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Turning

The teacher waited until all twelve children had washed their hands. Two boys remained at the sink, talking intensely in low tones.

“Magnus. Hamed. The lesson has started.”

“Hamed is an asshole! He says my mom doesn’t give a shit about infection rules,”

Magnus’s reddened face was dangerously close to the other’s.

Illustration: Ivan Aleksic, Unsplash

“It’s true,” Hamed snarled. “She does home visits to my grandmother without a mask.”

“No fucking way. She always puts it on before going in,” Magnus said, his clenched fists shuddering.

“From what I’ve heard, your mother is an excellent home caregiver. And Magnus?”

“Sorry for cursing.”

They sat down and everyone kept still.

“We don’t like arguing, do we?” the teacher said. “Not rumour mongering either. Nevertheless, what Magnus and Hamed argued about has to do with today’s theme. And what is that theme? It’s on the plan, you know.”

On the wall behind the teacher, a bright ball with red buds appeared.

As was normal, Elise, first in the window rack, had her hand up. “The pandemic.”

“It’s about the pandemic, in a sense. Do we have other names for today’s theme? Yes, Lanying?”

“Mutations?” she suggested.

“That too. Mutations make sure the virus doesn’t go away. But what do we call the period after we got it under control?”

“It’s not really under control. Lots of people don’t become properly immune“, said David at the bottom of the middle row. Usually, he was lying over the desk with his eyes closed. His mother, a single parent and unemployed, had recently been infected again and had barely survived.

“You’re right. Some people need to be vaccinated several times a year, as well as being careful when they are with others. But what about everything else that has happened? No one knows? The times we are living in, right now?”

“I know! I know!” cried Hamed. “Turning! It’s called the turning point!”

“Good, Hamed, good. Today we’ll talk about things that have changed. Afterwards, you are to make a video about how you think the world was before the Turning. You may use the real-life archive and insert virtual characters as. You’ll find everything you need in Google School Resources.”

Hamed was not done, however. “People travelled on planes everywhere, all the time! I know, because my dad was a pilot. People travelled to other countries for their holidays. They went to the beaches and famous places. Now only people with special jobs are flying.”

“Nice point, Hamed. That’s why there aren’t many pilots left, either. What profession does your dad have nowadays?”

Hamed frowned. “Mom and Dad grow vegetables.”

“I’ve heard about it. And their produce is great, people are saying. Anyone else know of someone getting a new job after the turning point?”

Christine at the door wanted to contribute. “My mom sold cars. Now she’s cooking at a day care centre.”

“Mum has had the same job all the time, in a construction company,” Kristofer said behind her. “They built roads before. Now they build walls and dams and put large pipes into the ground.”

“And why are they doing that, Kristofer?”

“When the ice melts, more water pours into the sea.”

“My dad also works with construction”, said quiet Mina at the end of the wall without windows. “He draws bridges for the new railways. Before that, he was doing oil platforms.”

In front of Mina sat Niclas. Usually ahead of the others in most subjects, he was easily bored. Now he had his arm straight up. “My mom and my stepfather are scientists.”

“I’ve heard this too, I believe”, the teacher said, taking a few steps into the room. “Can you tell us what they’re doing?”

“MI and aerospace. What they do is very important to the Mars expedition, and they are allowed to travel by plane.”

“That must be very exciting, Niclas. Can you explain what MI is, by the way? Maybe not all of us are fully aware of what it means.”

“It means machine intelligence,” Niclas said, struggling to keep a knowing voice. “People still call it artificial intelligence, but more and more computer scientists call it MI.”

“Dad works with MIs when he does railway designs,” Mina interrupted. “They are even Class Five.”

“A lot of people work with MIs. What kind of MIs do we have, do you think?”

Niclas again: “There are five classes, and those with the highest number are the smartest.”

“Maybe not the smartest, Niclas. Classes tell us what they are made for. Examples? Yes, Christine?”

“Many of them are just machines. Maybe they build things or work in factories like special robots, in plants and factories. Some help us to find out stuff and solve problems. Many robots work in shops and hospitals, or they have dangerous jobs.”

“And boring jobs,” Magnus cut short. “Like cleaners and garbage collectors and security guards.”

“These are very important jobs you are talking about, Magnus. And I’m not sure they are all that boring.”

“But they are. Cleaning and washing are boring. I’ve tricked our house robot to tidy up my room.” Laughter.

The teacher saw the need to change direction. “So, quite a few are working with MIs in the course of a working day. How long is a normal working day, by the way?”

After looking around, Bohai lifted his hand. He was Lanying’s twin brother, and even more modest than her. “I think six hours is usual. It is at dad’s workplace, anyway. They make three-d prints, and everything has to be very accurate.”

“Do they turn off the printers after six hours?”

“I don’t know...” Bohai glanced at her sister.

“They have three shifts, sometimes four,” she said.

“Precisely,” the teacher said, “and what are shifts? Do you know?”

Kristoffer’s hand came up. “It’s when they share the same kind of work. One guy works for six hours and then someone else comes. They do that at mom’s job. They have at least two shifts.”

“What you are saying is correct. Six hours is common and in some places it may even be shorter. But does anyone work more than that?”

Blank faces.

“Think about it. Some stay at work longer than six hours. Much longer. Who am I thinking about?”

Lanying replied, without having her hand up first. “Mum works late and very hard. She works for Huawei.”

“Maybe she has a home office, then?” the teacher said.

Lanying glanced at her brother. “Most of the time she’s at the company office. The walls are better there.”

“Firewalls,” Bohai added.

“I was not thinking of your parents or other adults. Can anyone guess who?”

At this point Rodrigo behind Bohai chose to contribute. His interest in school was below average, but then, he was a promising football player, according to the gym teacher.

“The MIs. All the robots. They can work around the clock. They never need a break.”

“That’s right, Rodrigo. Or almost right. They need small breaks in between. To cleanse their ... algorithms. Like clearing your mind, right? When you sleep. And dream.”

Collective uncertainty.

“Anyway, it’s time for us to take a little break, and today we’re using playground C. Start working on your video project immediately after the break. And remember the all-important hand washing. Christine and Rodrigo, remember to wear masks as well.”

Chairs scraped and the class slipped out. Niclas stopped in front of the door.

“Why are you wearing the same clothes?”

“Same clothes? Oh, you mean teachers’ uniforms. We wear them to show we belong here. Your parents wouldn’t want strangers wandering around among their children, would they?” said the teacher, turning to the window.

“I was wondering about something else...” Niclas interrupted himself. Three small characters imprinted on the teacher’s back had answered his unfinished question: the letters MI followed by the number 4. The boy hurried out, forgetting to close the door.

The teacher remained at the window facing playground C. Working with kids was the most wonderful thing a sentient being could ever want.



Copyright © Jørn Arnold Jensen 2021