The sixth grade wasn’t business as usual. As hard as I tried, I was unable to overcome the teacher’s perception that I was no more special than anyone else in the class. Miss Kuesik rarely called on me no matter how high I raised my hand. She never asked me to run special errands. When my first art project earned a C, I was indignant, and, during the mid-morning break for milk and graham crackers, I went to her desk to complain.
I held up my work. “I always get an A in art.”
Looking over her glasses, she pointed at the drawing. “What’s that?”
“That’s a cow.” I was mystified that she didn’t recognize it.
“Why is its head behind a tree?”
“I couldn’t draw the head.”
She positioned her glasses farther down her nose so as to see me better. She then pointed to four pictures displayed on the bulletin board. “Those are As and Bs.”
Everyone in the class was listening to our conversation, made more enjoyable while eating their snack. All heads turned to inspect the pictures.
She examined my work without saying a word and looked at me again. “Are you saying your work is as good as those?”
Of course, I did, or I wouldn’t be standing there.
“You think your work is worth more than a C?”
I didn’t care if mine was better or not. I wanted an A. I always got an A. I shrugged.
“It’s not.” She handed the picture back to me. “You’ll have to try harder next time.” And then she spoke the cruelest words: “You can’t be good at everything.”
I slunk back to my desk. I was good at everything. She was too blind to see it.
Miss Kuesik was one of a new generation of teachers who began teaching after the war. My former teachers had been unmarried ladies of a certain age. To me, they were old. They wore dresses, black or grey, with high necklines. They used little make-up and permed their hair within an inch of its life. They preferred solid black leather shoes with laces and a medium heel. These ‘old lady’ shoes,’ as Leslie and I called them, looked like they came with a lifetime guarantee. I knew how to charm myself into their good graces.
Instead, Miss Kuesik, young, unmarried, a recent graduate, with no tolerance for a teacher’s pet, was immune to the charms of a pre-pubescent boy. At the time, I didn’t understand that she judged males as marriage material and not as the son she wished she’d had. She had short, stylish blonde hair. She often checked her lipstick in a pocket mirror.
On the first day of school, I got off on the wrong foot. After the allegiance to the flag, we recited the Lord’s Prayer. When Miss Kuesik, a Catholic, reached “but deliver us from evil,” she ended with an emphatic “Amen.” Some of us continued with “For thine is the kingdom,” but we became self-conscious, “the power,” more stopped speaking, “and the glory,” now only two of us, “forever and ever” and my final squeak “Amen.”
Had I earned her disapproval? For the rest of the year, I became a temporary Catholic and adopted the Reader’s Digest version of the Lord’s Prayer.
Every year before Christmas, students in the sixth-grade taped decorations on all the school windows to celebrate the holidays. During the first week of December, the sixth-grade teacher assigned two students each day to decorate windows beginning with those in the first-grade classrooms. Years before, students had cut the decorations from sturdy, white cardboard – a Christmas tree, star, gas lamppost, swag of holly, and eight different carolers. Some singers faced forward and were featureless while others cut in profile had noses and open mouths. The display followed a strict pattern repeating itself around the school.
In the first grade, I was in awe of sixth graders who seemed so grown up, ready to transfer to junior high the next year, a place as mysterious as the far side of the moon. Our teacher continued the lesson but, sitting in the row next to the windows, I listened to the two students whispering as they taped the cutouts to the windows, working from the back of the room to the front. I wanted to do this and couldn’t wait until I was in the sixth grade. When the students finished, the class erupted into loud applause.
On the first Friday in December, we waited for Miss Kuesik to read the decoration assignments for the following week. She reminded us that only those students with satisfactory grades would be selected, so I was confident that I’d be chosen as one of the first students.
“These are the students who will decorate the windows at the front of the school.” After she read each name, the student clapped or laughed. My name was not on the list. Surely Miss Kuesik had overlooked me when I should have been one of the first selected. When she finished, she said the next week’s assignments would be announced the following Friday. That beam of hope helped me overcome my disappointment.
At dinner that night, Mom asked, “Were you chosen to decorate the windows?” I think she hoped that my selection would end my continual harping on the subject.
“No, I wasn’t.” I couldn’t admit that the prestigious windows at the front of the school were already assigned and only those facing the playground and woods behind the school were left.
“I’m sorry.” Mom left the table to bring in dessert.
She was sorry? All I had to look forward to was washing the dishes with Leslie and a weekend of homework. All week, I dreamt about the following Friday. Each day, I suffered watching the two students load a stack of white cutouts and the heavy tape dispenser on a cart and leave the room.
The next Friday, Miss Kuesik stood at the front of the class with her schedule. The class was immediately quiet. Twenty-one students were left in the pool and many of those didn’t have grades high enough to make them eligible. I settled back in my chair. Only the side windows remained, but I would still be a sixth grader held in awe by the kindergarten and first and second graders whose windows remained undecorated. Miss Kuesik read the names on the list. By the time she reached Friday’s choices, I still hadn’t been selected. Surely, I was next to be chosen.
“Thursday’s the end of the list. We aren’t decorating the kindergarten windows this year.”
Class resumed. I was in a daze. At noon, when the class stopped to eat lunch at our desks, I’d lost my appetite. School ended at two o’clock. I walked home alone stunned that my five-year-old dream was dead. There would be no next year.
I’ll always be thankful to Miss Kuesik for cutting me down to size. I was a better person once I understood that I wasn’t as special as I thought. But I will never forget the consuming disbelief of being left off the decoration list. And this disappointment will be one more memory flashing through my mind at my death.
A simple history test, hardly worth studying for. Despite the lie I’d told Wendy, history was one of my favorite subjects. I always got an A. I had almost finished the exam and would be the first student to hand in my paper.
A question on the last page! I didn’t know the answer. I read the question over and over, positive that I’d read it wrong. A stab of panic prevented my mind from focusing. I closed my eyes trying to visualize the answer. Nothing. I finished the rest of the exam. But the thought of handing in my exam with a wrong answer was unacceptable. I remembered reading the answer in the textbook and knew the exact page and where on the page I’d find the answer. Why couldn’t I see it?
If I’d had to raise my desktop to get the book, I wouldn’t have cheated, but our desks were open in the back. I reached in and touched each book until I found one the correct size. I inched it out of the desk. The science text! On my second try, success. I surreptitiously leafed through the pages, checking to find the page I remembered. After several attempts, I found the answer.
I brought the test to the teacher’s desk, relieved to be rid of it. Turning around, I saw Paul St. George staring at me, a smirk on his face. When I returned to my desk and looked at him, he formed the words: ‘I saw you.’ I looked away pretending I hadn’t seen him and began working on a math paper assigned that morning. I resolved to ignore him, but every time I looked up, I saw him mouthing the same words.
“Mr. St. George, do you have something to say to the class?”
Heads turned to look at Paul. Frozen with fear, I looked straight ahead. What if he told her?
He mumbled, “No.”
I was safe. For now.
“Have you finished your test?”
Paul blushed and looked down. He mumbled another ‘no.’
“I can’t hear you.”
“No.” The word was a loud burst. He was angry now.
“I suggest you keep your eyes on your desk and finish it. Ten more minutes, then time’s up.”
By the time, I arrived home for lunch, I regretted what I’d done. I might have remembered the answer if I’d only relaxed. Too late I realized I didn’t have to cheat. One wrong answer would not affect my grade. I’d made a terrible decision and I would have to live with it. Forgetting the answer shouldn’t have mattered. But it did.
Walking back to school, I didn’t run ahead to walk with my friends. I tried to convince myself that I had nothing to worry about as long as Paul said nothing. I didn’t want to spend the afternoon wondering what Paul planned to do.
To my relief, Paul wasn’t in class. While taking attendance, Miss Kuesik asked if anyone had seen Paul. No one had. When a student was absent, the attendance sheet had to be delivered to the principal’s office where the secretary would call his home. “Mark, take this down to the office, please.” I was flattered that she asked me. Perhaps she had graded the history tests already and chose me because I had the highest score. I left the room in triumph.
When I returned, the first person I saw was Paul speaking to Miss Kuesik at her desk. They both looked at me as I walked to my seat. He had told her!
Instead, Miss Kuesik said, “Bring a note from home tomorrow and don’t be late again.”
After school, while I played outside, Paul sauntered down the street. “I saw you cheating today.”
“No, you didn’t.” But my guilty look betrayed me.
“You better help me with my book report or I’m telling the teacher.”
He left before I could respond. I didn’t believe him. Paul was the last person to accuse someone of wrongdoing. The teacher kept Paul after school for being late, talking in class, passing notes, and, most importantly, looking at someone else’s paper during a test. Nevertheless, I was worried.
Over the weekend, he stopped by with his book report and told me to make it better – my first editing job. I took it without complaining. He said he’d come back before dinner on Sunday, so he’d have time to copy it in his own handwriting.
“Now, we’re even,” I said on Sunday when he collected his report.
“We’ll see.” He laughed.
I shrugged, not trusting my voice. My throat ached with the dull thumping of my heart.
When Miss Kuesik passed back the reports, she stopped at Paul’s desk. “Good job. I saw much improvement in your work.
“Thank you, Miss Kuesik.”
If I’d been brave enough and if he wasn’t bigger than me and if we weren’t in school, I’d have punched him in the face.
That was only the beginning. For a month, my life was hell. Paul had a sadistic nature. I’m sure he killed small animals in his spare time. Every day, he caught my attention in class, mouthed the words “I’m telling.” Sometimes he’d then walk to the teacher’s desk. He enjoyed seeing the fear on my face. But he only asked to go to the washroom, or see the nurse, or pester Miss Kuesik with a question that made her impatient. He didn’t care if she reprimanded him. He was used to that and he already had the satisfaction of knowing he was making my life miserable.
Soon Paul was the prodigal student, at least as far as his written reports were concerned. The last straw was when Miss Kuesik praised him in front of the class. “I wish some of you would learn from Paul. He’s been working hard to improve his writing and it shows. Congratulations, Paul.”
I seethed. Miss Kuesik had never said ‘congratulations’ to me in front of the class. I was still angry when Paul gave me another paper to write. “I’ll do one more, but this is the end.”
“Just try it,” he sneered. “By the way, keep up the excellent work.”
Over the next two days, I completed his report. I was clever, but at enormous risk, working out my plan. I looked forward to the results. When Miss Kuesik returned the reports a few days later, she didn’t give Paul his report. Instead, she asked him to stay after school.
Paul caught up with me on the way home. “You double-crosser. You’re in shit now.”
He hadn’t read the chapters and didn’t realize what I had written wasn’t correct. I also threw in a few misspelled words I knew he wouldn’t notice. Miss Kuesik caught the spelling mistakes; she also knew that what he had written was nonsense.
“She gave me a D minus and suggested I rewrite the report for a better grade.” He pushed me up against a tree. “And this time you’d better give me an A, or I’ll tell her you cheated.”
“No, you won’t because I’ll tell her you’ve cheated on all your reports.” I escaped past him. “Write it yourself.”
His blackmail stopped. But I hadn’t counted on my own conscience. I now had two problems to worry about: my original crime plus helping Paul to cheat. Revealing this would ruin my reputation with Miss Kuesik. My former teachers would hear about it in the teachers’ lounge. That was worse.
My peace of mind did not improve over time. Paul lost interest in sadism, but the damage was done. Looking back now, I see that my greatest enemy was myself. I still remember the agony of that year. I might be distracted over the weekend, but on Sunday, I would assume the cloak of guilt, dreading the return to school. One evening after riding my bike with friends, I returned my bicycle to the garage. Walking back to the house, I saw a light in the living room and the top of Dad’s newspaper. I was cut off from my family. I didn’t deserve to be loved. I’d be haunted by that one mistake for the remainder of the school year. And maybe even forever.
As June approached, I decided to tell the teacher. If I didn’t, I’d never be free of it. The best way to tell Miss Kuesik was to arrive earlier than usual and see her before the other students arrived. But time was running out. While other students looked forward to summer vacation, I dreaded it. I couldn’t live another day without confessing. My cheating had become an unredeemable sin. Confession and forgiveness are two great blessings of the Catholic Church. If I’d been a Catholic like my cousins, I might have been spared a year of worry and remorse.
The night before the last day of school, Mom stayed at the hospital overnight when Leslie had her tonsils removed. I slept at Grandma’s. I told her I had to leave early the next morning. Her housekeeper made my breakfast and I set off for the bus stop, faint from anxiety, but also eager to lay down my burden.
Two boys were playing catch on the school playground. I walked up to the door where every class lined up to enter the school. Locked! I looked in all the ground floor windows but saw no one. Back at the door, I knocked as loud as I could. Finally giving up, I started to walk over to the swings. The door opened behind me. A custodian stood in the doorway. “Were you the one knocking?”
I slowly nodded, wondering if I was in trouble.
“What do you want?”
“I need to go to my classroom to finish a project.”
“Sorry, kid. No students are allowed in the school until the first bell rings.”
I hadn’t thought of that. The door closed with a crash. But today was the last day of school!
All morning, I watched the clock inch its way to twelve o’clock. Miss Kuesik collected our textbooks. She took down all the art projects for us to take home. We cleaned out our desks and threw away old papers, broken pencils, and eraser crumbs. Miss Kuesik placed all her plants in a box. Finally, the bell rang, and everyone lined up. Except for me and Larry Fitzwilliam who was repeating sixth grade. Some of our classmates frowned at my not joining the line. The teacher walked them down the stairs to the first floor.
Both Larry and I were too wrapped up in our own misery to speak. Waiting for the teacher to return, I kept wiping my palms on my pants. When Miss Kuesik returned, she acted puzzled to see me. “I’ll speak to Larry first.”
She sat at the desk in front of him. All I heard her say was “Don’t worry...it will be easier next year...have a good summer...see you in the fall.” They both stood up, she patted him on the back, and Larry left the room.
“Mark? We’ll talk on the way downstairs.” In the corridor, she asked me what was on my mind.
“I have to tell you something.”
“Yes. What is it?”
“I cheated on a history test. I shouldn’t have, but I did.”
She said nothing for a moment. “You must be relieved to get that off your chest.”
“You’ve learned your lesson the hard way. Now go home and enjoy your summer. Good luck in junior high.”
I left school light as a feather. The world was beautiful with the whole summer to read and play. My shoulders were unburdened, and my stomach no longer twisted in a knot. I didn’t look back.
I’ve driven by the Brackett School on Eastern Avenue a half-dozen times in the forty-five years since that day. Every time when I park and look at the building, my eyes rise to the windows in Miss Kuesik’s classroom. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I wonder what Miss Kuesik thought during those last minutes. I doubt there was any Goodbye, Mr. Chips sentiment on her part. As she left me to turn in her keys in the principal’s office, she probably wondered, “What the hell was that all about?”
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