I was born a Blue.
It was not something I thought much about when I was younger; it simply was how life was. My parents were Blues, my brothers, my sister. All the people who lived on my street had blue-painted house fronts and mailboxes. They all wore Blue identification badges attached to their clothing. Everyone around me was a Blue. My first school—Pre-primary Care School—was full of Blues. They were all I had ever known. It was not until I went to Primary Learning Center that I saw others. My father walked me around the back of the big brown building that first day, to the blue-painted doors where I would enter my first Learning Center. I was pink-cheeked and bright-eyed. I swept my hands up and down my blue jumper which would serve as my school uniform for the year. My breath escaped in a pipe of white smoke as I tried to keep up with my father’s wide stride. He was in a hurry; he had insisted that he be the one to take me to the Learning Center for my first day, but he still needed to get to work. At the time, I did not understand his pace or why he was flustered at my slow stride and craning neck. I wanted to see everything and take it all in. This was a part of town I had never seen. I had not yet learned that my father was ruled by fear, and so could not enjoy the brisk winter walk or my wondering eyes. He and my mother had prepared me for school. I knew all my letters and numerals. I could count, and even add and subtract if I used my fingers. I was starting to recognize and remember words around me. “Books,” I would recite as we passed the book seller. “Returns,” as we passed the clothing depositor. “Red Gate,” I would say as I walked passed a door I had never walked through. Indeed, my parents had prepared me for the academic part of school. They had warned me about following rules and obeying the instructors, so I was prepared for the subordinate part of learning. But they had not prepared me for dealing with the others. I swear, until I walked through those doors that first morning for Level 1, I had never seen or dealt with anyone besides Blues. I saw the Greens first. They were a little farther back than we were, milling around a door painted green. They were dressed like me, only their jumpers and breeches were green, rather than blue. Some younger children, like me, were holding adult hands. Others, older children who had been in school before, danced and played outside their door. I stared at the green paint on that door, chipping and in need of new coating, and I thought it was lovely. “Look!” I urged my father. “They have a green door. How come they get to go in there?” At the time, I did not understand why some of the other waiting adult Blues chuckled, or why my father frowned down at me and told me to hush. “They don’t get to go in there,” he said. “They have to.” That was my first experience with self-elevation. A buzzer sounded across the school yard, piped from inside to blare through square-shaped speakers. I snatched my fingers from my father’s loose grip, so I could slam my hands over my ears. The sound penetrated through me, chattering my teeth and vibrating into the soles of my worn leather shoes. “Lottie, it’s time to line up!” my father urgently commanded, yanking my hands from my ears. He squatted in front of me, and pointed at the other Blue children, lining up in four neat rows in front of the doors. He gave me a little push. “Remember to be very obedient.” I felt my stomach flip-flop as I moved toward the lines. I knew which line to go to; my parents had prepared me for that part. “First line from the wall,” I whispered to myself. “First line from the wall.” My jumper was seized by an older girl. “Are you a Level 1?” she demanded. My words got stuck to the roof of my mouth, so I only nodded. “Be obedient” echoed through my brain. “You’re in the first line, then. Hurry up.” I had no choice, because she hauled me into line. Frantically, I looked back over my shoulder, searching through the sea of dashing blue uniforms for any sign of my father. I needed just one more glance, just one more shove of courage and then… I relaxed in the grip of the girl when I spotted my father at the back of the crowd. He waved, flexing his fingers up and down on one hand, sending me courage. I allowed myself to be shoved unceremoniously into the first line. I stood between another nervous-looking kid who bit on his lip and swept his hand through his hair over and over, and a girl who stood perfectly straight, clutching a blue bag to her chest. She was a Level 2. I knew that because Level 1’s had not been to school and did not have a bag yet. I remembered to be quiet. My mother had cautioned me repeatedly that in the Learning Center, children were not permitted to talk until a teacher told them to. That was hard for me, since I tended to talk most of the time at home, often until my parents shut me in my room for the night. And even then, I talked to the glow-in-the dark stars glued to my ceiling. When the door opened, a lady in a black dress stepped out. She surveyed us with narrowed eyes and a pinched face. The bold kids who were talking stopped talking immediately when she looked out at them. “Welcome back,” she said, in a cold voice that did not make me feel at all welcome. “I trust those of you who have been at our Center before remember the expectations. Education is a privilege—not a right. If you intend to get an education, you will need to remember that at all times.” She was joined at the door by a young man. He wore black slacks and a black vest over a black shirt. He had a similarly pinched expression and called out. “Levels 7 and 8 will follow me!” The last line surged forward and followed the man inside. As they passed the woman at the door, every child bowed his head. I remember feeling awed that she had so many people nodding to her. I thought she must be a very important person. “Levels 5 and 6 will follow me,” she ordered, and left the door in the hands of a different woman. The third line moved inside, and they bowed to the new-comer, as the previous line had bowed before. This woman was not quite as austere. She wore black like the other two, but her eyes were merry, and she even gave a little smile. “Welcome back,” she greeted the remaining lines. No one answered her, and I had to quickly slam my hand over my mouth to keep from saying thank you. It was a spontaneous gesture, an impulse shoved forward by my nerves and then my relief that she seemed kind. But she was not to lead my line in. She looked at the second line and said, “Levels 3 and 4, please follow me.” One of the students took the door from her. I noticed right away that no one nodded to the boy holding the door now. Apparently, one only nodded to the people in black. When the door closed, and our line had not been picked up, the boy in front of me bit down harder on his lip. “Do you think they forgot us?” he whispered. But in the silence, everyone heard him. “No,” said a young man up ahead a few feet. He slung his bag across his back and turned around to peer over his shoulder at us. “They just have to come really far across the Center go get us, so it takes a little while sometimes.” “Jonathan Mast,” a voice called sharply, and I started. A woman stood in the doorway now. She had on a black skirt and blouse, with a black tie at her throat. One brow was raised sternly down the line. The boy who had comforted us stepped immediately out of the line to be addressed. He inclined his upper body toward the woman. “Yes, Mistress Thyme?” “Did I hear your voice?” the woman replied. Her voice frightened me. I thought at any moment, she would pounce on the boy. “Yes, Mistress Thyme. I was telling the Level 1’s that we sometimes get picked up last. They was scared.” “They were scared,” she corrected him coldly. He bowed again. “Yes, Mistress Thyme. The Level 1’s were scared.” “It is not your place to comfort them, Jonathan Mast,” the woman replied. “Are you an instructor? Are you a prefect?” “No, Mistress.” “Get back in line and remember your place, Mr. Mast.” “Yes, Mistress.” He hopped back in line without another word. He sounded humble, but the twinkle in his eyes made me wonder if he was really scared, or if he was just play-acting to not be in trouble. “I am Mistress Thyme,” the woman declared. “I am a Level 1 instructor. You will be picked up by a Level 1 or a Level 2 instructor every morning. You will not come into the building before being collected, and until you are collected you will stand in a straight, silent line. Is that understood?” Many of the children in the line responded with an inclined head and the words, “Yes, Mistress Thyme.” She scowled at us. “That was sloppy and uneducated. Try again: ‘Yes, Mistress Thyme’ in chorus on three. One…two…three!” I joined the chorus of young voices, repeating her words as I had been instructed. Be obedient. The instructor snapped her fingers at the first child in line—a Level 2—and gestured at the door. The child jumped forward and grabbed hold of the door, shoving herself against it to hold it open. Then Mistress Thyme turned on a heel and said, “Come with me,” to the children in the line. I found myself surging forward with the others, entering the Learning Center for the first time in my life. I did not know then that I would come to dread the sight of the place, the smell of these old halls, and the sound of teachers’ reproaching voices. But my first steps in were filled with wonder. The smells and sounds and sights were new and exciting. My heart beat so fast and so hard that I thought the instructor would be able to hear it from the front of the line… (part 1)