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art by Junior McLean

The School Counselor

Mark Sarney owes his literacy and interest in science fiction to repeated readings of The Empire Strikes Back novelization in second grade. He is working on publishing a novel about a 24th-century ex-bounty hunter who must predict the future to stop nonviolent terrorists from destroying civilization. He lives in Columbia, Maryland, works in Washington, DC, and writes between them. You can follow him at twitter.com/trackball. This is his first published story.
Sophomore Megan Carroll marched into my office five minutes early. She carried a bulging backpack that threatened to consume her slight frame but that she pretended wasn't heavy. Her shoulder-length blond hair was perfect; she somehow escaped having the bedraggled look everyone else had when they came in from this nasty New England cold.
And here I was, the school counselor, with a beehive of nerves in my stomach.
Megan was conscientious, impatient, smart, and hellbent on becoming a judge by age forty-five. She adored the career projections I provided, pouring over the estimates, asking how the confidence intervals were calculated, and adjusting her extracurricular activities to increase her probability of admittance to Harvard Law. She reminded me of Jeff Gardner, a student I advised eight years ago, except Jeff dreamed of heading the American operations of one of the big Chinese auto companies. And he never had time for friends.
"We need to talk about Susie," Megan said.
Susie Anderson, her best friend since first grade, was the opposite of Megan. They complemented each other's faults and strengths. She knew what she wanted out of her future just as much as Megan but she had very different priorities. She was reassured by her projections, content with the estimated low standard of living if her life contained sufficient adventure.
Megan made her pitch. "Her projections are awful: low income, shorter lifespan. It's already too late to prep her for a decent college. She hasn't invested any hours in mastering something. Most kids have 2,000 hours in a skill or profession by now." Megan had 6,000 hours of mock trial experience already. "Now, I know you can't discuss her problem with me…."
Which was her way of probing to see if I would do exactly that. Instead, I said, "Does Susie think there is a problem?"
"No. That is the problem, Mr. Hernandez," she said. She straightened her shoulders. "I thought the point of the projections was to improve student outcomes post-graduation. Why haven't you pushed her?"
"Whether I have pushed or not is between her and me," I replied, and added, "Did you compare her stress estimates and stochastic happiness index scores to yours?"
She glared at me. Her chance of developing a stress-related illness by age fifty-five, based on chosen profession, personality type, and family history, was north of sixty percent. Probability of a nervous breakdown was seventy percent if she failed to make the judicial bench by forty-five.
"I am in the 99th percentile for mature thinking," she countered. "I know there is more to life than climbing the ladder and having other life goals is okay. But job stress for the wealthy is less a threat than the financial stress experienced by the poor. Susie could end up like her mother."
I shrugged. "I support and inform students' choices about their future by projecting their life course. Students can use the information however they want."
She smiled tightly, getting the hint but ignoring it.
I reached over to the window and clicked off the heater. The air was thick and I felt nauseous. "How did Susie react to your concerns?"
Megan rolled her eyes. "We had a big fight."
"So why are you risking your friendship over this?"
"I'm not. I'm trying to save it. I don't have a lot of time for friends." She looked down, and then back up at me, her expression a mixture of defiance and sheepishness. "I have to choose them carefully."
Everyone likes to believe that they are a unique, original and unpredictable creation. No one can tell us how we think or what we will think in the future. Except that we beautiful originals live in a quantifiable universe. Our personalities and actions are similar enough that they lend themselves to quantification and probabilistic projection.
A hard-charging overachiever shedding her social networks like so much molted snake skin usually begins by dropping friends. Since the middle of the 22nd century, the career projections allowed so much precise planning to be done at such a young age that the American School Counselor Association considered it ethically necessary to alert the overachievers that they may be at risk of becoming social Ebenezer Scrooges. The ASCA rule had set us up to be the ghost of their social future, which was a very different proposition than providing career projections.
I had found out the hard way that when to provide the social life projections, what the right circumstances were to do so, and gauging the student's reaction, were more unpredictable art than science. Some students were pleased to have the information while others dismissed it with extreme prejudice. A few sued for invasion of privacy. Others, like Jeff, couldn't live with the lonely future they now believed they set themselves up for. Ethical or not, I hadn't given the social projections to any student since Jeff.
Until today. I handed Megan her projections and she read them while I watched the snow fall. When I dared to look back at her she was staring at the floor in shock.
I felt sick. "I ran these after Susie told me that she was worried about you," I said gently.
She looked up at me, her eyes brimming with tears, and then a smile broke out. "She's a good friend, huh?"
A grin spread slowly across my face. "Exactly."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 18th, 2011


What if someday high school students expect their guidance counselor to use all the personal data sloshing around society to accurately predict their futures? This story began with that question and ended with how students may rethink their friendships in cold probabilistic terms because of those projections. As someone who greatly benefitted from high school friendships with people headed in different directions than me, I found this intriguing, horrifying and likely to happen.

- Mark Sarney

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