Until eighth-grade Algebra, A’s lined my report card like a row of clean little houses. Anything less disgusted me. B’s were fat things, C’s—what was this concept, a C? Who got C’s? Well, I was going to, in Algebra. Algebra was her jurisdiction, Mrs. Rhenquist, with her squat lack of beauty and her blunt black hair, her inability to smile. The Mean Teacher. Mrs. Rhenquist could no more smile than I could do her homework. After school, in her classroom, I took to floundering through the systematic humiliation that was a Rhenquist assignment. One afternoon, toward the end of the first quarter, something called her out of the room and I was alone with the ticking clock and an unguarded grade book, I was at her desk—I moved? —I scanned my grades, I changed, a modest hook with the pen, I changed three 75s to three 95s and was back in my seat, I remember this, moving, and Mrs. Rhenquist returned.
The second hand of the clock ticked its long way through the seconds and I sweated. I have no idea what happened next. I guess I finished my homework. The purloined B appeared on my report card and without remorse, certainly without irony, I was thrilled. It wasn’t a C. I accepted preferred reality as truth. Then, I forgot about it.
I mean, genuinely forgot. I’d worked for that B.
Which I had, actually. I just also cheated. And I never cheated again. I wasn’t a cheater. A cheater was something more solid. My father. My father was a cheater. He told me that during medical school, residency, he took cocaine to cope with the hours. Of all his children, he said, I would be the one to go to medical school. “You have the capacity for memorization,” he said. One of his children had to go to Med. School. After all, he worked hard. He deserved at least that.
“That was illegal,” I said, about the cocaine.
He said, “We all did it. The hours.”
My father also cheated in the regular way, on-my-mom cheated. Cheated dense and reliably. Scene change. Ninth grade. Cally Hanish finagled from a friend in second-period Geometry a copy of the test Cally and mine’s class would take in fifth period. Cally offered to share the answers. She didn’t even look at the questions; I would not for much longer stay friends with Cally Hanish.
I said to her, “Wouldn’t you rather see how you do? On the test?” I am sure I sounded sanctimonious. Cally said. “I’d rather make sure I got an A.” Cally had long fingernails. Were they often stained yellow from the fake cheese on Cheddar Popcorn? Everyone said that Cally was bulimic.
Cally said. “I’d rather make sure I got an A.” I tilted my head a degree or two, possibly just considering her answer, no memory of cheating—at least she could be honest about it—and we both ended up with the final grade of B in Geometry. She swindled an A on that particular test, by the way, where I hewed from the day’s examination a righteous B. By the second quarter of freshman year, my math grades returned to their happy home in the subdivision of A’s. That first quarter, however, of possible cheese and double-dealing, my average for Geometry came to 89.4.
89.4. One-tenth of a percentage point higher, 89.5, would have rounded up: A-.
Which will come into play when we get to the part where I graduate. Currently, we are in ninth grade, where I am one-tenth of a point short of an A- in Geometry. Mean Mrs. Rhenquist would be the second person to tell you: 89.4 rounds down.
The first to tell you would be that asshole unhappy Mr. Ennerson person who taught my fifth period Geometry class. I argued with him, shouldn’t a tenth of a point from an A- be close enough to warrant an A-? Especially since I could have cheated like Barfy Cally on that one test where I didn’t cheat and got a B but she did cheat got an A; but then we wouldn’t be having this conversation because my final grade would be higher than 89.4—none of which did I bring up. Instead, I argued against the arbitrary quality of numbers, really, when you are that close to an A-.
He said, 89.4 rounds down. B+
Why does everything with math people have to round? What the fuck. Can they not allow fluidity to affect perspective? Can they not at least attempt it? Writers do. And we are such happy people.
I changed all these names, by the way. Made ‘em up. Smeared some details. The truth is the truth, but we were children. It is wrong to write meanly about children. Also, what if Cally or Bryn—you’ll meet her soon—or what’s-her-face, the time-consuming one that ran the scoreboard? She’s not in this piece. But what if she reads it? She could post about me on Facebook.
Scene change: End of high school: Four different kids had 4.0s. I was not one of them. I had a single B; B+, if we have been paying attention. So, those four kids were our valedictorians. I remember thinking, “That is fair. They are the valedictorians and I am not. I am the salutatorian.” Besides, I got to learn the word salutatorian (prissy little) even though a friend told me that one of the valedictorians also had a single B. I’m not even going to bother making up a name for him, it’s so whiney; Senior year, Captain Whiney went back and got the Bio teacher to change his single B to an A- so that he, the whiney one, could graduate with a 4-point-0.
He and I were in the same Bio class. We sat at the same table.
I got an A in that class.
He wanted to be a minister.
He grew up to sell real estate. The two of us were somewhere between an 89.4 and valedictorian. I grew up to be a writer. I am somewhere between “emerging” and “published.” I’ve been here for close to thirty years. I am somewhere between a great mom and I’ve slapped my son three times. Maybe four. OK, six. After 20 years with my husband, we love what we do in bed, we’ve assigned who grabs which child in case of what kind of emergency, and I’ve said, “I hate you.” I’ve said it in front of our children; I’ve called him an idiot, I’ve said, “Fuck you,” and when I say it, I mean it. I am mean.
I have no memory of rebuking Bryn Smith that spring. Here we are, I promised you Bryn. We’re back in the eighth grade, now. Pay attention. Because I’d forgotten all this. It was a sticky spring, bees in the lavender outside Mrs. Rhenquist’s Algebra class. Bryn let a bunch of us copy her homework. Some of her answers were wrong, so all of us got them wrong. To our indignant rebukes, Bryn said, “Then don’t copy off me.”
A fair point, a mite sharp; I thought I stopped cheating after those modest hooks with the pen. I wasn’t a cheater. But I copied Bryn’s homework and more than once, I know it. It was unclear, like it had nothing to do with me. Like, you don’t forget. You just stop thinking about it; stop thinking before it starts happening.
Same eighth grade. I let Glen Roddy cheat off me (I’m gonna go with) once. Is it cheating when you let someone cheat off you? Skimming the test, he had a hand in his moody brown hair. He said, “Sheesh,” so I slid my paper so that the answers faced him and it shocked me, how quickly he slurped them up. We were children. Bill and I were not. His wife went to Penn, which is important because we did not. There was one party, the sole time Bill said anything to me such as, Let me freshen your drink, such as, My brother likes you, would you be interested in my brother. I was too naïve, just did not get how men’s minds could work when marriages might not be. We girls left the party in the kind of group single girls leave parties in. I stopped on the stairs. Interested in my brother and I stopping on the stairs. I said, I can’t turn this one down.
One of my friends said, What? She said it like a whip, so I said, I can’t find my keys, and ran back up the stairs. The next morning, Bill said, I have to think about what this says about my marriage. I hadn’t been thinking about him as married. At that moment, my thought was, He’s so honest with himself. He said, I’d rather you not mention what happened to any of our friends. For me, it was already starting to have not happened.
I wasn’t a cheater. A cheater was something more solid. I accepted the preferred reality as truth. Then, I forgot about it. I mean, genuinely forgot.
And I never cheated again.
To round down: I slept with another woman’s husband. Sleeping with another woman’s husband is not something you stop thinking about. It is not something you ever forget.
Alle C. Hall’s work appears in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity (blog), Crack the Spine, Word Riot, The Citron Review, Bust, Literary Mama, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger (Contributing Writer). She won The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition. In 2016, she received her first Best of the Net nomination. Claim to fame: interviewed Leonard Nimoy. “He was a bit of a pill; disappointing.” Alle blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children. (allehall.wordpress.com) Facebook: Alle C. Hall. Come join her.