We were studying The Civil War, and I, for one, was having a tough time keeping up with the battles. I was upset when our eighth grade social studies teacher, Mr. McCullum, told how brothers had fought brothers, and then died in each others’ arms on the bloody battlefield. I noticed how animated Mr. M. became while sharing these war stories. He stood in front of his desk, running his fingers through his silver-streaked hair, his shirt-sleeves rolled up, revealing the menacing tattoo of a cobra. He was a tough guy, a former Marine. Nope.
You didn’t mess around with Mr. M.
One Friday afternoon, he strode into the classroom and stared us all down. With the weekend approaching, we were running up the aisles, exchanging notes and pokes? perhaps a bit too rambunctious for him to handle.
“Take out a piece of paper,” he said in a slow drawl exactly like John Wayne. “Now!”
Grinning, he announced we were about to have a tiny ten-question quiz on this week’s chapter on slavery and the Underground Railroad. We moaned, and he threatened to double the amount of questions, tossing in the battle of Gettysburg. Quickly, a hush fell over the room.
Sitting parallel to me was a sweet, overdeveloped girl named Lorraine Chirrico. While Lorraine was a solid D student, I had managed to memorize enough dates of significant battles to earn me a C + average. At fourteen, my idea of social studies was what I’d learned in the boiler room on Friday nights during youth group get togethers, which wasn’t much.
The quiz began. I heard the first question, and became confused between two Harriets: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman. This sent me into a panic, and I glanced over to Lorraine who was chewing on her pencil and trying to slide her text book out of her desk onto her lap. I stretched my long, skinny neck over the left shoulder of Gerald Markowitz, the class genius sitting straight in front of me. Frantically, I copied down most of his answers which needed only an A, B, C or D response since the quiz was all multiple choice. When I noticed Lorraine’s pleading eyes, I pushed my paper far left. I wasn’t one of those kids who threw their upper bodies over their work as they wrote, giving you that tsk tsk look that made you feel like a criminal.
The test was over, and Mr. M. saved himself additional work by having us exchange papers with the person on our left thus grading our own quiz. One by one, we went through the questions, and I was shocked when I noticed that I’d already gotten the first three wrong. One more wrong and I’d have a 60—a failing grade. How could this have happened? I saw that the boy correcting Gerald’s paper had also given him three X’s in a row. Gerald’s feet shook under his desk. I don’t think he ever failed a test in his life.
Question number four was read aloud, and again I’d written the wrong answer. This time though, Lorraine took her pencil from her teeth and erased my wrong answer and put in the correct one. She continued doing this for the next few answers while I looked on not knowing what to do or say. Then, she looked at me pleadingly, her big brown eyes reminding me of our cocker spaniel, Taffy. Within seconds, I changed as many of Lorraine’s answers as I could. At this point I was totally confused and swept into a whirlwind of what I knew at my core was unacceptable.
Mr. McCullum’s voice boomed in the room, sending shivers through my skull. “Okay, kindly return the papers to their owners.” Gasps, giggles, moans fly through the room like trapped birds. Mr. M. stood in front of us with his grade book. “Nah,” he said, he didn’t need to collect the papers. We should just call out our grades—shrink away as everyone turned around and gaped.
The grades were all surprisingly low—a 40, a 20, a couple of 50's and then Lorraine. When she announced her “70” there was contagious snickering throughout the room. But Mr. McCullum… all he did was peer up from his grade book and narrow his sea green eyes. First at Lorraine and then at me. My chest and neck had to be on fire. I looked down when it was my turn to announce my own grade of 70, but it was hard to ignore, the “give me a break” someone bellowed from the back of the room. Gerald called out his 50, and blended with the buff of the classroom walls.
That weekend, I came down with a mysterious fever. I had stomach pains and felt too ill to go to youth group. For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to have a conscience. And it catapulted me down the corridor, right in front of Mr. McCullum’s cluttered desk first thing Monday morning. He listened intently, while I came clean and told him I had cheated on the quiz.
My voice quavering, I said I did not deserve a grade of 70. “No kidding?” he smiled, a tight little smile.
I never mentioned a word about Lorraine. My punishment was to show up at Mr. M’s classroom after school, every day, for two weeks. I learned a great deal about the Civil War…Lincoln…. And slavery, and what it meant to be free. Mostly, I learned about me.