The Dangers of Higher Education
My mother isn’t normally the kind of parent who comes to school and has me yanked out of class because she needs to see me.
Never mind that the class I was pulled from was trigonometry, which is monumentally mind-numbing and—as far as I can tell—entirely useless to anyone except trigonometry teachers. It is rumored that, on a warm spring day three years ago, our trig teacher, Mr. Petersen, actually fell asleep during one of his own lectures. The speculation is that he has not awakened since, but is still droning on from memory, in a sleepwalking state.
I have never seen anything in Mr. Petersen’s demeanor to make me doubt that rumor.
Generally speaking, I’d be eager for any excuse to get away from sine and cosine and whatever that third function is whose name I can never remember. But I felt a prickle of anxiety. Despite my mother’s inability to come up with even one single real-life situation where knowing the difference between opposite and adjacent, much less a hypotenuse would be a benefit to me, she does strongly believe in the theory of education. So I couldn’t make sense of the note the messenger from the office interrupted the class to hand to me:
Go down to Mrs. Overstreet’s office right away.
Your mother is here.
My brain instantly zipped to the West Coast, where Dad was attending a sales conference at a hotel I was suddenly convinced was the obvious target for arsonists, kidnappers, earthquakes, flash floods, outbreaks of Lyme disease, and/or killer bees.
My outlook wasn’t improved by walking into Mrs. Overstreet’s office. Mrs. Overstreet was wearing that Ismell-something-bad-and-I-suspect-it’s-coming-from-you expression that must be taught in one of the required courses at principal college—a course that clearly would be more useful than trig.
But my mother had on sweatpants and a Milky Way Galaxy T-shirt she’d gotten when she’d chaperoned my Brownie troop’s overnight at the Strasenberg Planetarium seven years ago. This is strictly at-home wear for her. Even for going to the grocery store, Mom’s shoes need to match her purse. On this particular occasion, her shoes didn’t match each other.
My prickly-all-over worry exploded into panic. "What’s wrong? What’s happened?" I asked. "Is Dad all right?"
My questions seemed to send my mother into a worse spiral than she was already in. "Dad?" she echoed. She glanced around the office, looking simultaneously dazed and frantic, as though not sure whether to level accusations at Mrs. Overstreet or the two strangers in the room—a man and a woman. She settled on the strangers and said in a squeaky voice, "You didn’t tell me something happened to my husband!"
The man had a trim little beard, and—excuse me, but if you were a casting director looking for someone to play the role of a debonair devil, you’d be giving this guy your card and asking him to come in for an audition. By contrast, the woman might well have been studying for that principal’s course on intimidation through facial expression, but she was the one who spoke: "Mrs. Pizzelli, we don’t even know where your husband is."
Mom’s voice went even higher. " Tyler is missing?"
My feelings were bouncing all over the place because I didn’t know if Mom was overreacting—which has been known to happen—or if she actually had a reason to suspect the worst.
Mrs. Overstreet went with option number one. "Mrs. Pizzelli, I’m sure your husband is fine." She didn’t give my mother a chance to say more than "But—" before she continued, "When I go to conferences, the presenters always ask everyone to turn off their cell phones. I’m sure once they break for lunch, your husband will check his messages and return your call."
The other woman was nodding as though those were her thoughts exactly. "Please," she said, "now that your younger daughter is here, let’s talk about Emily."
Before I could ask "What’s wrong with Emily?" the woman had stood up and offered me her hand to shake. She was very business-chic and sophisticated. "Hello, Grace. I’m pleased to meet you. Though not under these circumstances, of course."
The man, still sitting, smoothly interjected: "By which we do not mean to imply that Rasmussem Corporation or any of its employees is in any way responsible for those circumstances."
Ah, I thought, putting together that suave but slightly sinister look with his precise wording. Lawyer.
I finally noticed that they both had Rasmussem Corporation nametags, as well as school visitor badges.
The woman continued, "My name is Jenna Bennett, and I’m the chief technical engineer at the Lake Avenue Rasmussem facility. This is Alexander Kroll, from our legal department."
Mr. Kroll showed some of his teeth and added, "By which we do not mean to imply that this is a matter requiring adjudication."
Apparently, my principal didn’t like lawyers. She leveled an I-am-picturing-doing-you-bodily-harm expression at him and said to my mother, "Yeah, yeah, so it’s much too early to talk about suing the pants off them, but that’s always a possibility."
Kroll’s expression didn’t change: proof, if anyone had needed it, about the sincerity of his smile.
Suing didn’t sound good. People sue when something goes terribly wrong, and what did all this have to do with Emily—or me?
Ms. Really-an-Engineer-Despite-the-Fact-That-She-Looked-Like-a-Principal-in-Training Bennett put on a pained expression.
But, fashionable and pretty as she was, she didn’t know pained. My mother’s eyes were red-rimmed and scared—that was pain. She took my hand and worked it like when you’re trying to soften up putty.
What a terrible person I am, I realized. Something awful has happened to Emily, and here I am mentally moaning about a few squished fingers.
Mom said to me, "Emily’s playing a game at the arcade."
"Okay . . ." I said, knowing there had to be more. Emily is a student at RIT—Rochester Institute of Technology.
She’s studying technical engineering and is in a work co-op program at Rasmussem, which, long story short, means she’s slave labor for them this semester, though I’m guessing Mr. Lawyer Kroll would try to qualify that statement. Rasmussem is the company that developed total immersion, the next step beyond virtual reality. When you play their games sensations are fed directly into your brain: you can feel the warmth of the sun if it’s daytime in the world you’re playing, just as you can feel cold and soaked to the bone if it’s raining; you can taste the food and smell the flowers; and if you’re riding a horse, after a while your butt goes to sleep. The difference between playing a Rasmussem game and a regular old virtual reality game is like the difference between an IMAX movie and films before color and sound were invented.
I thought: Of course Emily is playing games at the arcade. No doubt most—if not all—of the people who work at Rasmussem are there because they love games. Well, maybe excepting the lawyers. But if the company wasn’t going to pay their interns salaries, they couldn’t be surprised at an unauthorized game or two. I assumed Emily was playing while she was supposed to be working, which apparently I didn’t take as seriously as the legal department did. Was she getting fired? Was she getting expelled?
But surely that wasn’t enough to account for Mom’s distress, or for my getting called out of class.
Mom still seemed intent on kneading all my fingers into mush. She said, "They can’t get it to stop."
Confused, I said, "The games last a half-hour. While you’re playing, you feel like it’s hours, but it’s only thirty minutes." I figured my mother wasn’t sure whether to believe me. She’s not a gamer—hard as that is to conceive of these days. She’s not into technology and can barely get her cell phone to cooperate. I said, "When the time runs out, the game just stops."
"Yes," Ms. Rasmussem-Engineer-Lady agreed. "Normally."
Okay, well, granted, something was not normal or we wouldn’t all be here.
She continued, " Emily hooked herself into the game she was developing, and . . . she did something. She bypassed safety protocols. But the half-hour is up. The half-hour was up more than four hours ago."
"Can’t you just . . ." Of course I have played Rasmussem’s games, but Emily is the tech-type in the family. ". . . unhook her?" I finished lamely, thinking of the wires they stuck to your head when you lie down on a total immersion couch. Duh. Like the people who could think up total immersion weren’t smart enough to think of that?
"We did," Ms. Bennett said, without sounding impatient or condescending at my obviousness. "She didn’t revive."
Mom said, "I asked them to just pull the plug on the whole thing, but they won’t." Pulling the plug is Mom’s cure-it technique for all of our computer’s ills.
Ms. Bennett said—and I could tell she’d said it before—"It doesn’t work like that."
"There should be safeguards," Mom said.
"There are," Mr. Kroll told her. "Your older daughter, intentionally, with forethought, for her own reasons, disabled them. Leaving behind a note clearly showing her culpability."
From his briefcase, he pulled out a piece of paper in a clear plastic bag hand-labeled EVIDENCE.
Evidence? Like from courts and trials and cop shows? What sort of trouble was Emily in?
The note was in my sister’s neat rounded penmanship.
NOT ANYBODY’S FAULT. THIS IS MY CHOICE.
While the word evidence had set off all sorts of alarm bells in my head, now I think my body temperature dropped ten degrees.
Emily had chosen to go into a game and not come out? Why?
Mr. Kroll was still talking to my mother. "There may well be loss to company revenues because of her actions, beyond the time of the techs who have been trying to help her, beyond the time taken by Ms. Bennett and myself to explain things to you at your home, and now here again at your younger daughter’s school because you wanted to consult with her." His expression clearly showed what he thought of a woman who would seek her fourteen-year-old’s opinion.
"Be that as it may . . ." Principal Overstreet said.
We all looked at her, but she didn’t really have anything to say; I guess she just didn’t like our bickering.
Ms. Bennett stepped into the breach, too elegant to put up with bickering, either. "Be that as it may, we can tell, approximately, where in the Rasmussem-created scenario she is. I myself went in and tried to talk her out. She refused to listen to me."
This was so weird, so . . . more than weird. I couldn’t even tell what I should be thinking.
I saw Ms. Bennett looking at me, waiting for me to realize she was looking at me. She said, "We’re hoping she’ll listen to you."
Me? Somehow this was coming down to me?
I had caught that part where Ms. Oh-So-Well-Dressed Bennett had said she’d gone in to talk to Emily.
"I think it’s insane," Mom said. "First one of my daughters gets stuck in their crazy game; then they want my other daughter to just step right in after her."
"Mrs. Pizzelli," Ms. Bennett said, "I’ve already explained: there’s no danger. I told you that I went into the game and was perfectly capable of coming back out again. Emily could come out, too. She’s simply choosing not to. We’re hoping Grace can get her to see reason."
Liking a game is one thing. Playing into the wee hours of the morning even though it’s a school day is one thing. Shouting "Just a minute" when your mother hollers at you to get off the computer now because she’s called you for dinner twice already—all of that is one thing.
Emily wouldn’t come out?
"If," Mom said, "if someone from the family needs to do this, it should be me."
Ms. Bennett shook her head. "You’re not a gamer. You’d be overwhelmed. Without experience, you wouldn’t know where to begin, how to get around, what’s important and what’s only background. We’d lose valuable time. The programs are meant to last from thirty to sixty minutes. The equipment is rated safe for eight times that exposure. But it’s not meant for sustained immersion."
Everything she said made sense, too much sense. There was no way I could hope Mom would insist on being the one to go—not when I could see so clearly it would be better for Emily to have me there.
In the movies, the good guys always fight each other for the opportunity to do the dangerous stuff. The Rasmussem people were saying this wasn’t dangerous. And still the responsibility was enough to freeze me solid.
Mrs. Overstreet, as a principal in charge of her students’ safety, said to me, "Grace, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to."
For the first time in my life, I wanted to hug her.
"No," Ms. Bennett agreed. "Of course she doesn’t have to. But there’s no reason she shouldn’t. It’s not like we’re asking her to donate a kidney or something."
Suddenly we were into donating body parts? Would I donate a kidney? I wondered. Much as I loved Emily, I wasn’t sure I could.
"Oh, I wish your father would pick up the damn phone," Mom said, "and tell me what we should do."
Somehow, that cleared my head. We SHOULD, I thought, be able to make up our minds on our own.
"No danger of me getting stuck in there?" I asked.
"Absolutely none," Ms. Engineer and Mr. Lawyer said in unison.
"Then," I had to admit, "I guess I don’t see any reason why not."
My mother sniffled but didn’t try to talk me out of it.
Mr. Kroll smiled his non-smile smile and opened his briefcase again. "Fine. We just have one or two papers for you to sign . . ."