NOTE: This is a full-length book, being published chapter by chapter with a new chapter posted every two weeks. Readers will have to stay tuned for “what’s next.” The story is copyrighted by the author (Morna McDermott) but may be freely shared and re-blogged/posted (with citation to the author). The purpose of the story was to create a thought experiment. What will happen if/when the corporate destruction of public education and society is complete? Can we begin to imagine/enact a different set of societal structures that are more equitable, anti-racist, sustainable, and democratic? Do we have the collective will to manifest such a future? What can we learn from good examples in the past? Can we take some cues from the world of fiction to begin the conversation? This is a story of hope.
Please join us and enjoy the story! Feedback/comments welcome in the comment box.
Ryder, Keesha, and Deacon, three lifelong friends, now in their teens have been named the leader-futures for Interregnum City, the first city to decolonize itself from the script of corporate enslavement. The city has gone “off-script.” They, along with their friends and families take the reader into a hopeful landscape of what might yet be possible if, and when, communities embrace the revolutionary power of the collective will, imagination and love. It is fiction of hope; representing any city in America and set in an unknown future time. This is a tale of what could be. Ryder, Deacon and Keesha confront obstacles such as the looming data pods built along the Interregnum Mile, and their secret discovery of the terror that lies waiting for their community if they cannot stop the colonizers secret mission in time. With the help of Ryder’s Uncle Kelley, Deacons grandfather Pops, and Keesha’s mother Susan, these three youth lead their city on a mission for reclamation, resurrection, and resurgence.
The bloated data pods heaved and groaned with the weight of their burden. Like fat over fed cows they seemed sleepy, rested with a deadening stillness. Even though the pipelines had been dismantled years ago, after the explosions the original cache of intellectual oil still lay inside-billions of dollars of untapped financial fuel. The people called it the compost of rotted imagination and fetid possibility.
Ryder, mature for his fourteen years, liked letting that image roll around in his mind. Ryder liked to be contrary to common assumptions. Where others saw destruction he saw creation. Words like rotted and fetid reminded him of the garden his neighborhood quad had started. Every morning he stood at his bedroom window on the tenth floor of his housing project dressing for his community engagement, or perhaps the recreational trip if it was Friday. No matter what lay ahead for the day, he’d stand at the window and look down. Today he could see his friends Jacob and Chloe kneeling down in the soil along the rows of early tomatoes. They were laughing about something, perhaps a joke Jacob was making but even with the window open to let in the warm June breeze, Ryder couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Looking farther beyond the garden and down the city block, dotted with brightly colored row houses: orange, blue, pink and yellow, like a checkerboard of brick squares lining up on both sides of the street, he could see the data pods. High along the city skyline they were an ever present visible reminder to the people just how low they had gone in the name of “progress.” Then, scanning his eyes over the shaded parks, crowded storefronts, cafes, and thick over grown garden jungles (the keystone of every block), Ryder thought about how far they had come since “the interregnum”- when they fought to go off script and decolonize their city. That’s why they replaced their colonized name with a new nickname: Interregnum City, in honor of the infamous Interregnum Mile which the Blacker Hatters (known for their illegal hacking skills) had dismantled. Ryder would try and conjure images of a world before they broke free. At least, he thought what he could of it using his imagination. Their community was re-created decades before Ryder was even born, but he enjoyed re hearing of it from his grandfather and his uncle Kelly, one of the original Blacker Hatters, the rouge hacking group. His father, he assumed would have been full of stories too, if he were here now. Unlike the innumerable details he had been given about the history of the movement, all he knew of his father’s fate was “whereabouts unknown.” It was all anyone, even his mother, knew.
The sky was a light overcast grey and Ryder knew that if he was working with Mrs. Johnson today, for his Legacy Contribution project, she’d want to take a walk through the park and sit on the bench to feed pigeons like she did every week. He’d be chilly if the wind picked up so he pulled a plain forest green sweatshirt from his middle dresser drawer and slid it over his tall thin frame. In his mind, he could hear his Uncle Kelley, using that booming dramatic tone he liked to use when he was talking about the movement to unscript themselves. If history only relied on his uncle Kelley for the retelling one would think he had single handedly dismantled the data mining pods and chased the corporations out of every city in America. He smiled to himself with affection. Kelley was short on stature, but he wasn’t short on bravado. Or courage, if the five inch knife scar going up the right side of his torso, was any indication. Decades since the injury, the scar still rippled up along his rib cage like the San Andrea’s fault. Ryder thought of Kelley’s low voicem rising and falling with each piece of the story. He’d always begin the same way:
“There was a time, Ryder, when public schools were actual buildings where you went and sat all day in a classroom. Each classroom had a teacher. And you would read books, and fill out worksheets and take tests to show what you had learned.”
“Learned about what?” Ryder would ask. He tried to imagine what these buildings would look like. His mind could not quite determine what a “work sheet” could be. There was “work”… that’s the part he got. Everyone he knew worked. But what was a sheet? Like a bed sheet?
Kelley would say, “Whatever it was the government, well… really the corporate overlords using the government, wanted you to learn. We went from slavery to segregation to the promise of education. But once we got the right to attend public schools with white kids, they started coming up with all sorts of tests and regulations that put us right back where we were….” He stopped briefly to think carefully. “There were lots of folks, of all races tryin’ to create changes that would support what our kids and our communities needed. Parents, teachers, members of the communities. Even students were fighting for their own rights. But the corporate class with all their money and power just rolled over any resistance. They used the tests in schools to sort and track us into low paying jobs, and to close our schools and to push us out of an education before we had completed a diploma. But even that wasn’t enough for them!”
Ryder had heard the story a million times. This was where Uncle Kelley’s voice would rise to a roiled pitch. “They decided to hand over our schools and our children to private businesses for a profit! They turned public schools into charter school runs by companies who treated our kids like prisoners or investments for their portfolios. And the schools they couldn’t close, well, they let the corporations in through the back door. They outsourced everything from the tests, to the curriculum, and the classroom, the teachers, and finally even our kids’ private data, all handed over to these companies.”
“You mean all the information jammed up in the data pods, Uncle Kelley?”
Whenever Ryder looked out his bedroom window at the rusted machines slumped along Interregnum Mile, in his childish imagination they resembled iron dinosaurs. Something from a dystopic fairy tale. Well, even if they weren’t dinosaurs, that last part was accurate. The world had been living in a dystopic fairy tale.
“What did they do with the data, Uncle Kelley?”
“They used it to control our minds and our bodies. The electronic whip, we called it. With all that information, they could manipulate the choices we made. When Net neutrality was abolished the whole world around each of us was manufactured in a way to make us see what they wanted is to see, and to believe what they wanted us to believe. They controlled the access we had to the world. Worse yet, the data was used against us so prisons were built based on 3rd grade test scores of children of color. Employers decided whether to hire you based on a discipline record that went all the way back into kindergarten, Health care centers decided whether or not to provide you services based on the data they got from what you bought at the grocery store. If you ate foods that weren’t on the approved list, they could refuse to give you health care. In schools they tracked kid’s pulses and eye movements to be sure they were paying attention. If the computer told the corporate masters you weren’t working hard enough, you could be severely punished.” Ryder did not bother to ask how.
Kelley’s voice dropped low and slow for emphasis. “That data… they just sucked right out of us… made themselves so wealthy and powerful that the people lost all hope of ever being able to have access to a free mind or clean food, clean water, or clean land ever again.”
Ryder tried to picture all that data, all that information like sewage flowing through clogged pipes churning and bubbling up on large screens as psychometric profiles and predictive behaviors. Even at the age of 14 he vaguely understood that in the wrong hands this would have brought his people back to a time of slavery and colonization. But this time, all people, black white or brown were going to be for sale. They had fought it back once. And the people woke up.
But the war wasn’t over. It had just gone underground. While Kelley was always eager to talk about the past with anyone willing to listen, neither he, nor any of the other adults, in Ryder’s world, would talk about the future. That was the cold chill of paralysis that kept up Ryder each night. Lying awake knowing that he, and Deacon and Keesha and the others were left with amorphous task of “re-imaging their future.”
Since they were toddlers, it seemed as if the three of them operated as one organic body: Keesha had the brains, Deacon had the courage, and Ryder had the heart. Best friends. Inseparable since their learning experiences in the Young Peoples Learning Center (YPLC). Deacon and Keesha were convinced that Ryder’s ability to feel so deeply for others came from spending his youth helping his mom who ran the YPLC on their street. Each apartment building, or city block of row homes, had its own YPLC to care for and educate the young children until the age of nine. In these small brightly painted rooms filled with music, paint, building blocks, books and outdoors spaces, the little ones from birth to nine years of age learned the basics: how to read, write, do math, sing, draw, speak multiple languages, cook, build and grow. Then they were graduated to city centers where they chartered their own learning agendas. Of course, parents and family members had influence on what the youth might learn, especially if there was a family business involved. But their contributions, which were places of learning, also contributed back to and within their community. All learning had purpose. And students chose their course. Back before going off script, the colonizers had tried to camouflage their corporate interests in the cloak of community efforts. But the people learned quickly that billions of dollars from outside sources were never intended to grow their community but to drain it. Double speaking in words of equality, freedom and choice, disguised social impact bonds and vulture philanthropy only worked for so long. Shortly after, they were driven out.
“Too much time with all those babies!” Deacon would sneer, using a tone of disgust underlining the word “babies.” Deacon couldn’t sit still long enough to listen to long drawn out stories strung together by small children with runny noses. He wanted round- the- clock action.
“Nu uh. It’s cause of his daddy. Ryder’s got preacher’s blood in him” Keesha would counter. The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Ryder’s father when he was still a small infant was usually a hands-off topic no one could brooch with Ryder without winding up facing his fists in their face. But Keesha- she just knew how to say things just right so that the words were not unkind, or taunting. They were simply true. There wasn’t much Keesha could say or do that angered Ryder. With her, more so than with any of the others, his patience was endless. Whenever he saw her smile, or laugh, or simply draw a breath, Ryder’s whole body would light up with electricity. Simply being in her space created an invisible ripple effect from her to him. No one else could see it. But he could feel it. He wasn’t quite sure if she ever noticed this. But what folks did notice was how there was an unspoken orchestra of unity between the three of them. As young children they had simply revolved like planets into one another’s orbits and now they rotated around each other’s fields of gravity, inexplicably drawn together- even though their worlds at home were so markedly different. All they really had in common was their community, their age, and each other.
By the time they were twelve years old the Council of Elders had made it clear that very soon, the fate of their community, the growing success of the decolonized zone, rested with them. “Nothing thrills a teenager like getting the power he’s been yammering for” Kelley would say with an “I told you so” tone of voice. The he’d laugh. Ryder didn’t find it funny. None of them did. Sure they had the Council of Community Elders to lean on. But it was really on them. And Ryder, not a huge risk taker, clung to Deacon and Keesha for their courage.
“Ryder!” his mom called from the kitchen downstairs. His mind was back to full attention of the present. He looked at the clock next to his bed. “Oh crap, I’m late! Coming mom! Be right there.”
As his foot hit the first stair he heard a low rumble from outside. The rumble grew into a roar. The house vibrated for a moment and he clutched the railing.
“Mom!” he called.
“Ryder, get down here. Quickly!”
He raced down skipping steps as he went. “What was that?
“I don’t know.”
“Call Uncle Kelley.”
She reached for the phone by the kitchen sink. Then a calm settled over the area. Ryder could hear neighbors outside on the street murmuring and asking questions. His mom hung up. “No answer.”
“I’ll go and find out, Mom. Don’t worry” Ryder said as he pushed open the front door to their row house and out onto the stoop. First thing he had to do was find Deacon.