“In Chapter Two, we learned how Dr. Radisson and his team of physicians were able to diagnose Klara with Huntington’s disease,” Ms. Preston stood at the front of the class room, her tiny stature made miniature by the black board that loomed monolithically behind her. Her clothes were the Government’s grey 50% wool pants with a black button-up shirt with a high collar, and her hair was just a tad longer than the Government standard for single female teachers (in violation of Chapter 12, Section HP.sft). Of course, I didn’t know that then. I just knew that she was slightly different than the other teachers I saw through my education.
“In Chapter 3, we learned how this disease affected Klara’s life and her capacity to make decisions. What do we learn from Klara’s mistakes?” The question hung in the air like a cloud of mustard gas. We students looked at each other uncomfortably. Someone would have to answer the question, and if the answer was wrong, it would mean all of us would be writing an essay about it. I don’t remember what I wanted to say, but it wasn’t the answer that Claudia Sheffield gave.
Her ghostly white hand sprang into the air. She stood with a solemn expression that drew all of her soft features downwards. “Her mistake was letting something transitional effect decisions that would affect others permanently.” When she finished speaking, she took a long breath and winced slightly, waiting.
“Very astute Claudia,” said Ms. Preston after a dramatic pause. Claudia’s spirits lifted to Heaven and her mouth curved into a smile. She was free from the essay that was sure to come. Ms. Preston, beaten, but not defeated, soldiered on.
“When Klara allowed a thief to steal from the factory, the author compels us to think that she had a moral obligation. What did the author insist, and why is he wrong?” Ms. Preston scanned the class like a machine gunner looking for a target. “Winston.”
I remember feeling my intestines turn into a puddle; my bowels wanted to release themselves as Ms. Preston’s brown eyes bored into mine. I searched my memory, clawing desperately at my recollections of Klara’s Conundrums. Ms. Preston was intense. She was a Goddess of Wisdom demanding a tithe of the knowledge I had gained. I read the book, and have read it twice since my youth, but I just didn’t know what to say. Winston Cunningham, seizing the opportunity to save the day, answered the question in my place.
The door to the class room opened with a bang. Two police-persons entered, followed by a Government Official. The police-persons were dressed in their fine uniforms that were usually reserved for special occasions. Their side arms glistened in holsters slung across their double-breasted, black great coats. The Government Official was in the customary black and red suit (in accordance with Chapter 12, Sections UP.ppmf and UP.gom, respectively).
All the students placed their hands, palms down and fingers spread on their desktops. Never would you see children come so swiftly to attention! Ms. Preston stood quietly by, her hands fussing nervously with her illegal hair cut. The Government Official gave her a swift nod, and then placed his briefcase on Ms. Preston’s desk, popping it open.
“Children,” he said in a warm, practiced tone, “today is an important day in your lives. You should endeavor to keep it in your memories until the end of your days. Today, the Government has decreed that you will all select new names in accordance with the newest article in the Book of Law. It appears in Chapter 5, Sections N.m and N.f. In order to provide the Citizenry with a sense of shared identity, one not constrained by preconceived notions of gender or class, all names, starting with your generation, will now and hitherto be changed to those which no longer have said notions of gender.”
My classmates looked at each other, a mixture of fear and excitement on their faces. We never imagined that we’d be empowered in such a manner. To be able to pick your own name, even if it was just from a list, was an honor that I never thought I would have.
“Also, surnames will be changed in order to reflect your own achievements, as opposed to those of your forbearers. As such, as children, your surnames will be revoked. You will be assigned a new surname upon the completion of your education and entry into the working force.” The Government Official took a thick stack of papers from his briefcase and began to hand bunches of them to the head of each row of students in the classroom.
“This is Temporary Document 18972-NC. All Citizens between the ages of 10 and 18 must fill out this form. The form contains a list of viable names. Your old name and identification number must be entered in Box 1 and 2. Boxes 3 through 10 should reflect your address. Box 11 will reflect your new name,” instructed the Government Official mechanically. “Refusal to fill out Temporary Document 18972-NC will result in Termination of Citizenship.”
Quietly, we set about filling out the forms in front of us. Carefully, I filled in circles and checked boxes. Does your father work for the Government? Does your Mother work for the Government? Has either your mother or father spoken against the Government? Do you or others in your home use Termek Brand products? The process took well over an hour. The Government Official tolerantly answered our questions, even if the questions were ignorant or unwieldy.
“Why does the Government want to know if my bed sheets have Carlos Crab on them?” asked Winston Cunningham. I smirked. He might have known the answer to Ms. Preston’s question, but I knew the answer to his question: the Government has a right to our information. They offer protection, and in return, we offer obedience, like a child to its parents.
I didn’t know then that one of the animators of Carlos Crab was related to the Enemy. He had immigrated here legally, but had since been aiding the remainder of his family’s efforts to immigrate illegally. As a result, he was arrested and his Citizenship was Terminated. Owning Carlos Crab merchandise was a Factor 5 offense. Winston Cunningham received a Class 2 citation for inappropriate conduct and was given three days of detention.
When we were all done, the Government Official collected our forms and helped Ms. Preston fill out a new seating chart. When he left, the police-persons following him closely, Ms. Preston tried to carry on as though nothing had happened, but there was too much excitement; the class was buzzing. We all wanted to know what each other’s new names were. Soon enough, Ms. Preston caved into the pressure of our pleads and made a game of it.
Winston Cunningham was now Chance.
Claudia Sheffield was now Ume.
I took the name Winnie.
When I walked home, I walked purposefully and proudly. Ms. Preston told us that we were the first of a new generation. I was a member of Generation 1; we were the foundation for a better future. Suddenly, the world seemed like it was ours. With the stroke of a number 2 pencil, we were galvanized as an emergent culture.
When I got home, my flight of fancy crashed like a jet out of fuel. My father sat at the kitchen table with his metal lunch box opened. Unbeknownst to me, he had been fired from his job as a foreman in the steel mill. His apple sat, gleaming, on the table. His sandwich was half-eaten, and his thermos still released warm vapor into the air. My mother busily studded a ham with cloves, preparing it for a slow cooking process.
“I have a new name!” I announced proudly. My father didn’t respond. He simply chewed his sandwich.
“Is that so?” asked my mother, washing her hands with unscented soap.
“Yes. A man from the Government came. He gave us papers and everything. Ms. Preston says this is the dawn of a new era.” My excitement wasn’t contagious. I was crushed by my parents‘ indifference.
“You probably chose something brave sounding,” said my father. “Maybe Rutledge or Carpenter.” His disdain was palpable. When he looked at me, his face was expressionless, loveless.
“No.” I said, slinging my satchel onto the kitchen table. I wondered if that was what I should have done.
“Then what do we call you?” asked my father, jabbing his knife into his red apple, its juices spilling down his hand.
“You can still call me Winston if you want,” I said diplomatically.
“Can I now?” my father responded condescendingly. “But that wouldn’t be right, would it? Not lawful. A man must set an example. What is your name?”
“Winnie,” I said. It sounded foppish when I said it. The name seemed to lie on the table like a dead fish. “I picked it because it is like my name. You always said how important my name was.”
My father was quiet, respectful. My mother was busy.
“Do you like it? I can try another name,” I offered.
“No. You’ve picked what you’ve picked. Your name is yours now, Winnie.” When my father said it, he seemed to smile slightly. I started to feel foolish. I could feel the blood coloring my face.
“I can change it if you want,” I offered.
“A man can’t stop the times. He’ll be crushed if he tries.” was his response.
That night, I sat in bed and recalled the events of the day. I carved them into my memory with all the skill of a sculptor. This was the day that I started to become who I would be. This was the beginning of my liberation from my identity as Winston S. Johnson IX and began building the man I am today.