The Dangers of Higher Education
My mother isn’t normally the kind of parent who comes to school and has me yanked out of class because she needs to see me.
Never mind that the class I was pulled from was trigonometry, which is monumentally mind-numbing and—as far as I can tell—entirely useless to anyone except trigonometry teachers. It is rumored that, on a warm spring day three years ago, our trig teacher, Mr. Petersen, actually fell asleep during one of his own lectures. The speculation is that he has not awakened since, but is still droning on from memory, in a sleepwalking state.
I have never seen anything in Mr. Petersen’s demeanor to make me doubt that rumor.
Generally speaking, I’d be eager for any excuse to get away from sine and cosine and whatever that third function is whose name I can never remember. But I felt a prickle of anxiety. Despite my mother’s inability to come up with even one single real-life situation where knowing the difference between opposite and adjacent, much less a hypotenuse would be a benefit to me, she does strongly believe in the theory of education. So I couldn’t make sense of the note the messenger from the office interrupted the class to hand to me:
Go down to Mrs. Overstreet’s office right away.
Your mother is here.
My brain instantly zipped to the West Coast, where Dad was attending a sales conference at a hotel I was suddenly convinced was the obvious target for arsonists, kidnappers, earthquakes, flash floods, outbreaks of Lyme disease, and/or killer bees.
My outlook wasn’t improved by walking into Mrs. Overstreet’s office. Mrs. Overstreet was wearing that Ismell-something-bad-and-I-suspect-it’s-coming-from-you expression that must be taught in one of the required courses at principal college—a course that clearly would be more useful than trig.
But my mother had on sweatpants and a Milky Way Galaxy T-shirt she’d gotten when she’d chaperoned my Brownie troop’s overnight at the Strasenberg Planetarium seven years ago. This is strictly at-home wear for her. Even for going to the grocery store, Mom’s shoes need to match her purse. On this particular occasion, her shoes didn’t match each other.
My prickly-all-over worry exploded into panic. "What’s wrong? What’s happened?" I asked. "Is Dad all right?"
My questions seemed to send my mother into a worse spiral than she was already in. "Dad?" she echoed. She glanced around the office, looking simultaneously dazed and frantic, as though not sure whether to level accusations at Mrs. Overstreet or the two strangers in the room—a man and a woman. She settled on the strangers and said in a squeaky voice, "You didn’t tell me something happened to my husband!"
The man had a trim little beard, and—excuse me, but if you were a casting director looking for someone to play the role of a debonair devil, you’d be giving this guy your card and asking him to come in for an audition. By contrast, the woman might well have been studying for that principal’s course on intimidation through facial expression, but she was the one who spoke: "Mrs. Pizzelli, we don’t even know where your husband is."
Mom’s voice went even higher. " Tyler is missing?"
My feelings were bouncing all over the place because I didn’t know if Mom was overreacting—which has been known to happen—or if she actually had a reason to suspect the worst.
Mrs. Overstreet went with option number one. "Mrs. Pizzelli, I’m sure your husband is fine." She didn’t give my mother a chance to say more than "But—" before she continued, "When I go to conferences, the presenters always ask everyone to turn off their cell phones. I’m sure once they break for lunch, your husband will check his messages and return your call."
The other woman was nodding as though those were her thoughts exactly. "Please," she said, "now that your younger daughter is here, let’s talk about Emily."
Before I could ask "What’s wrong with Emily?" the woman had stood up and offered me her hand to shake. She was very business-chic and sophisticated. "Hello, Grace. I’m pleased to meet you. Though not under these circumstances, of course."
The man, still sitting, smoothly interjected: "By which we do not mean to imply that Rasmussem Corporation or any of its employees is in any way responsible for those circumstances."
Ah, I thought, putting together that suave but slightly sinister look with his precise wording. Lawyer.
I finally noticed that they both had Rasmussem Corporation nametags, as well as school visitor badges.
The woman continued, "My name is Jenna Bennett, and I’m the chief technical engineer at the Lake Avenue Rasmussem facility. This is Alexander Kroll, from our legal department."
Mr. Kroll showed some of his teeth and added, "By which we do not mean to imply that this is a matter requiring adjudication."
Apparently, my principal didn’t like lawyers. She leveled an I-am-picturing-doing-you-bodily-harm expression at him and said to my mother, "Yeah, yeah, so it’s much too early to talk about suing the pants off them, but that’s always a possibility."
Kroll’s expression didn’t change: proof, if anyone had needed it, about the sincerity of his smile.
Suing didn’t sound good. People sue when something goes terribly wrong, and what did all this have to do with Emily—or me?
Ms. Really-an-Engineer-Despite-the-Fact-That-She-Looked-Like-a-Principal-in-Training Bennett put on a pained expression.
But, fashionable and pretty as she was, she didn’t know pained. My mother’s eyes were red-rimmed and scared—that was pain. She took my hand and worked it like when you’re trying to soften up putty.
What a terrible person I am, I realized. Something awful has happened to Emily, and here I am mentally moaning about a few squished fingers.
Mom said to me, "Emily’s playing a game at the arcade."
"Okay . . ." I said, knowing there had to be more. Emily is a student at RIT—Rochester Institute of Technology.
She’s studying technical engineering and is in a work co-op program at Rasmussem, which, long story short, means she’s slave labor for them this semester, though I’m guessing Mr. Lawyer Kroll would try to qualify that statement. Rasmussem is the company that developed total immersion, the next step beyond virtual reality. When you play their games sensations are fed directly into your brain: you can feel the warmth of the sun if it’s daytime in the world you’re playing, just as you can feel cold and soaked to the bone if it’s raining; you can taste the food and smell the flowers; and if you’re riding a horse, after a while your butt goes to sleep. The difference between playing a Rasmussem game and a regular old virtual reality game is like the difference between an IMAX movie and films before color and sound were invented.
I thought: Of course Emily is playing games at the arcade. No doubt most—if not all—of the people who work at Rasmussem are there because they love games. Well, maybe excepting the lawyers. But if the company wasn’t going to pay their interns salaries, they couldn’t be surprised at an unauthorized game or two. I assumed Emily was playing while she was supposed to be working, which apparently I didn’t take as seriously as the legal department did. Was she getting fired? Was she getting expelled?
But surely that wasn’t enough to account for Mom̵...