We all gathered in front of a large banner in the immaculate lecture hall, the state’s insignia embroidered on either side. The banner read:
ORIENTATION DAY 2031
I could smell the lingering fumes from a fresh coat of white paint spread across the walls, dried without creases or blotches.
Nerves had everyone chatting and incapable of sitting still.
I sat at the back-left side of the hall next to the wall and my friend, Sarah. I could tell by the way she was fidgeting and biting her nails that she was nervous. We all were.
“You’ll be fine,” I said. “There’s no need to chew your
Sarah narrowed her eyes at me. “Easy for you to say, you know you’ll be fine – more than fine. My scores were shit. I’ll probably have to scrub toilets and wipe rich old people’s arses for the rest of my life, like Mum.”
Someone turned around from the seat in front. “I haven’t seen you around before, where are you from? My name’s Gary Noble.”
“Brownview,” I said. “My name’s—"
“Oh… well that explains it,” he interrupted. “I’m from Hillside. What do you think you will be selected for?”
“Hopefully one of the sciences, or engineering,” I said. “How about you?”
“I am going to be a politician like my dad,” he said.
“I’m sure you will.”
Those who lived on The Hill always got what they wanted. My family, on the other hand, were not as fortunate and had to work hard and long hours, just like everyone else in Brownview.
Everyone in our part of town was always selected for low paying work such as in the factories, fields and sites, or as maids and cleaners.
“You die where you’re born,” Uncle J always said.
But I thought I would finally break the mould. We celebrated when my final exam results came through; I was the first to get such high scores in my family and even Brownview.
I noticed a small crack in the paint on the wall beside me, level with my knee, under the fold-in desk.
“Quiet now, ladies and gentlemen… Quiet… Silence!” a woman’s burly voice pounded around the walls and ceiling.
Everyone stopped talking and moving, our attention now on the large woman down on the stage. Behind her the entire wall lit up, a large monitor.
The woman began her presentation. The words “unity”, “hard work”, “contribution”, “fairness” and “equality” were repeated throughout.
The cracked paint remained wedged in the corner of my sight as I tried to keep them fixed on the speaker. But my eyes kept twitching toward this imperfection in an otherwise perfect hall, where everything was arranged symmetrically.
I scratched at the paint with my fingernail like a scab, trying to be subtle with my hand at my side. It flaked and came off with ease, the thick layers of paint from years past now glued under my fraying nail.
Underneath the paint something was scribbled in thin black marker.
“Stop, you’ll get in trouble,” Sarah whispered.
But I kept scratching, until it revealed ‘Choice is fre’. The rest of the final word was missing.
“Your future awaits!” the speaker concluded.
The hall erupted in applause as the wall monitor dimmed.
The speaker wiped the sweat from her gleaming forehead. “When your name is called, raise your hand and walk down to the stage where you will be assigned your area of work or study – your future.”
Sarah turned to me and squeezed my arm. “This is it. Good luck.”
The energy in the hall turned tense as the wall burned bright once again. Damp hands gripped knees and eyes widened.
People were called one by one down onto the stage, including Gary Noble, where they stood side-by-side facing the audience.
A bold word lit up the screen behind them.
“Congratulations, future leaders! You will be politicians,” the speaker announced.
I could almost hear the creak of Gary’s smug smile as he returned to his aisle receiving handshakes and pats on the back.
The process repeated itself and the applause grew sparse. Doctors, engineers and scientists were now assigned, among others such as accountants and salesmen.
Hospitality and maintenance workers were then called.
My heart pounded.
“This can’t be right, it must be a mistake,” I muttered. I should have been called up earlier.
Sarah and I exchanged a concerned look.
The incomplete writing on the wall irritated me. Choice is what?
Familiar faces from my neighbourhood awaited on stage.
Choice is… free?
“I repeat: Winston Jones!”
Sarah nudged me.
Choice is freedom?
“Winston Jones! Raise your hand and proceed to the stage immediately!”
My hands remained by my side.