Mr Brown's Last Day

by Laurence G. Tilley

Johnny James relaxed into his chair, adjusted the headset, and logged on. He was informed that it was Friday 20th October 2019 and that his pulse & blood pressure were normal. A "Charlene the Chipmunk" sprite appeared in view to congratulate him, because the electrochemical activity in his brain was 2% higher than yesterday. His attendance data appeared and he was awarded a mark. It was the start of another day. But today was just a little different. It was Mr Brown's last.

He read the sport's news until the Statutory Act of Worship started at 9 a.m. You couldn't quit from the Statutory Act, but you could minimise it. It was a matter of Freedom of Choice. Johnny shrank the Archbishop of Canterbury to an icon, and tucked him behind the Premier Division. After a while, the "White Rabbit" sprite appeared, most annoying of all sprites, pocket watch in hand. It remarked that he should be starting his work now. Johnny acknowledged him before he finished speaking.

His organiser didn't need to remind him that he had opted for the conference on pandas today. He was looking forward to it. The teacher was in the field in China, and Johnny's question had been selected - one of twenty five from more than two hundred forwarded by Y6 children around the world. He scanned the list of scheduled questions, looking for his own. There it was:

#5 Johnny James <jjames4173> (Coventry, UK): "How often do the panda's breed?"

Suddenly, the view-frame shook. Another child might have presumed a prank or even an earthquake, but Johnny was used to Mr Brown. He removed the headset. The teacher had been rapping on the visor with his index finger, and stood smiling at him.

Mr Brown was a bad teacher. Johnny liked him. Mr Brown didn't use a sprite persona to communicate with the children in his class. He sometimes used a video conferencing set up so they could see his real face, but more often than not he used a plain text interface. (He said the written word should be different to the spoken word.)

And sometimes, Mr Brown left his station, roamed around the classroom and hammered on the headsets until his bewildered pupils removed them. He said there was nothing wrong with talking face to face "you know!" He usually had something to say, but caused them to miss events on line.

"How are you today Johnny?", he asked.

"Fine Sir, electrochem's plus 2%! Your last day Sir?"

"You remembered Johnny, yes."

"Will you miss it Sir?"

"Miss it? Yes Johnny, I suppose I will. I'll miss you lot."

A joke was required to relieve the honesty. Johnny failed to find one.

"Panda conference today is it?" asked Mr Brown.

"Yes Sir, I've got a question in!"

"Well done, well done. You know Pandas are all very well, but I saw a real live badger near my house last night."

"Did you get it on vid Sir?"

"No Johnny", he laughed.

"Not quick enough eh, Sir?"

"No Johnny, it wasn't that, it's just that sometimes it's nice just to watch things for real, while you've got the chance."

"But Sir, if you'd have got it on vid, you could have watched it over again. You could have uploaded it."

"Well Johnny, perhaps."

There was plenty of badger video on the network already of course, but Johnny always felt obliged to remind Mr Brown of the way things were done. Mr Brown was appallingly old fashioned. He was even more old fashioned than Johnny's Grandad, and that, it seemed, was why he had failed to get redeployment now that the class was being merged with 6P. Ninety children were, after all as easy to administer as forty-five. For Live Games they were going to share a teacher with a neighbouring school.

Mr Brown disagreed with some of the things on the National Curriculum. Sometimes, when he made all his children remove their headsets, it was because he wanted to tell them about something he felt had been left out. Sometimes he got excited about some non-curriculum period of history that he'd read about in a paper book, and just had to tell them about it. There was a secure channel of course, but the Head Administrator, knew that you were using it, and frowned upon it.

Johnny's grandad had told him about a Prime Minister called "Maggie Thatcher" who had invented the National Curriculum with the help of her hair dresser. Johnny had tried to look "Maggie Thatcher" up in the National School Encyclopaedia, but she herself turned out to be non-curriculum and the file was locked. The "White Rabbit" had appeared to inform him that he'd been "off task" for seven minutes and was in danger of losing a credit.

The Panda conference started. Some children were randomly selected, and their sprites flashed onto the screen while they exchanged greetings from around the world. The teacher was introduced with a quick bio, and then it got straight on with her working her way through the bamboo. But Johnny was thinking about Mr Brown.

When the time came for his question, he had to be pinged, and stuttered it out clumsily. "The pandas, er, yeah, er 'How often do the pandas breed?'"

An ovulation chart appeared, and the teacher rambled on. Johnny shuffled as did his world wide classmates until the panda baby came back on.

Afterwards Johnny gave the lesson 4 out of 5 on the evaluation screen. He awarded the teacher a 3 and dictated his comment, "Very good, I liked the baby pandas best."

Mr Brown was unavailable at lunch time. Mrs. Pearce said he was in the staffroom having "A bit of a celebration". Colleagues old and new, looked in on video conference to wish him well. The staff presented him with an envelope of vouchers for on-line entertainment so that he'd "have something to do now that he was a man of leisure". Mr Brown managed to look pleased, and thanked them warmly.

Mr Brown had used to run lunchtime clubs. There had been the 'Real Technology Club', where he had shown children how to make things with wood using primitive tools. The things they made were appallingly wonky, but it had fascinated them to find that they could make things without Computer Assisted Design and robotic assemblers.

The 'Real History Club' had involved hand painting lots of little model soldiers and setting them out all over a table to simulate the Battle of Austerlitz. It had been so popular that Johnny's friends in Japan had begun arrangements to come in by video conference. Their school however refused to fund the link when they discovered that it was for something considered non-curricular in England. Mr Brown was sorry for Johnny's disappointment, but said that the whole point of a "Real" club was to actually be here anyway.

Grandad had been at school when there were hardly any computers, and all the lessons had been "real". Dad could remember when some schools only had one computer to every thirty children, and they weren't even networked. Johnny thought it must have been dreadful in Dad's time - to have to go to school even after you were eleven! All secondary students studied at home now, except for a few psychos who trashed their headsets and had to attend special live units.

The afternoon came, lingered interminably as Friday afternoons do, then went. Johnny tackled his maths, but remained deeply in 'Subject Balance Deficit'. He didn't see Mr Brown again. Mr Brown was tidying, erasing and archiving his files.

At home time Johnny was instructed by the Head Administrator's sprite to stay for detention. His work rate had been sub-standard. His parents were informed and assented. His mother on screen to say 'Oh Johnny' and chide him with her eyes. Mr Brown was going home. His text window appeared:

>Well Johnny, I'm off now >>Bye Sir >Detention is it? >>Yes >Grin & bear it son >> > >>Sir? >I'm still here Johnny >>It will be very different from now on Sir >You can always e-mail me Johnny >>I know Sir, but it's not quite the same is it? >Ah, you've learnt something there Johnny. And it's not National Curriculum either! >>I'll miss you Sir > >> >Goodbye Johnny >>Goodbye Sir

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