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A Matter of Choice

We marched briskly across the schoolyard in three long rows, each row composed of twenty-five boys. We were uniformly dressed in white coveralls. Each head was blond; the top of each head was exactly four feet five inches from the ground. We walked with military precision, taking our daily quota of exercise.

I knew that each head was filled with the same thoughts: the equations given us in our last class, by a computer -- each head but one, that is.

I couldn’t have cared less about the equations. I was thinking treasonous thoughts, thinking of home and my parents.

Not that it was any better than it was here at school. At home my parents lived in a two-room co-op, all that we were allowed in a vastly overpopulated world. The street where we lived was lined with matching co-ops. One had to watch the house numbers carefully to avoid going into the wrong building, something that had happened to me more than once in my eleven years. Also, at home, where I wanted to play outdoors, I had to walk six blocks to a small park, where I had to stand in line if I wanted to swing or slide or get a drink from the fountain or do anything at all.

It was a little better at school. The boys were never allowed on the playground all at the same time. We came in staggered groups, thus keeping the grounds full of boys at all times, but avoiding overcrowding as much as possible.

I lived and slept in a room with twenty-five other boys, but each of us had his own bed and his own chest in which to store personal treasures, and there were curtains which we could draw to allow a certain amount of privacy.

Yes, school was really all right. I had no complaints, except for the fact that I had to study science. When my parents were granted permission to have a child, the Supreme Command studied the future needs of the world and decided that scientists would be most in demand. My parents underwent extensive examinations, and when it was ascertained that they could produce a scientist, they were allowed to have me. Scientific knowledge was programmed into me before birth. Somehow, the system made a mistake with me, and the plain fact was that I didn’t want to be a scientist.

I tried being friends with some of my fellow students. I was reasonably cheerful and should have made friends easily, but when I was truthful and told them my real feeling, they withdrew from me, thinking me radical. Perhaps I was. It was unheard of for a boy to change his field of study or resent following orders. They treated me like some kind of defective, and I soon learned to keep quiet and pretend interest in the things they were interested in.

As a result, I was uptight and unhappy. When the government medical officers gave us out regular examinations, I said nothing, but they noticed the tenseness and the attitude of indifference. They decided that I needed more vitamins, so now I had excess energy coursing through my body and no outlet for it.

My parents were unusual people. Both worked in the social planning sector and were expert at their jobs. But at home, at night, they talked of very different things. They were both well educated; they knew their history and how the world had been in the last century -- free, with open country, tree and grass, and families living in single houses, before overcrowding became so bad. They knew also that their ancestors had been free to work at the jobs of their choice, not on orders from the government.

Back then, people didn’t look so much alike, either, as they did now, due to the perfected, non-risk method of reproduction. Best of all, in the past, things grew in the world -- plants, trees, flowers, and food. Now the food was manufactured, condensed, containing the vitamins and minerals needed, but not resembling the old-style food in any way.

My parents were dissatisfied with their world, and some of their talk, naturally, I overheard. I shared their opinions. I once heard my father say perhaps it would have been better if the bomb his ancestors had feared so much had exploded. At least it would have taken care of the overpopulation. Of course, he didn’t really mean that. Something should have been done, though, he said. The human race had grown too fast, had defiled the rivers, the land, and the air, had killed off the animals, had been filled with greed. The result was this temperature-controlled, domed, crowded world in which  a man no longer had any choice or any control over his own destiny.

These hefty thoughts were what filled my head as I marched with my fellow students. Somehow, I told myself, I would do something. I wouldn’t grow up following the masses, with complete mindlessness, content only to do my job and obey orders. I wanted more than that. I would be a pioneer.

That night, after lights-out, when all the other boys were asleep, I lay awake, thinking. I had a germ of an idea, based on something I had overheard my father talking about: a newly discovered planet that they had named New America, hoping for the rich promise of that original country and planning to use experience in making it better this time. The environment was much the same as Earth’s. There was light and room and air. Plant and animal life had evolved, but not human life. A handful of colonists were already established there -- a select few -- but to become a colonist, one had to be found worthy. In a world with so many billions of people, the competition was terrific. Mere willingness to go counted for very little.

I tossed in my bed, wishing for sleep but unable to stop the workings of my rebellious mind. At last I told myself that it was no use, and, holding that thought, I fell asleep.

In the next few weeks, I was unable to keep my mind on my studies. For the first time, my grades went below the accepted level, and sterner measures were called for -- in my case, an order to appear before the school director.

I was trembling when I knocked at the director’s office door, and I felt as if my legs couldn’t carry me as I approached the large desk, behind which the stern, white-haired man sat.

“Sit down, Steven Greenleaf,” the director said.

I sat down. In the massive armchair, I felt myself shrink into insignificance. No longer did I feel like a young man, almost grown. I felt like the youngest, smallest kindergärtner.

“What has happened to you, Steven?” the director asked, somewhat less sternly. “Your grades-- we know you have the intelligence, the potential, to do better. We have all your records. We know.”

*Yes,* I thought. *They know. They know everything. There are no secrets, no feelings which they are not aware of. Their charts reveal my whole life. I might as well tell him.*

I did tell him. I poured out all of my rebellious thoughts, all my secret cravings, my longing to be free, my need to work in the soil and grow things and help found a new world, like the old one but build with much more wisdom. Once I started talking, I found it easy. I was a goner, anyway, I decided. For a boy to rebel against the school system was unheard of. I had no idea what would happen to me. There were no similar cases, at least to my knowledge. I suspected that they would institutionalize me, marking me as a misfit unable to function any longer in the world. Well, I told myself, I didn’t care. I would rather be shut away than to live as I was told to live.

During my outpouring, the director sat silent, no expression at all on his face, certainly no trace of surprise. Maybe he had heard this all before, I thought, but from whom?

He gave me permission to leave his office, and my next few weeks were filled with dread. I felt something ominous hanging over me, and I wished with all my being that the worst would come. Anything was better than this uncertain state, not knowing but imagining so many frightful things. Even though I told myself that I didn’t care, I know inside that I did. For a while I even hoped that they could do something to my mind, somehow erase all my treasonous thoughts and make me content, like the boys around me.

I attended classes, went through the regular daily routines, ate, slept, and exercised, my mind in a constant, frightened turmoil.

Then the day came. There was a message for me at breakfast. I was to report to the director’s office as soon as I finished my meal. With fear controlling my movements, I walked hesitantly down the long corridor and knocked at the door.

“Some in,” the stern voice called.

I entered, again feeling smaller that I really was. But then some small measure of courage I hadn’t known I possessed took over, and I remained standing before the man at the desk, willing to take whatever came.

“Your case has been reviewed,” the director said, “and your fate has been decided. Are you sure, Steven, that you won’t change your mind? Couldn’t you be happy here and continue with things as they were before?”

Here was my chance. I wouldn’t have to be shut up in an institution. I could live in the world and go to my job, and when the government decided on a mate for me, I could marry and probably have a child of my own. To be what? I asked myself. What will the government need, by the time I have a son, and what will they force him to do?

“No, sir,” I heard my voice say, and it sounded as if it came from some other person. “I couldn’t.”

The director looked a little sad. “Well, then,” he said, “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave us. Collect your things. You’ll find a car waiting for you on the drive. I’m sorry to see you go, Steven, but I wish you luck in the future. And, son,” he said kindly, “Who knows? Perhaps you are a scientist, after all.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, puzzled by his words. The director wasn’t really such a bad person. It wasn’t his fault that things were as they were. His was simply doing his job. He seemed so disappointed that I felt a little sorry for him.

I went back to the big room I had lived in for so long and shared with others of my kind. I had no idea where I would be going now, and I was sure that I would never see my parents again. Thinking of them almost made me change my mind. But no. I knew that they would be proud of my decision. Anything was better than this. I straightened my shoulders purposefully, took a last look around the room, picked up my bag, and strode out toward the unknown, appearing, I hoped, much braver than I felt.

A government limousine was pulled up next to the curb, with a uniformed chauffeur holding open the back door. I stifled a sob as I slid into the deep backseat of the big car, willing myself not to cry in front of the strange driver. Immediately, I realized that I was not alone in the backseat. I turned my head.

“Steven!” my father said, sliding over closer to my mother to make more room.

I gazed at them, dumbfounded. “Mom! Dad! What are you doing here?”

“We’re so proud of you, son!” said Dad. He was smiling broadly.

“Y-You don’t understand, Dad. I’ve been expelled. They’re sending me away, and I don’t even know where!”

Both my parents laughed delightedly. What was the matter with them? Were they glad that I was a misfit? I felt my eyes fill with tears.

My father sobered instantly, but there was still laughter behind his eyes as he spoke. “Steven, Steven, it was all just a test! You should have suspected something when you were first sent to this school instead of one closer to home. We were under consideration for colonists all the time, but they had to be sure of you--”

“Dad,” I broke in, “you still don’t understand. I’ve failed your test!”

Mother leaned across Dad and laid her hand on mine. Her voice -- and her eyes -- were very serious. “Steven,” she said, “what they had to be sure of was your courage to make the right decision. You obeyed your instincts and made the right choice, rebelling against the system and sticking with your decision, even with the danger of the unknown before you.”

“You passed the test with flying colors,” said Dad, his smile broad again. “We’re going to New America -- to be pioneers!”
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