Principal Alonzo called Stephen Shy into her office at 11:04 on a Tuesday morning to discuss why using robots to write term papers is unacceptable.
Stephen walked into her office seemingly unconcerned about why he had been summoned. Most of the sixth graders walked in sheepish--even anxious. Seventh graders tended to walk in providing a kind of false confidence that would fall away as soon as Principal Alonzo picked up the phone and interrupted their parents at work. The eighth graders were the best at appearing calm, but a raised voice and the word “disappointed” could often break their exterior.
Principal Terri Alonzo had been doing this for nineteen years. Nobody ever left her office quite the same, and that was the point.
As he sat down, Principal Terri noticed that Stephen had a bit of a light cough. Sometimes students would feign a mild illness to try and diminish the intensity of their impending punishment. It never worked. The verdict had been decided long before they arrived, and it was never amended or adjusted. A child could walk in missing their head and however many detentions or days suspended they were due, that is what they were going to get.
“Stephen,” Principal Terri began, “It has come to the attention of your teacher, Ms. Sanger, and therefore myself, that you have cheated on your last paper. I believe the topic was something about the exports of North Dakota or something like that.”
He nodded as the accusation was put forth. Without asking, he reached for a glass on Principal Terry Alonzo’s desk, then the pitcher of water, poured himself a hearty helping, and proceeded to drink the entire thing right in front of her. She was stunned. Nobody had ever touched that glass or that pitcher, and nobody had ever gone so far as to drink in front of her. This boy might need reform school or some sort of military program.
“Principal Alonzo,” Stephen said, his unruly mouth now hydrated, “I don’t believe cheating is the right word for what I did.”
She could have fallen right through her customized ergonomic chair. To counter her allegation? To claim innocence? To introduce semantics into her sacred space of discipline and corrective instruction? She would suggest to his parents that he be sent to a boarding school in a politically unstable country. It was the only way.
“You see,” the rascal continued, “I didn’t look over at someone else’s paper during a test. I didn’t write answers on my arm and refer to them during a pop quiz. I also didn’t plagiarize by taking out chunks of text that someone else came up with so I could pass it off as my own. I simply delegated the writing of my paper to artificial intelligence which is designed to assist me in such a way. I honestly don’t see the problem, Madame Principal.”
Terri thought about holding an assembly. She wanted to parade him in front of his peers before placing a hat atop his head with the words “Downfall of Civilization” on it. The hat would be shaped like a cone--like a Dunce Cap would--but it would not say “Dunce,” because “Dunce” is a pejorative, and she was not in the habit of insulting children. Marking a child as the reason for all of the world’s ills was a different matter entirely. This was all fantasy, because an assembly for such a thing would be too disruptive, but Terri allowed herself the reverie before diving back into the fray.
“Stephen,” she said, “You and I both know it is against the rules to turn in an assignment you did not work on yourself. You had a robot write your paper for you. That is grounds for suspension. Possibly expulsion, but I’ll need to consult our lawyers about that.”
The young man pointed to the right of her.
“What is that,” he asked.
Terri, the principal, turned to look at her computer. A simple Dell laptop. Nothing frivolous. She didn’t believe in wasteful spending unless it was for the human body, which is why she authorized herself to spend so much on her ergonomic desk chair.
“Stephen, you know perfectly well what that is.”
“And you use it,” he said, “To do your work?”
Terri felt her face flush.
“That,” she said, “Is not the same.”
Stephen began to rise up out of his seat like a boy possessed by the Devil. He didn’t so much stand as he levitated.
“And do the teachers not use machines to help with grading,” he asked, “And to scan all our tests? And what about email? And Excel spreadsheets? And the new vending machine in the cafeteria that accepts credit cards?”
Terri stood up to reassert dominance over him, but she moved too fast, and instantly felt that pesky muscle in her back strain itself. She fell to the ground in pain. The ground had far too much dirt on it, and she knew she would have to terminate the janitor when all this was over. First, she had to deal with Stephen from her new, diminished position.
“Stephen,” she said, “Those are resources used to help the adults do their work. Their work is to educate you. You are denying yourself an education by refusing to learn about the imports of South Dakota.”
“Exports and North Dakota.”
“Would you like some help getting up from the floor, Madame Principal?”
“No,” said Terri, clinging to dignity at all costs, “I’ll have Mrs. Mackie help me up.”
“Didn’t you fire her last week?”
“I--Oh. Yes. Well. I’m sure I’ll be fine. Please show yourself out. You’re suspended for the next two weeks. I’ll expect a letter from you when you return detailing how you’ve reflected on your actions. It must be signed by both parents and a notary.”
Stephen kneeled down so that he could get a better look at Madame Principal Terri Alonzo. She was beginning to sweat from the pain, and the sweat was causing her make-up to smudge. He saw that her clothes were not properly steamed, and the heel on one of her shoes had broken off during the fall. She was a sad example of an administrator.
“I feel bad for you, Madame Principal,” Stephen said, making sure to infuse his voice with the right amount of sympathy, “Because one day, a robot’s going to be doing your job.”
With that, he stood up and walked to the door of the office, only turning around to inform her that he’d be back in two weeks with the letter and that it would be signed per her request.
“I’ll shut the door on my way out,” he said.
As the door closed, T heard the bell ring. It was the end of the day. Students were rushing out to jump into cars with parents or onto school buses with their friends. It was a Friday. Nobody would be in the building again until Monday. Her secretary was fired. The janitor would be avoiding her office, because he detested her and refused to exist in any space that featured the heinous reek of her cheap perfume.
She lay there on the ground beneath her desk when an idea popped into her head. Her phone. Her phone was on her desk.
A sigh of relief.
“Please call 9-1-1.”
Not a sound.