After I fell asleep in class, Mother McCarthy called my name to write a proverb on the chalkboard:
Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. [Proverbs 23:14]
I’ve avoided chalkboards since a boy scraped one with his braces in grade school, which sent electric shocks through my skull.
“No,” I said.
“What did you say?”
“Defy me again, and you will see me after class.”
She forced me to write that proverb repeatedly on the chalkboard after class, after falling asleep and mooning a crossing guard. I can still hear the screeching of the chalkboard and feel the scratchy chalk in my hands.
After the third time I got in trouble, my parents had to pull me out of St. Agnes.
“You’re going to public schools from now on,” my mother said.
My social studies teacher, Ms. Shoebill, began to kiss Ms. Bates in her Jeep one morning. It was of all places in the faculty parking lot. It would’ve cost them their jobs if anyone found out. When they opened their doors, I started peddling past the football stadium on my BMX and buried the secret in my gut. Any time Ms. Shoebill glanced my way, I would clench my stomach.
Each day, I looked for them on the campus, like a birdwatcher to a rare species under a narrator’s gentle voice:
The social studies teacher sits under a sycamore tree for lunchtime. She snacks on apples and saltine crackers while absorbing a paperback before she retreats to her pedagogical habitat. She assigns her pupils a quiet study session during class and grades papers to the songs of 10,000 Maniacs. Once the workday is complete, she coaches girls’ softball.
For her lessons, Ms. Shoebill hammered the students with dates dates dates: the date of the Versailles Treaty, the date when George Washington crossed the Potomac, the date when Lincoln’s brains fell into his popcorn.
One day, she surprised her students with an oral quiz.
I raised my hand.”Aren’t we going to learn about people?”
“What do you mean?”
“Social Studies means studying people, not dates, right?”
“Just focus on what matters,” she said.
The only thing that mattered was a passing grade. My father would’ve thrown away my Nintendo if I’d failed.
I heard two boys in homeroom:
“You want the answers to Ms. Shoebill’s midterm?”
“Go to the Pepsi machine by the tennis courts at twelve-thirty. You’ll see Joe Renna selling them for twenty dollars.”
“Twenty dollars? That’s highway robbery.”
“Either you want them or not. He’ll ask you if it’s your first deal. You say no.”
Joe also sold porn tapes, but I stuck with the test answers.
I met him at the machine with twenty dollars in hand.
“Is this your first deal?” he asked.
“I mean, no.”
He sneered at my shoes. “How much were them Agassis?”
Andre Agassi had his own shoes for Nike in the early nineties. They were black and bright orange.
“For those things? What a ripoff.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re alright for pussies,” he said.
Renna wore Air Jordans. They were for douchebags, but I kept that to myself.
“If you want the answers, it’s twenty bucks,” he said.
Twenty dollars, my weekly allowance, was worth the cost. I handed over a bill, and Joe gave me a piece of paper with poorly written letters to fifty multiple-choice questions. Since I couldn’t take the exam with the paper on my desk, I had to stash them where Ms. Shoebill couldn’t see them. So I decided to use the inner bill of my baseball cap.
My eyes looked up at the bill during the test. No one else wore hats in the classroom. They must’ve been cheating in some other way. All I knew was I wasn’t the only one.
Shoebill crept beside me and yanked the cap from my head. “Really? Are you serious?” She took my Scantron and tore it into pieces in front of everyone. I wanted to stab myself with a No. 2 pencil, but she also took that away. “Who else?” she said. “Raise your hand.”
No one made a peep.
“You stay after class,” she told me.
After the bell rang, she said, “Class dismissed.”
I remained at my desk.
“Come up here,” she said.
I stood before her desk, staring at my Agassis. “Ms. Shoebill, I’m sorry. I plead guilty: one count of cheating.”
Ms. Shoebill stashed my ballcap in one of her drawers. “Now I have a strong case,” she said.
She crossed her fingers together over the scantrons. “To have you expelled.”
“I never trusted you, and here’s why. This is white-collar crime. Do you know what white-collar crime is?”
“When someone commits a crime in a white collar,” I said.
Ms. Shoebill pulled an aluminum bat from her desk. “This isn’t a joke, young sir.”
I was serious.
“White-collar criminals do prison time because of it,” she said. “My grandfather was one. Our family disowned him.”
“I won’t do it again, Ms. Shoebill,” I said.
She pounded the desk with the bat, making her stapler jump. “And I say good riddance,” she said loudly.
I couldn’t speak, not only because of the fury inside her but also because of the crime I’d committed. I’d never gotten in trouble that severely. I was just a confused freshman who gorged on too much mac and cheese, now a criminal who was lower than dirt. Expulsion would’ve sucked up every speck of a child for good. I would’ve become an outcast in the worst degree.
“Who gave you the answers?” she asked.
“Don’t try getting out of this.”
She stood from her desk and leaned forward.”Tell me the kid’s name.”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re going to see Principal Wible,” she said.
Principal Wible? He used to be a warden. Kids would leave his office never the same again.
“Can I retake the test?”
“No, you may not.”
“Can you give me a week?”
“A week? For what? To find an answer?” She closed her eyes and pinched her nose. “You sound like my grandfather.”
She was breaking me down, but I wouldn’t squeal. I hated snitches. Sure, my actions made me deserve a severe sentence, but not from the hand of Principal Wible. If only Mother McCarthy was watching…I pressed my palms into her desk. “Are you going to paddle me with that bat?” I asked.
“Don’t be stupid. You have ten seconds to give me a name.”
When she picked her phone up, I blurted Joe Renna’s name.
“I see,” she said. She hung up the phone.
“Ms. Shoebill, I won’t ever do it again. Are you going to tell Principal Wible?”
“Yes, I am.”
I had to say something to change her mind. Maybe blackmail would work. “But I noticed something in the parking lot,” I said.
“And what did you see?”
I came close to spilling the beans about her and Ms. Bates, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was my first attempt at blackmail. Besides, blackmailing a teacher would’ve lowered my morale, and I was already below the dirt. All I wanted was her pity.
“Him selling the copies,” I said.
“I should’ve never bought them, but I wanted to cheer up my Mom, who’s very sick.”
“What does she have?”
I had to think of something, anything, the first disease that came to mind. What was the first one I could think of?
“Ebola. How odd. Was she in the Congo?”
“I meant e. Cola.”
“You mean E. coli?”
“My prayers to your mother, but this is still a white-collar crime. Now go to the chalkboard.”
Not another chalkboard. “No,” I said.
“Because I have a condition.”
“How can you expect me to believe you?”
“I can’t write on chalkboards.”
“Do you have a doctor’s notice that says you can’t?”
Joe was selling those, too.
She made me write: My name is Chris Pasquetelli, and I’m a cheater. My name is Chris Pasquetelli, and I’m a cheater… for the rest of the next period. I began to sweat from the chalk in my hands and the repeated squeaking on the board. I caught dry heaves beneath an album by 10,000 Maniacs. My teeth and fingernails began to scream like boiling lobsters. I had to flatter my way out.
“Doesn’t Natalie Merchant sound great?” I said.
But she ignored me for the rest of the period.
After she released me, I began to run to the nearest bathroom to hold my hands under cold water. That water couldn’t relieve the anxiety, but it washed the chalk from my hands.
Ling found me there, a foreign exchange student from China with a flattop who wore Polo shirts. His English was very fluent. “I heard what happened,” he said.
“She made me use the chalkboard,” I said. “It was torture.”
“What if you get expelled?”
“It’s OK. I snitched on Renna.”
Ling knelt and checked under the toilet stalls for shoes: “Joe Renna?”
“Yeah. He was dissing my shoes anyway. Karma’s a bitch.”
I’d learned about karma from Ms. Shoebill, one of the few subjects in her class I found interesting.
“Chris, don’t you realize what this means?”
“That I’m a rat?”
“His dad works for the mob.”
“Who do you think? Aldo Renna’s a mobster.”
The anxiety only compounded. I should’ve known something like that about Joe.
“What should I do?” I asked.
“Go run somewhere. Run somewhere far.”
“Ling, I’m fourteen. Where would I run to? And if the shit hits the fan, what will I say to my parents? ‘How was school, Chris?’ ‘Oh, I got expelled, and I’m being chased by the mob. What’s for dinner?’ I’m better off telling them in Chinese. Maybe you can help me with that.”
But Ling offered no more advice.
That night, my parents acted as if the day was like any other day, and I pretended, even when I was quiet at the dinner table.
“Chris, are you alright?” my mother asked. “You’re quiet today.”
“I have a headache.”
“Why don’t you lie down,” my father said. “You can eat dinner later if you want.”
It was a shame, too. Mom had cooked my favorite macaroni and cheese recipe with onions and sausage. But lying in bed wouldn’t solve my problem. Ling was right. I was better off running away, but I also had to protect my family however I could. I lay in my bedroom and pictured Bossman Renna and his goons waiting outside with hammers and box cutters.
“You ratted my son, you stool pigeon. What’ll it be? Head or thumbs?”
I sat in homeroom the following morning. Wible’s voice leaked through the intercom: “Joe Renna, come to my office. Joe Renna, come to my office.”
A group of students whispered from behind:
“It must be Ms. Shoebill’s exam.”
“I think it was the deaf one.”
“No. I think it was Monica, the one with scoliosis.”
Wible called out a list of other names, including mine.
I felt the stares when I stood from my desk. The teacher tried to keep her eyes on the podium, but she glanced. So everyone knew me as a cheater after he’d called my name. Shoebill must’ve caught others. But I was the only one in my social studies class she’d caught. The gossip had already spread, so Joe Renna must’ve kept tabs on me.
I tried to conjure the right words on my way to Wible’s office. The cold wind in October began to blow against me, not with me that overcast morning. The fog dipped in and hazed the top halves of the school buildings.
In his office, I sat next to his secretary. One stroke from her typewriter made me jump in my seat. The platen jerked. She slammed it left again and began the following line. She must’ve known Principal Wible better than anyone, working in the next room. I never saw him on campus. It was as if he lived in that office. What did a person like him do outside of school? Did he have a wife? Or did he live alone and count the number of students he’d ruined?
“What’s he like?” I asked her.
She laughed to herself— nothing else.
After the bell rang, Joe Renna left Wible’s office. From the smirk on his face and the cigarette on his left ear, I could tell he must’ve somehow been let off. It paid to be a mobster’s son. The secretary scowled at me without the need for words and nodded toward his office.
“Wish me luck,” I said before I began to head there.
The principal had turned his light out except for a desk lamp on his lower face. His eyes glowed under a shadow. Wible wore black leather gloves, something killers wear to choke their victims. He could make a nun’s paddle seem like a teaspoon.
“Mr. Pasquetelli, close the door,” he said.
I closed it, expecting the worst psychological punishment. Wible wore a silver suit. His tie was red with blue diagonal stripes. I couldn’t see the rest of his office from being so dark. His jaw stretched out in the light with a deep dimple in his chin. A box of staplers sat on his desk. Staples could be excellent torture devices to use on juvenile delinquents like myself.
“Have a seat,” he said.
I sat in a fiberglass chair before his desk, like a prisoner at an inquisition. It felt low to the floor, or maybe Wible’s desk was elevated. Either way, he looked scarier than when I’d entered his office. Maybe his home was inside a cave he retreated to behind the filing cabinets. No, I imagined him living in a dark castle where thunder rumbled every night. His hair was black and silver and parted to the side. He was medium weight. His fingers were bridged across the desk over a paper with students’ names crossed out like you would see on a hit list.
“I’m going to ask you a question, and you’ll have to answer it,” he said.
His voice was raspy, as if he was covering up his real voice. Or maybe his real voice became gravelly from yelling at students and inmates after so many years.
“OK?” I said.
“What is six inches long, has a bald head, and drives women crazy?” he asked.
I was perplexed he would ask that. I knew the vulgar answer but wouldn’t say it, so I played dumb. “I don’t know,” I said. “What?”
He pulled out a one-hundred-dollar bill from his desk drawer and smacked it on the table, with Benjamin staring back at me. The bill was crisp as if the federal reserve had handed it to him directly. Benjamin Franklin’s lips were pursed at me: come on, boy, don’t laugh. I did, albeit nervously. His joke was genuinely funny. But Wible’s face wouldn’t budge. He didn’t laugh along, nor did he crack a smile. Nothing in his world seemed funny.
“Why’re you laughing?” he asked.
“The joke, sir.”
“That wasn’t a joke. That was a riddle. A riddle is supposed to make you think.”
“Let’s get down to brass tacks,” he said. “Several of Ms. Shoebill’s students, including you, were caught cheating. Can you tell me what happens to students when they cheat?”
I thought of a way to avoid that question. I could only guess what Wible wanted me to say.
“They get caught?”
“Something more than that,” he said. “Some of those criminals never get caught. They can keep doing it to their graves. In some countries, their hands get cut off, but here cheaters suffer something else. Their faces change.”
He stopped talking. I wanted him to elaborate. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Wrinkles form,” he said. “They begin to lose their hair. Their teeth fall out. They become ugly and appear much older than they are.”
Who wanted that? I was already insecure about my weight.
He pulled a yearbook from his drawer. “Mr. Pasquetelli, do you know a senior named Craig Bowman?”
Of course. I used to think he was the school janitor. Students called him Quasimoto. Wible opened the yearbook to the kid’s photo. He smiled with hope, once a handsome freshman with all his hair and tiny features of a child actor. But by senior year, he looked gaunt, gray, and malnourished. Patches of hair had gone missing. Students thought he had some sort of degenerative disease.
“In his sophomore year, I caught him spraypainting the statue of Buster the Bull,” Wible said. “I punished him. He cheated on an exam like you did, as if my punishment wasn’t severe enough. Thus I took drastic measures. Rather than expel him, I made him stay here to set an example for other students. Look at him now.”
Craig Bowman, seventeen going on fifty, had the look of demise. He had to be every child’s nightmare, the living dead of our high school.
“So, you have a choice, Mr. Pasquetelli. Either face expulsion or go to the basement like Mr. Bowman.”
The basement was where all bad kids went, where the lights went dim, where the hallway and the bathrooms and the classrooms were windowless, and where kids came out pale like Craig. Craig cleaned up after students during lunch period. I always saw him with a broom and a dustpan. Students, on the whole, felt sorry for him.
So how devastating was expulsion? Either way, my parents would find out I was cheating, and they would look differently at me forever. But like I’d said, expulsion meant disappearance. If Wible was right, and I tried to find a reason he would be wrong, I would end up like Craig Bowman anyway.
“The basement,” I said.
Wible’s arms were spread out. His fingers began to tap his desk. “Are you sure you want that?”
It was like asking if I wanted to be hanged or blown away by a firing squad. “If I had to choose, I would do anything than be expelled,” I said.
Wible stuck the yearbook in his drawer and leaned back in his chair. “Very well then,” he said. “I’ll remove you from all your current classes, and we’ll begin the process. You’re to perform service on the campus during lunch periods, which means picking up the trash. And you’ll come to me weekly for the rest of your time here. Negligence will result in expulsion. I’ll call your parents after you leave my office and tell them what you did. Are there any questions, Mr. Pasquetelli?”
I had a million questions, none I could form into a sentence.
“No, sir,” I said.
The principal remained in the shadows.
After leaving Wible’s office, I wanted to die. I understood why students had dropped out of school after a meeting with him. Not to mention, I had Joe Renna’s father to worry about. What could he do to me and my family?
The bathroom was a good place to hide from Joe Renna before the end of the school day. I stood there during lunch, looked for shoes in the other stalls and wires in the sinkhole, and waited at the urinal to pee. My bladder was shy.
When the door opened, I closed my eyes. I heard the squeaking of shoes on the wet floor. When my eyes reopened, Joe stood at the urinal beside me and pissed a stream as long as the Nile. I avoided him, but I could feel his presence looking at me.
“It was you,” he said.
I kept my mouth shut.
After peeing, he turned to me and stared, smiling.
“Please,” I said. “I’m in enough trouble as it is. Just give me mercy.”
Joe spit in the urinal.
“He let me off anyway,” he said. “See you around, puss.”
As it turned out, another freshman had taken the fall as the fall guy.
Joe left the urinal.
My mother and father sat me in the kitchen and expressed their disappointment.
“I don’t know if I can ever look at you the same again,” my father said.
“Your dad is right,” my mother said.
I began to shiver after all that had happened that day.
They sat at the other end of the dinner table. My father crossed his arms at me. My mother warmed her hands between her legs. She squeezed her body together like she would fall apart if she let go. She’d cooked meat lasagna that night with a salad and garlic bread, but I could only stare at the food.
“But we still love you,” he said.
“Yes, we do,” she said.
My father was a TV anchor. She was an engineer. His face was still covered in makeup from the six o’clock news. My mother still wore her work clothes. The kitchen was quiet except for the hum of the refrigerator. Even that turned off. I was left to hear the children outside. A dog started barking. The moonlight was outshined by the light above the dinner table, which blared on me as if it were an interrogation room like one of those cop shows, where the cop would pace back and forth, ready to rough up the criminal. It was engraved in stone: I was officially a cheater. You can’t walk away from that once it’s done.
Wible Hall was aptly named. Its walls were plastered with cracks everywhere. The students kept their heads down as I began walking through there on the first day. What were they there for? The only light came from the lights from the ceiling. They were round halogen lights, like something you would see in a tunnel. The classrooms were grayer than the hall.
One class every student had to take was shop, where we would make small bookshelves and ceramic mugs for the teachers. And at lunch, I had to clean up after students outside. And students loved to litter. I walked by Craig Bowman, and we exchanged looks, both of us with our brooms and dustpans. He kept his head still at me. He just looked away after initial eye contact.
Normal students were disaffiliated from us. They knew us as cheaters, or vandals, or thieves.
Shoebill and Bates remained a secret, I supposed. And at the end of the school year, Ling moved back to China. He and I would stay out of contact.
But Wible’s words followed me through high school and beyond. Was he right? I checked mirrors and thought I saw crow’s feet and found hair on my pillow. One morning, my left eye bulged out more than my right eye.
I became too engrossed in my body for any long-term goals. My future tumbled into a junior college where I involved myself in liberal arts. Half of me somehow managed to crawl toward a Bachelor’s. A course called The American Character sounded like a program on television. Professor Onion told us erotic stories of Ben Franklin and his exploits. Hmm. The tuition made sense. The nitty-gritty was expensive. Shoebill’s students used to nap during her lectures on Pearl Harbor, but they would’ve been more engaged in who slept with who, if Ben preferred top or bottom, if Jefferson used his left hand or his right hand, if Napoleon’s thing was big. Onion’s lectures on libertines raised my grade point average to a passing standard. And most importantly, I never cheated. I defied Wible’s theory that once a cheater, always a cheater.
Why did I go to my ten-year high school reunion? People must’ve still remembered my reputation. Some of my hair had fallen out.
I drank too many IPAs and spilled the truth to Monica, the one with scoliosis.
“I was the one who told on Renna,” I said.
Her eyes were about to drop into her Martini. “For what?”
“For selling the answers to Ms. Shoebill’s midterm in freshman year.”
She’d taken the social studies class with me.
“Oh,” she said. It didn’t sound like a big deal to her. “That Renna fucker owns a hockey team.”
Ms. Shoebill arrived in a suit and tie, but where was Principal Wible? I ducked out and got stoned in the parking lot.