“Popular”: a short story about the future of remote education
I wrote this short story in 2006, shortly after both my graduation from an MS degree in HCI (where some of my work was on educational technology and online communities) and from the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. It was never published, following a number of kind, close-but-no rejections. The idea behind it was that a world built on code (inspired by Amy Bruckman’s MOOSE Crossing of the late 90s) would create very different social hierarchies for middle school. Suddenly this kind of thought experiment seems more relevant than ever…
Thanks to the eighteen wheelers that drive past my house, I never forget what day of the week it is. Today is Wednesday, which means fruit trucks. Well, sometimes vegetables, but more often the sort of stuff you get in cans. Like mandarin oranges. Last week it was bananas. The trucks rolling by last week had some of the nicest paint jobs I’ve seen — a big orange brand name painted next to bunches of smiling yellow bananas. One of the truck drivers honked at me. He was wearing an orange hat.
Thursdays it’s shampoo and Fridays it’s video games and Mondays it’s fast food and Tuesdays it’s clothing lines. My teacher calls this product placement. I don’t know what sort of trucks come by on the weekends. None of us knows what happens here on the weekends.
This morning when I got to my house, Sam was waiting for me. He told me he couldn’t get into his own house. It had bugs.
“Can’t you get Miss Whitney to fix it?” I asked him as I reached above his head to pick a caramel apple off of the caramel apple tree that grows in my living room.
“She said there’s nothing wrong with the house itself, just peripherals.”
Peripherals was a new word we’d all learned not too long ago. My caramel apple tree was a peripheral. One of the most awesome ones around, actually — I was one of the very best coders in our class.
“So you can’t just turn them off?”
He scowled and sank onto my couch, which made a fake farting noise as soon as he settled. “Don’t let Miss Whitney hear that, Zack,” he said. “She’ll make you get rid of it. And I don’t want to turn them off. I’m almost done with the flying skateboard!”
“You said that last month.”
“Yeah, well, it’s actually hovering a little now.”
Sam and I are the most popular kids in school. We’re just barely holding onto that now that Beth Anne has figured out how to make pet panda bears, but once Sam finishes his skateboard we’ll be free and clear. Besides, everyone knows that Beth Anne’s dad helped her with the pandas.
“Do you think it’s your skateboard that’s buggy?” I asked Sam.
“Nah, I think it was a new face I’m working on. I was trying to make mood hair. You know, red when I’m angry and blue when I’m sad and uh… I didn’t have to figure out the rest because it suddenly went all flashy and rainbow colored and that’s when I logged off yesterday. And today when I got here my house was all locked up.”
“Well, I can look at the code,” I offered, “but we’ve got math in a few minutes.”
“That the face you’re wearing?” he asked.
“I guess.” It was just my usual, nothing fancy. Looked a lot like the real me, actually, except a little less pudgy and with a much cooler haircut. Not that Sam knew that — he’d never seen me outside of school.
“I heard Kimberly wants to ask you to the dance on Friday.”
“Me? Really?” I immediately started switching through faces. “How’s this one?” I asked once I’d settled. It had just the faintest shadow of facial hair, enough to show but not enough for Miss Whitney to say anything.
“Wicked,” said Sam.
I couldn’t stop staring at Kimberly all through class. Even when the B squared from the quadratic equation bounced over from the chalkboard and hit me over the head. “Zack!” That was Miss Whitney. “Pay attention!”
Kimberly was probably the hottest girl in our class, for one very important reason. She’d figured out how to make boobs that look real. Other girls had tried but they were always just cut-and-pasted from bikini models or something and Miss Whitney noticed right away and made them take them off. But Kimberly’s were a work of art — just enough to show but not enough for the teacher to say anything. You can bet her dad didn’t help her with those.
Today she was wearing an orange sweater; it made me think of the banana truck. She was getting dirty looks, especially from Beth Anne, who’d already gotten in trouble today when one of her pandas ate the square root sign.
“You know the rules,” Miss Whitney said. “No pets bigger than a mouse inside the classrooms.”
I have two boa constrictors and a baby lion at my house. A couple of months ago I made a unicorn for Annabelle Simpson when I had a crush on her for about five minutes. I’m pretty sure she can’t even figure out how to ride it. I don’t know why I liked her. She’s really unpopular.
Miss Whitney gave us a ton of equations to solve for homework. We’re not allowed to use code on homework. If you try, a giant pair of lips jumps from the page and yells, “CHEATER CHEATER PUMPKIN EATER TRIED TO CHEAT BUT COULDN’T BEAT HER.” The only one who’s better at making stuff than me and Sam is Miss Whitney.
So there’s really no point in doing homework here at school. I’ll just save it until I log off. My mom doesn’t let me have caramel apples at our real house. She’s a dentist.
Kimberly came up to me after math class. I was pretty sure she was about to ask me to the dance. Sam was standing behind her giving me a thumbs up, but then stupid Annabelle had to run up to us and just blurt it right out.
“Hi Zack, do you want to go to the dance with me?”
It took me a minute to even realize it was her. But then I remembered that she was the only girl left in our class who used the factory default avatar. Pink shirt, blonde pigtails, expressionless face. Definitely no boobs.
“Actually, I was just about to ask him,” Kimberly said.
Annabelle’s default face stayed in the same default expression, but her voice wavered a little. “But I asked first!”
Sam was still standing behind Kimberly, snickering.
“I think I’d rather go with Kimberly,” I said immediately. After all, if Annabelle couldn’t even be bothered to dress up a little…
“But — but — you know they aren’t even real!” Annabelle shoved her finger in the air in the general direction of Kimberly’s chest.
Kimberly looked down, confused. “I coded them myself!”
“No, I mean, not real,” Annabelle turned back to me, and she probably would have looked imploring if her avatar had better code. “I won a beauty pageant, you know. I’m the prettiest girl in the class! My mom met Kimberly’s mom at parents’ night and saw a picture of her. She has stringy hair and glasses.”
“So?” I scoffed. “It’s a school dance. Who cares what you really look like?”
“But I thought… I don’t know, next year maybe we’ll go to a real school…”
I looked at her blankly. “Did you break your unicorn?”
“You’re a jerk,” she said, and then huffed off, probably to try to impress someone else with her meaningless beauty pageant.
Sam looked at me and shook his head.
“I wasn’t trying to be mean,” I said.
He shrugged. “She can’t help that she’s dumb any more than Kimberly can help that she has stringy hair.”
“Hey!” said Kimberly.
Sam shrugged. “Just what I heard.”
“It hardly seems fair,” I said, looking over at the back of Annabelle’s pigtailed head. “It’s not like she’ll ever be popular. Unless she cheats like Beth Anne.”
The class started heading towards teleporters and out the doors, so the three of us left the math room and started walking towards Sam’s house. Maybe I could impress Kimberly by fixing Sam’s buggy code.
“We’re starting high school next year,” Sam pointed out. “I guess Annabelle wants to switch to a non-virtual school.”
“And get a crappy education with books and rooms and all that?” I made a face. “Just so she can look like a beauty queen without having to work for it? What a waste!”
“Hey!” Kimberly brightened a little. “The dance is a costume party, right? We should make avatars that look like our real selves!”
“Nah,” said Sam. “I’m gonna be a pirate. I’ve coded a real peg leg.”
“Oh,” said Kimberly. “Okay.”
We had just turned onto Sam’s street when an eighteen-wheeler drove by. It was a melon truck, painted the same orange color as Kimberly’s sweater.
“Naturafruit Melons,” said Sam, reading off the side. “Isn’t that the same brand as the bananas?”
“I like the color,” said Kimberly. “But I hate melons.”
“Me too,” I said, walking purposefully towards Sam’s front door so I didn’t have to stare at her chest.
I made a mental note to put Naturafruit Melons on my mom’s grocery list. At least when I was out of school and stuck in my own skin I could have something to remind me of hers.