Pam Edwards 1996 Published in: The Northwest Technocrat, 3rd quarter 1996, No. 344
In a recent science fiction movie, TWELVE MONKEYS, the hero is forced to live physically underground because the surface of the earth is too contaminated, and he is trapped in a totalitarian society in which the vast majority of humans have already died of a deadly virus. Immediate survival has taken precedence, as it does in so many Hollywood movies. Having traveled back in time to 1996 for a short research assignment, our hero waxes nostalgic about this time when the streets were crime ridden, there was no place to park, and homelessness and unemployment plagued the citizens. We could easily extend this list of contemporary complaints…and agree that to some extent suffering is relative. (Unless you’re loved one was just a statistic in the wake of some ugly social breakdown).
I am a high school teacher on a spring break, one of the vacations for which teachers are envied. Going to the movies is a small luxury, a way most of us get to emulate the idle rich for a couple of hours. The truth is, that even with a break, I won’t have much “discretionary” time or income to fool around with. For several weeks up to vacation, we teachers are anxiously awaiting time off. Our work isn’t the back breaking, dawn to dusk labor of most people living a hundred years ago, but our work is outrageous. I often feel like I am on a unicycle and I can’t look around me or I’ll crash down. I must focus on the next trick which I control with my two hands and my rapidly pedaling feet. I am vaguely aware of things I see in my peripheral vision…the students who only show up once a week, the boy who doesn’t eat all day because his mother’s been locked in a mental institution and his father is raising three kids on a full time job which pays $600 a month, the incessant false fire alarms set off by wandering students and ignored entirely by everyone (God forbid there should ever be a fire,) the abysmally low level of basic skills, the threat that teachers will at any minute be held responsible for this lack of basic skills (beating our heads against the wall as it is to make enough noise to even get many students’ attention.)
At home I have stacks of papers to grade. I am proud that I got my honors class to do research papers, but now I have to grade them. My garage needs cleaning, my yard needs work, and my child needs help. I am a single parent. There is very little community for support if anything goes wrong. I hate being sick as it reminds me of how vulnerable I am. There is so much which if I don’t do it, doesn’t get done. This is at home and at school.
Within an hour of starting my vacation, I walked by a coffee shop and because I saw two men I know, I sat down on the bench in the sun. I have never done this although they do for hours at a stretch. I watched them, as if programmed; make cracks about driving skills of people parking their cars. They said in unison, “That’s right, back up till you hit something!” I listened to them express admiration for Ronald Reagan and George Bush. I joked that they had chosen some mighty dull heroes. We didn’t discuss these politicians’ attacks on human rights of women. Five minutes of this “leisure” sent me scurrying off the streets for cover. Male supremacy is alive and well.
Rather than imagining how much worse things could be, as TWELVE MONKEYS does, I can envision how much better things could be. If the school building weren’t collapsing, if I taught two or three courses instead of five (actually six at the moment,) if the students weren’t suffering from gross inequalities of access to basic necessities. (My modest living circumstances put me in a class way above and beyond most of my students…and this is true of almost all teachers versus students in inner-city public schools. The opposite situation prevails in many private schools, with teachers living much more humble existences than the wealthy families of their students. Both these extremes are not truly healthy if social and intellectual well-being and progress are primary goals of education.)
In so many other ways I can picture things better. What if I didn’t have to spend most of my time anxious that I might forget some of the dozens of niggling details that comprise contemporary schools and modern life? Each day I get home from work and hop on the phone (if it is not too late) with the insurance company, the rain gutter man, the dentist, some mutual fund agent, tax accountant, bank employee, librarian and so on. I recently had no less than six conversations with my home insurance company; they had almost doubled my premium. I was told, “If you do this (smoke detectors, alarms, extinguishers) and if you have that (sheer walling, bolting, earthquake proofing) then we’ll give you a 10% discount on this premium and a blah, blah reduction on that. Plus we need to come and take pictures and measurements because of new regulations instituted due to the Oakland fire.”
I accommodated all those demands, made appointments; we took pictures and I helped measure. Then a month later an entirely different agent, same insurance, calls to tell me he is coming to do all the measuring and photographing. I say “No! It has been done.” He said, “Well, I don’t see the paper work here so let’s do it again.” “No!” I persisted, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I have the name of the person who came, the date, the time! You track it down!” He insisted it would be easier if he just came out and did it all again. Was he trying to pad his job? So many people are worried their jobs will disappear. Still I held my ground. Maybe my house insurance is invalid now? What do I know? After a long day at work, I can’t tolerate some of the waste and inefficiency this system spews out, even if it resembles some I spew out myself in my job.
If I do get a few minutes to relax, I’m really lucky if one of my friends has the same time available. They are just as swamped with work, schools, kids and chores as I am.
And I ask myself, do we really have to live like this? Technocracy says we don’t. I have a suspicion Technocracy is right. I thought so even before crossing paths with Technocracy. We have a major distribution problem. Technocracy shows how to solve it by giving all North American citizens equal access to all goods and services.
Maybe the hero in TWELVE MONKEYS had it wrong, but we’d better not be grateful for a crime ridden present when the present may be the precursor to a nightmarish future. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but how much more niggling can things get?