I had detention only once.
One of my classmates was named Morgan. She was a short girl with shoulder-length auburn ringlets and a double chin. I liked her, though I had never spent any particular amount of time with her, nor any of my peers, due to the anti-clique protocol. There were forty of us to a classroom, and we sat two to a table, on a rotating schedule so that everybody sat an equal amount of time with everybody else. This was to make sure that nobody would be any more isolated than anybody else.
During lunch period one day, I noticed that Morgan hadn’t taken a bite of her cheese sandwich, which had been specifically released for her at the food dispensers.
“Are you going to eat that?” I asked.
She pushed it away. “I don’t want to. It makes my tummy hurt.”
“You can have my sandwich if I can have your sandwich,” I said. Mine was peanut butter and jelly.
“Ok,” she said.
I managed to finish her cheese sandwich before the Educator (the assistant Educator, really, we had two per classroom) turned around.
Morgan was still halfway through mine. The assistant Educator, whose name was Payton, had unusually keen eyes, and somehow she noticed that the sandwich Morgan was eating was the wrong color.
“Morgan!” she exclaimed, panicked. “Is that Alex’s sandwich?”
Morgan’s eyes went round. She looked at me.
“Alex, is that your sandwich?”
I nodded, truthful as always.
“N—” she snatched the PB&J out of Morgan’s hand, and let it drop like it was radioactive. “No! Morgan, no! That is unacceptable! Alex, that is unacceptable! Alex, did you eat her food?”
I hesitated, then nodded again, but smaller this time. She was so tall, about twice my height.
“You know you’re not allowed to trade food! People can’t switch food! People have to eat what gets assigned to them!” She sounded quite breathless; her voice had risen quite significantly in pitch and volume. I couldn’t understand what had made her so upset. Maybe, if she understood why I had done it, she wouldn’t be so upset.
“But,” I said in a tiny voice, “if she didn’t eat my sandwich, she wouldn’t have any food.”
“She has her own food! Her own food, all right, the dispenser gave Morgan her own food, you know that! Everybody gets food based on their own nutritional needs, you can’t change that!”
“But,” I said, “It makes her feel sick.”
“Food doesn’t do that!” yelled Payton. “That’s not true, that doesn’t happen! I don’t want to hear you say anything like that ever again! You either, Morgan! Do you want to be Detractors when you grow up? I’m going to have to put you both under detention.”
The entire classroom was staring at us now, and I could tell they were all annoyed with me for making Payton yell. If I hadn’t argued back, this wouldn’t be happening. Even Morgan was looking at me as if to say, stop talking. Don’t defend me any more, you’ll only make it worse.
So I stopped.
The sentence of detention had been decided, there was nothing else to do but wait for it. I was terrified.
When Ellison, our primary Educator came back to the room, Payton went to him behind his desk and explained what had happened, including the extent of my rebelliousness.
I strained my ears to listen as Ellison calmed down his assistant. “I’m going to waive her detention,” he said, and I was stricken with relief. Then, “But the other one, the argumentative one—no, that’s not acceptable. She needs to learn that won’t be tolerated. You can remove her from class now.”
So I was removed. Payton grabbed me by the arm and pulled me from the classroom. Tears leaked from my eyes involuntarily. “You won’t manipulate me with a performance like that,” Payton snarled.
At the end of the hallway was a dark closet.
I remained there without visitation for the next two hours.
During that time, I finished crying, and tried to wait patiently for my release. It was dark. I felt insistently that I’d been wronged. I felt my way to the back of the closet, sat down on a box, and despite my emotions, became bored.
When Payton returned, the flood of light was blinding.
“Alex! I know you’re in there.”
I crawled forth from the back of the closet and stood up. I had done my time.
“Can I come out now?” I asked.
“Not until you say you’re sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, not sorry.
“You’re only saying that because you want me to let you out.”
Now I was just confused. Well… duh?
“No I’m not,” I said. “I really am sorry.” I was well past my natural truthful impulse and ready to say whatever she wanted to hear.
“For… um… well… um… for arguing with you.”
“You don’t mean it. I’ll come back later.”
“No!” I rushed toward the door and the light, which was closing into a narrow slit. “No, no! Wait!”
She left anyway, though. The light vanished, leaving me only the small crack under the door.
I was dumbfounded. She couldn’t just leave me here forever… could she? My heart went cold. Maybe she could. The Educators, as the Settlement’s primary caregivers for children, had total power over every facet of my existence.
I supposed they weren’t allowed to kill me, probably.
I had a long time to sit and think about why I ought to be sorry. It was clear that Payton could see through my limited eleven-year-old powers of deception. I couldn’t convince her that I was sorry until I was actually sorry.
I was already sorry that I’d talked back to her. That hadn’t helped anyone, even Morgan. If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t be here. I tried to think on what she had said about the food. I thought about the sandwiches. Maybe she was right and it was more important not to switch food. I could try to be sorry.
“I’m sorry that I gave Morgan my sandwich,” I said when she opened the door again. It was later, a very long time later – by the closed doors down the hall, I could tell it was the end of the school day.
“Because everybody is supposed to eat their own food and I knew that.”
I panicked internally. And? And what?
“…and I should do what you say?”
“That’s right. Now come out of there, it’s time to go home.”
I went home very silently.
When I got home, I let myself in at the sublevel door. My father was sitting at the kitchen table, scrolling through something on the surface.
“Today I got detention at school,” I said blandly.
“Oh?” he didn’t look up. “What did you do?”
“I… I gave somebody my sandwich,” I said, kind of regretting bringing it up.
“Well? Don’t expect any sympathy from me. You broke the rules.”
“I know,” I said. “I wasn’t.”
“Expecting any sympathy.”
“Then why did you tell me about it?”
I faltered. “I don’t know.” I put my chin down and went to my room.
That night I had a stomachache.