We all sat in our plaid skirts with our legs crossed at the ankles as Instructor Barnes paced back and forth at the head of the classroom. Each of us like strange copies of everyone else with only our skin tones and the color of our ponytails betraying our differences. Rows of red, blonde, brunette, and black haired girls looked on nervously. I heard someone tapping their pencil fretfully on the desk until someone whispered harshly to stop.
Today was the day we learned who died.
Instructor Barnes was waiting for the test results to be delivered. In our brave new world, these test results meant everything. The government implemented the Bell Curve mandating that only the top percentage of intelligence made it to adulthood. The rest sent to execution camps until their time was up. The camps didn't stay full for long, all the brainpower behind our government made it very efficient if nothing else. This, they said, helped with the population growth and made our country better, stronger, and smarter.
I wasn't sure which ponytails would still be in our classes tomorrow. There wasn't much high school left after the test results were provided. Once we passed the exams it was determined where our proficiencies were and we were prepared for University where the government could take advantage of our specific expertise.
This was our last chance. We each had 18 years to work as hard as we could to be the smartest in our class. That was enough time to know whether or not we would be a benefit to society. A smarter America, they said, would be better for the world. Most people agreed this was for the greater good - until it came time for their child to pass senior exams.
I stared down at the desk. I felt a soft brush against my hand and looked to my left. Amy, my best friend, only distinguishable from everyone else in the room by her curly blonde ponytail and sad blue eyes looked back at me. We had worked together since we got out of Elementary school. She had a hard time with a lot of subjects and I knew she might not be the sharpest tool in the shed. Her petrified eyes told me she wasn't sure either. Both of us thought her name might be on the list. She would be sent home immediately to spend one last night with her family before the bus came to pick her up in the morning. She would wear her plaid uniform one last time, it would be the only clothing she would be allowed. I prayed to a god that didn't exist that she would pull it off somehow - that her name wouldn't be on the list.
Instructor Barnes was wringing her hands, her aged brow furrowed as she continued to silently pace. Her future was tied to our lives as well. Instructors in Government Schools only kept their jobs if a certain percent of students managed to pass these tests over the course of their first five years. This was Instructor Barnes' fifth year, and she hadn't had the best rate of graduation for a relatively new teacher. I always felt bad for the teachers because they had no control over whether the smart students were placed in their classes or someone else’s. Elementary instructors didn't have to live up to the same standards, but secondary school was brutal. The teachers wouldn't be executed - they had already proven themselves to be on the right side of the bell curve and could be useful to society. But they would have a hard time finding a private sector job because of this epic failure. Average people blamed them for getting kids killed. What average people were left, that is.
Everyone was startled as the subtle noise of the doorknob turning broke through the excruciating silence. The door opened slowly and a mousey man wearing thick black rimmed glasses peered in. His posture was hunched over and he barely came through the door before extending his hand that held a sealed manila envelope. It was thick, which was somewhat frightening. Instructor Barnes walked carefully, her flat black shoes making no noise on the tile floor, and took the envelope from the man.
"Thank you, David." she said quietly. He nodded and back out the doorway, closing the door behind him with a sickening click.
I could see Instructor Barnes' hands shaking as she crossed back to her desk and sat down. She wasn't supposed to display any emotion toward the results of the test, but she was human just like the rest of us. Her fear was blatant. She unclipped the envelope and poured out what looked like a number of small pamphlets. Behind it was a letter with the Department of Education’s seal and then, presumably, the test results. She glanced at the pamphlets quizzically - she had never seen them before either. Then she put her rectangular reading glasses on her nose and picked up the letter.
As she began to read through it, I saw the color bleed from her face. She began to shake harder and before we knew it she was reduced to tears.
The organized silence of the pony-tailed girls in the classroom erupted into chaos. We began to chatter. Some girls' cry reflex was triggered by Instructor Barnes. We got up to see if we could get a closer look at the pamphlets and the letter. As some of us approached the desk, instructor Barnes raised her hand to indicate for us to stop.
"Girls," she said, her voice shaking. "Things have changed. Please, sit back down."
The room went silent once again as we all slid back into our desk chairs. I looked at Amy and she looked back at me as we waited for Mrs. Barnes to continue.
"There are some changes going into effect this year. I have these pamphlets to distribute to most of you. I also have the results. It seems as though they have readjusted the bell curve. As the government continues to quarantine the most polluted cities to begin environmental reclaiming we still have a population boom. They are adjusting the bell curve upward, so more of you will not find yourselves on the passing side than before. And they are instituting a new policy - readjustment every 5 years with a retest. They will be issuing intelligence licenses to each of you who pass and you'll have to renew it as they continue to adjust the bell curve to keep only the best and the brightest."
Her voice began to regain strength as she continued to share the contents of the letter. She wasn't shocked and upset any more, she was angry. And without knowing the results of the test, I was angry too. It wasn't good enough to be the smartest, as the government moved the benchmark every five years it would be impossible for everyone to keep up. Eventually, the bell curve would be so skewed we would be executing physicists and philosophers, not just 18 year old students. The future sounded horrific. I wanted no part of it.
Instructor Barnes set down the letter and picked up the list of test results. She examined it carefully before speaking again. “Girls, I have the list of names that are to be transported tomorrow. You know that I don’t want to read this to you. But I want you all to go home quietly after the names are read…and reflect on those you love.”
She began to quietly read the names. I listened intently for my own. It never came. “Amy Weston” was among the names read. I heard the breath leave her body as if for the last time as her name was spoken in Instructor Barnes’ quiet but angry voice. I didn’t know what to say. I reached for her hand, but she drew it away.
After the names were read, everyone began to silently file out of the room. As I stood to follow them, Instructor Barnes motioned toward me. “Margery…” I froze. Amy walked quickly past me and out the door. As soon as everyone was gone, I approached Ms. Barnes’ desk.
She stood and shut the door, locking it. She sat perched on the edge of her desk. “Margery,” she began, taking a deep breath. “I want you to know you were always my best student. You’ve scored higher than any student I’ve taught. You’re something special.”
“That’s cold comfort,” I said, “when my best friend is going to an extermination camp.” I looked at my shoes.
“I know,” Instructor Barnes reached out and placed her and on my shoulder. “That is why I wanted to talk to you. But not here. Not now.” She drew her hand away from my shoulder and grasped at my hand. That was when I realized she was passing something to me. I closed my fingers around it and looked up at her lined and troubled face.
“I understand,” I said simply. I unlocked the door and walked out.
On the page was an address. One I knew but wasn’t supposed to know about. The Educational Underground, a place for free thinkers to meet and discuss the issues of the government. Without saying anything at all, I knew Instructor Barnes was part of it and she wanted me to be part of it too. But that wasn’t the only thing on the paper. Scribbled below it were the words “We will change this. We will save them.”
It might be too late for Amy.