‘Nobody likes a smartarse’ said Sally Bower “But I think you might be overreacting. Grady is full of his own importance, but he is gifted. And he’s only 15 remember. I quite like a kid with attitude”. “You’re probably right, but you only take him for music. Try teaching Artificial Intelligence. The cocky bastard told me Hannah Fry’s Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms was out of date the day it was published!” replied a clearly irritable Julius Sternberg.
“Well, Julius, I hate to tell you this, but I think he might be right. As I recall, it was reprinted in the same year with a new title Hello World: How to be Human in the age of the machine.”
“The sooner he gets off to university the better” added Sternberg, ignoring his colleague’s comment. “He needs to be confronted with some serious competition, the arrogant little sod”.
“He told me he didn’t need to go to university” chipped in Michael Black, earwigging the conversation from his desk on the opposite side of the Saffron County High Staff room. “Not necessary to go to a fuddy duddy out of touch institution to be a Hedge Fund manager, he said. And why do you want to be a Hedge Fund manager I asked him?”
“And let me guess what he said” interrupted Sally Bower. “To be a billionaire as quickly as possible!”.
“That’s exactly what he said” confirmed Michael Black. “He can’t wait to get to a specialist sixth form college to complete his preparations”.
“I don’t recall seeing a course on ‘How to Become a Billionaire’ on the prospectus of Cambridge College” grumbled Julius Sternberg. “If there was one, I would sign up for it myself!”
“We all know playing the Stock Exchange is a mug’s game”, said Michael Black, “Just another way of gambling and almost as addictive”.
“It’s better than ending up as a couch potato,” said Sally Bower, determined to fight Grady’s corner. “You must admit teaching someone with a Mensa rating of 157 who has a clear vision of where he wants to go trumps some of the dross we have to put up with.”
“Sally!” exclaimed June Whitecroft, the deputy head, joining the conversation for the first time. “You can’t refer to our students as dross. You will have the woke brigade on to us in a flash demanding a public apology.”
“Sorry” replied Sally. “I didn’t mean it literally, as well you know. This job is tough enough without wokery. I just think that Grady has a point.”
“OK, so what is he keen to study next as he prepares to be a billionaire?” asked Julius Sternberg, finding it hard to suppress his sarcasm.
“Calculus” said Michael Black with a smile on his face.
“Calculus” repeated Julius Sternberg sounding more and more like a parrot imitating a robot. “And he thought Hannah Fry was out of date!”
Sally Bower couldn’t resist another mischievous comment. “I’m only a humble music teacher Julius. I know very little about science or mathematics but am I not right in thinking that Archimedes died in Syracuse, Sicily in or around 212 BC. And yet, his famous principle is still taught today is it not?”
Julius Sternberg laughed out loud as he realised, he wasn’t going to win his argument. Even though Archimedes wasn’t associated with Calculus, he would need to double check before opening his mouth again and risk putting his foot in it.
“White flag being waved from here Sally” he said, “But Grady does need to learn a lesson in humility sometime – any ideas, learned colleagues?”
There followed a few moments quiet contemplation before the silence was broken by June Whitecroft. “What about next month’s special PTA session of the Debating Society?”
“What about it?” said Julius Sternberg.
“The head is always keen to promote our achievements,” she added. “Why not get Grady to be one of the three speakers?”
“That’s a brilliant idea,” said Michael Black. “A balloon debate with Grady promoting one of the occupants would really test his abilities, perhaps even reveal his limitations, if only to himself”.
“Especially as the other two speakers will be a member of staff and a parent!” exclaimed Julius Sternberg enthusiastically. “I might even volunteer myself to be the teacher representative, subject to your collective approval of course”.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said June Whitecroft laughing. “Remember our esteemed colleague Sammy Braithwaite’s humiliation last year?”
“Sam should have been better prepared.” said Michael Black, “Poor sod was expecting an easy ride!”
“That’s right” added Julius Sternberg. “But to be fair he didn’t know the parent representative would turn out to be Sandy Toksvig arguing the case for Joan of Ark.”
“That’s true” agreed June Whitecroft. “But surely, he could have made a better case for Mother Theresa to be saved! Even Kathy Smith from Form 5b beat him with a, frankly, lacklustre defence of Victoria Beckham of the Spice Girls.”
Michael Black added “the local newspaper didn’t help with its misleading banner headline “Local School throws Mother Theresa overboard!”
Sally Bower listened in with a smile. She hadn’t been able to attend last year but there had been much ribaldry in the staff room for several days following Sammy’s infamous denouement. It was probably the reason ticket sales for this year’s Debate were breaking new records.
The occupants of the balloon are kept a secret from the audience until the night of the Debate, but the three speakers are given their allocated briefs a week beforehand when the Head overseas a short ceremony in his office during which lots are drawn.
Sally wondered how Grady would cope as the pupil rep. This year’s occupants of the theoretical hot air balloon were to be Winston Churchill, Marie Antoinette and Adolf Hitler.
Steven Jones was somewhere between Bristol and Swindon on the M4 when his mobile phone lit up on the dashboard of his Porsche Taycan Turbo S. He recognised the name immediately although it was rare for his niece to resort to calling – she normally relied on WhatsApp texting if she had something on her mind.
“Hi Julie!” he said, pushing a button for enhanced stereo sound quality. “Great to hear from you – how is the boy genius coming along?”
“Hi Uncle!” she replied laughing “No doubt you are driving somewhere between big deals in your latest car”.
“You are not far off the truth as it happens but looks can be deceptive. I’m driving a car which got a rave review in Top Gear Magazine. I’ve only hired it for the day. But what can I do for you? It’s unusual for you to call, especially during the day when you should be busy at your salon. Nothing wrong I hope!”
“No, no, Uncle; but a situation has cropped up with Grady – and it can’t wait. We both thought you might be able to give him/us some advice. You are, after all, a supersonic salesman.!”
“Flattery will get you everywhere Julie, as well you know. Mind you, as a professional hairdresser you could teach me more about the subject of selling than I could ever teach you!”
“On this occasion I’m definitely out of my depth” admitted his niece, ruefully.
“I’m intrigued. I’ll pull over at the next service station and call you back. If you have your laptop handy, we can do a Zoom call which I can take in my all-electric Porsche Taycan. OK? Perhaps you could have the boy wonder at your end as well. I’m not sure I can teach him anything either, but I will do my best!”
Thirty minutes later Steven greeted Julie and Grady as they came up on his dashboard screen.
“Hi guys! The wonders on modern technology. Great to see you both. How can I help?”
“Hi Uncle” said Grady, keen to engage with his mentor. “I’m in a balloon debate next week. I will be up against Sir Winston Churchill and Marie Antionette. Just thought you might have done something similar yourself in your youth”.
“I’m not that old Grady!” replied Steven laughing. “WW2 ended within a few months of my birth and, if I recall correctly, Marie Antionette was executed around the time of the French Revolution!”
“Oh, very funny Uncle,” said Julie. “But do you know about balloon debates?”
“Yes, I think so” replied Steven “when I was at school, we called them raft debates. Three or four famous people are shipwrecked and end up on a raft together but there is not enough in the way of rations for all of them to survive. You debate which one must be sacrificed so the others can make it. Am I right?”
“Spot on Uncle” said Grady enthusiastically, “I knew you would be able to help me. According to Mum, you can sell anything to anybody!”. “I think that might be stretching flattery a bit too far Grady. So, who are you trying to save?”
“Adolf Hitler!” announced Grady, with something approaching cautious optimism.
Before Steven had a chance to react, Julie jumped in with an angry outburst.
“Grady has been stitched up by one of his teachers” she said. “The creep who teaches Artificial Intelligence has never liked him. The draw by the Head was meant to be impartial but Sternberg drew Winston Churchill who will easily win.”
“Steady on Julie,” said Steven. “You can’t go making wild accusations like that without some evidence. How do you feel about the brief, Grady?”
Grady smiled his usual smug smile before announcing. “I know I am as good as Mr Sternberg Uncle Steven, whether the draw was fixed or not, but I need your help on how to present the case.”
“That’s the spirit Grady! We need to devise a platform which showcases your superior intellect but does not antagonise the audience. Believe me, nobody likes a smartarse, so the approach must be plausible but nuanced”.
“You’ve completely lost me, Uncle” said Julie honestly. “Nuanced? What does that mean?”
Steven laughed. “I think Grady knows what I am getting at, but it will not be easy. It will need careful preparation. You will remember the launch of my video game, PunterChoice, at Sandown. It was successful but it took two years of research before I could present it to investors.”
“But Uncle, we haven’t got two years,” replied Julie. “We haven’t even got two weeks!”
“I know” replied Steven Jones. “I will meet you on Saturday morning and we can thrash out an approach which ticks all the boxes of a successful sale.”
“Which are what?” asked Grady, ever eager to learn.
Steven responded automatically, without pausing for breath.
! The proposition must be plausible. 2 You must show the audience you believe in it yourself. 3 You must deliver it with enthusiasm.
“We can brainstorm on Saturday for an hour. Rehearse key lines. You can present to me for twenty minutes or longer until you are word perfect.”
“Is there anything I can do in the meantime, Uncle?” asked Grady.
“Find out as much as you can about Adolf Hitler. His early life for example. He was a vegetarian. He wanted to be a painter. There will be something in there we can focus on. I will do the same. OK?”
“See you Saturday!” said Grady. “Will do!” replied Steven cheerily.
Steven Jones drove to his next appointment waiting for inspiration to fire his imagination, preferably before he met up with Grady.
The atmosphere in the school hall was noisily expectant, a bit like entering a boxing arena before the trumpets announce the arrival of the contestants. Parents and teachers were swapping opinions about everything under the sun, with pupils not quite sure how to behave with two competing cadres of authority surrounding them. It was clear that many were hoping for a repeat of last year’s Debate which had been unexpectedly entertaining.
Steven Jones took his place next to Julie, his niece, about halfway down the hall but slightly to one side. Julie was clearly nervous but was beaming at everyone she recognised, some of whom Steven guessed must be clients of hers.
A hush descended as the headmaster entered from a side door to the right of the stage accompanied by the three debaters; whereupon a spontaneous round of applause broke out which seemed to catch Julius Sternberg by surprise. He dropped a sheaf of papers he was carrying. Good natured laughter followed as he gathered them up.
Grady, dressed in his full school uniform, smiled confidently throughout the preliminaries.
At this point, the parent representative, a tall well-dressed individual in a city suit, who acknowledged his own family contingent with an imperious wave of his hand, remained unknown to most, although his name and background was on the printed programme handed out by 6th form monitors as people arrived.
On the stage itself there were two lecterns. One, which the head stood behind on the right and another one set back slightly in the middle, from where each speaker was expected to stand to deliver his presentation. The three contestants occupied seats reserved for them in the front row.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” the head announced in a clear authoritative voice. “A very warm welcome to you all for what I know will be another entertaining evening. I am particularly grateful to my staff for devising this event which has proved so popular over the last three years. For those who may be unfamiliar with the format, allow me to explain what will happen and how you will all have an opportunity to participate.
“Imagine that three famous individuals have taken off in a hot air balloon together. Suddenly, weather conditions take a turn for the worst. The balloon needs to reduce its payload by one occupant immediately, if the remaining two are to be saved. Which one would history judge worth being sacrificed to save the other two?
The three figures for tonight’s debate will be represented by: -
Professor Julius Sternberg, our senior science teacher, who will speak for Sir Winston Churchill.
Sir Michael Hapgood KC, whose two sons are pupils here, who will advocate Marie Antionette.
Grady Butler-Bristow of Form 5b who is putting the case for Adolf Hitler. Grady tells me his ambition is to be a successful hedge fund manager.
There was a gasp among the audience at the Fuhrer’s name which quickly subsided when the Head held up his hand to indicate he had a few more housekeeping notes to deliver.
“Each speaker will be given 15 minutes. A bell will sound when those minutes are up, at which point the speaker must stop, even in mid-sentence.
After the final speech, you will have an opportunity to contribute yourself should you feel the need. Just hold up your hand and my colleague Sally Bower will get a mic to you. Please keep the question or comment as succinct as possible.
Finally, each speaker will then be given two minutes to sum up their case speaking in reverse order to their initial presentations.
Then comes the voting process which I will explain following the conclusion of the Debate and before we break for refreshments. So, without further ado, please welcome our first contribution this evening …. Professor Julius Sternberg!”
A generous round of applause greeted Sternberg who took his place behind the central lectern on which he spread his copious notes. He rattled through Churchill’s numerous achievements hardly pausing for breath, regularly turning over a page of his notes to remind himself of his place.
Steven Jones was reminded of a manic Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at one of the BBC Proms; the difference being Sir Simon would have had his back to the audience, a position which, if adopted by Professor Sternberg, might even have helped his case.
Sternberg’s final climatic peroration urging his audience to vote for Winnie was interrupted by the sound of the bell which was greeted by a thunderous round of applause.
Sir Michael Hapgood KC’s contribution was a masterclass in measured oratory from of a leading criminal barrister, which is what he was during the day. He rarely glanced at his notes which he had on a post card held in his right hand, which he waived from time to time to emphasise a point.
He stood to one side of the lectern against which he occasionally leant to add a touch of intimacy, as if addressing the jury at a major trial.
His client, being the last Queen of France, was treated with sympathetic affection. Marie Antionette’s pivotal role during the French Revolution was simply a result of her high birth and upbringing. Sir Michael explained how she never said, “let them eat cake” and was falsely accused of defrauding the State of revenue in the Affair of the Diamond neckless.
Sir Michael explained how her reputation was tarnished by rumours put about by enemies of her husband King Louise XV1 but, in truth, she was influential in trying to modernise court proceedings. She devoted much of her time to the care of her children which was unusual for a person of her rank and status at that time.
Somehow, Sir Michael was able, skilfully, to imply a comparison with the late Diana, Princess of Wales who died in a car crash, aged 36. Marie Antionette was executed when aged 37.
“Both were victims of their time. Fate cut their lives short, so I urge you to exercise your prerogative wisely in favour of my client”.
As Sir Michael bowed to signify the end of his defence submission; the bell rang followed by tumultuous applause from a clearly impressed audience.
Grady shook hands with Sir Michael as they swapped places, a gesture that was greeted by yet more applause from an appreciative audience, many of whom wondered how Grady could possibly compete.
Grady, seemingly unperturbed, made his way to the centre of the stage and stood in front of the lectern with his hands held aloft acknowledging the reaction.
“Thank you for your reception fellow Saffronians which is greatly appreciated. I feel sure I can speak also for my fellow debaters who have done such a wonderful job for their respective occupants.
I don’t know when each of you first saw the lineup this evening, but we were given our briefs one week ago and I immediately thought …. “Oh dear, I’ve drawn the short straw! Well, that’s the cleaned-up version ….
“I see some nodding heads amongst you.”
Grady begins nodding his own head as if copying some in the audience as he moves over to the edge of the stage but to his right.
“I think there are more nodding heads on this side of the house …. Or possibly not ….
He then moves across to the other side, keeping eye contact with his audience and continuing to nod his head.
“Well, it’s a close-run thing, but this side seems slightly more sympathetic!”
“Hardly a scientific survey but potential objectors who may have infiltrated the event armed with rotten tomatoes, will find it harder to hit a moving target so I will keep on the move”.
From here onwards Grady, with no notes, delivered some passionate thoughts with increasing intensity but always with his eyes fixed on audience members halfway down the hall.
As he moved from one side to the other and back again, it became clearer & clearer that he had captured the collective ear of his audience who were intrigued by his unorthodox approach, none more so than Sir Michael Hapgood KC who frequently led the applause from his ringside seat.
“Let me make one thing clear …. There is no way to justify the abhorrent crimes committed by Adolf Hitler … On the contrary, I have spent the whole of this week looking at his life and work and scratching my head looking for clues to explain his behaviour.
“How was it possible for this pathetic little nobody - who couldn’t paint but thought he was a gifted artist - who never finished any formal education - who never rose above the rank of private in the first world war … yet was decorated … How did this cartoon character persuade millions of his countrymen to vote him into office … “When did he become a vegetarian? Was it a significant factor in explaining his hideous behaviour?
“You may well laugh but I was desperate to find the answer before tonight. Then, suddenly, I had it! My eureka moment! The clue was in the phrase many have attributed to him … “an evil genius”.
The hall was now spellbound as Grady put his proposition to them. “How can you tell an evil genius from a good genius?” I thought “It must be in the wiring of his brain”.
“And the only way to find that out is to gather together a team of the world’s leading neurosurgeons and invite them to take a look – to operate on him as soon as possible!”
“Just stop and think for a moment. Generative AI relies on accurate data. This piece of priceless data could revolutionise the way we think in the future. So … let’s not deny our gifted scientists a unique opportunity to use their scalpels for our future benefit!”
Grady was now front centre stage, dripping with perspiration, as he uttered his final words.
Help me put the evil bastard where he deserves to be - on the operating table!”
The statement was met by the sound of the entire hall leaping up to give Grady a standing ovation which lasted fully ninety seconds. Nobody could remember hearing the bell which might have interrupted Grady two minutes before the end, but Sally Bower was so mesmerised by his performance, she forgot she was the timekeeper.
As he returned to his seat, he was warmly congratulated by Sir Michael Hapgood KC who shook his hand before being seated. Julie grabbed Steven Jones as tears of joy welled up in her eyes.
“Thank you, Uncle” she whispered. Steven whispered back. “A pleasure Julie but it’s not over yet. Its still not in the bag”.
“Ladies and Gentlemen” announced the Head. “Before I ask the contestants back on stage to summarise their cases, are there any questions or comments you would like to make on what has been another fascinating debate.”
No one felt brave enough to contribute so the Head invited all three to summarise their positions. Grady was first up, and he once again stood centre stage and simply said: -
“It has been a privilege to make my presentation and to follow two such brilliant speakers. Well, one, anyway. Thank you.” Which evoked muted laughter.
Sir Michael Hapgood KC said he was confident the jury would come to the right decision based on the evidence he had presented. “I rest my case!” he said.
Professor Julius Sternberg, still clutching his notes to his bosom, said “Sir Winston Churchill deserves your support”.
The Head led a final round of applause for all three speakers before explaining the voting system.
“You have a ballot paper with three names on it. Please mark a cross against your choice. The one with the least number of votes will be thrown overboard. Place your ballot papers in the box as you leave the hall. Then make your way to the canteen, where refreshments are being served. It will be an opportunity for you to speak to our contestants whilst the team adds up the result which I will announce in about 30 minutes.
There was a buzz in the canteen as people pondered the outcome. Some had reservations about their choice, but all were agreed the three speakers had put forward three very different presentations for adjudication.
Grady took the opportunity of introducing his Mum and Uncle to Sir Michael Hapgood who was effusive in his praise of Grady’s advocacy.
“This is my Uncle Steven and Julie, my mum” he said. “My uncle is the creator of PunterChoice the video game which is currently top of the charts”.
“Pleased to meet to Sir Michael,” said Steven. “Typical of Grady to mention one of my successful projects. He never mentions the ones that fail to get off the drawing board. To be fair though, he was the brains behind the algorithms which make the betting element of PunterChoice work.”
“Ah!” said Sir Micheal immediately. “My sons are addicted to PunterChoice. So, its Grady I must blame! I might have guessed having seen your extraordinary performance this evening, a real tour de force. Congratulations young man, you must be in with a very good chance of achieving the impossible with Adolf Hitler!”
“Thank you, sir,” replied Grady. “But I cant take all the credit. Uncle Steven organised my rehearsal schedule”.
“I could see how well prepared you were” replied Sir Michael. “It reminded me of my days at drama school before going on to study law at Cambridge. You are very gifted but, as I discovered for myself, nobody likes a smartarse; your near perfect performance avoided any such accusation, well done, not an easy feat!” Adding, with a wink aimed at Steven and Julie, “Even though you overran by three minutes, I enjoyed every minute of it.”
“Do I detect a hint of a reservation in your voice?” asked Steven carefully.
“Well, possibly” Sir Michael replied equally carefully. “In my professional opinion, I think you might have lost one or two votes with your summing up.”
“What did I do wrong sir?” said Grady anxious to learn.
“At that point, you had the entire room behind you Grady.” Sir Michael continued kindly. “If I had been you, I would simply have said it was a privilege to have followed two brilliant performances. Thank you for taking mine seriously.”
“Isn’t that what he said” asked Julie, defensively.
“No” Sir Michael replied “But we have all done it. Grady couldn’t resist one last quip. Admittedly it raised a laugh from some, but it may have cost him the odd vote with others. I could be wrong, of course, but you did ask!”
“Well, I think we are about to find out” said Steven as the Head called for order.
“The votes have now been counted and verified,” he announced. “One was indecipherable, but all the others were counted and checked, resulting in the following scores.
Sir Winston Churchill - 120
Marie Antionette - 180
Adolf Hitler - 179
I therefore declare that Sir Winston Churchill has been thrown overboard.”
There was an immediate roar of approval from the audience. Many parents and pupils pushed forward to congratulate Grady, shaking his hand and showering him with compliments. Grady accepted the acclamation with a beaming smile but hoping he wasn’t showing his true feelings.
He was shattered by the effort but deep down disappointed he hadn’t won. He turned to Sir Michael Hapgood KC and held out his hand. “Congratulations Sir” he said, “I have learned a lot from you this evening for which many thanks”.
“My pleasure young man, my pleasure, any time!”
Grady turned and was confronted by a smiling Julius Sternberg who immediately hugged his opponent before stepping back, held him by the shoulders, and said. “Fantastic performance, Grady. You have done the school proud tonight. I am so pleased for you”.
“Thank you, sir,” said Grady feeling extremely guilty but smiling his usual smile.
“I have something for you” said Sternberg taking a business card out his wallet and handing it over.
Grady looked at it quizzically. It had the name of a Max Sternberg printed on it, CEO of Blackstone Inc a major Hedge Fund based in New York.
“Max is my cousin” explained Julius Sternberg. “I have told him all about you. Max has always been a highflier. Takes too many risks for my liking but he is very successful. He is keen to start a new fund which majors on generative AI. I told him he should consult you before taking it further. Do feel free to call him over the weekend. He is expecting to hear from you. Good luck!”
Grady was moved to tears and accepted a hug from his Mum who was already crying.
This Decamot was inspired by the following items:
Exchange, fire, kid, representative, platform, university, magazine, potato, stand, will