?” but even the usually imperturbable Mrs. Johns sometimes gets annoyed with smart alecs.
“A coordinate system is a set of number lines that meet at a single point, called the ‘origin,’ but run in different directions. They enable functions and relations to be mapped, or graphed, on paper. This helps with visualiz—”
Mrs. Johns was interrupted by a call from another teacher, who had left her own classroom and was standing beside our door. Mrs. Johns went to see what the other teacher wanted.
Apparently, there was a discipline problem, and it was to be handled in the hall. The school’s rules require such things to be witnessed, and all of the teachers are obliged to volunteer when asked.
I might have said earlier that Morningside isn’t one of the really bad schools in Atlanta. It’s true enough. Since it’s an elementary school, the fifth grade is the highest grade it teaches. And in Atlanta there’s an unwritten rule that two grade retentions is the maximum. A student who has already failed grade promotion twice will have on his later report cards no grade lower than a D. So the oldest kid here is a thirteen-year-old thug named Tyrone Banks. But he’s still a little thug, not yet as dangerous as he might be a few years hence. Still, some of the bad kids have been known to carry knives, so the extra teacher is as much a backup as a witness.
Tyrone was the troublemaker on this occasion. I could hear him saying that he hadn’t done anything wrong. Or, rather, that’s what he would have said if his English were better.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Sharon Malley took advantage of the teacher’s absence to show off her new graphing calculator. It was the latest thing from Hewlett-Packard, and Sharon thinks that anyone who doesn’t have the latest thing is nobody, socially. If she saw my Casio, she’d make out like her calculator is infinitely better than mine. She’s parted her hair on the left today, trying to look stylish. And would you look at that handbag she has? It’s one of those $1200 models from Newman-Marks downtown. What does she keep in there—her teddy bear collection?
I could hear Tyrone’s voice from the hall. He was sassing both teachers now, loudly. They ain’t gonna do nothin’ to him ’cause if they do he’ll get them fired and brought up on civil rights charges.
I wonder what he did that was so bad that it compelled that other teacher to take cognizance. They usually just pretend not to have seen or heard anything. The teachers out there were trying to keep their voices down, but I can still hear them. It’s an awkward situation for them because Tyrone isn’t making an idle threat.
Years ago, laws were passed that criminalized something called “disparate impact” in the administrative policies of public schools, most especially those regarding discipline. A rule that causes one group of students to be more often subjected to punishment, as compared with other groups, may not be enforced. Tyrone belongs to a group having a very high per capita misbehavior rate. It’s getting near the end of the year, and Morningside has probably used up its allowance of corrective actions with respect to that group.
Tyrone is black.
My classmates nearest the door had begun laughing. I’d missed something. But the desk-to-desk whispernet quickly informed me that Tyrone’s offense had been urinating, in front of his class, while standing on top of a table, into Mrs. Thomas’ aquarium. Mrs. Thomas was the school’s English and Glee Club teacher. She’d been out of the room at the time, having had to witness for yet another teacher who had been trying to straighten up yet another offender, the details of which I probably won’t know until this afternoon.
Most of the teachers at Morningside are white, and they don’t like to deal with racial issues. The reason for their taciturnity is that doing so carries political risks. Someone like that mouthy black boy out there might accuse the teacher of racial bias, or of using a racial slur. He’d be lying, but all the authorities would pretend to believe him, and the teacher could lose her job. By never speaking about race as if there were any social significance to it, the teachers avoid having to choose between lying to their students or else being punished for telling us the truth.
The teachers worry about being fired by the principal. The principal worries about being fired by the superintendent. The superintendent worries about being fired by the district board of education. The members of that board worry about being dismissed in recall elections. And all of them are afraid of civil rights lawsuits, to which any of them might become liable if he says anything that implies that the races aren’t equals, or that he thinks that mixing the races isn’t such a good idea.
A threat to the paycheck will make most people pretend to believe every lie they ever heard.
Mrs. Johns reentered the classroom, and we resumed our study of arithmetic. When we were duly introduced to orthogonal Cartesian coordinate systems, we reviewed long division.
Yes, ma’am. I know how to do long division. I can show you how to find square roots, too. No, I don’t need to see the prime numbers up to one hundred because I’ve programmed my calculator to find them for me, and to show the prime factorizations of the composites. I’m bored. Not with math, but with the slow pace of this class. The hell with mixed fractions, greatest common denominators, and least common multiples. Teach me something new, Mrs. Johns. Before I throw your box of chalk out the window.
I thought again about the deed of Tyrone Banks. Peeing in a classroom isn’t the worst thing that has happened in the Atlanta Public Schools, but it is certainly one of the oddest. I wondered whether Mrs. Thomas’ fish would die.
* * *
After the bell ending the first period, I went to my locker, unlocked it with my school-issued key, put away my math book, and grabbed the textbook for my next class.
Elementary schools once taught something called “Social Studies,” which was (so I’m told) a class devoted to following contemporary events of national and international importance, and upon these events students would strive to say something relevant and clever, after which the teacher would bestow grades according to how well she admired what each of the students had said. It was, of course, a consensus-building exercise, but during the school days of my parents it did, at least, allow some wiggle room for independent thinking and the freedom to express that independent thought, if a student were capable of it.
Social Science is different. It’s a brainwashing class. Once taught in colleges, it filtered into high schools in the twenties, and now it’s being pushed like a narcotic drug to fifth-graders like me.
Having sat through twelve weeks’ worth of Mrs. Fergus’ classes, I’ve the impression that Social Science is a hugely convoluted exercise in circular reasoning. The entire subject exists to justify ideas that sociologists believe must be accepted as true because they should be true. And you had better not inquire whether they really are true or not, unless you want a bunch of sociologists to run up and spit on you.
Dad told me that anthropology was like that, too, regarding the theory of racial equality.
A lot of what sociologists preach sounds like nonsense. But my teacher, Mrs. Fergus, is a true believer in the stuff, so I have to pretend to believe what she preaches, or I won’t get a good grade.
“What you thinkin’ ’bout?”
Sharon Malley. She sometimes talks that way because her boyfriend does, leaving out unnecessary words and syllables for the sake of mandibular efficiency.
“I was just thinking about how fortunate we are to learn such an important subject as this from an expert such as Mrs. Fergus,” I answered. “Is that a new calculator you have there?”
“Yeah. It’s an HP.”
She showed it to me, angling it so that the overhead fluorescent light reflected into my eyes.
“Is it programmable?”
“Don’t know. If it is I haven’t figured out how to program it yet. I hear you have a new calculator too.”
I showed her my Casio.
“Pretty nice,” she conceded. “Mine’s probably better, though. Do you think we’ll need them in class?”
“In this class? No. In Physical Science, we will.”
“Yeah. That class has a lot of equations. Why doesn’t this one?”
Sharon Malley isn’t completely stupid, then, if she can think well enough to ask a question like that. Still, it wasn’t safe for me to answer her, so I didn’t.
Mrs. Fergus droned on for an hour about the usual stuff. Poverty causes crime. Everybody is born equal and different life outcomes are the result of disparities of wealth and privilege. Give a monkey enough free bananas, I thought, mentally extending the argument, and he’ll become civilized and earn his living thenceforth as a mechanical engineer. I’d have loved to debate Mrs. Fergus. I was pretty certain that I could make a fool out of her.
She’d point out that the races of mankind differed by only a fraction of a percent of their genes.
I’d reply that humans and chimpanzees differ by only two percent of their genes, and that most of the genes of both men and apes have nothing to do with the differences between them, but rather function to determine them both as animals rather than plants; as multicellular rather than single-celled; as chordates with a central nervous system; as vertebrates with a backbone; as warm-blooded mammals instead of fish or reptiles; as primates rather than felines, ursines, or ruminants; as hominids rather than monkeys. Doing all that uses up 98% of our genes.
If I were disputing the equality of humans and oak trees, a much larger fraction of the genes would be relevant to the debate. But if I’m disputing the quality of the several races of mankind, the only genes that deserve attention are those that cause human racial variation to occur. The similarity in all the rest of the genes is irrelevant and does not constitute a valid talking point for the egalitarian side. Anything who thinks otherwise should be asked whether farm tractors and passenger cars are the same things because they both burn fossil fuels, require lubricant on their moving parts, and have wheels, transmissions, and internal combustion engines.
Yes, I could beat Mrs. Fergus in a debate, provided that neither of us had an unfair advantage. But Mrs. Fergus held just such an advantage. She had the power to choose what grade I would get from her class, whereas I had no reciprocal leverage against her. Were I to show her the errors in her ideology, she’d punish me by giving me a bad grade, and with that grade I would lose my class standing. So I’d just keep my mouth shut, at least until I graduated from elementary school.
You don’t have to tell me what a hypocrite I am. I know it already.
* * *
Physical science does have equations, but they’re all simple ones that you don’t need a fancy graphing calculator for. Anything that will do the four basic arithmetic operations will get you by. On the other hand, I’ve had a peek into Dad’s college physics textbooks, and so I’ve seen what’s coming a ways down the road. The equations in that book are the kinds of stuff that you do need a graphing, symbolic algebra-and-calculus, programmable calculator for. Since I don’t expect to wait until I’m in college to do work at that level, my calculator isn’t just for flash and status. It’s an investment that I’m glad my dad paid for because my allowance sure wasn’t going to cover it. Not even if I volunteered to do the dishes every night.
Now I know what Sharon uses that oversized handbag for. She smuggles chewing gum into class in it, and passes it around to the more rebellious girls who dare defy Mr. Davis’ gum interdict. For a boy, getting caught chewing gum would be worth an immediate trip to the principal’s office for a stern lecture, plus whatever else they do to boys in there. Rumors abound, but hard evidence is scant. But a girl can usually evade punishment by saying, “Oops, I forgot,” and by looking very sincerely contrite. We girls are all experts at looking very sincerely contrite. It’s a survival skill.
I won’t bore you with the rest of my science class, except to mention that some white phosphorus got away from Mr. Davis after it ignited on one side and burned his fingers. He had been holding it in his hands, trying to wipe the oil off.
“Is that white phosphorus?” Brian had guessed what the stuff was.
“Yes it is,” said Mr. Davis, squeezing the little blob.
“You’re going to get burned if you keep that up.”
“No, I’m not. I—”
He dropped the phosphorus, and after it hit the floor the thrust from the burning side made the blob scoot under our desks. We all raised our feet to get them out of the way while it careened from wall to wall, and nearly every girl in class except me screamed. The phosphorus wedged into a crack between two masonry blocks, and Brian ran into the hall, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and ran back in to spray whatever was in it on the phosphorus, which was still oxidizing furiously.
With Mr. Davis, that’s a normal class. Last week he blew up a beaker filled with water by throwing some metallic sodium into it. He looks like a mischievous Faust when he does stuff like that, which is one of the reasons I like science class so much.
* * *
Biology is my least favorite class. Mrs. Joiner is our biology teacher, so I was back in room 305. We’ve gone over human anatomy in some detail during the earlier weeks of class, covering digestion and metabolism while we were studying the alimentary canal. And some of the ruder boys predictably made jokes at the end of that chapter of our textbooks. We’d wrapped up the chapter on the reproductive system yesterday, and today we were reviewing sex.
More jokes from the boys.
I’m not sure how I feel about sex. It sounds like a messy and unsanitary kind of activity. But I’m quite sure that I don’t like childbirth. The film we saw certainly made that part of the business look painful. Having to stretch that far seems like it would kill somebody. Maybe the fact that most women survive having a baby is why older people call it a miracle.
“Yes, Devon?” Mrs. Joiner had paused her lecture to answer a question.
“Do women sometimes defecate while they are having a baby?”
“It has been known to happen,” the teacher said, taking the question seriously. “Nurses are trained to wipe away any feces, to prevent them from infecting the mother or the baby.”
That was yesterday. Today, the focus seems to be on the physiology of sexual arousal, intercourse, and orgasm. Some of the students wanted the teacher to describe how an orgasm felt.
“All right,” said Mrs. Joiner, rising again to the challenge. “Do you know how it feels to need to sneeze, but the sneeze won’t quite come?”
A student quickly pointed out the unintended pun. Mrs. Joiner revised her question.
“Your nose itches, and you need to sneeze to relieve that itch, but you can’t. Not quite. Not for a while. But then the sun gets into your eyes, and all at once you sneeze hard, and it’s such a relief not to need to sneeze any more. An orgasm feels something like that. Only better.”
Quite a few of the boys expressed disappointment when Mrs. Joiner told us that there wouldn’t be a film documentary to throw light upon the human sexual act. One of them pointed out that we had seen the childbirth film, and he suggested that it was just as reasonable to see how a pregnancy began as it was to see how it ended.
I couldn’t fault his logic, though I suspect he had an ulterior motive for wanting a pornographic film imported to our biology class. He can find sex movies online, if he’s really interested. But having one shown in the classroom would legitimize his watching them and give him something to say if his parents caught him browsing YouPorn videos at home.
But that’s how the human biology class went through the chapter on sex and reproduction. The girls concealed both interest and embarrassment. The boys tried to discombobulate the teacher with prurient questions which were oh-so-technically phrased. But Mrs. Joiner was an older woman who did not easily become discombulated, and she sometimes found ways to turn the tables on the boys.
* * *
I have a “study hall and independent study” period after biology class. My project has been measuring the electric charge capacity of several brands of rechargeable 18650 lithium-ion batteries, with a secondary purpose of sorting them according to their actual capacity and scoring their sellers on a truth-in-advertising basis.
Over the years, lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries have replaced alkalines for nearly everything, and it’s easy to understand why. They work at low temperatures that make alkaline batteries sluggish. They hold twice as much charge as alkaline batteries do and have a nominal potential difference of 3.8 volts, instead of 1.5 volts, across the poles.
Alkaline batteries are still used in wall clocks, but that’s about it. My calculator uses small lithium batteries. Cars and buses run on huge lithium batteries. The 18650 battery is the most popular choice for flashlights, and flashlights are the most convenient device to me for draining the batteries.
A fully charged 18650 battery has about 4.2 volts. As it is used to supply power to a device, that voltage falls. The reduction in voltage means that the battery isn’t pushing electrons through the wire as strongly as it had been earlier, so a given amount of current—which is the number of electrons moving past a given point in a wire in a given amount of time—carries less energy than it did before. The beam from the flashlight’s light-emitting diode grows dimmer, and, when the battery’s voltage has fallen to about 2.8 volts, the light goes out completely.
The flashlight I’ve been using is one of my dad’s. He collected LED flashlights when he was younger, and he let me borrow his Romisen T801. I upgraded the bulb from its original XML T6 LED to an XML Y5, which I bought online.
At the start of the period, I entered Coach Cukenheimer’s sparsely pupiled classroom and measured the voltage of the battery that I was using at the moment with the school’s voltmeter. I wrote the number in a log book in the column beside the date. I put the battery back into the flashlight and turned it on. As I switched on the flashlight, I started a chronometer. Then I pulled a book from a desk compartment and read it for an hour with my feet propped up on the seat of the next desk. When the bell ending the period was near, I put the book away, turned off the flashlight, and stopped the chronometer. I recorded the battery’s new voltage and the elapsed time.
A battery will recover some voltage if it is given a rest, so the voltage that counts is the one measured at the beginning of each class session. I wrote down the voltage at the end of the period just to find out how large the recovery was.
The Romisen T801 is a bright, demanding flashlight. The bulb is efficient, but five hours of runtime uses up the charge in the batteries that I’ve been testing, most of which have between 2400 and 4200 milliamp hours of capacity. Whether or not the capacity advertised on the label matches the capacity that the battery actually has is one of the things I’d set out to discover.
I’ve found four brands of 18650 batteries that are consistently good. The others… not so much. I’ve pretty much concluded that any battery brand name ending in “-fire” is second-rate at best, with some having less than half of their advertised capacity. I suspected that many of those weak batteries were rebranded old cells with a new wrapper put on at some dirty factory in Zhangzhou. One of them fell apart in my hand, so I threw it away.
The twelve batteries that I’ve tested so far have been recharged and are in a basket on top of a filing cabinet that contains a photocopy of my data for each battery, as well as graphs of those data. A battery’s chemistry determines the shape of the curve of the declining voltage over time. An alkaline battery will have an almost linear decline, but a lithium battery will drop a little at first, but then hold almost steady until right before the end, when it suddenly poops out.
I know this isn’t much work, and the class is just an easy A on my report card. But that’s public schools for you. The curriculum is much too easy for some, but it is much too difficult for others, and there’s a distinct racial correlation involved…
* * *
Dad had just got back from his office at Parris-Ranier, where he’s the only remaining white software engineer. The company had fired or laid off all the other white programmers to be politically correct and to save on labor costs by replacing them with Indians. Dot-heads, not woo-woo. What actually happened was the company rid itself of nearly all of its accumulated experience in software design, and the only reason that my dad kept his job is that the management belatedly realized that they’d shot themselves in the foot and had nearly blown their brains out.
The Indians were bright enough, but they often used poor judgment while programming in order to try out what they thought was a clever short-cut, but which invariably ended up causing problems later on—problems that my dad was likely to be blamed for. Much of the trouble involved ridiculously over-engineered subroutines that often did the job that they were supposed to do, but did it in an inefficient way that let the programmer show off his mastery of logic. To keep his own job, and besides doing his own share of the workload, Dad had to edit their code and then let them have all of the credit for creating it. But Dad couldn’t review every bit of code that the Indians wrote, and he was always the one sent to troubleshoot when customers complained. Which meant that Dad had to face the wrath of annoyed executives from other companies on account of software problems that weren’t his fault.
So, in the sense of being a source of commercial software, as opposed to being merely a vendor, Parris-Ranier depended for its survival on its last white programmer.
After greeting Mom, who declined my offer of help — there really wasn’t much I could do that she didn’t have well in hand—I turned on the television and prepared to wait for the prime-time episode of Space Probe Destiny, which was all about the adventures of a robotic space explorer that somehow managed to visit a different star system each evening.
My parents were coffee snobs. But I must admit, they had reason on their side. I could hear them talking in the kitchen.
“Was the grind from the Dominican Republic any good?” asked my father.
“No,” sneered my mom. “It had a harsh flavor with an aftertaste redolent of charcoal.”
“Like supermarket brand-name coffee, then,” said Dad. “Odd. You expect better of an imported consignment.”
“It tasted as though it were brewed from floor sweepings.”
“I guess the Dominican coffee won’t be giving Jamaica Blue Mountain any competition.”
Mom’s tacos are pretty good, and, as you might expect, they are designed to go well with good coffee. A flour tortilla shell fried lightly in olive oil is covered with a spread of melted cheddar cheese. On one side, then, went ten slices of pepperoni. On the other side, half of a stirred fried egg. Covering the pepperoni were a light scattering of onion bits, a line of yellow mustard, and a few drops of Italian salad dressing. Covering the egg were a spread of sour cream and a dusting of black pepper. A tablespoon of salsa went down the middle, where the fold would be made when it was taken for eating.
Not being needed to help with supper, I went into the living room to watch TV.
Television is mostly social propaganda, and Space Probe Destiny is a good example. It’s a science fiction series in which an artificially intelligent probe from Earth visits one alien civilization after another. But in every episode, without exception, the “good” aliens were the ones that proclaimed ethical views that are currently fashionable on Earth, including the idea that racial diversity — racial social mixing — is a good thing, necessary for peace, love, and joy in life.
But some of the aliens just didn’t get it. For the benefit of alien species especially prone to error, Destiny would offer unsolicited moral advice, and the fate of the aliens’ world usually depended on their taking it.
All beings are brothers, it would sagely say. All conflict is the result of misunderstandings. Utopia can only come about by putting enlightened liberals in charge of the Unified Planetary Government and then letting that government have the power to do whatever (good things) it wants to do.
I used to enjoy Space Probe Destiny as an adventure series. But now I watch it for the same reason that I watch the evening news: to learn which lies the elites of my own world consider important enough that they’d go to such trouble in belaboring the public with them.
Over dinner, Dad talked about amusing anecdotes from his workplace, and Mom made fun of some of the neighbors. I found an excuse to mention that a black boy at school had used a fish tank as an improvised urinal and had threatened two teachers with a civil rights lawsuit because they had dared to criticize him for doing it.
“Par for the course,” said Mom.
My first issue of Popular Astronomy had arrived in the mail. I hadn’t seen it when I came home because Mom brought the mail in, but I found it after dinner. There was a big article about an asteroid that had passed closely by Earth in 2029 and had its orbit changed by Earth’s gravity. It was predicted that the asteroid would return for another close encounter with Earth in April 2068, which was twenty-four years in the future. But it turned out that the astrophysicists didn’t account correctly for the Yarkovsky effect, which set the asteroid in a slightly different orbit than expected. According to the article, there was a two percent chance that it would hit Earth instead of being a close miss. If it does impact, the relative speed will be forty kilometers per second, after allowing for the acceleration of Earth’s gravity. Since the asteroid’s mass is twenty-seven billion kilograms, the collision would release a little over twenty quintillion Joules of energy, which is something like five thousand megatons of TNT.
Boom, y’all. I hope it doesn’t land on me.
It bothers me that I’m having to take the word of other people about the orbit of that asteroid because I don’t know celestial mechanics myself as yet. I’m going to have to remedy that because those other people keep getting the details wrong. Like the Yarkovsky effect, which is a result of radiation pressure from a rotating asteroid. It ought to be treatable as part of perturbation theory. Of course, I don’t know any perturbation theory, either. It’s just a term that I pulled off Wikipedia.
* * *
I found out some days later that Mrs. Johns had an ambition to transfer from Morningside Elementary School to one of Atlanta’s high schools, and that she was taking night classes in integral calculus so that she could become certified as a teacher of high school AP Calculus. I’d thought that she knew calculus already, since I certainly do. But better late than never, I suppose. I came to math class early and saw Mrs. Johns trying to work out a problem. I looked over her shoulder. It was one of those solids-of-revolution questions.
I read it aloud.
“If y equals open-parenthesis four minus x raised to the power of two thirds close-parenthesis, raised to the power of three halves, then what is the surface area of the solid formed by rotating the section of the function from y=4 to y=8 around the x axis?”
“That’s a correct statement of the problem, Brenda,” said Mrs. Johns. “Unfortunately, I’m stuck about halfway through it.” She seemed frustrated.
“You’ve identified the problem as one to be solved by trigonometric substitution, though,” I approved. “That’s good. But the reason you’re stuck is that you can’t recall an integral identity involving sines and cosines raised to even powers.”
At my comment, Mrs. Johns’ eyebrows rose and her jaw dropped.
“Here it is.”
I took the pen from her hand and wrote on a sheet of paper.
∫ sin⁴u cos²u du = u/16 − (1/6) sin³u cos³u − (1/64) sin(4u)
“For you,” I said, punning the argument of the sine in the rightmost term. “With that, I think you’ll get to the bottom line.” I put her pen down and took my usual seat in the classroom. The other students were beginning to arrive.
As I took my seat, I watched Mrs. Johns struggle for words, but before she could say anything, something happened inside my head that had never happened before. I completed the problem symbolically, converted the limits from one space to another, and calculated the numerical result. I was aware of the intermediate steps, and I could have written them down at that moment, but what mattered was the result.
“Mrs. Johns, the surface area of the frustum is about 17.2 square units. The surface area of the side at x equals four is about 10.2 square units. The solid tapers to a point on the right side. So the total surface area is about 27.4 square units.”
“How on earth are you doing that, Brenda?”
“I don’t know.”
Which was true. I didn’t. All that I knew was that, for a moment, my mind had expanded so that it seemed to hold the whole world in its grasp, and the answer to the question that I’d been thinking about had seemed obvious. But the feeling was gone, and I had no idea what had happened to me.
You’ll appreciate, I’m sure, that it is one thing to memorize a few integral identities, but that it is something else entirely to zip through a non-trivial sequence of trigonometric and algebraic operations, convert limits into a transcendental space, integrate, do the mop up arithmetic, and spit out the answer, all in a few seconds. I felt as if the greater part of myself had briefly woken up, scratched an itch, and then gone back to sleep.
I knew that I’d been getting smarter since the fourth grade, but I hadn’t known that I was that darned smart.
* * *
Physical Education is a class that a lot of 11- and 12- year old girls would just as soon do without. The reasons are none of your business, except that I’ll tell you that they are related to the approaching maturity of our bodies. I personally have no problem with it, as long as everything develops according to the divine plan and Murphy doesn’t throw a wrench into my bra size. Not that I quite need a bra yet, but Mom said it was good training to wear one, so I do. We girls were dressed in our PE clothes on one side of the gym, while the boys were on the other side. As it happens, I was doing my floor exercises next to the class snob.
“Which school will you go to next year, Brenda?” Sarah Weisman asked while she stretched.
“Father is sending me to Brookstone,” she said. “So sorry you won’t be there.”
Sorry? Not likely, I thought. Sarah always thought of herself as superior to everyone else, though she was usually subtle in how she let her opinion show. She made an interesting contrast to Sharon Malley’s obvious and petty displays of one-upmanship. But for all that, Sharon had nothing on Sarah when it came to arrogance. She had never resented my ascent to first-in-class as Sarah had. Sharon knew very well that she never had a real shot at the top academic honors in elementary school, but Sarah did until I finally grew a brain last summer.
Sarah was smart, but Brookstone was where all the smart kids wanted to go. The school had prestige, and there was the added attraction of its being completely free, so far as I knew, of the sort of hooliganism and thuggery that plagued most of the Atlanta Public Schools. Some of the Atlanta schools, the few that had white student majorities, weren’t so bad, but the rest of them had big discipline problems and low test scores. Some of the crooks who caused the infamous CRCT cheating scandal back in 2009 were still there, older and craftier now, working goodness knows what new forms of iniquity.
But, far away in Columbus, halfway across the state, there was a golden school shining its beacon of knowledge across the land, calling all the smartest kids to learn and excel.
And I wouldn’t get to go. Sarah Weisman would because her dad is a rich banker while mine is just a hard-working software engineer.
But Sarah was going to get a nasty surprise. She thought that she was going to stand head and shoulders above the herd there, and she’s wrong. She’s going to be in the herd, at Brookstone. Nobody special, once again.
“Well, best of luck to you, then. I’ll just do with Inman as well as I can.”
I’ve seldom seen Sarah surprised by banter. She hadn’t expected my courteous reply. Last year, I’d have said something stupidly spiteful to her.
“Why thank you. Good luck to you as well,” she said.
Sarah can hide her true feelings very well. If there’s one thing she can do better than I can, it’s dissemble. And schmooze her way into the favor of people who can give her what she wants. Most girls can do this with their daddies, as I sometimes do. But Sarah can do it with anybody who isn’t wise to her people skills.
Morningside’s former PE teacher was a black man who lost his job three years ago for feeling up some of the girls under the pretense of examining them for “muscle tone development.” Predictably, he sued the school for racism, but he lost—which, in Atlanta, says a lot about how egregious his offenses must have been. A white man who did the same thing would be in prison. A black man is merely told to look for another job.
The new PE teacher is also the school’s basketball coach, a white man with the funny name of John Paul Cukenheimer.
We did our stretches and push-ups. He’s having us do sit-ups now, and jumping jacks will be next. The routine hardly ever varies, except for the tournaments, where we compete for athletic honors. I’ve never been much of a competitor. Physically, I’m in the herd, though the coach says that I’ve been improving. We’re halfway through the jumping jacks now. In a few minutes we’ll be turned out for track and field exercises. We girls will do a mile—four laps—around the track while the boys do chin-ups. Then we swap, and we girls will have to grip metal bars that the boys have left slippery with sweat.
So, outside we go for our daily run. I know: it’s just exercise, and it isn’t important whether you come in first or last, but I wanted to be first across the finish line for a change, to be a better runner than the other girls. I wanted to win the race that always starts among the fastest girls when we get turned loose on the track.
That’s when the weirdness hit me for the second time.
Do you know those warm-chills you get when someone tells you that they love you, or when somebody does something nice for you unexpectedly? That’s the feeling I had just then I had just then. It spread along my neck and back and down my arms. But along with it came that mind-expansion that I’d had while I was doing Mrs. Joiner’s calculus problem. And, on the next step I took, I bounded into the air so high that my feet might have cleared he heads of the girls nearby.
I came down, stepped off, and took to the sky again. It seemed that I was hanging up there for longer than was proper. It was as if either gravity had gotten weaker or—
Time was slowing down.
No. It only seemed to be slowing down. The other girls appeared to be running along in slow motion, but that’s just how I saw them. They’re just now beginning to realize that I made two Olympic-sized high jumps at the starting line. But jumps aren’t what a race is about, so I decided to modify my step when I hit the ground next time, and fly more horizontally.
Boom, down. And now ahead, push.
Ah, good. I had been a bird, but I’d become a bullet. I began passing the other girls and saw, up ahead, Hazel Gibbs and Joyce Cobb, the two fastest girls at Morningside. Until now.
“Hey Hazel, want to race?” I called out, stretching the words to fit their time rate.
She tried. So did Joyce. But I left them in the dust.
I didn’t run as fast as I could. I estimated that my apparent time rate was four times faster than normal, so in theory I could have finished the mile in about two minutes. But I realized that there might be problems for me if I were to halve the existing world record for the women’s mile run while still in elementary school, so I held back and finished in a very respectable time of just over six minutes. I finished first. Hazel Gibbs finished about a minute behind me and was a very poor sport about losing. She’ll just have to get used to it.
The other girls congratulated me and said things like “I didn’t know you could run so fast!” and calling me a show-off. If I’d wanted to show off, I could have done a better job of it.
* * *
I began testing another battery in my Independent Study class. It was one of the Asian fakes. I knew that it was a fake because the label said it had 7000 milliamp-hours of electric charge capacity, and the company named on the label had never made an 18650 battery with that much capacity. Actually, nobody had. Those Chinese battery sellers were shamelessly dishonest.
On the other hand, the battery did work, and now I wanted to know exactly how well. The voltage across the poles of the battery just before I put it into the flashlight was 4.12 volts. I turned the flashlight on and started the chronometer. Then I put my feet up on the next desk—Independent Study was a sparsely pupiled class—and hit my books.
No, not my school textbooks. I finished those a long time ago. Usually, I read a novel. But I’d recently gotten some books on astrodynamics from a nearby technical library through an inter-library loan.
I started with one that looked light and easy, a relatively thin volume entitled Adventures in Celestial Mechanics, by Victor G. Szebehely. And I relearned the old lesson about not judging books by their covers. Still, it really wasn’t all that tough. The math was algebra, trigonometry, and some differential calculus, mixed up with vectors and conic sections. The whole subject is basically about freefall motion under an inverse-square central force, and you just need to learn the conventions about coordinate systems and orbital elements, and you can begin to understand the math.
I didn’t read the book straight from cover to cover. I skipped around as my interest took me.
In chapter seven, which dealt with hyperbolic and parabolic orbits, I saw something that bothered me about Mr. Szebehely’s method, for which I wished he were with me so that I could take him to task. He had made an error in judgment by treating the semimajor axis of a hyperbolic orbit as an intrinsically positive quantity. Doing that requires a sign change in some of the equations, causing them to differ with the forms they have for elliptical orbits.
If, instead, you regard the semimajor axis of hyperbolic orbits as being intrinsically negative, you can keep the equations in the same form for both kinds of orbits. At least for a while. That reduces the amount of calculator code that someone would have to write. Someone being me.
I continued to read Szebehely’s book until the bell rang, ending the period. I had another book on the subject, The Determination of Orbits, by A.D. Dubyago, translated into English from the original Russian, but I didn’t touch it today.
As I went about the remainder of my school day, I kept thinking about asteroids moving along elliptical paths, going around the sun in accordance with Kepler’s laws—faster when closer, slower when farther away, so that the angular momentum stayed constant. Astrodynamics is great as a visualization exercise, where you train yourself to see what the math is doing.
* * *
At our school, we take the CRCT at the end of April. That stands for “Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.” It’s the standardized test used in Georgia to determine whether a student in an elementary or a middle school deserves to be promoted to the next higher grade. It’s laughably easy, and I don’t mean only for me. I wasn’t a genius last year, and I had no trouble with it then, or the year before. The CRCT is such a simple test that it doesn’t really test most of us. Even the “herd” of my class can fumble through it okay.
However, there’s the “dark matter.” That’s a metaphor I picked up from astronomy. I compare the dullest students at Morningside to the dark matter that’s supposed to make up such a big part of the universe. It emits no light, and its presence can be detected only by its influence on brighter things, like stars. The reason the metaphor is appropriate for the least-able students in my school is that nearly all of them are black kids. I don’t know why so many of them are so slow to learn anything, but it’s true. They’re about one seventh of the enrollment at Morningside, and just about every one of them is near the bottom of the list in grades and in test scores.
Well, except Annette Grange, a black girl who is near the top of the herd. She thinks herself the equal of Peter Chu or Brian Smith, but she isn’t that smart. On the other hand, she won’t have any trouble with the CRCT.
Most of the other black fifth-graders will do poorly on the math part of the test this year, just as they do every year.
The only year when most of the blacks seemed to pass the CRCT was 2009, the year my mom was born. Their gains over the previous year were, in most cases, too good to be true. And, of course, they weren’t. The man who was the governor of Georgia at the time noticed, and he hired a detective firm to examine the erasure patterns on the test forms. These experts discovered that there was a bunch of cheating going on, that somebody had been erasing the wrong answers that the black kids had put on their answer sheets and substituting the right answers. The most likely suspects were the principals and the teachers in the affected elementary and middle schools.
And more than half of the suspected schools in the state were in the Atlanta district.
The governor decided to kick some butt, so he assigned an investigation team, composed of a former state attorney general and a former county district attorney, and sent the state police to back them up. About eighty black teachers and principals confessed to upwardly falsifying the CRCT scores of black students in 2009. Another hundred similarly complexioned school officials who were strongly suspected of cheating denied any guilt, but most of them took the Fifth Amendment when the state’s investigators began asking questions.
That’s history today, but the scandal isn’t quite ancient history, even though it happened 35 years ago. The Atlanta Public Schools almost lost their accreditation because of it. Some of the principals and school district administrators were fired. Some of them went to prison after being convicted of fraud, document falsification, or lying to the cops.
CRCT cheating still happens, of course, or the blacks would fail even more badly than they already do. But there aren’t any more “changing parties,” with teachers blatantly erasing stuff. The CRCT is a multiple-choice test, and it’s more like the teachers find ways to point out which answers are correct while giving the test.
The clues are often subtle. It might be a 20-Hertz shift in vocal pitch, or a five-decibel drop in volume, or a two-second delay in reading—frequency modulation, amplitude modulation, phase modulation. With such an intuitive grasp of signal processing, you’d think these cheating black teachers would be top-notch electrical engineers instead of under-performing academics. They might also shift their weight, clear their throats, put their hands on their hips, or adjust their glasses while reading the correct answer, to clue the black students.
But many of them fail the test, nevertheless.
Anyway, we had our CRCT today, and this year it was just too easy to be any fun.
* * *
Dad looked at me strangely when I came home from school. I went to my room to set down my borrowed books, which I read in class while the teacher tries to impart an education to the dark matter, or to the herd if no dark matter is present. The teachers, except Mrs. Fergus, let me get away with it because they know that I’d otherwise be wasting my time sitting in the classroom. I’d get bored, and, being bored, I might become cantankerous.
“I got a telephone call from Mrs. Johns,” said my dad, as he appeared in the doorway.
“Oh?” That probably wasn’t good.
“And then I got another call from Mr. Cukenheimer.”
“Coach Cukenheimer,” I corrected. What had he wanted?
“Whatever. Did you really solve a calculus problem for Mrs. Johns? She told me it had been a tough one.”
“I solved an indefinite integral for her. It was part of the problem, not the whole thing.”
He scratched his face, and cocked his head. “So… You’re learning college level math at age eleven.”
“Be proud, Dad. I’ve become a genius.” I smiled so that he wouldn’t think that I was sassing him.
Dad caught sight just then of the books on my bedroom desk.
“Honey pie, are you really learning this?” The corner of his mouth twitched. I thought he was going to cry, and I guessed the reason. He was having visions of his little girl all grown up and leaving him. I’m an only child, and I’ve always been the apple of his eye. Of course, I will have to leave someday. I just wish there were a way for me to soften the hurt it will cause him when I go.
“Yes, Dad. I wanted to learn how to computer orbits so that I can find out whether that asteroid will hit Earth in 2068. What did Coach say?”
“That you set a new school record for running a mile yesterday.”
“I wasn’t all that fast. I finished in six minutes and six seconds.”
“It’s plenty fast for a fifth-grade girl. And it was a record for your school, counting both girls and boys.”
I didn’t really want to talk about my emerging super powers—especially since I didn’t know where they were coming from. I tried to change the subject.
“I’m going to a different school next fall. Inman Middle, I believe it is.”
He didn’t answer right away. His face had that expression it gets when he’s wrestling with something heavy inside, like when he’s —
“No. You’re going to Brookstone School next fall.”
— deciding to give up something that he really had wanted to keep.
* * *
We were reading about Greek and Roman mythology in our literature class. Brian Smith was there, and he was not only one of the smartest boys in school, but also one of the cutest. Like most of them, he’d begun to notice that girls aren’t quite the same kind of playmate that other boys are. The segregation of the sexes in the gym for dressing into our PE clothes provided a strong hint that something was afoot, even though it prevented us from observing the details. For those, we must rely for now on the word of Mrs. Joiner and on her classroom visual aids.
Anyway, Brian sat ahead of me in the first row of desks and in the next column to the right. I prefer the second seat, rather than being in front, even though by convention the first-ranking student is entitled to sit in the front row if she chooses. I’ve never approved of standing on status alone, since it doesn’t always correlate well with a person’s actual merit. Sarah Weisman’s plutocrat father being a good example of that. Watching Brian fiddle with his calculator, even though this wasn’t math class, got me started thinking about males and the purpose for which they exist.
Although I don’t have any particular desire to touch a boy, nor have one touch me, I’ve been assured by my parental units that this lack of inclination is a temporary state of affairs. Just as I didn’t put off learning calculus until high school, I’m not going to procrastinate about learning the ins and outs of sex.
No, I won’t sleep with a boy just to find out how it is. That would get both of us into trouble. Mostly him, I suspect, unless I stood forth and took the blame upon myself. Which I’d probably do because I’ve learned that being honorable is better than being reputable. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one, and if you haven’t learned it yet, then I recommend you read about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
But although I won’t sleep with a boy until I’m more grown-up and physically prepared to become pregnant, should the gods so decree, I’m not going to remain ignorant about the social, political, and emotional dynamics that complicate the physical part of sexuality. Not if I can help it. Early awareness is an advantage, and I like having advantages.
And so I’ve begun paying attention to TV dramas and reading romance novels, mining them for clues about how adult women think. It seems weird to me just now, but I don’t suppose that those producers and authors are making it up just because they’re all goofy. If that’s the orbit which lies ahead for me, then it would be well for me to begin my maneuvers now, so that I won’t need any large, uncomfortable accelerations later.
So I watched Brian Smith, the prettiest and the smartest boy in class, punch buttons on his calculator and wondered what sort of problem he was solving and whether he ever thought about girls.
Enter the literature teacher, Mrs. Thomas, who wanted us to turn in our assigned reports on the three gods or goddesses we liked best. I’d chosen Diana, Minerva, and Vesta because I identify with each of them to some extent, even though they all remained virgins for centuries, which seems a ridiculously long time.
Vesta was the goddess of refuges, particularly the place of family gatherings. She was a gentle goddess, radiating warmth and comfort, and her symbol was the fire of the home hearth. If I had a best friend, I’d want her to be someone like Vesta.
Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, commerce, poetry, and crafts. Of all the goddesses, I’m probably nearest to Minerva because of my pursuit of knowledge and my technical hobbies. I’d love to invent something that I could patent and sell until I’d become wealthy. Then I’d show those Weismans a thing or two about how money is earned, as opposed to being merely skimmed as interest on loans.
Probably the most lofty of the goddesses, though, was Diana. She lived in inaccessible places like high mountains and in sacred forests where mortals didn’t set foot if they knew what was good for them. She was usually above the petty affairs of humans, except that she sometimes acted as the guardian of humankind as a whole, or as the protector of humans who would so act, such as righteous kings. She was the patron goddess of mortal champions. And she protected women during childbirth.
* * *