[Issue 1 / May 2012]
Please Be Careful with the Children by Heather Fowler
Hortense Algiers sat at her administrator’s desk, observing the playground as she always did at nine a.m. Turquoise-rimmed tortoise shell glasses framed her eyes and she dressed in a green suit too hot for this turgid June. Her hunter leather heels, though expensive, already emitted a subtle reek. “Too hot for stockings!” she’d announced earlier that morning—to no one but her twin Siamese cats, facing again, as always, their cool indifference.
This morning, she tapped short nude nails on her desk and opened yet another newsletter draft to be sent to parents about attendance and teacher’s mandatory in-house service days. The field rep from Projection Inc. would soon come.
Tired and alone, viewing a faint reflection in the window of her deepening crows’ feet, stymied on the very morning she was supposed to make the key decision that no one else would touch, Hortense found she had an aching tenderness for the young ones, almost as if she anticipated their ruin. “I hope you did well,” she admonished as they scurried about outdoors where a small blonde girl named Jakie Hen socked a young boy named Herbert in the arm. Hard. “Hit him again,” Hortense said, below her breath. “He stole your favorite lunchbox. He also stole Jane French’s purse.”
As she watched their antics more closely she determined, as always, that the children resembled a hive of strange, loud, colorful insects, clambering over each other, interacting, shouting, laughing, crying, swarming. She adored them with the sort of intensity that swelled her chest and moistened her eyes. Each failure and each victory on that playground was her own.
Last week, all children had been provided peppermint sticks as stimulants for the math and English sections of the test, new shiny pencils for the reading interpretation parts, and foil stickers shaped like tigers or moons as rewards after the new psychological component.
“A psychological component?” Hortense had asked.
“Yes, it helps determine which sector they land within,” her rep had replied.
Privately, Hortense cringed. “The test has become more invasive in multiple arenas,” she replied.
“Invasive or detailed,” the other woman rejoined.
So more personal assessment measures, but that was not all. Testers these days enjoyed special savvy with results polls, integrating governmental housed data like parental incomes, professions, and zip codes with compulsories. This year, the school would present combined data and text evaluations, if Hortense did not fight this—and only yesterday, she had found herself on the phone, incensed, arguing with the same field rep they’d had for two years, Ms. Amanda Chaps, arguing results distribution.
“Well, I know we have provided them to children and parents for years, Amanda,” she’d said. “But not this way. We’re tying it all up a bit too tightly, don’t you think? Such knots could cut off circulation.”
“There are always two scenarios provided, Hortense. Nothing has changed in a decade a—”
“Yes, but there are now no generic categories of interest,” Hortense interrupted, “more a multi-layered prognostication, based on not only tested data but parental specifics? And an offspring count? To tell them how many children they’ll have? Ridiculous!”
“The sample child’s results won’t resemble everyone’s results. A sample was all you saw.”
“Still, it’s a bit much don’t you think?” Hortense asked over the phone, typing in the close of an email about trash collection in the schoolyard and finalizing another pep-talk memo to staff as she spoke. Don’t forget how much we value your every contribution, she typed, feeling vinegar towards Amanda, adding a jaunty exclamation mark at the end of that line as if for happy emphasis, then deleting that and alternating it with a period. She changed the punctuation mark a few times, conflicted.
“Data has its uses,” Amanda said into the phone. “More is better. It improves accuracy.”
“Look, I’m no Luddite,” Hortense replied, so offended she rapidly closed the documents on her screen lest such angst spill over. “I have supported testing actions for years, Amanda! Wasn’t my school one of the first to participate in the new regime? Don’t condescend, please. I have been a great improver of this wheel, even if I did not directly invent it.”
Amanda, or her phone persona, remained non-plussed, her spoken tone striking Hortense as identical to the feeling one gets when opening the freezer door on a scorcher. “I don’t condescend, Hortense; I merely indicate some improvements are improvements.”
Hortense took a deep cleansing breath, desperately wanting to pour the hall coffee decanter’s black sludge right down her throat, despite that it was thirty feet away and likely empty by this time in the morning. “And the behavioral component? Why did no one tell me about that before? I think it’s creepy that you watched them at play, if you want to know the truth.”
“You knew we were proctoring exams. We simply did not tell you there were reps for the playground exams.”
Sometimes Hortense strongly desired to lay a fat fist to young Amanda’s nose, to give her a hard shove, and this was one of them. Two years talking to this woman and never to have seen her face! Hortense imagined it was small and tight in the way of the faces of closed-minded people. Amanda would be thin, she decided, emaciated and hyper-clean. “Nor did you tell the kids a thing,” Hortense fumed. “Some would have behaved better.”
“Then their behavior would not be natural, but that for special occasions.”
“Testing is a special occasion,” Hortense argued. “A child will not act like an animal while being tested.”
Amanda sighed as if it were she, instead of Hortense, as the long-suffering party. “Well, there’s no need to get angry,” she said. “Calm yourself. Tomorrow, I’ll come and we can revisit the results together. The parents in your district are eager, Hortense. I’ve had thirty calls in less than ten days, asking about this distribution. If you had a school from the west side, I’ll tell you now, the parents aren’t so eager…”
Zoning her out, Hortense decided Amanda definitely possessed a small bony ass, like one of those starving Europeans you saw on news briefings. “Yes, well, what do you see from the students in west side districts with your fancy test results, Amanda? Let me help you out: Choice A: Thug. Choice B: Drug Addict. Choice A: Death Row. Choice B: Military Infantry.”
“That is technically incorrect,” Amanda replied. “There must always be at least one positive prognostication, sometimes two—though often one warning prediction to caution against sloth and failure.”
Sloth and failure, Hortense thought. The bitch was a robot! Metallic fingers and metallic toes! Hortense ripped open a package of blackberry yogurt she’d left on her desk, lifted her silver spoon, and took a bite. Tart and sweet, it tasted of escape and reluctant forbearance, of metal spoon.
The playground, in that moment, was empty, kids at class. “Oh, really? Well what were the positive prognostications provided in areas such as district 56?” she asked, half-focused, watching an email flash across her screen from a teacher in B223 documenting a ditcher.
“Minimum Wage Employee is one option,” Amanda replied. “Lots of military predictions. It helps them up and out. Keeps them away from contaminants.”
The ditcher Adam Kinsey, a boy Hortense knew, could be seen skirting the edge of the blacktop and rimming beyond the dirt fields to the place in the wire fence where a hole was often used for escape. Adam Kinsey, Hortense thought. Why, you bad child! She could call his mother again, but the mother would not be home and the parent apparently had no control since this was a repeat problem. Another message might be left, but Hortense was already on the phone, with Amanda. “Please be careful with the children,” Hortense muttered to Amanda. “That sample evaluation was terribly depressing. Could be a kid’s future gets better from here, don’t you posit? Intervention? A positive role model? Change in location.” Adam Kinsey’s rear end popped free from the open hole. Hortense followed the receding dot of his body until he disappeared around the corner. CALL COPS RE: KINSEY AFTER HANG UP, she wrote on her note pad. Sub-note, title case: Deputy Frank.
The line went silent for both women until Amanda replied, “Look, do you think for one moment I didn’t argue to have some categories removed? I did, Hortense. Let me tell you, I told them that Teenage Pregnancy should be an eliminated viewable variable—as should the progeny count. I told them these tests could be factored in when or if the budget gets so poor that school will be provided only for students who test in certain registers, that this testing could become its own class system! I told them simpler was better, Hortense—but this extended testing is not so new as you think. In fact, it’s not new at all.” There was another pause before she said, “For years, we’ve had more precise measures, yet provided generic descriptors. Do you ever wonder what your own early results said?”
“When I got mine,” Hortense replied, “There were no punitive choices. Just one positive choice and one less positive.” She wanted to be home, to pet both silent dreadful cats until she fell asleep, to drown out Amanda’s relentless voice.
“See you tomorrow at 10 a.m.,” Amanda responded. “Let’s resolve this, yes? Neither you nor I have any real power. We can only amend. Because that’s what we do, so see you then.” The line went dead.
When Amanda Chaps arrived at the school the next morning, which was this morning, Hortense was ready, but Amanda looked nothing like she’d imagined. A retiring young woman in navy slacks, Amanda was spatially large, heavy, but took up scant room with her mild energy. Her blouse was stained. She had a red sweaty face and brown curls frizzed by the dry heat. When she sat, she slouched slightly to the left. There were moles on her face and neck, too many. She had soft wide lips that made gentle speech as she said, depressing the button on her recorder, “I’m going to record our conversation; is that all right?” This was a standard mode for such talks.
“All cleared,” Hortense replied. “Let us begin.”
It was discussed that there were three versions of the test. It was discussed that certain students with particularly dire prognostications would not have results offered in class, but would come to the principal’s office to discuss them. It was discussed that Hortense could provide students with the minimal version of the test, but would have to provide the full assessments if parents requested them. “I would like to see every single evaluation, school-wide, before I participate,” Hortense said.
“This is good,” Amanda replied. “I can train you how to counsel parents as they review their children’s results. Don’t be surprised if they request the whole evaluations.”
By and large, Hortense found the long evaluations shockingly accurate, if not a bit dire. “Even the short versions,” she said, “have negative prognostications that are too harsh, don’t you think?” she asked Amanda, noting with appreciative admiration that Adam Kinsey was listing with Thief, Grand Larceny, with his other choice of Prestigious Bank President.
Little Jakie Hen listed as Security Guard or Federal Marshall. Some of the others were compartmentalized as well. Jessica Tyrone: Retail clerk or Jewelry Designer. Frank Greene: Barber or Restauranteer. Bob Acell, little Bob Acell they had down as Psychological Institutionalization or Rehab Specialist. Hortense particularly hated the behavioral analysis sections. “I hate to tell you, Amanda,” she said. “But I’m not believing these should be shown anyone, the long versions. Don’t you think it a bit odd how they went on and on about how Allen Stibald would not give up his shovel? And this is where they derive that he should be a Treasurer at a Service Club or a Senate Representative? Because of his average intelligence level and shovel play?”
“It’s not the big things that create our awareness, Hortense,” Amanda said. “That shovel is someone’s car, later. That shovel is his own pocket book. Maybe yours.”
“Oh, really,” Hortense said, watching the insect hive outside roil and tangle as they usually did during midmorning recess. “And so the hair-pulling shows, for Alessa Adams, that she should be a low level religious figure?”
“Read the descriptions carefully,” Amanda replied. “There’s a lot truth in behavior.”
The room was hot. Hortense turned the fan on and smelled the reek of her own feet circulating so was eager to conclude the meeting, reflecting at the same time that she needed to use a bristle brush to exfoliate again in her shower, to lose weight to reduce bloat, to better moisturize. “I hate them,” she said, shuffling the papers together again into the larger stack. “These full evaluations.”
Amanda leaned closer such that Hortense could see right down her sloppy blue top and into the space where her small cone shaped breasts lay flat against a pale abdomen that outgrew them. “Did you follow your evaluation?” she asked Hortense. “Did you attempt both paths?”
“What do you mean attempt both paths?” Hortense asked. “Who has time for two careers?”
“I mean exactly what I asked,” Amanda said, urgently. “Did you follow both paths designated for you, or only one?”
Hortense regarded her interviewer with satisfaction. “I followed the right one. They told me: School Administrator or Social Worker. The former was obviously the superior choice, far better off financially. And I’m helping children.”
“But are you helping children?”
“Well, of course I am!”
Amanda wore a strange sad look like a mourning veil upon her face. “Of course you’re right,” she replied. “We’re both helping children.”
“It’s the holistic evaluations I hate,” Hortense said. “I am plenty happy with the choices historic tests have rendered, but they didn’t use some data-inflated socio-economic norm registers and reactive actions on the playground to make results. They tested my language and math skills, for example, may have assessed my interests index. This is why the short version will be best to use for these children at my school.”
“I see. And somebody must have decided this, like you just did, a long time ago,” Amanda replied. “Which is partly why it’s now mandatory to provide the whole evaluation upon request these days, so no one may hold anything valuable back from those that want to know.” She too stared out at the playground where Alessa Adams generously yanked up a small boy tagged in dodgeball and Allen Stibald pointed, aggressively and repeatedly, at the tetherball string as he argued. “But I think you should give the students their whole evaluations,” Amanda said. “People’s lives can be changed from receipt of one page summaries… Quite a bit. I can’t force the issue at this point, as discussed, Hortense, but I can say I think the tests, in total, are valid. I would like you re-evaluate the sample evaluation one last time before I confirm your decision.” She turned off the recording device.
“What?” Hortense said. “I don’t want to look at that thing again. I saw it—“
“I said that just for the official recording,” Amanda replied. “Bear with me. Hortense. I like you, but you followed your path. I followed my path. Many, many of us follow our path—and who’s to say the government doesn’t own this whole shebang, test op and school? Who’s to say the professions aren’t handed out in a volume to fill the country’s needs for retail employment and economic sustainability? No one! And still, the details are the only places the test results don’t seem so conclusive, where people might look in to their alternate stories. If I tell you something very confidential, will you keep it mum, please? I could lose my job.”
Hortense looked into the young girl’s eyes, which were liquid, brown, and kind. “Yes,” she replied.
“Yesterday, I stole your test for you, Hortense. There were evaluations even then, and there have always been playground evaluations, but the 'good choices' are not always the right choices—do you fathom what I mean? I’ll leave you with this for a moment, your own full exam. When you are done reading it, return it to my briefcase. I’m going to take a walk among the children.”
Amanda stood, turned, and left the room. Hortense removed her slick shoes quickly and shoved tissues in them to dry them. She opened the window, turned the fan on higher, and walked to the sink to wash and dry her hands. Her test, old and yellowed, sat on her desk.
Hortense Algiers, it read. Age 8. She remembered seeing it as a child, the first page.
As she returned to sit at her desk, she flipped the top sheet to read the behavioral analysis and alternately stare toward the yellow painted lines on the blacktop, following their curvatures with her gaze between sentences.
“Hortense Algiers: Child has a strange fixation on justice, as demonstrated by desire for retribution seen in hopscotch incident. Will likely take a leadership role or perform in the aid of society. Thurs, noon, protected a diseased child on the playground and spent the duration of her recess picking up the dropped contents of other child’s backpack. Ate snack alone. Threw trash to side of receptacle. Sense of rebellion. As school administrator, will not advance above mid-track placement. Her leadership will be effectual at the local level, but not effect changes at higher levels. Social work advised for candidate since field training and hands on work will increase her likelihood for helping people and/or making a difference, which matches her ‘happiness-in-life-quotient’ profile. Poor social register and community projected if she routes with higher administration. Less equals in her field. First life choice could prove financially satisfying but more difficult to find romantic partner. Either projection has chance for alteration should later interests emerge.”
When she finished reading, Hortense made a copy of her test and returned it to Amanda’s briefcase. She looked for the girl.
There Amanda was, out the window, walking freely among the children, as one of them. What had Amanda’s test said, Hortense wondered? Why had she stolen Hortense’s test at such risk? Were they alike? She remembered Amanda’s ring-less hands, her heavy body, her contemplative look. Now, emotively, Amanda seemed to echo whichever cluster of kids she was nearest. By the time she returned, Hortense had thought several times about her own empty apartment, about her two cats, about how no matter what she decided or advised, the kids here were going to do what they were going to do—and most of them would follow their tests toward financially viable solutions if they could. This was only natural.
Yet had she read her own earlier, in full, had she known what hers said, Hortense suspected she would not be so fat now, with two cats and no children, in a high-end apartment on the East Side alone, watching her cholesterol rise and feeling so content that she had elected the “right” side of the choice. Staring out the window, the yellow and white skirt of Amelia Peabody caught in the breeze and was lifted, fully lit by the golden sun.
Hortense could glow like that! Probably would if she chose better! Maybe she wouldn’t own any damn cats, but be thin and go dancing four nights a week and have a family who loved her so much their hearts hurt to separate from each other each morning or each evening, maybe even a big family, full of children, and a man, and a house like a home, lowly perhaps, cheap and constraining perhaps, but a spot in the sun, too, for a small barking dog, probably a Shih-tzu. And she’d go to work broke but happy every day. Perhaps then her life would make a difference.
Amanda re-entered the office and switched on the recorder. “So just to confirm, Hortense,” she said, nodding like, go along, go along, and putting her soft pale hand on Hortense’s shoulder to rub it oddly, almost comfortingly, “Wertenberry School will be providing partial evaluations initially. Our company will still charge the government for full testing, but full tests will be available only upon request by eligible parents. Do we agree or has there been a change after your further review of the sample?”
Mesmerized by the feel of the girl’s long slim fingers on her meaty shoulder, by the unusual intimacy of the contact, Hortense nodded.
“Please speak,” Amanda said.
Hortense opened her mouth. In a moment, after she answered, the girl would be gone, and there would be nothing so comforting for days, no one so good as to steal a part of her distant past back for her. No sound left her lips. Outside, Jakie Hen slugged another boy. Jessica Hall kissed her art teacher’s cheek. Adam Kinsey veered in widening circles toward the holey part of the gate, and Hortense sighed.
She put her hand on top of Amanda’s hand, held it there just a heartbeat, and said, “I have changed my mind. Wertenberry School will provide the full evaluations to every child and parent. Thank you very much, Ms. Chaps, for your fine counsel.”
“Thank you, Ms. Algiers. Decision rendered. End recording.”
Amanda gathered her things slowly then, as if she had all the time in the world. “And what was your other option, Amanda?” Hortense asked her. “If not this?”
“This turned out to be my only option, after all,” Amanda said, smiling with a faraway look. “I’d read my own report.” If tragedy lingered somewhere behind Amanda’s eyes, Hortense knew this was not the time to ask and that there may never be a time.
“Well, thank you for coming today.”
After Amanda’s departure, Hortense separated and distributed the evaluations into the teachers’ cubbies. She left school two hours early, requesting administrative leave, but she didn’t leave out the front. Instead, she walked to the far end of the field, with her briefcase in hand, to investigate the metal perimeter fence, to examine the hole in the fence, the size and the shape of the hole in the fence, where Adam Kinsey went each day, absconding.
She regarded this hole quite closely, and, after some quiet deliberation, she elected to test it, to climb right through, ducking low and tearing her clothes only a little—surprised to discover just how easy it was to get out of the schoolyard and into that open patch of blue sky and trees outside the grid, to slip away from these grounds whilst turning tail against, to follow one illicit out into a through.
Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Suspended Heart (Aqueous Books, 2010), People With Holes (Pink Narcissus Press, forthcoming July 2012) and This Time, While We’re Awake (Aqueous Books, forthcoming Spring 2013), which will include the story "Please Be Careful with the Children". She received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her work has been published online and in print in the US, England, Australia, and India, and appeared in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, JMWW, Prick of the Spindle, Short Story America, and others, as well as having been nominated for both the storySouth Million Writers Award and Sundress Publications Best of the Net. Her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine and a Fiction Editor for the international refereed journal, Journal of Post-Colonial Cultures & Societies. Please visit her website at www.heatherfowlerwrites.com