So, this is a parent-counselor meeting. I don’t think I’ve ever been to one. Theo’s never gotten bad grades, has never been caught cheating on a test or cutting class—he’s never done anything to warrant my hanging around campus any longer than it takes to drop him off in the morning or pick him up in the afternoon. I hardly know the place. It took me ten minutes to find the counseling office, and that was with Mike’s help.
The room is dimly lit. Myself, Mike, and the other parents sit in uncomfortable plastic chairs. No one’s said anything about the layers of cigarette smoke clouding the air, so I can only assume this is how they do things here at Boca Linda. I can’t say I like it. Secondhand smoke’ll kill you deader than dead, but Mrs. Thrailkill doesn’t seem to care. She merely sits behind her polished mahogany desk and stares me down through the haze.
Mrs. Womack leans forward and, holding her nose, shoots me an accusing look. “SuperMegaNet? What’s that?”
“Apparently,” Mr. Womack offers (and not without a hint of amusement), “it’s what’s been occupying our grandson’s time between school and lights out.”
“It’s a video chat program,” I explain. “It lets you upload to other people’s homes. My son Theo showed me.”
“Computers can do that?” asks Mr. Kounicova.
“They can send paperless mail too, miláčku,” replies Mrs. Kounicova, jokingly.
“So,” Mrs. Womack huffs in my direction. “Theo’s the one who’s coerced my Ernest into installing this…this SuperMegaNet on his computer?”
The poor woman. A lifetime of cultivated dissatisfaction has left her face wrinkled, languid. Had we gotten off on the right foot, I might have offered her a free facial rejuve pack after the meeting as a friendly gesture between parents. Had we gotten off on the right foot. “Theo would never coerce anyone into doing something they don’t want to do.”
“Maybe he didn’t do it on purpose. Maybe he thought he was being helpful when he suggested—”
“Are you blaming Theo for your grandson’s inability to make his own decisions?”
Mrs. Womack puts her hand to her cheek, as if I’ve just slapped her across the face.
Thrailkill looks impressed.
“Regardless of who installed what where and when,” Mrs. Taylor says to Mrs. Womack, “the fact of the matter is your grandson now has unrestricted access to my daughter’s bedroom.”
“It works the other way, too,” Mrs. Womack points out. “Your daughter now has access to my grandson’s bedroom.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
A brightly-colored health meter has just materialized above Mrs. Womack’s head; daggers are about to fly—
“It means,” Mike says, clearing his throat loudly and making a cease-fire motion with his hands, “we can all agree that maybe we should’ve been contacted by Mrs. Thrailkill here before our kids were assigned to use the Internet in an unorthodox manner.”
Womack’s health meter vanishes.
We all look expectantly at Mrs. Thrailkill.
She seems slightly less amused, though she’s still smiling. “So, I’m to inherit the hot potato, am I?” She takes a long, slow drag from her cigarette, leans back in her chair. “I assigned Theo, Ernie, Eva, and Jan to work together online, yes. I assumed AIM was good enough, but it would seem my notion of online collaboration is antiquated. The little ruffians have improvised, purely of their own accord, I assure you.” Another drag from her cigarette. “I merely intended for them to network with one another as a means of improving their social skills. Busywork to keep their minds off the awkwardness of being Boca Linda’s youngest freshmen. Most kids just go home and masturbate to fill the hours until dinnertime. Yours decided to do the actual assignment.”
The word “masturbate” hangs in the air for a moment. I can almost make out the letters before they dissipate. I clear my throat—
Mrs. Womack clears hers louder. “Well, I don’t like it. All Ernie does now is sit in front of his computer—”
“He did that before SuperMegaNet, honey,” Mr. Womack interjects.
(One of the Kounicovas stifles a laugh.)
“—talking to goodness knows who and uploading to goodness knows where!”
“You always did want him to get out more. This is how they do it, kids these days.”
Mrs. Taylor shakes her head. “And that’s the problem. It’s not like when we were their age. No one had the Internet back then. You had to physically go somewhere to get into trouble. If you were in your room, you were pretty much in the clear. Kids today have the world at their fingertips. There are stories on the news all the time about creeps and perverts lurking in chat rooms—now they’re actual rooms.”
Mr. and Mrs. Kounicova converse quietly in Czech for a moment while Mrs. Womack tries unsuccessfully to interpret what they’re saying.
Meanwhile, Mr. Womack is shaking his head and waving his hand in the air. “This is no different than having a front door in your house. There’s a big, bad world out there. Chances are if your kid is looking for trouble, he can find it within fifty paces of the doormat.”
“My daughter keeps her computer in her bedroom,” Mrs. Taylor says. “The front door, as it were, is no longer down the hall—it’s beside her bed. And it’s unlocked. With something like SuperMegaNet, she doesn’t have to go looking for trouble anymore; trouble comes looking for her.”
“True,” Mike says, “if she’s carelessly added people she doesn’t know to her buddy list. But if used responsibly, there’s no reason SuperMegaNet can’t be as safe as old-school chat, right?”
“As if teaching a child responsibility is as easy as flipping on a light switch,” Mrs. Womack snorts.
“Are you saying,” Mrs. Taylor asks Mike, “we should just let our kids continue to use SuperMegaNet whenever they please?”
“Use as opposed to abuse. That’s key here.” Mike shrugs, glances at me. “We believe in letting Theo make his own educated decisions. Right, honey?”
I smile, I nod…and yet, no matter how much of a proper example I want to set for the other parents, I just can’t get the image out of my head of Theo sitting beside me on the guest sofa, tears streaking his face as he rasps those three terrible words: “I’m blind, Mom.” He tries so hard to be my perfect little man, but I should know better. Just because he handles his Web design business with such maturity doesn’t mean he’s not still twelve years old. Oh, lord, I let him have too much too soon, and it’s cost him his eyesight. What kind of a mother am I?
I can feel a tear trickling down my cheek. Luckily there’s so much cigarette smoke clouding the air that no one notices as I dab at my face, straighten in my seat. Besides, all eyes are on Mike (bless him for diverting everyone’s attention) and Mrs. Womack, both of whom are going at it.
“No, I get what you’re saying, Mr. Smole,” Womack snarls. “You want us to sit back and twiddle our thumbs, romanticizing childhood and watching as our kids transport—”
“Upload,” Mr. Womack corrects.
“—into the waiting hands of child molesters, terrorist groups, democrats!”
“Give your grandson a little credit,” Mike says. “Don’t you think he’s savvy enough to say no to a strange man in a van offering a lollipop and a ride to Chuck E. Cheese’s house?”
By now, Thrailkill is nothing more than a vaguely human figure leaning forward behind a veil of smoke as she stubs out her cigarette, exhales, lights another. “It’s obvious you’ve overestimated the deviousness of your precocious little offspring. Your darlings have acquired the ability to transport themselves instantly around the world, and so far they’ve proved themselves too afraid or too stupid to find their way beyond our city limits. They went through all the trouble of finding and installing SuperMegaNet to keep in touch when they live not more than twenty minutes away from each other.” She leans back in her chair; all I can make out are her shadow and the lit end of her cigarette. “They can go anywhere in the world, and yet they’ve made friends right here. I think it’s safe to say they’ve missed the point.”
“That’s it?” Mrs. Womack barks. “That’s your advice on the matter?”
“Yeah,” Mrs. Taylor adds (with less intensity). “What kind of a counselor are you?”
Thrailkill’s answer is a puff of smoke exhaled with well-practiced patience.
“I’ve had enough.” Mrs. Womack slaps Mr. Womack on the shoulder, signaling that it’s time to go. She stands up, slowly, ominously, and with a distinctly theatrical flair. Indeed, a spotlight now shines down from above, illuminating her frame as she rotates slowly in place, aims an accusing index finger at each of us in turn. “Mark my words: SuperMegaNet is evil, and must be purged from our children’s lives!” She allows a moment for her words to sink in; then the spotlight fades, and normalcy is restored to her visage. “Good day to you all.”
She exits the room, dragging Mr. Womack along by the shirtsleeve.
Mike and I file out into the hallway along with everyone else, coughing and shaking the cigarette smoke out of our clothes (it doesn’t do much good). I wouldn’t be surprised if the time spent sitting in Thrailkill’s office has taken a few years off my life—but at least it wasn’t for nothing. Mrs. Womack, in her exaggerated, overblown way, is right: SuperMegaNet is trouble, and I need to wean Theo off it. I need to meddle—
—I need to mother.