I snapped to attention at my desk. I hadn’t been paying attention— had drifted off again into a daydream about trees, and a conservatory filled with lush greenery.
The Educator raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve missed the question.”
“What is two plus two?” asked the Educator again.
Two plus two? I blinked. This was Social Studies, not math class.
“Four,” I said, blankly, hoping.
“As I have just been explaining to the rest of the class, Alex, one of the most essential parts of life in the Settlement is choosing language deliberately. It is in this way that we can be sure that we say exactly what we mean, and that we do not place undue strain on our listeners, and that we do not leave ourselves open to any accusation of Detractiveness. Alex, what is two plus two? And this time, please choose your language deliberately.”
Now I knew where this was going.
“I think two plus two is four,” I said.
“That is correct,” said the Educator. “The principle which you have demonstrated,” he continued (but I knew this) “is called General Relativity. Of course, in day-to-day life it will not be necessary to apply General Relativity so strictly, but here in the classroom we must train with it for the sake of form, as you put units on equations in Math class—in my Social Studies classroom any deviation from General Relativity will be graded down appropriately.”
He was addressing the class, now, no longer focused on me in particular. I looked around, and everybody was safely ignoring me again, so I relaxed. I squirmed in my seat—if only I had just a bit of synth-paper. Not even to draw on, as this would betray the fact that my thoughts were elsewhere. Just to fold, maybe, or tear. I chewed my fingernails.
“In the Settlement it is permitted to state definitively that “two plus two equals four”. That is because the vast majority of human beings happen to share your opinion. In principle, however, Relativity keeps us from stating our opinions as fact. In the classroom we use it because it trains our thinking to always remember, with technical precision, that absolutes do not exist.”
We all nodded.
And then mercifully the lecture was over, and we broke out the synth-paper.
Educator Jordan passed out markers from a box; we were making cards for the local DYNTEC workers of the 4th Central division.
I took the card and started drawing. I was still thinking about the tree. I put down a curling line; under my fingers it almost became a tree. I forced myself to stop; what was I thinking? This card was going directly to DYNTEC, and while I knew that they protected important things like trees and so forth; I’d been picking up sensitive vibes around the subject, like it would be Detractive to talk about. I had a good sense of when to avoid certain subjects. I drew a DYNTEC patch and their little chevrons.
“Do write something on the cards,” said Jordan. “We are sending these cards to thank the DYNTEC agents, who put their lives on the line to keep our community safe.”
“Are they coming here?” asked one of the boys eagerly. His name was Taylor.
“No,” said Educator Jordan.
“Oh,” he said, disappointedly. “I thought maybe. We had the lab workers come to class last Career day.”
“DYNTEC agents can’t do that,” said Jordan. “They’re very busy, and also, their work is very secret and dangerous, so they can’t show themselves in public.”
I knew that; it would ruin their ability to catch criminals by surprise.
“How is it dangerous?” asked Taylor. He wouldn’t have asked if he had no idea; it was clear he idolized the agents a little bit and wanted to hear more. Every child had some kind of obsession; mine was with plants, but if his was with the cool agents, I couldn’t fault him.
“They have to fight and arrest dangerous people,” said Educator Jordan, in a tone no more exciting than if he were listing the times tables. “Detractors, and other types of criminals.”
He went on passing out cards.
“Jordan?” said Taylor again a little bit more excitedly, raising his hand a little bit.
“What’s a Detractor? I mean…” he shrank a bit. “Exactly. I know what it is, but like.”
“Good Gaia.” Jordan didn’t raise his voice or anything, but he frowned a little bit. “You are in the fourth grade. Has no one ever given you a proper definition of a Detractor?”
To his surprise, most of the class shook their heads.
I was less surprised. No one had ever told me, but it wasn’t hard for me to put it together from context, by the way people said it. You just know. You just figure it out.
“Kids these days,” said Jordan, shaking his head. He leaned back with his two hands on the desk. “Detractive behavior is something that you do, but a Detractor is something that you are.”
The way he said “you” put me on edge.
“Anybody can do something Detractive, or potentially Detractive. This is behavior that does exactly what it sounds like: detracts from the goals of the Settlement. Takes away from the good of society. A Detractor is someone who tells and believes lies, who insists on absolutes, which alienate others; who wants to gather up more than their fair share, who wants to live in secrecy, and keep things all to themselves. In their secrecy, Detractors hide the fact that they are violent, malignant, hateful to the entire Settlement, and at their heart they want to destroy us all.
“My goal as an Educator is not only to keep you from doing Detractive things, but to keep you from being Detractors.” He shrugged a little. “When you grow up, I mean. A child can do Detractive things, but they can’t be a Detractor, at least not until they’re an adult.”
“At the same time, though, we can know a Detractor by what they do. A Detractor is the opposite of a model citizen, and a person doesn’t become a model citizen by accident. If you don’t work to be a model citizen, you’ll always be sliding toward Detractiveness. There’s no default! There’s no neutrality. You must constantly train your mind to move away from Detractive thoughts and impulses. Even the best person is a mere careless slide away from becoming a Detractor. Anybody could become a Detractor, even someone who was once a model citizen. That’s why you always have to pay attention to the people around you.”
We all looked around us, at each other, as though we could see Detractors. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
“Remember, kids.” He smiled. He was one of the only teachers I had who sometimes smiled, though I always felt it was more a private joke with himself than it was for us. “If you see something, say something!”