Friday morning, I handed out the graded essays. I also announced that I was cutting back on the workload, with an essay due only every other week. It had dawned on me that I was spending far too much time on these assignments, given there was no sign their writing was actually improving. To go by the cheers, students felt the same way.
The mood that day of all four sections was restless as students showed each other their social feeds and compared rumors. They were fizzy from their moment in the spotlight. The competing hashtags #TheRealMagnusson (“real” being the all-white 1950s) and #RacismAtMagnusson were lighting up our corner of the internet. When I checked my phone to see how things were trending, I could see the social media flood ramp up abruptly, though I wasn’t sure what caused the sudden increase. I only figured it out after I dismissed the second section and stepped into the hallway.
“I can’t believe a faculty member would do that,” I overheard a teacher say.
“It’s not like there haven’t been rumors about him,” another one said as they strolled through the current of students changing classes.
“But what he said was so misogynistic.”
“It’s his chance to get out aheaspd of hashtag MeToo and catch the patriarchal reactionary wave.”
Her companion said something in response, but it was drowned out by ambient student chatter.
I found Beasley in our office, merrily spreading red ink on Spanish homework. “You’ve certainly made things interesting, around here,” she greeted me.
“Somebody did something, but I don’t know who or what.”
“It’s Peter Van Meter, Doctor Touchy-Feely. He went on a student’s internet talk show to stand up for American manhood. Apparently the real problem in this country is that manly men like him are no longer in charge.”
“Oh, Christ.” I opened my laptop and brought up Michael Knutson’s YouTube channel. There he was, the handsy professor I had offended, seated before a shelf of books, looking traditionally professorial in a tweed jacket, racking up hundreds of thousands of views already. “I don’t think I can stand to listen to this.”
“Don’t torture yourself. I can give you the highlights. His free speech has been canceled by angry women and emasculated men who police every word he says. Real literature, the stuff written by dead white men, has been censored in favor of second-rate dreck by women and minorities. Writing courses don’t teach grammar nowadays, they’re all about indoctrination. He actually used the phrase “radical left madrasas.” Also, students don’t even write papers anymore. That’s when you got name-checked. What did you do to piss him off?”
“He cornered me in the department office once and tried to hug me, but I wouldn’t let him,” I said. “Also, when I said he should stop staring at my boobs, a student worker laughed at him. I’ve been waiting ever since for the fallout.”
“The boy who posted the video, his name is familiar. Is he related to that fascist on the board of trustees?”
“Yup, he’s his son, and he has classes with both me and Oak this semester.”
“Ah, you’ve seen it,” Oak said, catching sight of my computer screen as he came into our office. He slung his backpack onto his desk with a thump.
“Beasley watched it so I didn’t have to,” I said. I closed my laptop.
“I was late to class this morning but Michael Knutson filled the time by providing the class with a special showing. There was a very loud argument in progress when I got there. He seems to want to turn History 112 into a civil war reenactment.”
“You look exhausted.”
He pulled his desk chair out, swore when the wheel fell off, then threw himself into a spare chair intended for students. “Didn’t get much sleep. Some asshole set fire to my outhouse last night. Well, it’s not my outhouse, but the one I’ve been using. Though not at the time.”
“Thank goodness for small mercies,” Beasley said.
“The property owner isn’t too happy about it. He’s rethinking the wisdom of having a college teacher squatting on his land at a time when a sizable percentage of the country is convinced professors are communist revolutionaries bent on brainwashing their children.”
“Shit. Did this happen because someone’s mad about what my class uncovered?” I asked.
“It happened because a lot of white Americans think any history that isn’t a patriotic whitewashed fantasy is somehow a personal attack on them.” He rubbed his eyes with a thumb. “Or it could just be teenagers acting out. Vandalism is a traditional rural pastime. In any case, I may need to find a different place to sleep pretty soon.”
“I can talk to Dr. Mishkin. She has an extra bedroom upstairs, and there’s plenty of space for the van. You could barter house repairs for rent. By the way, I talked to that guy.”
“It went well, I think. He may come up here.”
“What are you two conspiring about?” Beasley asked.
“Nothing,” we both said.
I gave up on my lesson plan for the third class period. Students were giddy that they didn’t have to write so many essays, and bubbling with a mix of outrage that a professor at their school would say such outdated and offensive things, excited to be in the center of what was becoming a national social media storm. Turning to the whiteboard, I drew the rhetorical triangle Maggie had so carefully outlined in an earlier lesson and told them to get into groups and analyze the media they were seeing in their social feeds. They dutifully pulled their chairs into circles and ignored my instructions as they proceeded to share gossip and opinions. If engagement were as important a metric for education as it is for social media platforms, it would have been a highly successful learning experience.
The only students in the room who were quiet were Bilan and Abeba. They sat together, physically part of a circle of desks but not participating. They only murmured occasionally to one another as they sat, dejected. Jamal seemed to pick up on their mood and went over to talk to them, duck-walking as if I couldn’t see him if he crouched down low enough. They showed each other their phones and whispered. When class was dismissed I caught his eye as he headed for the door and asked if there was something going on. The girls had been getting hateful messages, he told me. Mostly on Facebook and WhatsApp but also slid under their dorm room door. “We’re all getting them,” he said with a shrug. “I mean, not the white students, but … us.”
“Goddamn it. Did they report it to campus security?”
He looked at me, puzzled by my naiveté. “Why?”
I didn’t have an answer. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” I said, and he nodded politely, but we both knew it was meaningless.
I expected even higher engagement if not a fistfight during the fourth period, where Michael Knutson and his entourage routinely squared off against their classmates. But the discussion was less spicy than I expected, partly because Knutson emailed me to say he would be absent that day and his minions were a little lost without him and partly because Liv used the hour to quietly but efficiently organize an action against racism. It made me feel a little better. Maybe I couldn’t do anything helpful, but they were taking care of each other.
“You still getting weird emails?” Liv asked me as the period ended.
“Not like before. Just the run-of-the-mill messages accusing me of being a communist and a recruiter for antifa, like being anti-fascist is a bad thing. Some of the students are dealing with a lot worse. What about you?”
“The usual,” they said cheerfully. “I’m a freak, I’m pushing a transsexual agenda on innocent kids, somebody should rape me to death. It’s just coming in at a higher volume now. Thanks a lot, Michael fucking Knutson. Do you want to join us tonight? We’re having a meeting to organize a community action, but you don’t have to come.”
“Honestly? I am totally bummed that you and other students are getting attacked over this stuff, but I don’t think me being personally involved would be a good idea.”
“No worries.” Liv offered a clenched fist for a friendly bump and headed off to lead the revolution.
I headed home, mulling over an idea that Liv’s question about emails had sparked. I hadn’t had any further contact with Allie, either through my Maggie address or via my anonymous identity on Signal. I wasn’t sure if she had talked to Brian Friedman and heard first-hand the risk she was running. But things had changed. I could tell her something that might keep her safe. After I made a cup of tea for Dr. Mishkin and carried my mug upstairs I messaged Allie.
>It’s me again. The former Eventive employee. Would it be okay if I gave you a call via Signal?
The response came before I finished my tea.
I took a deep breath and made the call. “Hi. Is it a good time?”
“Fine. I’m alone, except for the baby and she’s not going to rat us out.”
“You’re Emily,” she said flatly. Then, after an intake of breath, “Oh my god.”
“Yeah, I’m alive. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you when I messaged you before, but… I’ve been keeping a low profile.”
“It’s really you.” I heard a choke in her voice as she laughed. “Goddammit, I thought you were dead.”
“Sorry about that.”
“I’m not sorry.” I could tell she was crying. She could probably tell I was, too. “It’s awesome news. I’m so relieved.”
“Me too. I mean, I’m so glad to talk to you. I can’t tell you everything that’s been going on, but I wanted to let you know I’m safe.”
“Jesus. Emily, it’s… holy shit.” She laughed again. “I actually wondered. I mean, a rando person who used to work at Eventive contacting me? I thought… could it be Emily? Then I told myself that was just wishful thinking.”
“No, that was me. I heard on the grapevine you were asking questions about Eventive and I was worried about what they might do to you. I’ve been on the run, but I’m safe, so you don’t have to investigate my murder, because I’m not dead after all.”
“Will you be able to stay that way? The thing is, I found out there was another woman who worked for Eventive who died. Supposedly it was an accident, but her family has questions.”
“Aurora. She was a friend of mine. You talked to her parents?”
“Her mother is convinced it was no accident and Eventive was behind it. I’m sorry about your friend. It sounds like she was amazing.”
“I tried to read some of her research, but it’s way over my head.”
“There was a speech she gave, though. Her last public appearance, the one that got her fired. It was removed from YouTube but I found a copy on a German website. She talked about how algorithms can be discriminatory, how market fundamentalism has influenced the design of tech platforms, and how bad actors can use these systems to promote hate and violence. It was so good.”
“She wanted the company to change. They didn’t like that idea, and she knew enough about their operations she was dangerous. Did you ever track down Brian Friedman, that reporter?”
“I was going to, but he reached out first. Boy, did they ever mess up his life.”
“Which is why I want you to hold back on poking around.”
“That’s what he said, too. He told me to back off for my own safety. But somebody needs to make this public.”
“Somebody will. Probably. A famous journalist who people will listen to is looking into it. I’m not running anymore. I’m going to tell him my story. I’d tell you, but you know what happened to Brian, and you have a baby to protect. Plus a three-year-old.”
“She’s four now.”
“Wow,” I lay back on my bed, measuring the distance between then and now, between the time when we were best friends and everything since. “You have kids, a family, a life. I had a job at Evil Corp. I got so caught up in that world I stopped thinking. I should have known what we were building was dangerous, that we were doing everything Aurora talked about in that speech. You were right about Robbie, by the way.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I should have listened. What a jerk. Anyway, tell me more about your life. What’s your guy like? What’s it like to be a mom and a writer?”
We talked for an hour as she filled me in. It felt weirdly comfortable, even though I avoided telling her what I’d been doing ever since leaving Eventive.
“Oh crap, I have to go,” she said suddenly. “I need to pick up Grace. She’s having a play date and I’m way late. But for a good cause. It’s been so good to talk to you, Emily. Listen, I still want to write about this.”
“You can write a whole book about how your idiot friend got sucked into working for an epically bad company. But hold off on the research. It’s too risky for now. Speaking of which, have you had anything weird happen since you started working on this? Like your computer acting strange? Or a feeling you’re being followed?”
“No. Except—” She fell silent.
“Somebody broke into our house a couple of weeks ago. Well, they didn’t break in, they walked in because we live in the country and nobody locks their doors around here, at least not until someone moves your stuff around when you’re not at home. Nothing was stolen, it was just obvious someone had been inside, handling our stuff, moving knickknacks and chairs. Even in the girls’ bedroom, the rocking chair was turned to face the wall. Creepy. We thought it must be bored teenagers playing a prank.”
“Maybe it was, but—”
“Maybe it was a message. We lock the doors, now, don’t worry, and we have a shotgun. Standard equipment in rural Maine. Oh, and another thing… someone almost swiped my phone last week. I set it down for a moment at the grocery and a guy behind me in line picked it up, started to put it in his pocket.”
“I didn’t know him. He apologized, said he thought it was his, and seemed so embarrassed he left without paying for his groceries. He was nice about it, and I assumed it was just an honest mistake, but you’re making me wonder. He wasn’t a regular, the cashier told me.”
“Do you have a security code on your phone?”
“I do now.”
“End-to-end encryption is great, but it doesn’t do any good if one of the ends is in the wrong hands. Do you know how to use that shotgun?”
“I do. And I hope you’re joking.”
“Not entirely. Watch yourself. And stop asking questions about Eventive.”
“Right, I’ll leave it alone until you give me the all clear. Look, I have to run. It’s just so great to hear your voice.”
“Call again sometime.”
“I will.” I hung up and laugh-cried. Whether it was relief at reconnecting with my friend or regret for all the years I had shut her out, I couldn’t say.