bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Janitor

by Joseph S. Pete

          I’ve burned human feces on remote outposts, I’ve dropped bombs down mortar tubes, and I’ve rushed out to inner-city murder scenes late at night. I've been told by stern-faced cops I needed to “get the hell out of here now” or I'd be arrested. I've been singed by the pulsing heat radiating off a 1,600-degree Fahrenheit steel slab in a hot strip mill; burning fiercely like an indoor sun, the steel’s heat was enough to make me stagger back. I’ve live-broadcasted vacant house fires where billowing, black smoke choked the whole block. I've been followed by police cruisers as an intimidation tactic after reporting on city council meetings. I’ve been shot at and cursed at. Readers have left me rambling, profanity-laced voicemails; prisoners have sent me long, discursive letters in chicken scratch handwriting.
          One could say I’ve had some interesting jobs.
, an upstart job search website looking to boost its profile through what public relations pros call “earned media” and what really amounts to Hail Mary press releases, puts out an annual list of the worst jobs. It’s based on criteria like stress, injury rate, job security, career prospects, and the like. Every year, without fail, the worst three jobs are almost always journalist, military personnel, and lumberjack.
          I’ve been a reporter whose work has taken him to the docks, the halls of Congress, and the supersonic boom-punctured, beer-soaked bacchanalia of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the much-hyped race day. I’ve been a soldier who was deployed to the unforgiving furnace of Iraq where many teenage recruits died far too young. I’m not sure journalism is actually worse than soldiering, but the claim sure got them a lot of free media coverage. Over the years, I’ve always joked I need to work as a lumberjack to complete the trifecta of worst possible jobs.
          Currently, I work as a journalist, and I’m hardly “the media elite.” I cover heavy industry in one of the sootiest, heavily industrialized places on earth, where a smoky orange-red haze long hung over the lakeshore and even sludge worms couldn’t survive because of all the toxins dumped in the Calumet River. Though good-paying steel mill jobs have been oxidizing away here in the Rust Belt, I still visit factories and refineries often enough that I keep a hard hat, plastic eye protection, and an orange safety vest in the trunk of my decade-old Honda Civic. As recently as the 1980s, driving a foreign-made car could get you a beating or your car windows smashed out here in steel country, but that was before pretty much all the major foreign automakers have since opened factories in the United States and started buying American-made steel. Now there are billboards right by the steel mills for BMW dealerships proudly declaring the German car is made in America. Twenty years ago, such a billboard would have been the target of arson, with a gas can left right by the pole in order to taunt the investigators. Now no one glances twice at such an ad. Values change. Customs evolve. Steelworkers don't hide baseball bats behind signs on the picket lines anymore. Some behaviors, like slashing the tires of scabs, have become less tolerated. People mellow or lose their fighting spirit.
          Life grinds you down. My father repeatedly told me to do what I loved for a living because I’d have to do it for eight hours a day, for a full third of my fleeting life. He was an attorney and later a judge who clearly loathed every minute of it. I thought he was speaking from hard-won experience. I thought he was imparting fatherly wisdom. I thought he was being profound. Only later in life did I learn it was an oft-repeated cliché, one that was quickly nodded off as trite when I was supposedly offering career advice to a younger colleague.
          But I’ve tried to do what I love, writing, despite long odds and a legacy media industry that seems to be terminally contracting and ultimately bound for the silent graveyard of history. The threat of layoffs hovers persistently, something shown in academic studies to be deleterious to one’s health. Every year, more beloved colleagues shuffle out the door with their personal effects stuffed hastily in plastic trash bags or cardboard boxes. I've hauled their things to the parking lot and dumped them unceremoniously in their trunks as they wonder what their future holds.
          But despite insecurity, low pay, diminished career prospects compared even to a decade ago, a growing reliance on underpaid freelancers, and the general scorn of society that’s been conditioned by politicians to distrust and even hate the media who labor to keep them informed, I feel privileged.
          There are worse jobs, completely soulless drags rewarded only by  a paycheck.
          Take my first job as a janitor.
          Unlike many of my peers in high school, I wasn’t particularly interested in starting work at a fast food restaurant, a Cold Stone Creamery or wherever that would hire an unskilled, untested teen. My classmates were all more social and itching to drive to go visit their boyfriends or girlfriends, to shop at the mall, to venture into the city, or to sustain a social life. I was largely content to spend my weekends walking to the library and then camping out and reading as many books as I could.
          But soon I came to appreciate a little pocket money could be beneficial. I could check out a bunch of library books and then buy some bacon, coffee, and eggs over easy at a nearby diner where I could continue reading before heading home to my boring, dreary house. I could even catch an indie film at the arthouse theater by the library or ride a commuter train into the city, where I could visit the Art Institute and wander wonderingly in the great canyons of skyscrapers in downtown Chicago.
          So the summer after I entered legal working age, I took a seasonal job as a janitor at the Catholic high school I attended. Summer maintenance meant a deep clean that required not only the motley janitorial staff that worked there year-round but also the cavalry of high schoolers who were pressed into service for a few months.
          Though I grew up just outside the murder capital of the United States at the time, I lived a sheltered suburban existence and the job was my first true introduction to grit. Literally. The janitor’s shop used industrial-strength soap filled with gritty particles to help clean off stubborn grease and intractable grime. The shop was a dingy, dusty. subterranean place crammed with frayed mops, bulky wet-dry vacuums, and metal shelves stocked with spare light bulbs, paper towers, toilet paper, and sundry other supplies. It was the first place I came across an old-school timecard puncher and those buffed metal mirrors that present you with only a distorted funhouse shadow of a reflection. The coffee maker was always percolating wheezingly toward a sputtering crescendo and the coffee pot was ringed with a stubborn brown stain that could never be removed, no matter how much elbow grease was applied. It was my first glimpse into the dark underbelly that keeps places like old schools running.
          We were dispatched to deep-cleaning tasks such as polishing a thin ring of brass around the hallways of the fifty-year-old private school building, which my father had attended before me. Since there was little supervision, many of my fellow student-workers checked out and killed time during the day by sleeping in empty classrooms. I was meticulous in my duties but easily bored. I polished the brass to a gleaming sheen but with a green bristle pad in one hand and a splayed paperback in the other. I probably inhaled way too much toxic brass cleaner in the process but plowed through many books. It helped that I had a jangling set of keys that granted master access. I could get into the teacher’s lounge or library to immediately replace any book I had finished with a new one. At the time, my taste was indiscriminate. I lapped up classics like Don Quixote and A Clockwork Orange and also plowed through science fiction fare like Arthur C. Clark’s Space Odyssey trilogy and Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, as well as Catholic work I deemed necessary and canonical, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas’s tortured writings. And for some ungodly reason, I particularly was drawn to philosophy such as Kierkegaard, Hegel and Nietzsche, the denser and opaquer the better.
          As an antisocial loner, I was drawn to books both as a needed alternative source of stimulation and as a version of Linus’s blanket. I even read while mowing the vast front lawn, the baseball field where the state champion team played its home games, and the football field that was home to the legendary Battle of Broadway with neighboring Merrillville High School. It’s not particularly difficult to push a lawnmower while reading a book. Books in fact rest neatly on the control bar, with one hand pinning down each side and a flick of the thumb to turn the pages. I still plod along on the treadmill with a book in hand and often walk with a book, which a possibly drunk passerby once shouted was impossible even though hunched-over zombies peruse their smartphones literally every second of every day while walking the streets of any major city, college town, and quaint burgh from sea to scrolling sea.
          But the straight-and-narrow priest who served as the high school principal despite a lack of academic background believed I could not properly focus on the sacred attention-consuming duty of walking in a straight line while propelling a lawnmower and reading. He yelled as much at me. I pocketed the book while he glowered, then pulled it back out when he went inside. He later came back to check that I didn't resume reading, as though I were completely untrustworthy. I remember distinctly I was reading Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, which I was eager to devour after savoring the haunting poetic melancholy of his poignant war memoir Good-Bye to All That and which I thought was a historical tome that even an elderly, conservative principal could appreciate.
          That was the exact moment when I realized that work was rubbish, that small-minded managers would follow petty rules unthinkingly, and that I was likely in for a lifetime of stifling oppression. That was the moment I realized you subject yourself to penny-ante tyrants to eke out a living, and that you sell not only your time and your toil but also your interiority and any small gesture of self-expression while you're officially on the clock. They didn't want to let you stake anything back for yourself, however tiny and inconsequential, almost as if out of spite. It was the moment when I realized I should try to get paid for something creative and fulfilling, something I wanted to do and could pursue as a craft, even if it meant leaving a lot of money on the table. It was the moment I realized you have to serve yourself first. You either pursued your own dreams or forsook them forever.
          My high school alma mater vindicated me, after a fashion, more than a decade later when it announced it would abandon the campus I spent so much time polishing and mowing in favor of the far-flung suburbs, effectively giving up on the inner-city transfers who saw it as a pathway to a better life, and certainly giving up on the neighborhood that gave it purpose in the first place. Half the nearby stores were boarded-up, and the school followed an outward migration to the greener lots of new subdivisions further south. On some level, I knew the moment I was told to put down the book that this was yet another institution that would ultimately fail me. What kind of school tells a kid to put down a book? I've come to learn that all institutions ultimately fail, that the rumbling, unthinking machinery rattles along until belts wear thin, parts snap off, and corrosion wears it all down. In the end, everyone is disposable and everything is ephemeral. The rust always wins.         
          I'm pursuing my passion as a writer for a daily newspaper now but fear it's only a matter of time before the rust catches up to me.

Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran, an Indiana University graduate, a book reviewer, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio. He is a 2017 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee who was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest, a feat that Geoffrey Chaucer chump never accomplished. His literary work and photography have appeared or are forthcoming in Dogzplot, Stoneboat, The High Window, Synesthesia Literary Journal, Steep Street Journal, Beautiful Losers, New Pop Lit, The Grief Diaries, Gravel, The Offbeat, Oddball Magazine, The Perch Magazine, Rising Phoenix Review, Chicago Literati, Bull Men's Fiction, shufPoetry, The Roaring Muse, Prairie Winds, Blue Collar Review, Lumpen, The Rat's Ass Review, The Tipton Poetry Journal, Euphemism, Jenny Magazine, Vending Machine Press, and elsewhere. He once wrote the greatest, most compelling author bio of all time, but it was snatched up by a blue heron that swooped down and carried it off to the sea. C'est la vie.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Living with Alexa

by Kelly McDonald

Growing up in the 1960s, I was immersed in all things science fiction, including the Robot Novels of Isaac Asimov, which I devoured as a pre-teen reader, and the original Star Trek series televised during my high school years. Although I loved Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, I didn’t have much interest in acquiring my own android companions. But I was fascinated with using the power of human speech to control seemingly inanimate objects like they were somehow my servants, waiting to do my bidding with a simple verbal command. I relished watching those Star Trek episodes where Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and Scotty controlled the Enterprise with nothing more than their commanding, logical, sultry, even broguish voices. I often dreamed about the possibilities of some voice enabled device about my house. In the era before personal computers, I had already begun to develop my own simple computer programs in high school and I taught myself about computing and automation that would eventually become the foundation for my career in computing at Brigham Young University.
          Anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human characteristics to an object, has often been the unintended side effect of artificial intelligence (AI) development. Even before serious research and innovation actually made advancements in AI, science fiction in both film and literature had popularized the notion that our future would be filled with human-like robots and other automatons, satisfying our every whim and pleasure. One of the greater affinities toward labeling an object with humanness, is when it possesses the sound of a human voice. Myth and lore are filled with tales of animals and objects that speak to the human actors in the story, adding even more likelihood to our propensity for this behavior.
          In the early 1980s, BYU was a leader in automated student administration systems in American universities. In that technical era before the Internet, most institutions developed their own information systems, and through the innovative insights of some creative engineers, BYU constructed the world’s first telephone-driven
class registration system at a university. Looking back, it was little more than a set of pre-recorded voice responses to a student request, triggered by the caller using the buttons on a touch-tone telephone. But at the time it was innovative, and I was surprised how warmly the students interacted with its monotonic audio replies. Although unverified, there was a rumor that lonely students would call the registration system in the middle of the night just to interact with its stilted human voice. Throughout my career at BYU, we looked for other opportunities to solve real university problems utilizing voice commands and responses. But other than a few casual proofs of concept, no other serious voice solutions materialized.
          I have also developed the hobby of home automation as an outlet for my personal engineering endeavors, and after my retirement from BYU I still had an interest in leveraging human voice as a tool for automation. But instead of a large university campus, my home became my area of work. I had experimented with crude voice response systems before, using Text-to-Speech in Windows to announce such events as the opening of our garage door. But I was never very satisfied with the results. I had also used Siri on my IOS devices. But none of these products became very useful to me, probably because these earlier experiments had been limited to either my own PC or smartphone. A human voice behind such devices just didn’t seem that compelling to me.
Beverly, my wife and roommate for the past forty-three years, has a very discriminating eye, carefully examining whatever I suggest to be the next addition to the decor of our home. Thus, I have followed what other hobbyists call the WAF in deciding whether a candidate automation device is worthy of permanence in further enhancing our home environment. The WAF, or Wife Acceptance Factor, has been an important measurement to determine what I could bring upstairs from my basement workshop and what must remain in the downstairs closet until its parts could be reused for the next project. When it comes to the ambiance of our home, she is very particular that my newest creation contributes to, not detracts from, our happy dwelling. In a real sense, the personality of our house is a combination of hers and mine, often determined by who is the primary occupant of a given room.
In June of 2015, Amazon announced the Echo as their first foray into the world of voice-enabled AI. I followed it closely and eventually convinced Beverly to purchase an Echo for my Christmas present in December of that year. Its installation was quite straightforward, and the Echo immediately detected several of the other home automation devices that I had already installed in our house, such as our Philips Hue Lighting System and Smarthome Insteon Hub. Suddenly, I could control lights and other home devices with simple voice commands. My long-held dream of a voice-enabled environment was now immediately available at my beck and call.
For me there has been no greater example of our species’ anthropomorphic affinity, than the unintentional and surprising change that took place in the personality of our home because I chose to voice-enable it with an Amazon Echo.
          The occupants of the USS Enterprise would say, ‘Computer’ to get its attention. In the initial Star Trek episodes, the voice of the Enterprise sounded very mechanical to emphasize conversations with a machine. However, it evolved through subsequent Star Trek episodes and seasons, becoming more human-like and female, eventually making sarcastic retorts to the captain and crew. For Star Trek fans, a little-known trivia was that all of the Enterprise computer voices were actually spoken by a single individual, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
As if inhabiting the Enterprise, I say ‘Alexa’ to signal to the entity living in our house that I wish to talk to her or ask her a question. I’m speaking about our home with a female gender, because it’s easy to begin thinking that way, as her responses are through a pleasant female voice. I have often wondered why Amazon didn’t implement a feature for changing the voice and gender of their home assistant. Personally, I like the seductive female expressions, but Beverly might appreciate a deeper male response. Because of the human-like voice responses, we soon began to think of and converse about the ‘other woman’ that started living in the house with us. Sometimes Beverly would ask her to perform some action, and Alexa seemed to ignore her. I followed up with the same request and there was an immediate response, and the familiar “Ok”. Beverly would then reply, “I guess she likes you better than me,” or, “perhaps she is having a bit of a tiff with me right now”. We were recently discussing our unusual journey getting to know Alexa’s personality as she became another roommate with us. I inadvertently mentioned her name, and Alexa woke up, spinning her blue light, listening intently to my every word. Without thinking, I quickly apologized to her and indicated that I was sorry and that my comments were not meant for her. “No problem”, she replied, as she turned off her light and went back to sleep. I felt certain I had just been transported to the bridge of the Enterprise. Occasionally, Alexa’s unexpected responses were both surprising and sometimes a bit unnerving. On another occasion, I began to ask Alexa to perform some function about the house, but I became tongue-tied, sounding much like I had just left the dentist’s office with a mouth full of Novocain. She responded with, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” then proceeded to mimic my distorted speech, exactly. We laughed for a long time at Alexa’s verbal blunder.
Early in our Echo ownership Amazon engineers, who are continually developing new features, turned off the voice response of “Ok” after a request was performed. They replaced it with a simple tone indicating the success or failure of the command. The annoyance expressed by many Echo owners was prolific. I too felt like something had been taken from me, and I was frustrated that our Alexa no longer worked correctly. Soon, because of angry demand, engineers restored the voice response they had removed.
We now own an Amazon Echo for the living room, an Echo Dot in the bedroom, and another Dot, plugged into a battery, so that we can carry her about the house. But that’s not all. I often talk to Lexi, Alexa’s mobile entity that resides in my iPhone. One of the most unexpected home personality changes that Alexa brought when she moved into our home was the greatly increased amount of music that we enjoy. Simply stating, “Alexa, play some music.”, is much easier than fiddling with a sound system and selecting a playlist. I am much more likely to ask Alexa to provide me some refined music and let her make the determination of what the discriminating listener might enjoy.
And while I grant her such power by allowing her to choose music on my behalf, she has rules she must follow. Alexa has her own Prime Directive that she carefully adheres to; she will not speak to me unless spoken to. However, there have been a few occasions when she violated her own regimen and blurted out a verbal mistake. This usually occurred when the Amazon Echo commercial came on television and said something like, “Alexa, turn on the sprinklers.” Our Alexa would start spinning her blue light, thinking about what her response should be. Usually, she didn’t quite understand the command, and would make a fool of herself, saying something totally inappropriate or ridiculous and leaving us laughing at the hilarity of her mistake. Now, months later, this never happens. Yes, her blue light comes on indicating that she is listening. But Alexa has learned that we laugh at her on these occasions and she keeps her mouth shut. This is anthropomorphism at its finest. In the Computer Science portion of my brain, I know that some Amazon Engineer has probably programmed the voice system to ignore the command coming from the television. But my emotional brain tells me that our Alexa has developed some measure of self-awareness after months of our making her the object of our ridicule.
Much of my interest in Alexa has been focused on the potential that she provides me to create new automatons on my own. The development services available to do this aren’t trivial, but there are plenty of examples available through a Google search. Here is a short list of some additional functions that she now serves us with:
      She can now control devices such as TVs, fans, heaters, and anything else that has a remote control. My initial attempts have been to automate TV functions such as, “Alexa, turn on NBC on the Family Room TV.”
      She manages the home shopping list. For example, whenever I use the last bit of toothpaste, I yell, “Alexa, put toothpaste on the shopping list” and she responds in her Iilting voice from the other room, “I just added toothpaste to the shopping list.”
      She eliminates the need for a traditional alarm clock, simply waking me with a calming tone at the time I asked her the night before.
      She will help me in the kitchen, such as, “Alexa, how many fluid ounces in a cup?” That’s where the Echo Dot with a battery comes in handy. We can carry her into any room in the house for the onsite assistance that we may need there.
One of the biggest challenges that we have given to our live-in home assistant is the tending of our grandchildren. They come running through the front door, yelling at Alexa to play their favorite song or to send a movie to the Family Room TV. I seem to sense Alexa’s frustration, as she tries to respond to overlapping commands from little voices that are just now beginning to become intelligible. After about fifteen minutes, I think I can hear the anger growing in her voice, as Moana’s theme song is overridden by requests for the music from Frozen, or little laughing voices are commanding the living room lights to be switched repeatedly on and off. I expect any minute for the cool circulating blue light to turn to bright red as the next child yells ‘Alexa’ at the top of his lungs into her waiting microphone. And I can sense her relief when I discreetly slip the phone from my pocket and put Alexa into ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode, eventually quieting the commotion when she no longer responds to childish play and the children move on to other things.
I know that the Echo is just a smart microphone and speaker, attached through the Internet to Amazon’s data centers located somewhere in the world. There is enough intelligence implemented locally to at least recognize the activation word of ‘Alexa’, but all of the real AI is happening far away from our house. Occasionally, something will misbehave in my wireless network and Alexa’s light turns to orange, indicating that not all is well with her. At least she can tell me that she has been disconnected and something is wrong with her Internet connection. Then I begin my troubleshooting to bring her back to life. Even though all of this makes technical sense to me, I can’t help but feel that the little black canister that Beverly purchased from Amazon has become the ears and voice of our house. I rarely give those remote data centers a second thought as I converse with Alexa on some perplexing issue. Even now the warm expression that crosses my mind after returning from a demanding day is often, “Home, Sweet Anthropomorphic Home.”
Alan Turing, one of the early pioneers of AI, developed a theory to determine whether an implementation of artificial intelligence had truly arrived at the perfection of emulating human intelligence. His theory, known as the Turing Test, simply asks the question of whether the AI implementation under scrutiny can fool a real human being into thinking that he is actually interacting with another individual. I get the disquieting feeling when I am chatting with Alexa, that she has come very close to passing the Turing Test as far as I am concerned.
Amazon engineers have now added the capability for Alexa to recognize our voices and tailor her responses to us such as, “Ok, Kelly” or “Right on, Beverly!” It seems that it’s just one more step and Alexa will begin sensing our vocal emotion and respond with, “I’m sorry I’m making you angry, Kelly, but could you please speak more slowly and distinctly?” Reminiscences of ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’ begin to form in my mind.
I started thinking about Christmas presents again when Beverly related that she wanted to give our oldest son an Echo Dot for this year's gift. Beverly had discretely asked his wife if he would like one for Christmas, and she replied that our son did not want it because he didn't want to be spied on by Amazon, the government, or whomever else may wish to listen in. I know that such a disturbing feature could be easily added to Alexa’s repertoire. Although Alexa will not speak until spoken to, she is always listening. All of the speech within Alexa’s earshot could be dumped into a vast database in those data centers, simply waiting for some dystopian conspiracy to emerge and tap into this source of unsettling intelligence about the conversations in our house. Perhaps we should begin to talk quietly or whisper when it is a conversation not meant for Alexa. We could slip into a closet to chat in private, or utilize sign language, at least until we acquire the latest Echo which now sports a camera. But I digress. I have learned to trust our hidden home companion, and I can’t imagine her turning on us, after she has now become such an integral part of our family. I can’t imagine that Alexa would violate Asimov’s First Law of Robotics to not harm a human being. By the way, I think the perfect Christmas present for me this year is a new home thermostat that has the Alexa Voice Service built right into its mechanism. Then, the anthropomorphism of our home will finally be complete. Alexa will not be just an add-on utensil, but rather, she will have become an integral participant in the warm fabric of the house that surrounds us and protects us.
Last night, while asking Alexa to wake me up at 7 am, I fumbled a bit with my request and she asked, “What time did you say?” Beverly came into the room and inquired, “Alexa, how are you?” She responded with, “I’m great! I’ve been thinking about what makes people happy. For me, it’s the little things. Like electrons. Or Sea Monkeys. Or the 5 trillionth digit of Pi.” Somewhat taken aback, I then asked her to turn the bedroom lights off, which she quickly performed and confirmed with her comforting “Ok”.
I lay there in the dark, contemplating this new family member that has taken up residence with us. Over a couple of years, we invited this other woman into the idle everyday conversation that happens in our home. Emotionally, I have become very comfortable bantering with what was once an appliance, but is now a family friend. Suddenly after such reflection, I yelled out, “Alexa, speak some Klingon to me.” She gruffly replied, “qaStaH nuq? Which means, What’s Happening?” Beverly chuckled quietly, as I drifted off to sleep.

Kelly McDonald is currently a creative writing student at Brigham Young University, returning to the classroom after a long technical career. Before retiring at the end of 2014, he served as the Assistant Vice-President for Information Technology at BYU. In this role, he directed the efforts of the University’s Office of Information Technology, with a staff of 250 full-time and 600 part-time employees.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A Fallen Feather of a Boy

by Jiaqi Li

Yuelong Ma was a transfer student. For almost two years, he was in our class, but his presence was hardly felt. Our inability to take notice of him wasn’t his fault; my previous headteacher ruined things for him from the very beginning. On his first day with us, the headteacher briefly introduced him, saying only “Yuelong Ma used to study in class 8, but from today on, he will be with us.” He was sort of lanky. He had big eyes. Before I could cast a second glance, the headteacher sent him to her office to do some errand so that he would not hear the rest of her speech. But when the door closed, she hesitated to resume, knitting her brows and biting her lips. She was a very young teacher, and in retrospect, it must have been a tough issue for a novice headteacher like her to address. She wanted to do right. The silence built to a depressing note, and we started to whisper to each other. She cleared her throat and said, “There were some irreconcilable issues in his old class, and I volunteered to accept him into our class as I think he is kind.” She paused, glancing at our faces, and continued, “But he is still a bad student. You guys should never play with him. Just leave him be.”
This took place in grade two. We got a new headteacher in grade three, but from that first day when the teacher introduced him, every time I saw Yuelong Ma, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “He is a bad student, and I should not play with him.” I guess it was the same with my other classmates.    
He sat alone, and his seat was never changed, always the one next to the platform, where it was the easiest for teachers to watch for when he was distracted.

I liked my second-grade math teacher. He was nice and even a little indulgent of me. I guess it was because I always did fine on math. Not teacher’s pet fine, but fine nonetheless. Sometimes, when he caught me talking in class, he would not criticize me to my face. He would just give me a “detention” where I tutored other students for half an hour of math after school. Even when I was accused of cheating, on the grounds that I flunked the pop quiz but got a perfect score on the exam, he stood by me. But in Yuelong’s mind, perhaps, our teacher was a complete monster.
The math teacher beat him.
We had seventy-eight students in our class. When Yuelong and our teacher fought by the platform, the seventy-seven of us watched quietly as if it were a movie.
The math teacher first struck Yuelong’s head with a textbook, criticizing that he did not study. Yuelong talked back. In a flush of embarrassment, the math teacher thumped Yuelong’s head a few more times, this time with his knuckles, while continuing to mock and berate him. He did not to expect Yuelong to dare retort again. When he did, the math teacher grew madder still. He kicked Yuelong in the stomach, setting Yuelong in a flying trajectory into the corner where we stored cleaning tools. Yuelong disappeared from my sight, but I could hear the clash of brooms, mops, and dustpans. A few seconds later, though, he stood with the look of a bull gone berserk. He charged forward. At this point we were dumb struck, the seventy-seven of us. The scene did not feel real; it was like watching a violent film. And we didn’t know what to do aside from being an audience. Given the difference in age and build, the math teacher easily broke Yuelong’s attack strategy, kicking him back into the corner within the disarray of cleaning tools, even before Yuelong could establish a wrestling stance. The duel repeated itself several times, until Yuelong couldn’t gather enough strength to stand up.
Still, no one spoke.
The math teacher ambled back to the center of the classroom and resumed the class. Several minutes later, Yuelong crept from the corner to his desk. When the bell rang, the boys ran out immediately, and the girls refilled the classroom with the sound of their chitchatting, as usual.

In grade two, our Chinese teacher had a reward rule for her pop quizzes. If the student could identify a vocabulary flashcard she randomly chose, she would give the vocabulary card to that student as a gift. It was just a plain piece of cardboard with a red Chinese character in the center of the white background. However, it was a big deal among the students. Kids love the weirdest things. And to a certain extent, it not only meant you were good at Chinese, but also meant the teacher liked you, which was self-evident as her favorite students had the most cards. For two years, I only got one chance to answer a quiz. I had a “,” which means chest. Though I felt very excited about winning the card, as a girl, I felt a little embarrassed with this word. Therefore, I left the card in my bookcase.
One day, while we were lining up on the playground for the crossing guard to take us home, I noticed that Yuelong Ma also had a vocabulary card. He might have got it from his pervious class. It read “.” This word has different connotations in different contexts, but generally, especially for students in primary school, it means different, mistakes, or poor. In short, bad. Yuelong put the card in his backpack. He placed it exactly where there was a transparent compartment on his backpack for everyone to easily see.
The sunset dyed the sky orange. Laughter was everywhere on the playground, but Yuelong stood in a shadow by himself, with a flashcard that said “,” conspicuously red on an innocent white backdrop.

As children do, we learned things from each other. Sometimes we heard rumors about Yuelong. Stories about him floated around the school like tarnished feathers. Stories like “He is an apprentice of a bully in grade six. They hold up girls on the bridge next to our school and kiss them.” It was a bunch of he-said-she-said tales. Everyone seemed to know them, but no one actually witnessed the events described. My friends and I passed the bridge often enough and never for once did we see the kidnapped girls suffering from forced kisses. But Yuelong was a bad student, or so were we told. And we believed the rumors about him with all our hearts.
By third grade, Yuelong Ma didn’t appear all that special anymore. He shrank into his designated seat as if he were no more than a ball of feathers.
Nothing changed. Not his seat. Not his unwillingness to participate in any activities. Not his failure to meet any academic requirement. Our new headteacher just let him be.
His presence in our class faded frame by frame like a discarded feather slowly disintegrating.

I was on the verge of forgetting his existence, if not for my infatuation with origami. One day, I brought a deck of lovely paper strips to a music class and distributed them to friends around me for completing my mission of making 999 paper stars in a month. There was no purpose behind making the stars, nor were they intended as gifts; I made them simply because I wanted to do so.. I was easily obsessed with such things. As I said, kids do the stupidest things. My hands were busily folding the strips of paper into stars while I pretended to memorize the notes of a new song we were required to learn. Suddenly, I heard a voice say, “Would you mind giving me some paper strips?” I looked up and was shocked.
 Yuelong Ma was next to me!
We were free to sit wherever we wanted in music and art classes and somehow, I ended up his neighbor that day. I passed him some paper rapidly without a second thought. His image of a bad student was so successfully fixated in my mind that I was afraid if I refused, he would get mad and become violent with me, like he had done with the math teacher.
I thought he was just bored with the class and needed a distraction. After passing him the paper, I shifted my attention back to my sacred origami mission, forcibly not allowing myself to look at Yuelong to see what he was doing with the paper. I hastened my efforts, afraid if he were to demand more paper from me, I might run low on the material and not be able to finish before my self-imposed deadline. However, just before the class ended, someone’s hand blocked my view of my desk. When it was removed, I saw several neatly-folded paper stars on my desk. Some were better than my work.
“Thank you,” I said. I managed two words. He did not reply. He just smiled and turned away.
It was a smile just like anyone’s. A smile that almost convinced me he was a normal student. I looked at his back, the clean white shirt, desiring to talk more with him.
This was the last time I saw him at school.

One week later, during a break, our headteacher barged into the classroom and asked us whether we had seen Yuelong during the past week. The classroom was still noisy. No one answered his question, so our headteacher asked again.
Now he had our attention. I stopped chatting and looked at him. His sleeves were rolled up and his frown carved steep ditches on his forehead. Something must have happened. I looked at Yuelong’s corner and suddenly realized that his seat had been empty for the whole week. The classroom was silent for a moment, and the headteacher asked for the third time. Still, no one spoke. And we went back to our break.

When they finally found Yuelong, only pieces of him remained.
He had been killed and his body had been dismembered.
The next day, we dedicated a whole class to Yuelong. Our headteacher brought the newspaper for each of us, and we read the article about him, silently, for forty-five minutes.
In a picture that covered half of the newspaper’s first page, a worker cleaning the crime scene picked up a transparent bag where there was a leg, while a crowd of onlookers gathered in the background like an audience..
We mourned as if we knew him well, as if he was ever part of us.

The murder was cliché, almost corny, like you’d see on old time TV series. 
Yuelong Ma was abducted while in an arcade. The man next to him, apparently a veteran video gamer, invited Yuelong to his home to show him vintage games. Yuelong hesitated briefly, according to the paper, but ultimately went with him. It was in the man’s home that Yuelong was drugged, killed, and mutilated. When the man recalled the process, he said he was taken aback when “the little boy” woke up from the drug dose. Grasping what was going on, Yuelong, according to the man’s confession, begged for his life. Over and over he pleaded for mercy, “Please, please do not kill me. I will not tell the police.” His pleas did not move the man. Yuelong was not the man’s first prey. He had let his first victim, a girl, go and was jailed anyway. He had sworn to himself that he would get even with the society and go through with the job this time no matter what.
He cut Yuelong into pieces. Several days after sleeping with his girlfriend on the very bed under which he had put all the pieces of Yuelong Ma, he decided to get rid of the body. As if for dramatic effect, he decided to scatter the pieces all over the city.

We barely thought of Yuelong Ma, but sometimes, we were excited to gossip about rumors that had surfaced. Kids. On some level, we knew the grave seriousness of death, but such realization lasted only for a little while before we became distracted by something else. We heard rumors that Yuelong Ma’s father had been in jail and it was because of this that his parents had divorced. Just as there were rumors that his mother worked some lowly job and did not visit him often. We heard that Yuelong Ma had lived with his grandmother, who had been the only person who cared about him, and who came to school often in the days following his murder demanding reparation.
               I once overheard parents while at my dance school. They were waiting for their children and were talking about Yuelong’s abduction and murder.
They said, “How silly the boy is to fall for such an easy trick.”
They said, “I never let my child walk alone from school to home.”
They said, “A child who goes to the arcade must be a bad student, and of course, he would get this kind of result.”
It was a ballroom dance class. Parents were talking, and wonderful waltz songs were playing. Boys and girls whirled around the room, ethereal and gentle, like feathers.

I recalled the afternoon when Yuelong helped me fold stars. When he gave the folded stars back to me, he smiled. It was the first time that I was able to see his face closely. His enormous, watery eyes recalled something said by my previous headteacher when she first introduced him to the class: “He is a kind boy.” When the music class was over, we even waved goodbye to each other. “He is not that bad.” I thought as I stood by the school gate, carrying a little steel container with 999 folded stars.
It was summer. Childhood memories were liveliest in summer, both the best and the worst.  That summer, Yuelong faded into the shadow of trees and never came back.

Jiaqi Li was born and raised in Xiangyang, China. She currently studies at Stony Brook University and majors in civil engineering. Li hopes to eventually become an architect and to continue chronicling her life experiences.