"A manager is a better value of well-polished desks," said Matron. Her voice was firm, level, and controlled. She gazed at the class with hazel eyes, as though daring them to challenge her. Finally one of the girls in the front row raised a hand cautiously, edging it upwards when she thought that Matron wasn't looking.
"Yes, Tabithette?" said Matron once the hand had crept an inch above the girl's head.
"What values do less well-polished desks hold for better?" asked Tabithette, speaking slowly as she worked her way around the contorted syntax that Matron liked everyone to use.
"That is a good question," conceded Matron, her head nodding once. "It is probably wise to ask them, don't you think?"
The class murmured assent, not too quietly as that would upset Matron and she might accuse them of mumbling, but equally no-one wished to be heard distinctly above their class-mates and so the noise was a like a small wave breaking on the shore: unmistakeable but unobtrusive."
Matron rapped her knuckles on Tabithette's desk, and the desk stirred slightly, bumping its wooden lid and lifting one of its scarred and cracked legs.
"Desk," said Matron, her tone crisp now, containing a hint of ice on an autumn morning. "What values do you hold?"
"Fresh ink," whispered the desk, its voice like the shushing of leaves in a soft breeze. "Fresh ink is the mark of preparedness. A tiny interior promotes a tidy mind and the finding of things. Iron shoes to protect my feet, my innocent feet that are abused day-in and day-out." The desk fell silent, and the class remained perfectly still, no-one even wanting to move in case their desk decided to speak up next.
"You see," said Matron, "the desk is not concerned with who sits at it. The desk is small-minded and seeks only self-gratification, which as we all know is not permitted within the school. A well-polished desk however, is aware that is a sparkling paragon and seeks to ensure that only someone suitable sits at it. It concerns itself with the manager, and when it finds one it likes it nurtures them, helps them grow, provides them with information that they might not be able to acquire of their own accord. A well-polished desk is a thing of beauty and value."
"Isn't the desk still selfish, though?" asked Tabithette, emboldened by the fact that it was her desk that had been speaking. "It's only promoting its manager for its own ends."
"Altruism is a difficult and dangerous topic," said Matron. "We will begin it next week, and our first task shall be to uncover how hard it is to be truly altrustic. Any action, no matter how well-intentioned, can always be perceived to be acting towards a selfish end, and to avoid such you must only perform actions that you can take no pride in. That is a hard doom to bear."
"Miss?" Angelonne still spoke out of turn despite Matron's beating for the last three weeks. "Miss, how did you make the desk talk like that?"
There was a long silence, in which Matron took her time locating Angelonne at her desk and fixing her with a glassy stare. As Angelonne failed to apologise for speaking out of turn and asking stupid questions the stare grew more intense. Finally Matron spoke again.
"On the subject of altruism, be assured that I do this only to improve you, Angelonne. Indeed, it truly hurts me more than it will hurt you."
Angelonne squealed, realising at last that she was in for another beating while Matron unslung her heavy, studded leather belt from around her waist.