Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.
This is the forty-fourth John Lane story
As Ms. Ruiz passed out papers to her senior English class, she said, "Try to read chapters one to five of Frankenstein in the handout. You can thank the not-so-generous voters for the lack of real copies."
Moving his photocopies back and forth, Kevin said, "Hey, Ms. R., I can't read this."
John held his up and said, "I can't read mine, either."
Daria squinted and said, "Hmm...I can just make out the words 'incipient migraine.'"
Ms. Ruiz said, "Yeah, I know. A secondhand photocopier that came from a college library the day after term papers were due would be a step up from the POS in the teachers' lounge. Do your best and if you resort to watching a movie, stick to the one with Boris Karloff."
Jenna Waters, a LHS junior with wavy red hair and slender, oval glasses, was normally a pleasant girl who enjoyed her after-school work. This afternoon, she wadded up a memo and angrily threw it in the trash can, growling, "Dammit! Ms. Li cut the Lowdown budget, again!"
At her work station, Daria said, "There's been a lot of that going around."
Shaking her head, Jenna said, "On days like this, I wish Ms. Li had taken Jodie's recommendation and made you the editor instead of me."
"Oh, no," Daria said. "I'm fine right where I am. You know as well as I do that Ms. Li and I would've come to blows within two weeks."
Inking one of his cartoons, John said, "Don't look at me."
"Don't worry, we weren't," Jenna said. "But you better get used to using both sides of the Bristol board from now on."
"Get real," he said.
"I'm not kidding."
"This is getting stupid. The work table will ruin anything that's drawn on the back side."
"Either figure a work-around or do your drawings on half a sheet."
John grumbled, "Half a sheet, it is."
In a particularly foul mood, Ms. Barch paced back and forth in front of the room and said, "Class, our planetarium trip has been canceled due to lack of funds, so your assignment tonight is to locate Orion the Hunter in the sky, then write an essay on why you think he needs to carry a weapon to feel like a man."
The bell rang and Ms. Li's voice came over the PA system, saying, "Attention, students," followed quietly by, "An acute paper shortage prevents us from sending home an announcement about the school review meeting." Dropping to a barely audible whisper, she said, "So please remind your parents that it's the 30th at 6:00."
Daria asked, "What'd she say? The 30th?"
"Thank you," Ms Li quietly said to finish the announcement.
Going down the hallways after class, Daria said, "Why didn't she come on before the bell rang so we could hear her?"
John shrugged and said, "Well, considering it was about a school review meeting, I'd have to say, 'Who cares?'"
"Something smells fishy."
"That's just the 'ocean fish surprise' from lunch."
In the paper workroom, Daria said to Jenna, "That's Super Bowl Sunday? Great, just great. That means that Ms. Li is trying to hide something. Why don't you send one of the regular reporters out to cover it?"
"I'm sorry, Daria," Jenna said. "But they all have commitments."
"What about you?"
"Um, so do I."
"And everyone knows that Daria Morgendorffer doesn't have plans."
"Well, yeah. Sorry. The paper really needs to cover it and you're the most available staff member."
"I'll think about it."
"I'll send John with you. He can do courtroom sketches."
"Hey, wait a minute!" he said.
Daria said, "If I can spread the misery, okay."
At the dinner table, Quinn explained, "After all, it's a Super Bowl party with guys yelling and jumping up and down and spilling stuff like drinks and dip. I mean, oh my God, onion dip, chili dip, cheese dip, and that funny green stuff. You have to plan ahead, so Stacy and I found simply the greatest prints you'd ever want to see to wear."
Helen said, "That's wonderful, honey."
Toying with her food, Daria said, "John and I are going to be covering a school review meeting that Ms. Li called on Super Bowl Sunday for the paper."
Helen said, "Really? That's odd. Well, maybe she's not a football fan."
John said, "You know she's trying to pull something. Why don't you come with us? Just in case."
"John, I'm sorry, but Jake and I have to go to Eric's Super Bowl party."
That broke Jake's concentration on his dinner and he exclaimed, "Not again?"
Helen sighed and said, "If I skip it, I won't look like a team player."
Jake said, "Honey, I don't want to spend another Super Bowl with a bunch of freakin' lawyers! All they do is drink their highballs and smoke their smelly cigars. Bunch of lousy…"
Helen snapped, "Jake! I got five people to promise that they'd talk to you."
"I had to call in a few favors…thank God we skipped out of the Halloween party early."
Quinn said, "Excuse me, but I think Daria's on to something."
Surprised, Daria said, "Thanks, Quinn. Mom, the high school principal called a public meeting that she doesn't want anyone to attend. Aren't you the least bit worried?"
Helen said, "Didn't you say that you and John were going?"
"Then tell us what happened when you get home."
Leonard Lamm's entire look, feel and demeanor oozed "sales" as he spoke at the podium of the Lawndale High auditorium. "So if I may sum up: our young people are our greatest resource. Therefore, let us mine that resource and allow their thirst for refreshment to fuel their thirst for knowledge. That, ladies and gentlemen, is empowerment. Thank you."
Ms. Li hurriedly replaced him at the podium and, while clapping, said, "Yahoo! Well, if that's not inspiring then I wasn't named fourth runner-up for Principal of the Year by the tri-county chapter of the Asian-American Women in Education's Caucus. Now, I'm sure you all want to get home and watch the game, but first we've allotted...three minutes for public commentary on Mr. Lamm's proposal."
Ms. Li ignored Daria when she stood up, and instead said, "Nobody? Very well, then."
Daria pointedly said, "Excuse me."
Annoyed, Ms. Li said, "Um, yes, Ms. Morgendorffer?"
"You're planning to make soda companies bid against each other for the right to market their products in Lawndale High?"
Mr. Lamm stepped back to the podium. "That's right. All you kids have to do is what you'd do anyway: drink soda."
"Does that mean that everywhere I turn I'll run into a vending machine?"
"Well, there wouldn't be much value to the contract if the product weren't easily available," Mr. Lamm said, followed with a faux laugh.
"And what else?"
"Nothing but a few small, discreet advertising posters in the halls. Nothing in questionable taste. And, if we're lucky, an exciting new high-tech scoreboard for athletic events, boys' and girls'."
Daria said, "So the school will, in effect, be endorsing the soda? Is that really the school's role, to become a shill?"
Lamm probed, saying, "Miss...do you drink soda?"
"Huh? Of course."
"This isn't about whether I like soda. It's about whether a public high school should be using its status as a place of authority to serve as one more marketing tentacle of corporate America. With the taxpayers subsidizing it."
John glanced at Daria and thought, Good one.
Mr. Lamm said, "Surely you give your friends enough credit to know when they're being taught and when they're being sold to?"
Dispirited, Daria said, "I give them enough credit to figure out about three seconds after those machines arrive that they can't trust this institution. The few who still do."
Ms. Li rushed back to the podium to end the affair. "Oh, dear...darn it, our time is up. I've got Super Bowl fever. Go, teams, go!"
John and Daria watched, dumbfounded, as she pushed Mr. Lamm off of the stage.
On the drive home, Daria said, "This whole thing sucks. They shouldn't be selling stuff to people under the guise of educating them. Don't you think it's totally unethical and underhanded?"
John said, "Exactly what we've come to expect out of Ms. Li."
"This time, we have to do something about it."
"You don't think I'm going to do this alone, do you?"
"And that's exactly what I'd expect out of you. I'm in. What are we going to do?"
"I don't know. There's only so much we can do through the paper since Ms. Li can shut down anything she doesn't like."
"It doesn't seem fair that she can do that."
"You remember what Mom said. Since it's the official school paper and Ms. Li is ultimately responsible for the content, she has final say in what goes in it."
"No wonder so many college papers are independent."
"Tell me about it."
"You're still working on a plan, aren't you?" John said.
Daria admitted, "Yes, and I'll let you know as soon as I figure one out."
"A captive audience of hundreds of money-spending teenagers? What a brilliant idea!" Jake said when Daria had explained what had gone on at the review meeting. When he saw Daria and John's reactions, he said, "Bogus idea. Yeah, that's what I meant, a really bogus idea."
Helen sighed and said, "I can't say that I'm surprised that Ms. Li would do something like this, considering the failure of the school tax increase last fall, but there's not much we can do from a legal standpoint."
Daria said, "But what about the meeting? She barely advertised it."
"She made an announcement over the PA system, correct?" Helen said.
"Yeah," John answered. "But we could barely hear her."
"But you heard and attended. She'll be able to say that since you knew about it, there was an adequate announcement."
"You sound like you're defending her," Daria said.
"I'm bringing up what she could use as a legal defense. Sweetie, Ms. Li isn't stupid. She set this up so that she could get what she wanted out of it."
"And cover her ass at the same time," John said.
Helen said, "Before you two start anything, remember: you may have youth and skill, but she has old age and treachery on her side. I don't need to remind you which one usually wins."
Jenna was at her Lowdown work desk as she read Daria's article on her computer. "A soda contract. So that's what the whole review meeting was about."
"Yep," John said. "Now we really can call Ms. Li a sellout."
"Or at least willing to sell us," Daria said.
"I'm beginning to think I should have you do more reporting," Jenna said. "I know this is burning you up, but your article really sticks to the facts."
"It should be all that's needed," Daria said. "But I’m not naïve enough to believe that. However, it's the only thing that has a chance of getting past Ms. Li and into print."
"And then what?" Jenna asked.
"With the facts out, let's see what opposition develops."
John said, "Daria, they're making it easier for fellow students to mainline sugar and caffeine."
"It's a faint hope," Daria said. "But we need to give it a shot so that we won't be targeted and neutralized right away."
"Ah, patience," John said. "You know I suck at that."
Only a week later, Lawndale High had been transformed by a blur of yellow and green and the ubiquitous Ultra Cola logo. John said, "Is this what Quinn likes to call a makeover?"
"Close," Daria said. "Except that Quinn would show much better taste."
Noting the students gathered around the numerous soda machines and milling around the hallways clutching open cans, Daria said, "So much for spontaneous opposition to being sold to."
"We shouldn't be surprised after Kevin read your story and said, 'Yeah, more soda machines!'" After seeing one student drain a can, toss it into the trash and immediately open a second, John said, "Sheesh, did they add crack to that stuff or something? Even I wait five seconds between cups of coffee in the morning."
"I've always admired your restraint."
John smirked. "And I've never drunk directly from the coffee pot."
"I still feel sorry for Mom trying to explain why Dad's lips were burnt to the emergency room nurse."
"What now? Try to organize a boycott?"
She shook her head. "Most of the students like mainlining soda and the ones that don't like it already aren't buying."
"Hmm, damn. I hate it when you use logic."
"I guess we should at least try to work through channels."
"You don't think that'll work, do you?"
Daria and John found Jodie in the library. They sat down next to her and Jodie said, "Hey."
Daria said, "You've got to do something about this."
John pointed to an Ultra Cola sign attached to one of the shelves and said, "That."
"Oh, yeah. Yeah, that's kind of sleazy."
Daria said, "Will you talk to someone about it?"
Jodie held up her hands and said, "I'd have to go to the superintendent of schools."
John said, "Cool. So, you'll do it?"
Jodie frowned and said, "John, it's bringing in a lot of money to the school. I don't know."
"Even though you admitted it was sleazy?" Daria said.
Feeling embarrassed, Jodie said, "Well, yeah. But the Lawndale Model Congress is going to Washington next month and, for the first time in three years, we don't have to sell 500 rolls of gift wrap to pay for the bus."
John said, "So you're willing to let the bad habits of other students fund your trip?"
Jodie sighed and said, "Nobody is holding a gun to their heads and making them buy sodas. Who am I to tell them what they should drink? Or you?"
"Do you really believe that?" Daria asked.
"It's happening whether we like it or not," Jodie said. "At least we're able to get some good out of the situation. You can see that, can't you?"
Daria said, "I didn't realize that soda would cover the price of a soul."
"I guess it's better than selling my soul with wrapping paper."
Dejected, Daria sat, hunched, on her bed. "Jodie had a point. Who am I to decide what other students should drink? It's their bodies and their choice."
"But it's not a great choice and the only other alternatives are the suspect milk the cafeteria serves or that stuff the city Public Works department claims to be tap water."
"But it's still their choice," Daria said. "Isn't that what I keep going on about? That people should be able to think for themselves and make their own decisions?"
"Thus, my conundrum."
John sat on the bed. "Damn, living up to good ethical standards is a pain in the ass."
"Yeah, it is." She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "But having another ass around helps."
Later in the evening, Helen stopped John in the upstairs hall and said, "Daria seems a little out of sorts tonight. Care to fill me in?"
He said, "Oh, it's Ms. Li's soda contract and what's going on at school."
"She's trying to come up with something to do about it?"
"Not right now. She's trying to balance doing one right thing against doing another right thing."
Helen knowingly sighed and said, "The downside of a conscience. What right thing is she trying to balance against fighting Ms. Li's soda contract?"
"That the other students have the right to choose what they want to drink. Yeah, soda's a bad choice, but…"
"I see," Helen said.
"These things always require striking a balance. The trick is to figure out where that is."
"In other words, we're going to have to figure it out on our own."
Helen patted him on the shoulder. "That's life. But, you know, I think you'll be fine."
When a hurried student bumped against Andrea while she waited in line at the cafeteria, she snapped at him, "Try some meth, it might slow you down." She grabbed a carton of milk to go with her lunch before moving away.
Daria watched the scene and said, "Is it me, or are our fellow students more hyper than normal?"
"Only what you'd expect from dumping half a dozen cans of caffeine down each of them a day."
As she had every day, Daria made it a point to pick up milk with her lunch before proceeding down the line. "It's their choice," she said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself.
John didn't think she was succeeding.
It took only a couple of weeks before things changed for the worse. The first obvious change was the banners and pennons on the school buses advertising Ultra Cola. The next happened when John and Daria went to their science class.
At the front of the room, Ms. Barch appeared to be in a fouler mood than usual as she growled, "Class, there's been a change in our lesson plan. Today we'll discuss the planets' relative distance from the sun."
Upchuck said, "But we did that two weeks ago, Ms. B."
Ms. Barch snapped back, "And now we're going to do it again, Charles. Unless you wish to spend the period in independent study?"
Upchuck, along with most of the boys in class, shuddered when he said, "No...not the closet."
Looking pained to show the object, Ms. Barch lifted a model of the solar system made from Ultra Cola cans. "Now, the reason for the change is that I've received a brand new...learning aid." Looking even queasier, she read from a card, saying, "Why, look, students. A three-dimensional model of our solar system, graciously provided by Ultra Cola. Ultra Cola: the favorite beverage in any universe. We can use it to discuss which planets' atmospheres might support the process of carbonation." Unable to continue, she plopped the mobile on her desk with a loud rattle and said, "Or I can just spend the rest of the day in the teachers' bathroom, staring at the tiles," before she walked out of the room.
Ms. Li's voice came over the PA system, saying, "Good Ultra Cola morning, students. I am pleased to announce an Ultra Cola schedule change. From now on, the period between classes will be increased from five minutes to ten, allowing you more time to get to your Ultra Cola lockers, organize your Ultra Cola backpacks, and still enjoy a delicious Ultra Cola. Ultra Cola: the refreshing way to learn."
Seeing the look on Daria's face was all John needed to know that things had changed.
On her way out of the room, Daria grabbed the lesson plan from Ms. Barch's desk and said, "I'm all for giving other students their choice on what to drink, but when it starts to infringe on giving them an education, I've had enough."
John said, "I wonder if Ms. Barch was the only teacher to get stuck with these things?"
Down the corridor, they looked into Mr. DeMartino's room to see that he was facing a soda can-shaped globe while bashing his head against the desk. Between bangs, he grumbled, "Argh! Stupid...argh! Stupid cola...argh...frngn...brmflp...marketing contract...argh...!"
John steered Daria away from the room while saying, "That blew even my stupid-o-meter. We have to do something."
"We?" Daria said. "I'm going to hold you to that."
At the other end of the hall, they spotted Kevin, wearing a new football uniform that was in Ultra Cola colors, talking to Brittany, whose new cheerleader uniform was a giant soda can. Even at this distance, they knew they didn't want to hear the details and they quickly went the other direction. John said, "Sorry, I was wrong. That blew my stupid-o-meter."
While sitting in the waiting room of the school superintendent's office with Daria, John said, "You owe me big time for this, Daria."
Daria said, "You're the one who said, 'we.'"
"I know, but this is way above and beyond acceptable Lane involvement in school politics."
"Me, too." Daria flapped a folder she was holding. "That's why I brought a little evidence."
The administrative secretary said, "You can go in now."
The faint, "Eep!" from Daria brought a smile to John's face.
Daria and John were seated in front of School Superintendent Cartwright's desk as Daria completed her statement by saying, "We recognize that advertising is becoming more and more ingrained in our culture and sponsorship money can be useful in tough economic times, but we think that it becomes a problem when that advertising pre-empts education, as we described."
Mr. Cartwright said, "Ms. Morgendorffer...I hope you don't mind that I punched your name up on the computer. You have a very impressive academic record."
Daria nodded, "Um, thanks."
"And yours, Mr. Lane, is, well, less robust, but solid."
"I try," he said.
"And both of you have an interesting mix of extracurriculars."
Daria asked, "What does that have to do with anything?"
Mr. Cartwright flipped through the Ultra Cola lesson plans that Daria had picked up from Ms. Barch's desk. "It tells me that you take your education seriously. Something I don't always see in young people."
"Does that mean you're going to help?" John asked.
"Lawndale High is the only school in the county currently running a surplus. I was thinking about talking to Leonard Lamm about writing a contract proposal for all our schools."
Daria said, "You've got to be kidding. We've really gone out on a limb to come here and you still want to talk to him about contracts for other schools?"
"I said, 'was thinking.' What you've brought in is making me reconsider." He tapped the folder. "These lesson plans don't come anywhere near the district standards. I have to investigate, or the voters will have my head on a platter come next election."
"Thank you," Daria said. "And while it wouldn't cross most of their minds to say so, thanks on behalf of the rest of the students at Lawndale."
"Yeah, thanks," John said. "But can you do us one more favor?"
Mr. Cartwright said, "What would that be?"
"Can you not mention our names in all of this? You know, peer pressure and all that stuff."
Mr. Cartwright knowingly tipped his head and stood. "I'll consider this an anonymous tip. I know how Ms. Li can get. Thank you for coming in."
Daria and John thanked him again as they left the office. Once out of the building, Daria said, "He's only concerned about covering his ass during the next election. And damn, he even knows how Ms. Li can hold grudges."
"At this point, I'll take what we can get. After all, don't you get a certain satisfaction from twisting someone's bad motivation into doing something good?"
"It makes life tolerable at times."
Grasping Daria's hand, John said, "I hope he investigates soon."
"From the way he handled those lesson plans like hazardous waste, I bet he's going to be there in less than a week."
John looked down and said, "Hazardous waste? I hope you washed your hand."
Andrea caught up with them in the hallway a couple of days later and kept pace a step behind as they walked to their lockers. "You've gotta do something," she said.
"We've got to do something about what?" John said.
"This damn soda insanity," Andrea said. "I swear that if I have to spend the rest of the year looking at these eye-bleeding colors, I'll go postal and no machine will get out of here alive."
"I'm sure that there's more to it than an offended color sense," Daria said.
"Of course," Andrea said. "Everyone's gone all hyper and the lines are even longer in the bathrooms. It's a good thing Ms. Li gave us more time between classes. If you've gotta go, you need the extra five minutes."
When he arrived at Lawndale High, Superintendent Cartwright was surprised at the glaring amount of Ultra Cola advertising around the school. He had to walk around large knots of students gathered around the soft drink machines to make his way to the school's main office.
He saw the two teenagers that had alerted him to the situation speaking to a third. He barely gave them a nod of recognition before he went through the office front door.
Andrea saw the superintendent's glance and whispered, "Thank you."
"Please keep quiet about it," John said. "We don't need the grief."
"I won't say anything, but everyone will know you did something."
"How could they know it was us?" Daria asked.
"Because nobody else would."
Inside, Mr. Cartwright told the receptionist, "I'm here to see Ms. Li."
"I'm sorry Mr. Cartwright," she said. "But Ms. Li is in a meeting with Mr. Lamm right now."
"Then my timing is perfect," he said while going to the door to Ms. Li's inner office.
"How dare you…" Ms. Li started to say as the door opened. She stopped when she saw who was at the threshold. "Mr. Cartwright. What a pleasant surprise."
"Good morning, Ms. Li," he said. "And to you, Mr. Lamm."
"Good morning," the soda company representative said.
Mr. Cartwright placed his briefcase on Ms. Li's desk and, with a click, opened it. "I'm hoping that you two can clear up some confusion I have. By the way, Ms. Li. When did Lawndale High change its colors? I thought they were blue and yellow."
"Well, um…" Ms. Li said, stalling while she tried to come up with an answer.
Mr. Cartwright placed the science lesson plans in front of Ms. Li. "Can you please explain to me how these unapproved lesson plans from Ultra Cola came to be in use?"
"They are purely optional supplements graciously provided by Ultra Cola," Mr. Lamm said. "As part of our commitment to education of the whole child."
Mr. Cartwright said, "Oh, really? I was under the impression that these were mandatory lesson plans. Ms. Li, you do remember how…touchy…the state curriculum committee can get about standards, don't you?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Cartwright," she blurted out. "How could I ever forget?"
Mr. Cartwright turned to Mr. Lamm. "I noticed all the banners and advertising all over the school. I have to wonder if there isn't some sort of undue influence going on here that might be jeopardizing the quality of education in this school."
Quiet and apologetic-sounding, Ms. Li said, "Mr. Cartwright, it's embarrassing to admit, but…"
At the breakfast table, Daria set down the copy of the Lawndale Sun-Herald and said, "So in the end, our actions gave Ms. Li the means she needed to come out almost smelling like a rose. Great."
"So now she's the earnest educator that was mercilessly exploited by the slick corporate hack. But at least we won something," John said. "The posters, banners and 'teaching aids' are gone."
"Yeah, but Ultra-Cola still has the contract for the cafeteria, sporting events and after-school sales. I can't help but feel like we won the battle but lost the war. With them having a foot in the door, Ultra-Cola can push things up a little bit at a time."
"Slowly, so nobody notices," John said, suddenly dejected.
"Precisely. We protected our classmates, but somewhere down the line after the spotlight is gone…"
"The fight never ends, does it?"
Helen, who was also sitting at the table, listening, gently said, "It never does."
Some dialog from Fizz Ed by Glenn Eichler
Thanks to Kristen Bealer and Ipswichfan for beta reading.