The last bell for for fourth period was just finishing, and as Mr. Burton would be the first to remind everyone, this meant everyone needed to be at their desks, books open and pencils ready, so that the day’s learning could begin quickly and efficiently. Still, here was the the last bell and students were still making their way into the classroom, talking amongst themselves all the while. Mr. Burton mulled the idea of scolding everyone for unnecessary tardiness for a moment before discarding it with a sigh. Likely as not they’d reply with a collective smirk.
Kids today and whatnot, he thought as he stood up and spoke through the din of adolescence.
“Please get to your seats ASAP,” he called out, mistakenly believing those kids today pronounced acronyms phonetically. “We have a lot of essays to present and not a lot of time to get them all in. You there, Charlie! You seem content to keep talking after I’ve begun. I guess that means you’ve completed your essay and you’re volunteering to go first!”
The student in question, Charlie, rolled his eyes just enough for his friends to see, because he was the type of boy that relished a reputation for hating academics. But his quick and confident stride to the front of the class let everyone know that he had indeed finished his essay. Of course he had, thought Mr. Burton; they all had. The annual field trip to the Official Hall of Dystopias was the one thing every student loved, jocks and geeks and bookworms alike. When the tour was made mandatory for all high school sophomores, the Ministry of Slippery Slopes had notified all public school admin and faculty that it would be the most popular thing kids experienced in school. Of course, the Ministry of Slippery Slopes was always making grandiose claims of that nature, but in this case it actually turned out to be true. Charlie read his essay, slipping back and forth between feigned boredom and true inspiration, Mr. Burton noticed. After Charlie took his seat, Mr. Burton called on the next student, and then the next, and so on, until he noticed the clock on the wall was running against him.
“I’m sorry, students, but I’m afraid we won’t have quite enough time for everyone to read their whole essay to the class.” Mr. Burton noticed that he students who had yet to read theirs slumped own their chairs slightly at this news, while the smiles of those who had already gotten up in front of the class went up ever so slightly. “I think, however” he continued, “that we have time for quick Q and A sessions for everyone left. Mr. Barker, will you come to the front of the class and tell us about your favorite display from the Hall of Dystopias?”
Barker, who Mr. Burton had never believed was the steepest slope on the hill, walked to the front and looked out sheepishly at his classmates before staring at the empty space in front of him and beginning.
“There are many displays to love at the Ministry of Slippery Slopes Official Hall of Dystopias,” he almost bellowed, his voice a bit too loud for the space and occasion due to his nervousness, “but my favorite by far was the Dystopia of Cheeses That Aren’t At All Yellow.”
Everyone waited for Barker to expand on this fine starting point. After a minute, when it became obvious that he wouldn’t be doing so, Mr. Burton tried to coax him ahead. “What about the Dystopia of Cheeses That Aren’t At All Yellow, Mr. Barker? What was it, exactly, and what was it that you liked about it?”
Barker looked panicked for just a moment before barreling ahead.
“The Dystopia of Cheeses That Aren’t At All Yellow tells the cautionary tale of a fictional world where certain cheeses were yellow because of food dye, and a lot of people liked those. But then someone said they’d rather have the same cheese but without the yellow dye, and then it became fashionable in certain circles to have the cheese be white. But some people still liked cheese that was yellow even though it had yellow dye, and they said they wanted yellow cheese. So a fascist government was raised, and they made yellow cheese illegal because they were elitist and hated people, and if you liked yellow cheese you went to prison and had to do hard labor.”
“Very good, Mr. Barker. And what do we learn from the Dystopia of Cheeses That Aren’t At All Yellow?” Mr. Burton was afraid that the question might be too much for a border-line simpleton like Barker, but to his credit the boy managed to bring it it all together.
“We learn that if you like a cheese more than another cheese and talk about it, it might look harmless enough at first. But it can be a slippery slope that can lead to the government taking away your freedom and making all of us into slaves!”
“Excellent,” exclaimed Mr. Burton, and for the first time that day he smiled — right up until he came to the next name on the list. “Ah, I see next up is —“ he tried to hide the disdain from his voice — “Andy Dimas.”
Andy Dimas walked to the front of the class, and then, in that god-awful Andy Dimas way that Mr. Burton had come to despise over the past year, he said softly, “There are many displays at the Ministry of Slippery Slopes Official Hall of Dystopias, but I can’t choose one that I liked best because, frankly, I didn’t really care for any of them.”
Mr. Burton let out a sigh as he pinched at his eyes under his glasses. “Mister Dimas, you mean to tell me that off all the Dystopia displays in the Hall, there wasn’t a single one that spoke to you?” Mr. Burton said this sounding as if he very, very much wanted a drink.
“No sir, not really,” Andy Dimas whispered as he looked wretchedly at the floor.
“What about the Dystopia of Everyone Bikes to Work, or the Dystopia of Government Forms in Non-English Speaking Languages? Surely as a student you at least appreciated the Dystopia of Schools That Teach Whole Math Without Any Phonics Whatsoever.” Mr. Burton sounded pained as he named off some of the Hall’s most popular exhibits, and Andy Dimas’s glum silence suggested that, in fact, he didn’t much care for them all that much.
Mr. Burton tried to convey the gravity of the subject, for the other students’ benefit as well as Andy Dimas’s.
“I would remind you, Mr. Dimas, that the Ministry of Slippery Slopes’ Official Hall of Dystopias aren’t just trifles to be —“ he reached unsuccessfully for the right word — “well, trifled with. They are matters of life and death! Those who suffered through the Dystopia of Everyone Bikes to Work weren’t merely inconvenienced. Those people either had to bike to work or they were forced to become slave workers at government camps. And the poor citizens of the Dystopia of Iceberg Lettuce Not Being Good Enough So You’re Eating Arugula And You’re Liking It were forced to have their burgers dressed the way Big Whole Foods demanded, and those who didn’t like it were forced to become slave workers at government camps. And did you even bother to look at the Dystopia of Universal University Campus Student-Government Dictated Safe Spaces? Why, anyone who wanted to tell even the most innocent of knock-knock jokes was —“
“Forced to become slave workers at government camps, yes sir,” Andy Dimas interrupted. “All the people who didn’t like things at all of the Dystopia displays were forced to become slave workers at government camps. Except that they weren’t, sir, not really. Because none of those things ever happened.”
Mr. Burton counted to ten, weighing the heavy cost of putting up with Andy Dimas again in his class the following year over the transient joy of failing him for the semester on the spot right here and now. When he felt he could continue without shouting, he chose to address the class as a whole.
“Students, who can remind us why the Ministry of Slippery Slopes exists in the first place?” A few hands started to go up as Mr. Burton plowed ahead. “The Ministry of Slippery Slopes exists because in our nation’s darkest hour, that moment historians now refer to as The Time When We Went From Everything Being Great To Everything Being Still Kind of Great But Not Quite as Great as We Thought It Might Have Been Just a While Back, the people were in despair and did not know the way forward. That’s when the Founding Pundits showed us that the true danger to our prosperity and civilization itself wasn’t from violence, lawlessness, or intolerance. Instead, the true threat comes from the potential bad outcomes to any idea thought up by people we didn’t care for, extrapolated out to the most extreme possibilities that inevitably result in a totalitarian state forcing people who disagree to become slave workers at government camps. Are you saying you want there to be totalitarian slave camps, Mr. Dimas?”
“No sir, of course not sir. It’s just that..” Andy Dimas tried to gather his thoughts as his eyes continued to bore holes into the floor. “It’s just that, well sir, those people never end up in slave camps, sir.”
“Oh,” chuckled Mr. Burton, ready to spring his trap. “So I guess you’d say that George Orwell was just a professional worrywart, eh?”
“No, sir, he very much wasn’t, sir.” Andy Dimas finally looked up form the floor and met Mr. Burton’s stare. “Sir, George Orwell was a man who wrote metaphors about actual fascist states, because those were horrors he was witness to in his life. Lots of things, I suspect, can lead to fascist states if we’re not careful. But not these things. Not the things we write dystopia movies, books, and political columns about. Not white cheese, and arugula, and having government forms in five languages, or for that matter having government forms only in one. And neither does having different ways to teach kids how to read. Or having our city put in bike lanes. Or making a decision one way or another about what authors to teach in literature, or if someone prefers video games and comic books to any of them.”
Mr. Burton could have interjected, but he opted to sit quietly as Andy Dimas went on. Sometimes, Mr. Burton had learned, the best way to execute a malcontent was simply allowing him the rope to hang himself.
“I think there was a time,” Andy Dimas continued, thinking out loud, “when dystopia stories spoke to people because the threat of everything around them going up in smoke seemed like a very real possibility. But that’s not where we are anymore. It’s not who we are anymore. Now we’re fat and lazy, and we hate to be challenged, and so we create dystopian cautionary tales about the little things that other people do or say or believe that just bug us. Maybe we don’t like people who work for large corporations, or maybe we like calling ourselves environmentalists but don’t want to make the effort to live like we are, or maybe we hate the woman we just saw at the DMV, or maybe we just get tired of minorities telling us what they’d rather be called, or maybe we look at the people down the street who go to church every Sunday and want to show them how they’re not better than us. And so we create all of these fictional worlds of ruin where we make people who don’t do things they way we would choose to do them suffer in or minds. Those aren’t dystopias, or at least they’re not dystopias the way Orwell, Huxley, and Golding imagined them. They’re just us, trying to prove we’ve been right all along about everything without having to go to the trouble to prove it.”
When Andy Dimas was done, Mr. Burton let the silence that followed hang in the air, before asking Barker to stand back up. “Mr. Barker,” he said, “you’ve heard what Mr. Dimas just said. Tell the class, if we were to waive a magic wand and let the world be as Mr. Dimas would have it be — one where people treated differing opinions and beliefs at face value, rather than extrapolating them to the worst possible outcome, what might that world look like?”
Barker screwed up his eyes in concentration. “Well, I suppose in that world people wouldn’t assume anything you disagreed with would eventually become a dystopian nightmare.”
“Yes,” nodded Mr. Burton, “ and what would happen then?” You could almost see the wheels turn in Barker’s head.
“Well, then I guess… um… I guess people wouldn’t be so worried about slippery slopes and dystopias?” he ventured.
“Yes, yes,” encourage Mr. Burton. “And tell me, Barker, would all of these citizens in this world not believe in dystopias?” Barker looked confused for a moment before allowing that there would probably still be some people who still believed in such. Mr. Burton asked, “And tell the class if you will, Barker, what do you think will come of those who still believe in dystopias? How will the rulers of Mr. Dimas’s so-called harmonious world likely deal with with them?”
Barker’s brow furrowed a bit, before the penny dropped and his eyes grew wide. “My God! They’d create a totalitarian state, and put them into government-run slave camps!” The class gasped in horror at this realization. Those nearest to Andy Dimas because to move away from him slightly.
With that the bell rang, and Mr. Burton released the students to their next period. As they filed out, he frowned as he looked at his grade book. He really had no choice but to fail Andy Dimas, and he was already sorry for what that meant to his next year. Still, he mused, he’d found quite a diamond in the rough today in Barker. Up till now, the boy had been the dimmest bulb in the class, academically speaking. Now, he wondered as he changed Barker’s semester grade from C to A, he wondered if he should talk to someone in admin about getting him on the Dean’s list. Or maybe asking the teacher in charge of the school paper about giving him his own column.
The boy just showed so much promise.Image by Artist in doing nothing.