The shepherd will tend his sheep.
The valley will bloom again.
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again.
We should have seen it coming. We really should have. Perhaps some of us did, saw the darkening skies of disease, the scudding clouds of doom. Possibly those of us prescient enough were silent due to an overwhelming fatalism in the face of such a massive human catastrophe. Others, perhaps, feared their own minds had deceived them and imagined themselves insane. Nothing to be done about it now.
We at the university can, in hindsight, recognize the critical signs we so willingly misread. The shambling, mindless ambulation as we continually dodged them on the sidewalks and bike paths. The inability to process or retain even the most rudimentary information. The eyes glued to what we thought were “smart phones,” but which actually turned out to be GPS monitors directing them to their classes (programmed, I’m certain, by those hordes of low-level admins hired by the newly formed Office of Exceptionality Services, OES; obviously, many in positions of authority had to have known). The sunglasses. The pallor. The difficulty articulating basic vocabulary. And what could possibly have changed had any of us recognized the horrible inevitability of it all and spoken up?
The first “official” announcement from Chancellor Gordon Knot regarding these new students was so strictly orchestrated that even a cough from a hapless faculty member would have resulted in immediate disciplinary action.
“We at our honored institution, Zoroaster University, in order to craft a more diverse student body, have initiated an unprecedented admissions policy, one offering the promise of higher education to a more representative population than heretofore imagined in our venerable history.”
The speech went on for what seemed hours. Hours of prescriptive platitudes regarding “Principles of Commonality” and other, more pernicious obfuscations.
Basically, these “inclusionary” gestures were nothing more than a response to the federal mandate requiring that all public colleges and universities accept a certain demographic percentile of a new class of individuals. It was our singular “luck” that California happened to have more of them. Substantially more of them.
“In fulfilling our academic mission, we embrace the diversity of our rich, pluralistic society. We must eliminate historical barriers to achievement, whether based on sex, race, age, religion, ability, gender identification, socio-economic status, ethnicity, vital signs . . . ”
And, thus, it came to pass that we were tasked with educating zombies.
Of course, we were forbidden to refer to them by such a fulsome, judgmental term. “Living dead” was also frowned on because it violated “their right to self-definition,” as they struggled conspicuously with words of more than one syllable. “Banshees,” “freaks,” and “ghouls” could only be whispered in the privacy of one’s home, if there. Heaven forbid any derogatory term should slip out at a faculty meeting or in an intra-departmental email. Mid-level admin haggled over technical nomenclature with the passion of religious zealots. “Myoclonically Advantaged” had been dismissed as “overly clinical” and “preferential.” “Non-Living Persons” as “too negative.” Forget “Brainivores.” Their official designation, finally: “Differently-Impulse-Abled Students,” or DIAS.
As faculty for the Composition Program, my colleagues and I were to design and implement a suitable writing and critical thinking curriculum. Dean of Humanities Celeste Glower determined that the courses should focus on “Current Issues and Themes.” We racked our brains over this edict at a department meeting I led, because the DIAS and their ilk were the primary social issue of our day, and the urgent theme—surviving them.
I was providing a preliminary overview of the challenges facing us, when timid Anglo-Saxon scholar Sheila Frobisher burst in, “I can’t do this. I’m afraid of zom—of DIAS! It isn’t fair. Office of Exceptionality Services has a moat! And the suggested reading list they’ve provided—these books are designed for primary school, not college.” She began to hyperventilate and sob, “ If I—if I quit—I can. Always. Work. On my—my novel.”
We nodded grimly as she convulsed.
“Those students need us now, more than any we’ve ever taught before,” enthused Sara Picard, Romanticist graduate of a radical eastern Ivy. She was the ingénue of our program, with little teaching experience, and so young she couldn’t even begin to imagine life before the virus first took hold.
I continued, “Well, it’s obvious we would have to dispense with any longer works. No novels, no epic poetry.”
A dark moan issued.
“I’m deeply sorry about Beowulf, Sheila. Truly. That leaves us with short stories and poems. We have also been advised that we shouldn’t teach any literature dealing with violence. Or mastication, however benign. I’d warn against any piece that could be a potential source of agitation, so no strong emotions. Doesn’t leave much, does it?” I glanced at a fellow Americanist. “Appears you’ve taught your last Poe seminar, eh, Kramer?”
The clamor began.
“What about my Proust Universe summer immersion program?”
“Surely, Austen is exempt from the list.”
“Enough, everyone. We’ll all have to make sacrifices. Basically, if it bleeds, it leaves; if it feeds, it leaves; if it needs, it leaves. From OES. From the top. Finito.”
The committee heaved a collective, despondent sigh.
“Steel yourselves, friends. There’s more. You will be informed officially, but word has it that OES has determined that these new students be allocated four times the amount of instruction and exam time as our Non-Differently-Impulse-Abled Students.
“But that means an eight-hour class!” Professor Frobisher shrieked.
“Calm yourself, Sheila—we’ll get though this somehow.” I didn’t sound too confident. “I suspect we’ll be receiving more explicit directives shortly. And I want to apologize for all the recent construction on campus. The good news is that we are unilaterally exempted from office hours. You may contact the dean’s office if you have further questions. I wish you all—God be—Goodbye.”
I studied their feet as they filed from the room in miserable surrender.
A few days before classes began, at the mandatory faculty orientation meeting, the more unsettling logistics of our plight became clear.
Some mid-upper-level admin from OES, flanked by a dozen suited and badged subordinates, began intoning, “You no doubt understand that a certain amount of flexibility will be required of you regarding our incoming DIAS. You will all refrain from any excitement-inducing language or movement. Keep it level and slow.”
He surveyed the room levelly and slowly.
“Any questions? No? Good. You will each carry a taser, but under only the most extreme circumstances should you use it, if ever. Each of your instructional areas has been outfitted with a Serenity Closet to which you should repair in case of any ‘situation’ requiring you do so. Understand that you will be fully responsible for the costs of any situation containment.”
We shifted nervously in our seats. Not a few of us began trembling. Earlier that day, we had toured a model DIAS classroom, with the standard reinforced steel and glass cell behind the lectern. Sheila had fainted when asked to participate in a “situation-response” simulation. It hadn’t gone very well with some of the emeriti either.
“Given the educational accommodation extension, you will each be assigned a cooler, for which you will be physically and financially responsible.” He pointed at a large red and white Igloo with a handle and wheels. “The commissary will provide you with sufficient vegetarian, gluten-free sandwiches to sustain you and your students throughout the day, as most of you will be teaching an eight-hour class and will be unable to leave your designated room for any reason during that period. Yes?”
Gladys Grandeville, our senior Victorianist, shrilled, “What about a personal emergency? Personal needs? How can I possibly be more delicate?”
“I repeat, you will be unable to leave your designated room during class hours. Should you wish, you may avail yourself of the university healthcare catheterization option. The co-pay, of course, will be deducted from your paycheck. I think this concludes our business for the day. On behalf of Chancellor Knot and Dean Glower, I trust you will enjoy a successful and incident-free year.”
The first day of instruction, on a crisp fall morning, I trudged toward the newly fortified humanities building, dragging my sandwich-laden cooler along elm-studded sidewalks. The wheels’ plastic roar drowned out customary matinal pleasures—the birds’ singing, the squirrels’ scrabbling and scolding—but most campus wildlife had long since vanished anyway. I caught sight of Sheila across the quad and waved. She was struggling with her cooler, which had tipped over. When she saw me, she raised her hand to her mouth and uttered a frantic little cry that arrowed across the expanse. I winced and continued walking.
Once I reached my classroom, I tapped the activation code into the door’s security pad and peered through the one-way glass at my new students. They all sat stiffly at their desks, heads lolling to the side, like defective mannequins. Their motionless bodies unnerved me. Level and slow. Green light signals operational go. Taking a deep breath, I entered the room and approached the lectern, praying that the grating of my cooler’s wheels didn’t set them off. The door chunked closed behind me, and the timer began to subtract seconds.
“Good morning, class. I am Professor Wycliffe, and I will be your writing instructor this semester.”
Not one of them moved. Heads still angled, mouths slack. The ones not wearing dark glasses had eyes like poached eggs. And their skin, except for the lacerations and pustules, reminded me of congealed scalded milk. My breakfast rose at the charnel miasma, but I fought my nausea—and my fear.
The first few hours, we went over the Course Description handout, standard for all DIAS composition classes, and so dull that it obviated even the mildest stimulation.
Soon, however, they began to show signs of restlessness. Rocking. Sporadic humming. Soft hissing. Lunch time. I quickly opened the cooler and began lobbing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at them. Immediately, my DIAS became animated, snarling with delight as they ripped into the meal, then chomping, listless and mechanical, when they realized no flesh was forthcoming. I myself had little appetite.
After lunch, we practiced copying sentences from our grammar book.
“Sally runs. Sally runs quickly. Sally—“
Trevor, a lanky goth DIAS, emitted a groan of almost sexual yearning.
“Trevor, that will be quite enough. Let’s try another exercise.”
“The sky is blue. The sky is very blue. The blue sky is wide. Birds fly in the wide, blue sky.” This occupied them for another two hours.
“Who would like more time?” The majority offered a palsied gesture.
I waited another half hour, wondering how we would ever get through the required material given this rate of response. Four measly sentences to copy. Four.
“All right, class. Let’s hand in our work.”
They stapled the exercises with their teeth, and passed the sodden, shredded pages forward.
Later, we had snack time, and when the final bell chimed softly and the door’s autolock released, I shrank against the wall as I watched my charges lurch toward the exit, thanking God that the day had unfolded without incident.
Apparently, Sheila had not been so fortunate. There was a bulletin that evening from Dean Glower’s office, announcing “with regret, Professor Frobisher’s extended leave of absence.”
The next day, my cooler, my taser, and I entered the same still room.
“Good morning, class. Judging from your work yesterday, some of you seem to be having difficulty with copying—I mean, with spelling—would benefit from spelling practice.” (All of the remodeled classrooms were audited by OES for “Standards of Academic Excellence,” or any perceived deviations thereof.) “So, I want you to repeat after me: I before E, but not after C.”
“Iiiii . . . Eeeee . . .Ceeeeeeeee,” they keened in unison.
“But there is another rule—because this is English!” Here, I usually expect a smattering of laughter. Not today. “Except when a weird, foreign, beige neighbor pulls a feisty heist.”
Trouble, trouble. I recalled the handbook we received at orientation, You and Your Differently-Impulse-Abled Student: “Humming and hissing generally indicate a state of stimulation to be strenuously avoided by the instructor.”
“Beige neighbor?” I offered, suppressing my alarm.
“BEIGE. BEIGE. NEIGHB!” they chanted. Some began to drool.
“How about lunch a little early today? Anybody in the mood for a little watercress and cream cheese?”
In an uncharacteristically optimistic mood, I had thought they might be able to relate to the existential bleakness of Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” OES had ordained that we read to them, given their “linguistic challenges.” We were also discouraged from trying to engage students in discussion because excessive jaw movement could lead to a “situation.” Hemingway seemed accessible enough, so I began.
“’It was late and everyone had left the café except for an old man . . .’”
When I reached the story’s end, however, something entirely unexpected happened. Something horribly unexpected.
They had been sitting, motionless, heads tipped as usual, until I read, “’Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name.’” Suddenly, they galvanized.
“Naaaa. Daaaa. Naaaa. Daaaa,” they began slowly. Then, “NADA! NADAAAA!” with increasing ferocity. Mandibular stimulation. Danger. Danger! Most were jerking violently.
Then a few hauled themselves upright.
I knocked the open cooler toward them, part diversion and part obstacle, then hurled myself into the glass redoubt, hammering the red “Instructor Failure” button. I confess I whimpered as my students’ screams reverberated over the sirens, as their bodies and faces thumped and struck with ravening insistence at the thin clear wall separating us. Then I sank to the floor, grateful that, even now, Conduct and Compliance forces were racing towards us—and that aerosolized thorazine was filling the sealed room.
That evening, Dean Glower summoned me to her office, informing me of her disappointment and her most fervent hopes that I not be responsible for another “situation.” She also explained that my paycheck would be docked for the C and C intervention, the thorazine, the janitorial services, and the untaught class hours. OES had been contacted, and she was awaiting their judgment regarding further disciplinary measures.
Rumors circulated that Professor Arnold Bronsky had, the same day, experienced similar stressors in his Basics of Theoretical Chemistry class. Apparently the poor fellow had felt sufficiently threatened to taser the entire group, including some neuro-normative Non-DIAS who were enrolled in the section because of their appalling SAT scores. Most unfortunate.
The semester advanced in much the same disquieting pattern for us all.
We spend our eight hours daily teaching fruitless fundamentals and tossing sandwiches at reasonable intervals. There have been more “situations.” We have lost a number of faculty members to “attrition.” The students learn very little, not even impulse control, because the merest stimulation has potentially fatal consequences.
Every evening, after being released from class, they stumble and sway toward their dormitory, DIAS Towers, a maximum security residence hall on the west edge of campus. The PA system that summons them always plays the same tune, to which they are conditioned. Every evening, our entire community is resonant with the song’s warm, cadenced reassurances:
There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover.
Just you wait and see.
We have learned to accept this slight imposition. Even welcome it. Not so much the Tower. Some locals complained about the ghastly sounds emanating nightly from within. A town hall meeting was convened. Miraculously, the university agreed to retrofit the structure with sound-proof tile. This improved our lives a great deal.
But there are many whom the song does not summon. Very many.
So, we have come to accept the curfew as well.
I do miss the sweet night air, especially in the fall. And the lovely ripening of the moon. The certainty that I, as an educator, have made a difference.
That is no longer my life.
As soon as Vera Lynn’s voice floats over the rooftops and the shadows begin to seep across my garden, before the screeching and howls commence, I rise from my desk, lower the grates, latch the bolts, draw the blinds, and turn off the lights. Every last one.
Carolyn A. Waggoner, 2014