'Proper Care and Feeding’
by Troy Blackford
“Michael, do you mind sharing whatever is so effectively distracting you with the rest of the class?”
Michael looked up absently. “No, Miss Piddle. I don’t mind. I just don’t know if it’s worth stopping the class for.”
Piddle grimaced. She would have preferred a more contrite response to her rhetorical question. Being rude to the students was one of the few pleasures afforded to her by her job as a sixth-grade social studies teacher, and even that was no fun if the kids made you look stupid.
Michael held up a small, egg-shaped object. “This is all. Sorry.” He sounded confused as to why Piddle had bothered interrupting her lesson over a tiny plastic toy.
“Aren’t we a little old for show and tell?” said Taylor - one of the 'repeat offender' problem students – from the back of the class. The students snickered. Piddle’s perpetual scowl deepened, the lines digging further into her forehead. She was only twenty-six, but at the rate she was scowling, she was well on her way to looking forty.
“That’ll be quite enough from you,” she snuffed.
“So I can go?” Taylor said, grinning broadly. “Nice. I was getting sick of this stupid class any—”
“I said ENOUGH!” Piddle said, with more force than any of the students had heard from her before. Mr. Tautle, the Vietnam-vet science teacher, frequently yelled at the students in a red-faced, full-on howl, but he was regarded – by both students and the administration - as a special case.
A few deep breaths later, Piddle turned her attention back to Michael. “Again: what exactly is that thing?”
Michael shrugged. “It’s called a Tamagotchi,” he said, folding his hands on his desk.
Piddle blinked severally at him, like some giant bug regarding its prey. After a few seconds of waiting for further elucidation, she erupted. “That explains precisely nothing.”
“Sort of like you teaching without looking at your textbook,” Taylor muttered. More sniggering.
“Silence!” Piddle said again. Lowering her voice, she continued. “And what exactly does a Tom-Oh-Gotch-Ye do?” She spoke the word the way she imagined it to be spelled. She pictured some kind of electronic game of tag.
“It poops,” said Taylor, from the back.
“Go to the office now!” Piddle bellowed, slamming her teacher’s edition of the gun-metal grey social studies book down on her rickety steel podium.
“Fine. I’ll probably learn more there,” Taylor said, grabbing his books and swinging out of his seat with practiced motion. Piddle glowered after him as the pneumatic door wheezed shut.
“Vile child,” she said in a plainly audible tone she thought was under her breath.
“Actually, Ms. Piddle, he’s right. It does poop, in a way. It’s a virtual pet.”
“A virtual... pet?” Piddle frowned at the novelty of this idea. She was the kind of person whose reaction to any novel idea was to frown. In 1997, the word ‘virtual’ was usually followed by ‘reality,’ and most often used in the context of a ‘glorious, futuristic thing that would one day be possible.’ The idea that students were sitting around in her class with ‘virtual’ anything seemed like something out of a sci-fi movie to her.
Janine, in row three, spoke up. “It’s so much fun! When you take good care of them and play with them a lot, they get bigger. It’s cute!”
Rebecca joined in. “Mine died. I didn’t know you had to turn their lamp off when they were sleeping. I started again, but I keep accidentally winning all the games and that makes it not happy. They get sick when they’re sad.”
“You know there’s a trick?” Phillip said, leaning forward. “It’s about the timing. If you time it right, you can let them win like almost every time.”
“Oh, cool!” Rebecca said. Several of the other students looked suitably impressed.
“I’m going to try that!” Redrick said, his face glowing.
Piddle looked from one happy face to another, at a complete loss. She hadn’t been able to follow the conversation at all, but beyond that, the sudden camaraderie her students were displaying made her feel decidedly left out. She had never been able to elicit such responses from the kids, but apparently some plastic egg with a weird name had been able to do so with ease.
“Are you saying that you all have one of these egg things?”
“Tamagotchis,” corrected Phyllis.
“I don’t have one,” Stanley said. “My parents wouldn’t let me get one.”
“Mine either,” Marina said, sounding forlorn.
Most of the other students, however, seemed not only to have one, but to have one on them. Piddle watched in near-horror as the more outgoing students held their plastic eggs up with pride.
“Why do you need them in class?” Piddle was past any sense of composure. This new fad had flooded with an emotion she had never been able to evoke in her students: genuine curiosity.
“Because if you don’t clean up after them and feed them, they get sick and die.”
Piddle gasped. “You mean your toy dies if you don’t take care of it? That’s... that seems sick.”
“It’s not sick, Ms. Piddle!” Rebecca said, her voice bright. “It’s nice. It’s like a puppy or a kitty or something. You take care of it, and it needs you.”
“Yeah,” Phyllis said. “It’s sweet. It calls out for you when it needs something, and you can play with it, and-”
“Alright, kids. I’ve heard enough.” Piddle’s curiosity was satiated. She was back in grouchy-teacher mode. “All of you who have one of these Dommo-Icky things-”
“Tama-GOTCHI!” came a chorus of dissatisfied voices.
“Whatever,” Piddle said, exasperated. “All of you who have one of those things can just give them up. They’re going into the jar. You’ll get them back at the end of the week.”
The famed ‘jar’ was really an old Folgers coffee can that Piddle filled with contraband she confiscated from the students. Anything the kids decided they could play with in class went into the jar. Usually, they would get it back at the end of the week. Sometimes, they wouldn’t. Taylor, in particular, had lost a great deal of his personal things that way – including one Bic lighter.
“No! You can’t!” protested a staggered gaggle of voices. “They’ll die!”
This surprisingly united argument enraged Piddle. “A plastic egg can not die. It’s absurd marketing from an assuredly foreign company that preys on children’s extreme ability to form unhealthy attachments, and I won’t let it disrupt our class any further.”
“But, it doesn’t disrupt the class! It just takes a few buttons to clean up after them and give them snacks,” an unusually vocal Redrick declared. “It doesn’t like distract you from listening or whatever. It’s just like a...” He was searching for the phrase ‘mechanical action,’ but he didn’t have the words.
“I don’t care what you think it is, it’s a distraction and I won’t have it.”
“But they’ll all get mixed together in the jar!” Michael pointed out.
“You can write your names on a piece of masking tape and stick it to the backs,” said an increasingly irritated Piddle. The idea that she might be devaluing a future collectable item by forcing them to put tape all over it was far from her mind. She just wanted to be done with all of this.
The kids, however, were aghast.
“You’ll kill them!” Rebecca said, in a voice no less outraged than the one she would use if Piddle suggested they murder actual puppies.
“You can’t kill them!” Piddle screamed in a low, grunting voice. “You understand me? You CAN’T KILL THEM. THEY’RE. FREAKING. TOYS!”
She stood there, catching her breath. The class sat, shocked, their revulsion at the idea of losing their electronic wards temporarily forgotten. Emily Piddle’s vehemence had caught even herself off-guard; she stood there, shoulders heaving as she breathed.
The students watched as a look flashed over Piddle’s face. Her eyes went cold. She grabbed the coffee can. “Put them on your desks.”
The students, their eyes still dull and glassy with shock, did as they were told. The room was filled with dozens of clicking sounds as the multi-colored, plastic shells were placed upon the stony desktops. Piddle walked up and down the aisles between desks with a resonant clomp clomp-ing of her high-heeled shoes, taking the toys and tossing them into the can with a series of metallic thunks.
Michael mustered up the courage to say what they were all thinking. “How will we be able to tell them--”
“They’re all the same, Mr. Gentry,” she responded crisply, the underlying malice only slightly concealed by her artificially subdued tone. Held-back emotions circled in that voice like a tiger trapped in a cage, barely contained. “They are just plastic toys and they are all the same. Just remember what color you had if it’s so important to you.”
Nobody else dared to speak. They wanted to point out how desperately unfair that was, but they were too afraid of The Voice, what might lie in the dark woods beyond it. Nobody was willing to go any further down that path.
She took the last of the toys and slung the can into the bottom drawer of her desk. “So, as I was saying,” she began, fixing the class with her stare before she realized she needed to look down to see what she was talking about. She began to clumsily recite what it said in the book on her desk, reading the same words written in the student’s textbooks.
“Once the Revolutionary War was over, America established a new national government with the Articles of Confederation.” She spoke in a tone that made it sound as though she were no more conversant with the Articles of Confederation than the students who were hearing of them for the first time.
The clock wore onwards, the students sighed, and – inside the mass grave of the can – their beloved virtual pets gradually sickened, and died.
Piddle frowned deeply at the dwindling pile of reports as she graded into the early evening. Three fifteen might be the time the students got to leave, but not the teachers: oh, no. The already-permanent frown lines deepened as she heard another one of those wretched plastic things chitter and beep away inside the can with its insistent little melody.
They sounded like an undiscovered species of fantastic digital birds. She had meant to deactivate them all when she first heard that sound, but after going through the process of popping the cover off the first strange egg and ripping out its batteries, she felt so predatory that she couldn't go on. After that, she did her best to ignore it – but the calls came almost constantly, disturbing her with their birdlike sound.
Soon, she had worked her way down to the last few reports. ‘You’ll kill them.’ The words flashed through her mind like a blinking sign. As if on cue, another one of the things let loose a musical demand for attention. She hissed through her teeth like an angry cat and went on grading.
Soon, an eerie stillness settled onto her. She looked up, wondering why it suddenly seemed so quiet. The things. She realized they had ceased their beeping. They must have (died) stopped running.
“Good,” she said aloud, her voice as jarring in the fresh silence of the room as a stone thrown into a tranquil pond. She gnashed her teeth at the things for putting her so on edge. “Stupid toys.”
She heard a digital snatch of birdsong coming from the drawer, and cursed again. “I thought you had all died.”
The melodious, twinkling digital chirping sounded again, as if in agreement.
“Well hurry up and die,” she said, scrawling a jagged ‘F’ on a report that should have received a C-. “Just shut up.”
The things inside her desk cooed at her again, and Piddle pulled the door open in a rage, ready to pop the covers off every single one of those idiotic, tweeting things and rip their batteries out like fish guts. A gaggle of strange, blocky animals flew out of the desk towards her face – creatures as flat as cards and as transparent as projections.
Some were orange and looked like pigs with wings, wearing berets, and staring with one oversized, gaping eye; others like purple ducks with dinosaur arms; others like vaguely anthropomorphic slices of green toast wearing ribbons. All squeaked and squawked in harsh, digital tones, flocking like angry pigeons around her head.
Piddle screamed, and waved her arms. She grabbed a ruler from her desktop and waved it about at the ghostly animals fluttering around her head - some coming in close as though to peck, others fluttering nearby, awaiting their turn to strike. She shrieked, and shrieked again. The frantic waving of her arms did nothing. The spectral creatures were unfazed by her yelping, the ruler passing through them with no effect.
“I killed them!” Piddle began to moan, grunting and croaking between her shrieks. She waved and swatted, her brow covered in sweat. “I killed them! I killed them all!”
The door wheezed quietly shut. Piddle had never even noticed it open.
“Killed them all! Killed them all!”
“The signs have been there,” said Mr. Pitt, shaking his head. “I feel like we should have seen this coming.”
“Hindsight is twenty-twenty.” Mr. Roberts responded soothingly. “Well, do you want to tell Bellinger, or should I?”
‘They came back! But I killed them. Killed them all! Killed them!’ The tirade continued, just beyond the door. Pitt frowned back at Roberts.
“Listen to her, Kevin. Don’t you think we should both go?”
Roberts nodded. The two walked towards the principal’s office, shaking their heads.