By Jacob Yaple
The line wound around the outside of the high school building, teachers and students waiting for their turn. I shivered and eased my book-filled backpack from one shoulder to the other. I was freezing my balls off out here. I was wearing all-cotton sweat pants, Velcro-fastened sneakers, a sweater, and a nylon jacket with a plastic zipper. The backpack was made of tough nylon cloth, also with plastic zippers. I had no coins in my pockets, and no paper clips, staples or metal three-ring binders in my backpack. I wanted to make absolutely sure that I would not set off the detector.
The metal detector had been installed last weekend and today was its first day of operation. No matter that we were a peaceful rural high school with no history of violence or shootings; zero tolerance rules dictated that security must be tightened to the breaking point for everybody.
Waiting in line was even more boring and uncomfortable because we had to leave our phones at home. Principal Bitterman had banned all electronic devices as part of his War on Cyberbullying. Security guards and anonymous tipsters had forced actual, physical bullies underground. I kind of agreed with the phone ban—I could concentrate better in class now—but it was hell compulsively answering all the missed texts and posts at the end of the day.
At the front of the line, an alarm sounded. I was too short to see over the people in front of me, so I peered around them to see what the trouble was. I could just barely see a hint of purple hair at the entrance to the school. Karole Dodd. Her piercings must have set it off. I knew her; I ate lunch every day with her and my other friend Stu Mapleton. I liked her, but I had decided it was better to have a girl as a friend than to go out with her. I’d been rejected by so many other girls, it was a relief to just hang out and avoid all the pressure.
The line started moving again. I wondered how the guards had handled Karole’s piercings. Probably just noted it in a log and let her through anyway. She could be smuggling in a bazooka and they wouldn’t stop her. Sometimes I thought that so-called “security measures” only existed to appease public hysteria and did zilch to prevent violence.
The detector beeped again. This time it was old Miss Bates holding up the line. Standing straight and thin as an iron rod and topped off with matching iron gray hair, Miss Bates was very quick on the draw with her detention slips. If Principal Bitterman ever made good on his threat to arm the teachers, Miss Bates would probably use her gun as a disciplinary tool. You’d get one warning shot over your head and the next bullet would go in your ass.
Next up was Coach Matthews. Like a lot of aging athletes, his muscles were slowly turning to fat and he was going bald from an overdose of testosterone. He lived vicariously through his football team. He loved to scream, “Crush ‘em, team!” and, “Gut ‘em and hang ‘em out to dry!” from the sidelines of every game. His pep talks were legendary for their violent, gung-ho imagery.
Amazingly, even Coach Matthews set off the detector. You’d think the teachers would be prepared for this kind of thing. He patted all his pockets before finally handing over the metal whistle which was hanging on a lanyard around his neck. Even then, he still set the detector off. Finally the security guards waved him through anyway. I guess they were still adjusting the thing’s accuracy. That didn’t do anything for my peace of mind, though.
As I edged nearer and nearer to the main entrance and the detector, the worse I felt. My palms were sweaty, and I could feel my face getting red. My mind kept returning to the reasons we had installed a metal detector in the first place. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Shooters. I found myself going over the similarities between the massacres and my current situation. Often, shooters would chain shut all the doors in a building except one, and kill anybody coming out of that door. They called it a “slaughter chute,” as if the students and teachers were cattle. Now we were being driven through a single door again; the other entrances were locked so that you had to pass the detector to get in.
The student in front of me passed through the metal detector. It remained silent. With a sigh of relief, he headed into the school. I was next. I looked up at the detector. It looked like a stand-alone door frame with a red light on top. A security guard stood next to it. “Name?” he asked, a clipboard at the ready.
“Greg Stuckey,” I said. The metal detector suddenly looked like a guillotine to me. Irrationally, I wondered if a blade would slam down when I tried to go through it, cutting me in half.
“Come on through, kid,” the security guard said. “We don’t have all day.”
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves, and, with my mind full of violent imagery, stepped through the metal detector.
The detector shrieked. The red light flashed brightly. Jerkily I turned around.
“Go back and try it again, kid,” the guard said. “Remember to put any metal items on this tray.”
Standing in starting position in front of the detector again, I emptied my pockets of lint balls and searched my backpack for metal, any metal. There was nothing. I went through again and the alarm went off again. The security guard shrugged. “Go on in, kid,” he said. “You’re too shrimpy to make trouble, anyway.”
I couldn’t figure it out. Something had to have set off the metal detector. I had an idea what that something was, but I would have to wait until lunchtime to see whether my friends thought I was crazy.
“You’re crazy,” Stu Mapleton said, and took a big bite of his sandwich. Pieces of it dribbled down his double chin and onto his round belly. We were sitting at our usual table in the cafeteria, near the exit in case we had to run from a shooter.
“Who’s crazy?” asked Karole Dodd, arriving with a full tray.
“Greg here,” Stu said, waving at me with the remains of his sandwich. “Get this—he thinks the metal detector can also detect violent thoughts.” He took a gulp of soda. “That’s paranoid thinking, Greg. You don’t want the school shrink putting you on Prozac, do you?”
“I think it’s possible,” Karole protested. “It’s just like Mr. Zero Tolerance to try to brainwash everybody.”
“Mr. Zero Tolerance? You mean Principal Bitterman?” I said.
“Whatever. I just think it’s suspicious that he’s on a three-week vacation while all of this is going on.”
“He probably needed the break,” Stu pointed out. “The guy must have an ulcer the size of the Grand Canyon.”
“It doesn’t have to be deliberate,” I said. “Maybe this detector just happens to detect violent thoughts. Maybe it’s so finely tuned it’s receiving brainwave patterns.”
Stu snorted. “Ridiculous. There’s not a shred of scientific evidence for ESP. There’s no proof that brainwaves can travel any further than the inside of the human skull.”
“But maybe the detector reads body language or something, some kind of physical clue to emotions,” I said. “They have airport scanners that can see through clothing, don’t they?”
“All right, all right,” Stu said. “There are three possibilities here: either the detector is malfunctioning, or Greg had metal on him without his knowledge, or,”–Stu sighed heavily—“the detector can read violent thoughts. Here’s what I propose we do. For the next week, the three of us will make sure not to carry anything metal, and deliberately think violent thoughts when we go through the detector. If the detector doesn’t go off every single time, then I will be proved correct.” Stu folded his arms over his enormous gut. “It’s the only scientific thing to do.”
Karole laughed. “Why is everything a science project with you?” she said. “You forgot one thing, Genius. Me! I’ll set off the detector anyway because of all my rings!”
Stu and I looked at her. She had eyebrow rings, a nose ring, lip rings and probably a few rings we couldn’t see.
“No big deal,” she said. “I’ll just take out the rings. But if they stay out too long, the holes will heal up and I’ll have to redo all the piercings. Good thing I like pain.”
The bell rang and we stood up to leave. “Remember,” Stu said. “Tomorrow morning, we begin the experiment.”
The next morning, I was actually looking forward to going through the detector, but I had trouble coming up with violent thoughts. Yesterday had just been a reaction to stress, and now that I was actually trying to set off the detector, my mind was a blank. I decided to get inspiration from the many action movies I had seen. I remembered the part from The Matrix where Neo walks into the government building. The detector goes off and Neo reveals he’s carrying lots and lots of guns. I had no guns, only my thoughts. My mind is a deadly weapon, I thought, and stepped through the detector.
The detector’s alarm sounded. Slowly I turned to face the security guard. I couldn’t believe I had actually done it.
This time the security guard personally searched my backpack. He unzipped it all the way and dumped the contents on his pass-through tray. With a grunt of disgust, he picked out a single paper clip from the pile of books.
“It shouldn’t be able to detect such a small amount of metal,” he said. “Oh well, go through again.”
I stared in horror at the paper clip. This meant I had to think more violent thoughts to prove that they, and not the paper clip, were setting off the detector. How could I have let that paper clip get into my backpack? I was so mad at myself that I had a brief fantasy of suicide, which was enough to set off the detector the second time.
To avoid a strip search, I patted my pockets, said “Aha!” and pretended to put something on the pass-through tray. I had already used up my violent thoughts for the day, so it was easy to clear my mind and pass through the third time.
At lunch we met to discuss our findings. Karole looked different and somehow naked without her rings, but she looked happier than I’d ever seen her.
“I must’ve made that thing go off five times,” she said. “It was like winning the jackpot on a slot machine. The guard got really pissed at me, but that just made it even better.”
“Be careful, Karole,” Stu said. “We don’t want them to get suspicious. It wouldn’t take much for them to decide to suspend one of us. So let me remind everybody,” he said, fixing Karole and me with a serious stare, “this experiment is top secret. Nobody knows about this but us.”
I told him about the paper clip misadventure. Stu looked thoughtful. “Okay, here’s the procedure we’ll follow from now on,” Stu said. “We’ll let the guard search us thoroughly before we go through the first time, so we can be sure we’re metal-free. Then, if the detector goes off, we can set the guard’s mind at ease by doing what Greg did and pretending to get rid of a stray piece of metal. We can clear our minds of violent thoughts the second time through the detector so we don’t arouse suspicion.”
“Okay,” Karole said. “What about you, Stu? Were you able to make the detector beep?”
“Are you kidding? I can barely fit through the thing. Of course I got angry and fantasized about beating it to bits with a baseball bat. But I still think it was a malfunction that set it off. I’ll keep thinking violent thoughts to prove Greg wrong, and eventually the results will even out in my favor. We can’t keep getting three cherries in a row every single time. The odds are against it.”
Against the odds, we kept setting off the detector for the rest of the week, apparently using only our minds. We followed Stu’s “procedure” to the letter, and nobody appeared to suspect a thing. It helped that there was a different security guard on duty at the detector every day. Security guards patrolled the halls constantly, and were posted at every large gathering area, such as the cafeteria, the gym, the library and the “exercise yard.” The guards were on rotation through the various security posts, and no one guard stayed in the same place from day to day.
At first I was afraid that thinking violent thoughts every morning would warp my mind somehow and turn me into a homicidal maniac. It turned out to be just the opposite. Coming up with a burst of violent thoughts, then clearing my mind of them, drained my mind of violence for the rest of the day.
At the end of the week, I smugly waited for Stu to admit that my theory was correct.
“Uh…the results are inconclusive,” he muttered, wiping his brow with a shaky hand. “This is only the first week of operation for the detector. They’re probably still fine-tuning it. This is just a…statistical anomaly. Yeah, that’s it.”
“You said that if the detector didn’t go off every single time, you would be proved correct. Well, it’s gone off every single time,” I said. “Doesn’t that prove you wrong?”
Karole interrupted. “Enough, you guys. I think you’re both missing the point here. Our experiment seems to prove that the detector detects violent thoughts. But why does it do that? That’s the question we should be asking ourselves.”
I frowned. “I still think it happened naturally. Some kind of glitch in the wiring.”
“Well, I still think it’s Bitterman trying to mess with our heads,” Karole said.
“What could he hope to gain from that?” I asked. “There aren’t any laws against violent thoughts. He can’t suspend us for that.”
This time Stu was the one who interrupted. “Enough, you two. The experiment is over. We can go back to not setting off the detector. Then, even if Bitterman is plotting to outlaw violent thoughts, we won’t get in trouble.”
Karole looked determined. “Well, I don’t care if I do get in trouble. This has been the most fun I’ve ever had in my life, and I don’t want it to end. I’m going to continue using my mind to set off the detector.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Okay,” Stu said, shaking his head. “I’m in too. Just don’t blame me if the thought police bust us.”
At the time I thought that the game we were playing was harmless fun, that a mind-reading metal detector was a big toy. But I was about to discover that the detector was fundamentally changing the people who walked through it.
I first noticed the change in Miss Bates’ math class. She was droning on as usual, and I slipped into daydream mode. I had never dared to do this during one of her classes before, but these days I felt more comfortable in her presence somehow. I started doodling on some papers on my desk. I drew a naked woman. I concentrated on getting the face to look like Karole Dodd. I was sitting at the back of the room and barely noticed when someone passed me a sheet of paper. I just kept doodling. I didn’t notice that the classroom had grown eerily quiet.
It was almost the end of the class time when I heard Miss Bates say, “Please pass your test papers forward, Class.”
Then I realized: the class had been taking a test! I shuffled through the papers on my desk and found the test paper. None of the answers had been filled in, and now I had no time to complete—or even start—the test. I consoled myself that Miss Bates couldn’t punish me for not doing a test; she’d just give me an F on it. I was far enough ahead in her class that I could stand the occasional F.
I remembered to print my name at the top of the test sheet before I handed it forward. Miss Bates always insisted that her students put their names on their work. It really irritated her to have to track down anonymous authors.
Miss Bates paused to skim the test papers at her desk. I gathered up my doodles and stuffed them in my backpack. I paused to look at one doodle, appreciating the way I had captured Karole Dodd’s face. I had done it all from memory, so I had drawn it over and over until it came out right. But this was not the finished drawing. Then I remembered I had drawn it on the back of the test paper when it was passed to me.
Soon Miss Bates would see the pornographic drawing with my name on it. I hoped she wouldn’t recognize Karole Dodd’s face; I was in enough trouble as it was. I would be lucky to only draw detention. In the current zero tolerance climate, this was a suspending offence. Miss Bates had a sadistic streak, too. She wouldn’t hesitate to show the drawing to the entire class.
The bell rang. The students filed out in an orderly fashion, which in itself was strange. Miss Bates caught me just as I was about to escape into the hallway.
“Excuse me, Mr. Stuckey,” she said politely. “I believe this is yours?” She held up the test paper. “Apparently I didn’t give you enough time to complete your test.”
“I’ll stay after school to retake the test,” I offered.
“Nonsense!” she said. “I made the mistake of not allowing you enough time, so I’ll fix it.” She wrote a big A++ at the top of my test sheet and handed it to me. “I enjoyed the drawing on the other side,” she said, smiling. “I’ve always liked nude figure drawing. I should start allowing my students to draw whenever they want.”
I stumbled into the hall, feeling deeply confused. Poor Miss Bates had been brainwashed into being as meek as a student teacher, or even a substitute. And I was pretty sure what had done the brainwashing.
“Stu? Karole? Have either of you noticed any changes in people’s behavior lately?” I asked.
“Nothing major,” Stu said. “Just a feeling of gradually increasing…wimpiness, I guess you’d call it.”
“I’ve noticed it too,” Karole said. “The teachers are nicer and give good grades for practically nothing. The students are more disciplined, too. There haven’t been any detentions or suspensions lately, because the teachers are too mellow to punish anyone and the students aren’t acting up in the first place. Everything’s all peace and love and harmony. It makes me want to throw up.”
“And approximately when did this start happening?” I asked.
Stu groaned. “You mean since the detector? You want to blame this on the detector? What tortured line of reasoning have you come up with this time, Greg?”
“Well, it’s very embarrassing to set off the detector. Subconsciously, everybody tries everything they can to avoid it. Eventually they start suppressing their violent thoughts because it keeps the detector quiet. They don’t consciously know the detector reads their minds, they just know they aren’t setting it off anymore.”
“Aha!” Karole said. “And you said Bitterman didn’t have anything to gain from outlawing violent thought! Now he’s got a school full of wimps who will obey his every command.”
Just then a shadow fell over the table. Stu and Karole stared up at something directly behind me.
I turned around. A burly security guard stood there. “Are you Greg Stuckey?” he asked. “I’m supposed to take you and Stuart Mapleton and Karoline Dodd to Principal Bitterman’s office.” We had no choice but to go with him.
When we got to the principal’s office, the guard left us alone in the waiting room. Usually the room would have been crowded with students who had broken one of the umpteen zero tolerance rules, but for over two weeks it had been empty.
Bitterman’s outraged voice came from behind his office door. “Your team has lost every game they’ve played since I’ve been gone!” he yelled. “That reflects badly on this school and on me! Where’s your famous ‘kill, team, kill’ attitude, Matthews?”
I could barely recognize Coach Matthews’ voice. “I just thought it didn’t matter whether we won or lost, as long as we had fun playing,” he said meekly.
Bitterman’s voice rose to a crescendo. “Well it won’t matter for you now anyway, because you’re FIRED!”
The office door banged open. Coach Matthews hurried out, tears streaming down his face.
Stu, Karole and I slowly filed into the office.
“How was your vacation, Principal Bitterman?” Karole said.
“Lousy.” The principal looked like a weasel with a five-o’clock shadow. “I’ve been looking at the security logs for the metal detector. For the first week everybody was setting it off—that’s to be expected. But by the end of the second week, only three people were setting it off. You three.” He stared at us with bulging eyes under bushy brows. “That says to me that you’re smuggling in weapons of some kind. Do you have a better explanation?”
We tried to explain the situation, but I could tell we weren’t getting through to him.
“You expect me to believe the metal detector can detect violent thoughts?”Bitterman sneered. “If you had been straight with me, you might have had a chance. But if you’re going to lie, I’m going to get tough. I’m suspending all three of you for three weeks, effective immediately. I’ll personally escort you off school property.”
He herded us into the hallway and the four of us walked down to the main entrance. I was the first person through the detector. My mind was so occupied by thoughts of strangling Bitterman that I barely noticed the alarm.
“Are you trying to steal something, Stuckey?” Bitterman said. “Empty your pockets.”
I emptied my pockets and my backpack, revealing nothing metallic. “All right, guys,” I said to Stu and Karole, making sure Principal Bitterman heard me. “Clear your minds of violent thoughts.”
One by one, Stu, Karole and I stepped through the metal detector. It stayed silent. We looked back at Bitterman, who had remained inside.
“We’re still on school property,” I called to Bitterman. “Aren’t you going to escort us off like you said? Of course, we could just stay here all day.”
“Insolent little monsters,” Bitterman said, starting through the metal detector. “I’ll—“
The detector brayed loud and long. Bitterman turned to the guard who was manning the detector. “The damn thing is haywire. Get rid of it,” Bitterman said.
Principal Bitterman escorted us to the edge of the parking lot and the limit of school property. “I don’t care if the detector is broken after all,” he said. “You kids are still delusional, and you’re still getting three weeks’ suspension.”
“And you’re still going to be hearing from our parents,” Stu said.
Bitterman snarled, as if having a supportive family was a violation of the zero tolerance rules. Then he turned away and started walking back to the school.
“So—what do we do now?” Stu wondered.
“I know,” I said. “Karole, would you like to go out with me on Saturday?”
“Of course, Greg,” she smiled. “Take me somewhere where I can show off my rings.”
I smiled at her. It was going to be a very interesting three weeks.