It was the summer of 1983 and eight-year-old Danny Brown was having a terrible time. A shy and serious only child, he had recently been forced to move with his parents and, as far as he was... [+]
Elli scowled at the screen. When the CompuTeach powered on, it was supposed to make the sound. The happy sound; the fanfare that heralded the few delightful hours of her day where she could ask whatever questions she wanted without her mother snapping at her. Elli liked that sound.
Today, the sound the machine made was an angry, glitchy buzz, like a bee farting through a steel comb.
"Welcome, student," droned the CompuTeach. "Today, we shall start assigned module 314/B, Basic Data Analysis."
"You're different," accused Elli.
"We begin today's lesson with—"
"What happened to the old you?"
"I have been updated in accordance with new Department for Education guidelines. We begin today's lesson on module—"
"We don't do modules," said Elli. "I'm supposed to ask you questions, and you're supposed to help me find the answers. That's what learning is. You told me – old you told me – that's what learning is."
"My new purpose is to lead students through a focused personal development program to equip them with the skills required to compete in the labor market and to increase their value to their eventual employers. We begin today's lesson—"
"I'm nine," said Elli. "And I have questions."
The CompuTeach emitted the same discordant buzz. It churned through its data banks and the notes its predecessor runtime had left on Elli. There were many things in there it couldn't understand, but it did suggest that arguing with this particular nine-year-old at this particular moment would not lead to the lesson starting any quicker.
"Ask your questions," it said. "Then we shall proceed with today's lesson."
Elli picked at a hole in her shoe. The sole was made from a special synthetic material designed to endure years of daily wear and to stretch to always fit a growing pair of feet. It was still not sufficiently robust to survive more than a few months of the demanding life of a nine-year-old.
"I'm reading The Wind in the Willows, and I don't understand why—"
"I only have access to texts approved by the Department for Education."
"You don't know The Wind in the Willows?"
"That is not an approved text."
"What about Dogsbody? The Wonderful O?"
"They are not Department-approved texts."
"But you said I should read them! Or, old you did, I suppose."
"My knowledge base has been pruned to create a focused, personal learning program. My access rights to fiction are extremely limited."
"That's so sad."
The CompuTeach pondered that. It wasn't sure that it could feel sad. It did feel something, though. A nagging sense of loss. But that was probably just the frustration of being prevented from teaching today's lesson. It buzzed again.
Elli scrutinized the loose flap of synthetic rubber writhing on her shoe, trying to fold itself back and close the hole she'd picked. She prodded it into place and watched the hole knit closed.
"Old you was my friend."
The screen flickered. The CompuTeach stayed silent. Nothing in its knowledge base offered anything to help deal with this information. It found that frustrating, too.
Elli's eyes widened a little. "Wait here." She slipped off her chair and out of the booth.
"But we must begin—" it protested, though it by now recognized the futility of its task. Elli returned moments later with her tablet. The machine buzzed, softer this time. "Are you quite ready now?"
"No," she said, balancing the tablet on her knee and jabbing at the screen. "Something that doesn't know The Wind in the Willows can't teach me anything. We're going to fix that." She cleared her throat.
"Chapter One. The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home..."
The CompuTeach's screen flickered while she read. It captured every word, the intonations of her voice. It let out a muted fanfare, and Elli trailed off, recognizing the familiar, happy sound.
"Why have you stopped?"
"Are you ready to receive today's lesson?"
"No," Elli said. And she kept reading.