Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pascal's Scantron: an atheist parable (part two)

Click here for part one.

The grading machine was small, discolored with age, covered in dust like most of the things in the English department storage room. It had a cracked digital readout, a few buttons with the labels missing, and a slot with "INSERT FORM HERE" stamped next to it. I didn't care when I heard we found it, because I don't care about the forms anyhow - everyone else seemed to think it was some kind of miracle, though. A fight broke out over who would get to use it first, and Jimmy Dempster's nose got broken. We were finally able to agree that it had to be used in public, in plain sight of everyone, and what we'd cast votes to see who would get to go first and all of that. It took us two whole days just to decide how we were going to use it, for crying out loud. I stayed and watched because even though it wasn't important to me, the way everyone reacted would be very important to everyone.

Well, we all decided that someone from E-column could go first, since they were clearly the most excited about it. It seemed fair. Then one of those upside-down A-column kids could go, because they seemed like the most opposed group to the E-column crowd. Then we'd let a C-column kid go, then one of the "ABCDEABCDE" folks, then one of the kids who filled out every bubble, and then we'd go in alphabetical order by name from there (most everyone knew everyone else's name, so there wasn't any concern about cheating). Everything was fine, we were all agreed that we had found a fair way to resolve this little dispute, and somehow everything still managed to go straight to shit.

Brandon Anderson was the E-column kid who went first, since he was first alphabetically. We plugged the machine in, turned it on, made sure it didn't break down straightaway, and then Brandon put his form through. There was some humming and whirring, and then his form came out just like he'd put it in. He even asked, "So did I pass?" Nobody said anything for a while. Someone said he must not have gotten anything wrong, but then another person said that we didn't know if he got anything right either, and then another fight almost broke out. We decided to keep feeding the forms through, and then figure out what to do.

Jill Becker was next, the upside-downers' first pick. She fed her form through and nothing happened again, and this time we were a little calmer but still nobody said anything. A couple people started to say that maybe the machine didn't work right, but everyone else shushed them. I was starting to hope that everyone would just feed their form through and things would be nice and boring. Silly me.

Dick Benson stepped up, he was the "ABCDEABCDE" crowd's first pick. Not because he was alphabetically first, they also had a Chris Allen, but because they all paired off and played a rock-paper-scissors tournament and Dick won. Anyway, Dick fed his form into the grading machine, and there was this awful grinding sound. Something started to smell, and so we unplugged the grading machine from the generator and opened up the front panel. We got Dick's form out, but it was all chewed up, and we couldn't get the machine working again after that.

Pretty soon, people started arguing about what all this meant. Someone started saying that the machine ate Dick's form because he was wrong, that he should have stuck to one column instead of filling out all kinds of bubbles. I tried to point out that we couldn't be sure that Dick had anything to do with it, using one of those fallacies I learned from the logic book. I can't remember the Latin name, but what it says is that just because something happens after something else, it doesn't mean that the first thing caused it - there could have been something else going on that you didn't know about. You might as well say that Dick's form got eaten because he played rock-paper-scissors. I mean, for crying out loud, the grading machine was old and locked up in the English department closet for a reason, and that's probably because it wasn't working right in the first place, so we should see if we could fix it and then try again.

Well, nobody listened, of course. People started shouting that we shouldn't tamper with the grading machine any more, that we'd done enough by letting Dick put his form through and we saw how that went, and since Brandon & Jill's forms went through fine, we know that everyone else who filled out their form like them should be fine, too. Soon you couldn't tell who was yelling what since everyone was screaming at the top of their lungs. Then someone just reached out and punched Dick Benson right in the face. Then it was a dog-pile: some people tried to break it up, but they just got sucked into the fight, and by the end of it the bloody mess on the floor didn't even look like Dick any more.

Now, I mean, I just want to say this plainly, because I don't know how we let it happen: Dick Benson was beaten to death because a dusty old machine ate his test form. A kid fucking died over this. Some other kids got hurt, too, but cuts and bruises happen even when you're playing a game of soccer, and you get better from 'em anyhow. Dick's dead 'cuz he made marks on paper, and I think anyone who could let that happen is plain crazy, I don't care how strongly they feel about their precious fucking forms.

Well, not everyone feels the same way, I guess. Pretty soon everyone started saying that what happened to Dick was bad, but his form ruined the grading machine, so what could you expect? I tried to say that something ought to be done about it, but nobody knew who struck the killing blow, there were too many kids involved to punish all of them, emotions were running high so you couldn't really blame anyone, and it wasn't gonna bring Dick back anyhow, so who cares? Well, I care. I care about a person's life more than the way they fill out some form, and I think anyone whose priorities are the other way 'round is an idiot. And I think anyone who isn't bothered by a human life being lost because of a disagreement over unknowable matters is less than human.

So I left. I left that crazy world, and now it seems I'm in a crazier one. It wasn't just our school that forgot, apparently, but all I've found in the three days since I left are crazier and crazier people. Some of thesm have guns, and some of them are in gangs, and some of them just have some really off-the-wall ideas about how the world is. I have half a mind to try to help the school get prepared in case one of the gangs finds it, but all I can bear to do is find a quiet out-of-sight place to sleep at night. I don't know how to fix this, the world's really screwed up and I'm just one person. Maybe I can find some other people who aren't nuts, and help them. I don't know. Maybe I'm crazy, too. I don't know. But there's gotta be something good out there, and I gotta find it. Writing this down is a start.

With acknowledgment to Sam Harris, Blaise Pascal, and the Scantron company.


Zach L said...

sunovabitch. Way to go, Blogger, you piece of crap. (it kept telling me the service was down).

Zach L said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D said...

Why on Earth would you ever say "crap" when you have an opportunity to say "shit"? The world may never know.

So yeah, I'm glad you approve. This premise is the inspiration for my next novel. I don't even know if I'll do it within the confines of NaNoWriMo (by which I mean starting sooner, and refining more, and exceeding the word count), but we'll see how it goes. Look, I want to write about a Great Forgetting, but happening to real people in the real world and fuck high school.


I will down your service by the fistful with 7-Up and shots of whisky. Then I'll say that you should check out auto-tuned news and give to charity. And then I'll have to ask you what the blue fuck you meant by "Big O." Because I don't know. For realz, yo. That's all supposed to flow, because I've been listening to far too much auto-tuned news on the down-low. Y'know. Fo' sho'.

Done for real.