Crown of Excellence

Equality. Temperance. Excellence.

           Arvin Pelmo sat in an oaken armchair, feeling its ancient polished wood under his palms. He pronounced in his mind the Three Virtues arching over the tall figure of Dean Magda, as she stood silently in front of the room’s massive window, looking over the meticulously manicured lawns of Culver House.  Framed in filtered sunlight, she wore her official black robe, usually reserved for ceremonies and banquets.

            Finally she turned, her face both regal and impassive.

“Do you know why you are here?” she asked.

            “No, Dean Magda.  I was hoping you would tell me the reason for this meeting.”

            Indeed, he was.  The whole semester had passed without so much as a demerit, a warning, or reprimand.  He studied her face, but still saw no hint of her mood or disposition.

            “Mr. Pelmo, we would like to offer you an opportunity.  But first, we need to clear a few things up.”

            Sweat began to form on Arvin’s neck.  He wondered if he could refuse such an offer.

            Dean Magda stepped over to her desk and opened a white plastic box, from which she drew a silver helmet.  Arvin recognized this conglomeration of wire and electrodes and  circuitry.  It was even fitted, ironically, with mock jewels and fleurs-de-lis.

            “You know what this is,” she stated.

            “The dummy hat,” he answered.

            “The Champion’s Crown,” she corrected sternly.

            Yeah, right, he thought to himself.  He had watched different students wear the device from week to week and come to his own conclusions.

            “Mr. Pelmo, the Champion’s Crown was designed by our engineers to help students who have trouble in their studies,” she explained. “Every week, the lowest achieving students are assigned to wear the Crown, to bring them more in line with Culver House’s foundational virtues.”

            This is a lie, Arvin thought.  He had formed his suspicions from the beginning, but Leila confirmed them.

            Leila with her silver hair and wide green eyes, her skin so pale he could see every vein. Her hypnotic, heartbreaking smile.  Besides being the most alluring creature Arvin had ever seen, she was easily one of the smartest students at the academy.  Everything about her exuded wit and savvy.  She was a razor knife in a shed already full of sharp things.

            Several weeks earlier he had found her sitting beside the Horse Fountain in the main courtyard at night, alone and weeping.  She wore the Crown.

            “I don’t understand,” she sobbed. “I’m sure I didn’t miss any questions on any of the exams.  I did my best.  How can I be stuck wearing this thing?”

            She was right.  It didn’t make a bit of sense, unless the Crown is something entirely different than what the school staff is claiming.

            “I can’t stand it,” she lamented. “It feels like a tiny beehive is deep inside my head.”

            “Did they tell you what you missed?” he had asked her.

            “No,” she said. “They didn’t explain anything.”

            No, he thought.  They never do.  Leila wore the crown for two more weeks after that night.  And now…Leila was different.  She just wasn’t Leila anymore.

            “You don’t believe me,” Dean Magda declared.

            “No.”

            “Mr. Pelmo, the reason you were summoned here is twofold.  First, you are a slacker.  A sandbagger.  I took a great chance on you, letting you come to this school, considering your previous…shall we call them…brushes with authority.  But you had limitless potential.  Since then, however, you have never once achieved top score in any class.”

            “Is that a crime?” Arvin asked.

            “Not necessarily.  But I will tell you this. It is statistically unlikely.  So much so that my staff have confirmed it is virtually impossible to have occurred, given your entrance scores.  You are doing this on purpose.  You have guessed the real purpose of the Crown.”

            Arvin couldn’t deny it.  Still, he said nothing.

            “Mr. Pelmo, we look for students with exceptional intuition.  It’s something that cannot be taught.  We do value raw intelligence, but not too much intelligence, if you follow me.”

            Arvin nodded.

            “Equality.  Temperance.  We cannot develop these fully in students who exhibit too much intelligence.  They will never have the self-control to be truly temperate.”

            “You mean obedient,” Arvin said.

            She ignored the comment.

            “They will never truly fit in with the Academy’s goal of preparing young people for life in the Frontier Colonies, to integrate into a way of life that demands a loyalty to the greater good,” she continued.

            “You mean having their own ideas, their own identities,” Arvin countered.

            Dean Magda stared at him for what seemed like a very long while.

            “You’re very bright, Arvin.”  She was smiling now. “You see things.  That’s why I am making you this offer, a chance to latch on to the greater vision we have here at Culver House. An opportunity to make a real difference.”

            Arvin waited.

            “We are offering you a junior position on our training staff.  You will no longer attend classes.  You will be one of us, Arvin, and help administer the curriculum.  I will only ask you one time.  I need your answer at once.”         

            There was no question in Arvin’s mind what this offer meant.  He thought about his previous life in the Terran slums, the poverty and uncertainty.  He thought about the future he had imagined out among the stars.  He thought about Leila.  Would he do that to her?

            “Dean Magda, I must refuse.  Thank you for your consideration.”

            Silence.

“I thought so,” she answered, her smile fading.

            Suddenly Arvin felt steely hands grip his shoulders, pinning him to the chair.  When had they entered the room?  He thought he was alone with the Dean.  Now he sensed he truly was alone, unable to move.

            Dean Magda glided slowly over to him and placed the Crown on his head.  Immediately he heard a faint buzzing all around him.

            “Excellent,” she pronounced.

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