I wrote this three years ago. During a DL (distance learning) class one of the away schools had a fire drill. Their classroom looked like they had disappeared. School supplies were everywhere, and it was deadly silent. A student commented how eerie it was and that sparked this story.
His eyelids were heavy. He blinked fast seven times, but the warmth of lunch combined with another PowerPoint over the checks and balances of our government made his eyes heavy. It was not as if he hated the class, in fact in most cases it was interesting to learn about America’s government and how power was displayed, bartered, and abused. However, it followed lunch. Today was BBQ sandwiches, and Justin had consumed five of them. Three minutes until the bell. He could make it because his next class was “on-line” today.
Sixth period was an early entry college class, American Literature that was broadcasted over the Internet and displayed on a flat screen TV. He went to class with four other schools. St.Paul a town 20 minutes away. Loup County which was an hour south and Pleasanton High School which was 40 minutes to the west. The home site, where the class was broadcasted from, was at University of Nebraska, Kearney.
They were “on-line” three days a week, like a real college class. Justin was excited to see Rose Tatemen from Loup County. They had started to talk on Facebook after they had to debate what Robert Frost meant in his poem “The Road not Taken.” There were actually five students, one from each site, but the debate had progressed to Rose and Justin debating the meaning of the last paragraph. Rose standing firm on the idea of Frost saying that taking the path was a statement of individuality. Justin countering that she had been brainwashed by Hallmark and that Frost was saying you can never know what a choice will do for you in life, hence the line, “I will be saying this with a sigh.”
Justin was struck by her independence, and her slight lean to the left with her right eyebrow up when she thought she had made a great point. That night he connected with her on Facebook and their friendship was progressing the last couple of weeks. He was walking quickly to be there before the tardy bell. The first five minutes of class were always hectic as the schools came on line. Dr. Graf was always logged on at 1:00; St. Paul was usually on too. Then Justin’s class, followed by Loup County, then Pleasanton which didn’t have sixth period until 1:07.
“Hello Justin, early again.” Dr. Graf commented from the TV. There was just a slight delay between his lips and the words, as if you had blinked at the beginning of the conversation and your mind was trying to make the audio match the visual input.
“Good afternoon, I was trying to walk off the great lunch I had.”
“Hummm, I see. Maybe the day will be even better with a debate today over money’s power on people.” Dr. Graf said with that sly smile of his that meant there was more to the statement.
“Depends on who I get to debate with,” Justin replied with a smile.
“Well, let’s get the other class on-line…” they both smiled.
Justin hoped that college would be this interesting. He could not wait to be done with high school. He was ready to be done with what seemed like consistent drama. Everyone around him seemed to be stuck in junior high. Other students were entering the room, Justin sat in his normal place, far left middle row of tables. Just at the edge of the camera’s vision. The seat was next to the only window in the room, and even if it seemed he was not listening, he was as he stared out at the window.
The TV was in motion; Dr. Graf ‘s window was to the right and large. To the left the windows were getting smaller as the column filled with video of the four high schools. Pleasanton flashed on last, and the speakers shared the mix of students laughing, setting books down, and the constant rumblings of teenage life issues.
Justin looked at Loup County’s window for Rose. There she was, third desk middle row, pencil tapping her tempo. Justin raised his pen, tapping his right tempo. It was their hello. They both smiled. They had started the ritual last week.
“OK, class let’s get caught up on due dates for the next week…” Dr. Graf’s voice continued while Justin watched the sunlight highlight the edge of his table as his mind checked off the assignments in his head.
The clock read 1:13
“St. Paul?” Dr. Gaf’s voice inflected with annoyance. “Hello. St. Paul… Are you there?” The screen revealed tables with books, computers open, and a few water bottles but no students. The class was involved in group work. Each site had three groups with their own set of questions covering the book, The Natural. They would then share and discuss answers toward the end of class.
“Did anyone hear anything, like a bell or fire alarm?” Dr. Gaf asked, as most of the students’ attention moved to the TV in their rooms. It was always a fun moment when one of the high schools would run a practice fire alarm.
A series of no’s ran through the system. Making the audio do a slight feedback that made Dr. Graf winch in his comical way.
“Hummm, continue to work. I’m going to try to contact Mr. Jackson at St. Paul.” Dr. Graf turned to his computer, then proceeded to pick up a phone that was just out of sight of the camera. The students returned to work, but kept an eye on the screen. Dr. Graf didn’t seem to be able to get anyone on the phone.
The clock read 1:16
Shelly saw it first, from Loup County. Dr. Graf was busy at his computer, it seemed he was typing something, probably an email.
“Dr. Graf,” a slight hesitation from Shelly.
“Yes.” He didn’t look up from his computer, but you could sense he was listening from the slight shift of his head to the right.
“Pleasanton is gone…” the statement hung in the air. Every student turned to see two windows that revealed the same picture. The basic student life laid out on tables, but no students.
Dr. Graf stood still. The remaining students held their breath, not sure what to do. Then a smile broke the tension. “Nice practical joke, guys,” Dr. Graf said. His shoulders relaxing. “I appreciate the work you put into this, but let’s get back to work. Come back St. Paul and Pleasanton.” He spoke directly into the microphone and turned to the TV on his left. For a moment, it seemed as if the students would return, loud and with smiles. But nothing.
“OK, I get the joke. Let’s get back to work.”
Justin spoke, “I don’t think it is a joke, Dr. Graf.” He had not been informed of any practical joke. From the looks of his fellow classmates, they hadn’t either.
Rose looked at him, the TV broadcasting her and every other students’ panic. Justin looked into the camera, trying to let Rose know he saw her by his will alone.
“Hold on, guys.” Dr. Graf grabbed the phone.
The clock read 1:19.
Justin didn’t think he blinked. But it felt like the world did. Dr. Graf was gone. He could have left to speak to someone. “Hello, Kearney? Anyone there?” Justin moved to the teacher station in the room.
No response. The students at Kearney were never on camera. The room only had one camera and it was directed at the teacher station.
“Kearney. Anyone? Hello.” Justin tried to keep the panic from filtering into his speech.
“What’s going on?” Katie spoke with a whisper. A rush of noise came from Loup County. Mrs. Heinen had burst into the room. “We can’t contact St. Paul. Mr. Badura advises us to stay here until further notice.”
“Justin, what do we do?” Adam was standing next to him.
“I don’t know… Run to the office and see if they know anything.” Adam was off before he finished his statement. Justin glanced at the clock, 1:21. An alarm went off in his mind. He tried to get a clear thought pattern going, but the absurdity of the situation broke every thought apart.
“Justin.” A voice. He looked around but his classmates were all busy in their groups. He could see the uncertainty in their actions, grabbing a book bag and putting it back down. Travis literally eating his pen top.
“Justin.” It was Rose. She was peering through the camera, eyes holding back tears. Justin moved toward the TV to see her. His mind cleared. Even at this moment, she was beautiful. A crazy urge to just hold her overwhelmed him.
“Yes, Rose. I’m here…”
She smiled and started to tap her pen… the clock’s hand moved to 1:22.