I’ll not say I didn’t think it strange at first. Of course, the way things have been going and are still I’m not sure I’d be able to say I didn’t see it coming and mean it. Maybe drawing a line of vigilance around the playpen was inevitable. Come to think of it, maybe I’m just the man to hold that line.
We see a lot of behavioral issues with the kids, for sure. I’d never bent my mind on them quite this way until now. Big stage bright lights and all. But now that I’ve had a chance to mull over their offer here during the weekend I think I’m beginning to see the proportions of the thing, the angles. If you get your mind wrapped about it right, getting this new role to mesh with my existing one as an educator is far from an impossible proposition.
Now I’ll not claim that the whole next-man-up thread running through their letter didn’t sway me just a tiny bit. I remember when I saw it sitting there with my electric bill and a bunch of deal flyers. What a thrill of terror ran down the frets of my spine when I saw the seal of the nation on the envelope! I had no inkling as to the contents, but it screamed serious, official business. I had a hard time catching back the breath caught in my throat. And the letter within – the stock, the letterhead, the font, the tone, even the name of the agent – it was all breathtaking, just breathtaking. I would reproduce it here as evidence that mine was not a psychotic break but a propitious one, but they said specifically I couldn’t even show it to my lawyer. And between not even knowing who you might be and not knowing how far they’ll go to suppress a leak, I think I’ll play it safe, thank you very much. I will say that the agent through whom I’m to liaise with KinderGuard is named Winters. A solid, confidence-inspiring name, right? It carries the ring of the sort of man you want at your back and not breathing down your neck. Winters the winter soldier.
The thing I most appreciated about the letter and the accompanying pamphlet was that it wasn’t a sales pitch, far from it. More of a take-it-or-leave-it type deal. Which how often do you get the likes of that in the mail nowadays – which is what made it so special. He just said we have this operational need and you can help us meet it out in the pre-K community, or not. Just put it out there.
Their operational need? Simple. Information. Information to help KinderGuard determine which of the tots under my tutelage exhibit buds of tendency that may one day flower into extremism, even terror. I guess so that it won’t come as a surprise down the line, the way it always seems to whenever one of them goes off like a bottle rocket. Plus it gives you the flexibility to quickly quarantine problem tots and mitigate the risk of contagion. And while I can’t really get into the particulars of the monitoring methods or the reporting structures here – heck, not even with my lawyer can I do that – I can assure you that those specifics are just about the least interesting aspect of the whole opportunity. I’ll say that they’re tied into a vendor-specific platform and leave it at that. Being a humble pre-K educator I wouldn’t be good at breaking down the nitty-gritty of babble capture, behavioral data analytics or emergent hierarchy metrics in any case – beyond my pay grade, I guess you could say. Certainly beyond my security clearance, which is strictly entry-level and set to stay that way unless I do something to distinguish myself in the field.
No – the best thing I can convey to you here is how I got my mind right with KinderGuard over the weekend. It was a process, to be sure, but ultimately maybe not as onerous as a layperson might make it out to be. I want to get one thing straight from the get-go – don’t read on if it’s apologetics you’re looking for. You won’t find them here. By getting my mind right I mean getting to a place where I can be of service to the children, to the country, to the future of the children in this country, and possibly even to my own future in the form of some mark of the agency’s confidence. So the uninformed gut response is to say that spying (sic) on children is a betrayal of the covenant between parent and educator. And I get it, I totally do. I’d be a liar if I claimed I hadn’t entertained the notion myself before dismissing it on the aggregate of the merits.
But here’s the thing: there is another party, and a far more significant one, to the business transacted at an educational institution, and who usually gets totally left out of the picture. That party is called society. Sure, if the only service a nursery school provided was kid storage between commutes, we might be looking at a clean bilateral transaction. In which case we might as well chloroform the kids to cut down on snack, activity and labor costs. But it’s not like that. When a child matriculates into Fun4Kidz, Inc., it is with the express understanding that it is there to be educated, socialized and generally worked into a good fit for the downstream institutions that will be receiving it. Which, I submit, is why what happens before Fun4Kidz sends them down the line matters so much.
The way you need to come at it if you’re ever to get your head around it is this: Ask yourself, why would society be willing to accept a substandard or even dangerous kid at the end of the line if it doesn’t need to? Not a bargain I’d be eager to strike if I were cast in the role of society. And for the sake of what? Some meddling parent whingeing about privacy? If one of them ever comes at me with that beef after I’m sworn in I’ll be sorely tempted to say I’ve got news for them, viz. behavioral monitoring and maintaining dossiers on kids has always been part of the education system, only before maybe we were a bit sheepish about plugging that info into the nationwide security grid. But surely that grid was built out at such lavish expense for a reason? I mean, what good is it to have that sterling potential out there and pussyfoot around it all day long like it was some afterdream you’d have lift like a mist? It gives me pleasure to call a spade a spade and I’ll do so now: it’s about time the silent party to the educational transaction spoke up and pressed its rights. No? Does that make you squeamish? Well then it can wait by God. It’s only the quality of the generation we’ll be handing the reins to we’re talking about after all.
Not that I’d be into or at all endorse the idea of keeping the program from the parents. They’ve every right to know. I’ve always been a firm believer in transparency as a driver of better educational outcomes. Do the math with me, it’s not hard. When you put the parents on notice that we run behavioral idealogics on the kids, I think you’ll see the pass-through of venomous dogma from ‘rent to runt drop off pretty quick. Consequences are a tonic like that. I hope it won’t come as a shock if I say that even though it’s the kids who are the primary product in the ideational work we try to do, the parents account for a much greater share of the feedstock than you might think. That is to say, the kids may make a soft target, but they aren’t necessarily the main one.
All of which must be understood by the agency to a fare-thee-well, so I really appreciate the fact that they don’t spell it out for you but just kind of put it out there and let the educator rise to the occasion. That’s trust, the glue that keeps the body and soul of a successful organization together. I can tell you right now that this is one organization I’m looking forward to being part of. It may still be T minus a fortnight to launch, but I already feel like I have my legs under me as a KinderGuard Sentry.
Another aspect that really helped me see my way clear to taking on the mission is that it means there will be more adults in the room. Finally. One of the hardest parts about being a pre-K educator that no one realizes is that you risk having your mind go soft on you from overexposure to all the nonsense the kids put out. I’m sorry, but it’s true. I’ve seen multiple TA’s go soft on me and have to switch career midstream to something more adult. I don’t know exactly what accounts for it, but there’s something about being around kids all day to where you no longer care about the responsible world when you clock out. In some it may be that they develop a distaste for paperwork. In others maybe their hold on why grading is so darned important starts to slip. I don’t know how to explain it, but I do know it when I see it. It’s like the onset of a fever: all of a sudden the educator only cares about being with the kids, laughing with them, listening to them, imitating them, passing their inane non sequiturs on to you – now recast as the bag-holder with an imbecile on his hands. I know full well that the new adult in the room is pretty much virtual, but I think it’s fair to say that he has a larger-than-life personality and will go a long way toward keeping educator eyes focused on the ball.
I suppose the next thing you’ll want to know is what KinderGuard Sentries are supposed to be looking for. Again, this is pretty much a read-between-the-lines thing as far as the agency’s instructions to us go, which again I cannot emphasize enough how much I appreciate. Think about it. The difference between this coiled rope of discretionary latitude and the paint-by-numbers national curriculum couldn’t be more stark. Here the agency is, treating the educator like an adult, a partner. Thus emboldened, I feel entitled to give you my reading on what we’re supposed to be looking for. I should start by saying that the stated purpose is to ferret out extremism at the earliest possible developmental stage. As far as handholding by the agency goes, that’s it. I mean I’m sure behavioral markers and protocols will emerge by an iterative process as we get going, but for now it’s total improv.
So the first thing that strikes me is that you have extremism, and then you have extremism. What I mean is that a lot of kids are basically extremists when they matriculate into Fun4Kidz. It always has to be their way, their game, their ball. Especially the boys – you know the drill. But we have ways of overcoming this type of antisocial behavior. At the very least we have ways of all agreeing to pretend that we have. And besides, there’s no ideological angle to this sort of default extremism. Given enough polishing and grinding, your ball-hogging little extremist might make a perfect fit for a downstream institution like the military at some point down the line. Never say never. So as a KinderGuard Sentry, you’re not going to want to be too literal or stiff about it. It’s about proportion, feeling the thing out – it’s about instinct, if you like. I feel that without instinct we’re neither human or animal.
Let me tell you what I mean. Last year there was this kid who really set the alarm bells ringing in my head. Wish to Christ KinderGuard had been rolled out back then so I could’ve done my duty by tipping the agency off to him. Come to think of it, I’ll probably reach out and give the hotline they listed in the letter a call, not yet being sworn in as a Sentry be damned. Who says you can’t make a play while riding the bench?
But back to the rugrat at hand. Kid’s name was Mikey. Mikey Stearns or some such. Let me give you a run-through. Doesn’t play well with others? Check. Breaks rules just to tick off the educator? Check. Asks the educator why – why, why, why, why, always the infernal word, why? – to the very brink of madness? Check, in spades. All of which is natural enough in some kids until you can get them on the meds. Some of them are just born a handful. That’s just your cross to bear when you sign up to be a machinist of young minds. The thing about this one is that he had the feel of a grenade lobbed into the playpen. I mean maliciously. Dollars to donuts his antisocial habits were being fostered and reinforced at home. Like his parents just tossed him up and served him into the Fun4Kidz court with this wicked spin on him. And what for – shits and giggles? What happened in the end was that we had to kick him out and kick a refund back to the parents to keep them from bellyaching too much. Him just too disruptive to keep on board, them just too much of a wild card to stiff with impunity.
The moment I’ll never forget is when he had his back turned to the flag for the pledge. Mind you, this was coming from a four-and-a-half-year-old kid. Stood right up and presented his back to the flag. Might as well have been mooning it for the effect it had. When I pull him aside after class, you know what he says to me? That he’s not going to promise to obey a “bunch of cutthroats”. Now if that’s not exactly the type of prejudicial early childhood programming it would be my bounden duty to interdict, I don’t know what is. And sure enough, I started coming up with a trove of interesting stuff right off the bat when I started digging into the parents’ bona fides. Father in and out of the clink for tax evasion, mother more interested in protests and picket lines than parenting – they even lived in some neo-communist style arrangement where they had a letterpress they used to run off copies of some unspeakable rag they called “The Daily Serf”. Now I’m sure that me tipping KinderGuard off about Mikey’s home life won’t come as any sort of surprise to the relevant authorities. These people are in for a penny in for a pound types, and like I said, they’ve probably been at the receiving end of official attention for as long as they’ve had Mikey. What it might just do, though, is give Mikey a fresh shot at life where everything isn’t all distorted for him before he’s had a look around for himself. If they can build a child protective case against the parents and get Mikey into a more well-adjusted setting, I’ll have done my duty by him and by the silent party by helping the spin come off an at-risk kid – all while riding pine, mind you.
So I guess you could say I’ll be on the lookout for kids whose situations rhyme with Mikey’s. Not that the envisaged outcome should always be to build neglect cases with a view to transplanting the sapling – by no means. To begin with, it’s all about striking a chord and putting people on notice. Everyone deserves a second chance, or at least another half chance. More specifically – and this is as generally as I can put it – I guess what I’d be looking for as a KinderGuard Sentry is the odd discordant note. I’d be looking for the kind of noise, for lack of a better term, that is incompatible with Fun4Kidz’ pedagogical objective. It’s really primarily a matter of attitude and not first of content. My thinking is if they come in with this attitude like rules are BS, authority figures are BS, the flag is BS, the whole darn world is BS – that raises a flag in my mind, and what it tells me is that we’ve got a problem at home.
And truthfully, identifying that flag in time to take steps before the kid reaches age 5 is probably the best thing that could ever happen to it. Think of what a change you can make in the trajectory of a whole life by giving the steering wheel a gentle nudge at a tender age! It’s actually pretty inspiring to think about. And in the end, it’s precisely what keeps me in the game as an educator in spite of everything – that you can make a difference.
I can only imagine that there will be specifically defined threats to look out for as well. And here’s where not even instinct will be enough to see you through. Let me try to tell you what I mean. If I told you to imagine all the kooks, nutjobs, misfits, crackpots, discontents and extremists out there, could you do it? Do you think you could fit your head around a cancer of that magnitude? Okay. So now imagine all these crazies getting together and spawning little nutjob kids, hordes of brainwashed runts, and you’ll have some idea of the tidal wave that would wash over society if it weren’t for patriotic initiatives like KinderGuard. It shouldn’t be controversial to say that the educators in the years and decades leading up to the present moment, have been totally asleep at the switch, and with this threat out there reproducing like so many bacteria the whole time. As if in a national failure of nerve we told all the kooks Sure, have at it – go forth and multiply. Above all fear not the consequences.
Which is how things got to where what we’re facing now at Fun4Kidz is this a full-blown shitstorm of threats looming from every quarter. It’s not enough that you have to be on the lookout for Muslims, never mind how difficult that can be what with all the shades a Muslim is liable to assume. Oh no. Now that we’ve let our guard down and our whole society is getting away from us, we’ve got to be on the lookout for black nationalists, white supremacists, nullifiers, ecoterrorists, saboteurs, Russians, Neorussians and their sympathizers, the littlest militiamen, radical men’s right zealots, pressure cooker enthusiasts, combat veterans, maladjusted immigrants, Mayflower stock secessionists, racists, transcendentalists, utopians, rabble-rousers, junkies, cornucopians, fifth-columnist peaceniks, antigovernment agitators, hackers, double agents, sleeper cell organelles, off-narrative refuseniks – Jesus, it makes my head spin. And when push comes to shove, that’s the raw material you agree to tackle when you take up the educator’s mantle. For better or for worse, they’re all out there, and every year some increment of that merciless deluge is bound to wash up in your classroom.
Of course, I don’t want to leave a mistaken impression. I don’t want to exaggerate the size of the problem when the truth is that extremism is often so subtle that it escapes detection until it’s too late – and that’s the real problem. If I’m reading the agency’s operational need correctly, KinderGuard is about more than keeping tabs on what the tots say and do.
As a soon-to-be up-and-coming Sentry I feel it’s my prerogative, even my duty, to engage in this type of searching inquiry. Like I said before, keeping tabs has been pretty much par for the course all along, on an informal level at least. No – the real stakes here are finding out what the little runts are capable of. Which happens to be the widely accepted purpose of an educator in our society anyway, am I right?
It’s just that, circumstances being what they are, we’ve been forced to put a bit of a different spin on it. Not “does little Johnny have the chops to make it as an engineer?” but “is little Johnny at risk of radicalization, and might he metamorphose into a combatant?” Sounds drastic, I know – but only from the parochial perspective of the parent or some dyed-in-the-wool meddler. Come at it from a more holistic and socially entrepreneurial perspective though, and these are the stakes, plain as day. No getting around it.
So what is it that we do as educators when we want to have a look under the hood and explore a kid’s aptitudes, or in this case susceptibilities? You got it – behavioral modeling, role-playing, situational simulation. Which is a completely natural conclusion to draw – the only one, really – when you start doing your own thought-experimenting and role modeling as a KinderGuard Sentry. Okay, so the general ring of truth about my plan might be unassailable, but what about down at ground level? Very well, let’s go granular. I don’t have a problem with that. I’ll walk you through a few of the scenarios I came up with over the weekend.
Let’s start with an easy one. Take the case of a Chinese boy, fresh off the Boeing type kid. You want to find out if he might turn out to be fifth-columnist or industrial spy type material down the line. So what do you do? You throw him right into the fire is what, to see how malleable or how firm an alloy he’s made of. The first way to do it would be multiple-choice. That way you’ve got it on paper for easy reference, plus you don’t burden the agency with a bunch of behavioral analytics. Now the phrasing can be more or less complex or more or less leading, depending on your fidelity tolerances, but basically you string together a series of prompts where you tell the kid to imagine he’s come up with an invention or an industrial method as an engineer working at a Soyuz company. All of a sudden some Chicom honcho cozies up to him to see what it would take for him to part with the trade secret . Would he give it up a) never b) only if his family were under duress c) if the price was right or d) definitely, out of fraternal feeling.
That type of scenario. Of course, that might be too contrived as an approach. I can see that. It’s super hypothetical and the kid doesn’t know the stakes being played for, so as hard data for his permanent record it might be suspect. But then what you can do, see, is combine it with some role-playing backed up by the power of game theory. You assign the roles and you define the rules, then you see what kinds of outputs your system gives you. From what I can remember from my days as a psych major it’s none too difficult to flush out the treacherous tendencies in a subject by giving it the power to do something to someone, even if it’s just a game. It’s powerful like that. Automatic, like a smelling salt. And then you go through your iterations and progressions. Would the kid be likely to betray his employer in the first place? If so, would he be more likely to do it based on the size of the carrot or the nationality of the beneficiary? You get the idea.
I think the combined approach could have a lot of power as a predictive tool, but the very best system you could set up would be one where you had a bunch of genetic data from the kid’s family tree and you were able to cross-reference the patterning against the permanent and criminal records of the kid’s extended family. I could see that sort of thing becoming possible here in a generation or two, but in this example I imagine you’d run into a brick wall with the Chinese data if you tried to push the set back more than 40 years into the past. Which is fine, since I’m getting way ahead of myself here anyway. Just an example of the lines I’d be thinking along if I were at liberty to shape KinderGuard classroom protocol from the ground up.
You can run variations on the Chinese kid prompt & play experiment on different cohorts until the cows come home, and I’m sure it would give you useful data on proclivities and whatnot, but you’ll still be completely in the dark as to what the tykes might be capable of when nursing an actual grievance. Which is a serious gap in your knowledge as a responsible educator, because the desire for vengeance and the willingness to act on that desire are without a doubt the key variables on the input side of the extremist equation. If you don’t know whether a kid is vengeful and would be willing to suffer hardship in the name of retribution, you don’t know the first thing about what you’re sending down the line. Which if you ask me makes you pretty piss poor as a KinderGuard Sentry.
But how do you test for something as nebulous and theoretical as that? The answer is you don’t. You take out the theory and you substitute solid data points. Obviously there are plenty of ways to go about this. One way would be to set up a videogame type platform where once betrayed you see what steps the tykes take toward retribution – such retribution being against the rules and making the offender an outlaw, gamer non grata. But I think we all know the size of the gap between what we’re capable of in a videogame world and what we’re willing to do in real life, so again you have the problem of your data failing to rise up to the evidentiary bar. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it thrown out of a National Security court, much less a legacy court, and what does that make you but a buffoon with his dick in his hands?
No – by making it real I mean something like the following. You bring in a troop of specially trained kids to stage a provocation. On second thought scratch “kids”. That’s not exactly the type of crew you can order off Craigslist. Midgets, on the other hand, are a different story. Right size, right age to avoid child endangerment and child labor issues, God forbid, plus they’d be professionals and know exactly how much force to apply. Of course you might run into a problem with their weird halfman voices, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that’s nothing a little agency money thrown at some laryngeal implants couldn’t solve. So here’s what you do: take the cohort of kids you want to test for a vengeful streak, and stage a raffle where you give them two cookies or cupcakes or whatever. Everyone else just gets one. Or it could be a gift certificate to an online store in a larger denomination than what the other kids get. Whatever it is, if you put something out there that the kids crave, you’ll see grievance start circulating like currency.
You tell the class, this is just the way it is today. Luck may shift tomorrow, but for now there’s to be no whining and absolutely no trying to part the luckier kids from their prizes. This will accomplish two things. First, the unlucky kids will grumble and make their grievance known to the luckier ones verbally. Second, it will cause the lucky kids to congregate, whether for protection or on account of the magnetic attraction put out by this new little micro-tribe I do not know. All I know is that it works, having run little playpen trials of this type for the past several years. Then what you do is you arrange some type of outdoor activity. You won’t need to tell the lucky ones to bring both their cupcakes or gift certificates or whatever with them. The greedy little bastards will tote them every time.
Let’s say you set up a game of capture the flag. You work it so that the lucky kids play on one side, facing off against a portion of the not so lucky ones, with the rest of the class sitting out as alternates or whatever. The teams assemble out of each other’s sight. Make sure Team Lucky starts on defense. When the starting whistle blows, you release your crew of masked midgets in place of Team Not-So-Lucky, making some plausible excuse about them visiting from a nearby pre-K affiliate. You buy the silence of the already sidelined kids plus the kids you pulled for the ringers with the promise of more goodies. Putting on a grim face usually means you won’t have to resort to making disciplinary threats, but they’re always sitting there in your arsenal if you need them. At which point your team of midget ringers is given the go-ahead. They let loose and just pummel the formerly lucky defenders of the flag. Of course, you’ve coached your midgets beforehand and coached them well. Meaning they’ll know to call the defenders by name, and know enough of hateful playpen goings-on to deal appropriately childish insults to their victims.
The result of the game is quick, final and devastating: the masked midgets not only capture and defend the flag, but knock down Team Lucky and steal all their loot to a kid. Now remember, this is just a beta phase thought experiment, rough edges and all. The specifics matter much less than the outcome. It’s conceivable that you could have Team Not-So-Lucky capture the loot themselves, as long as they were physically bigger that is, but then you end up with too many moving parts, too many interfaces – not to my taste as a Sentry. But here comes the interesting part.
When the final whistle blows you immediately whisk the defeated Luckys back into the schoolhouse, consoling them as necessary. Use this opportunity to make it abundantly clear that, according to the rules of the game, their opponents made off with the loot fair and square, and that vengeful acts will not be tolerated. Retribution, you say, will result in expulsion from Fun4Kidz or wherever, imperiling their future in the bargain. Nor, you go on, would telling their parents avail them anything, as taking the loot was never against the rules of the game or the Fun4Kidz Code of Conduct, so where’s their procedural leg to stand on? Making a bid to gain them back is what’s not allowed. Meanwhile you have a trustworthy TA, maybe a liaison from the agency, I don’t know, change the fortunes of Team Not-So-Lucky by turning around and distributing the loot to them. You tell them it’s theirs to keep, only for God’s sake keep quiet about the gameplay and the kids visiting from the other institution (just then being pulling away in a yellow bluebird) or all the goodies will have to go right back to the team that lost the game. This will accomplish the same jealous cohesion among them as we previously saw among Team Lucky.
All you have to do once they’re back drooling in the playpen is hang back and let events unfold. The cameras and microphones will basically do the rest for you. By all means, play referee if any squabbles break out, and do go ahead and call out any kids who would spoil your experiment with off-narrative testimonials as conspiracy theorists or some such.
The point is that teams Lucky and Not-So-Lucky should not be so cowed by your pedagogical demeanor that the natural unfolding of events is completely obstructed. Let them off the lead a little. Leave the room to grab a coffee, keeping one eye on your smartphone surveillance feed. See what happens. Now I say this without the benefit of empirical data, but I’m betting what will happen is that before the day is out, you’ll have a ringleader on your hands. A rabble-rouser. You just make sure the feeds focus in on him and any of his aides-de-camp, and for the rest tread lightly. Remember, everything said or done in the playpen could be precious evidence.
Towards the end of the day you might think to arrange some unstructured playtime outside, as long as you have an adequately surveilled playground. If anything is going to happen, now’s the time. Certainly there’s nothing to prevent Team Lucky from sticking to the rules and suppressing their grievance. Which by all means should earn them all secret merit badges on their permanent records if that’s the way it plays out. Much more likely though is that some of them will stage a counter-raid to recover their loot. These kids will have walked right into your trap. Of course, this being more than just a bit of playground fun, the closing of the trap will simultaneously set in motion the great mechanism by which the silent party sifts through the raw material of the future to separate useful parts from discards and premium feedstock from hazardous adulterants. At which point, to remove the impression that anything important or even fateful has gone down at your pre-K institution that day, you step in and take back all the goodies, telling the lot of them that they’re simply too immature to handle the shifting tides of fortune, good and ill alike.
One is made nothing if not wise by having to stand up from day to day to the foibles of childish minds. As an educator well-seasoned in the turbulent crucible of the playpen, yours truly plans to ride KinderGuard to glory. And I’ll know how to appreciate my good fortune.
I think I’ll read through the agency’s letter one more time here as I wind down for the evening. Sure, I may already know it by heart, but why not? I’d say I’ve earned some R&R in the course of getting my mind to where it needs to be as a KinderGuard Sentry. Good God, that is some paper stock. And how about the bold, no-nonsense typeface, the crisp watermarks, the crystalline composition…and the seal of the nation, blazing forth like some regal bird of prey, seeing everything, permitting nothing, remembering all, forgiving none!