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’d avoided chalkboards. A boy once scraped one with his braces in elementary school. It 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. I can still hear the screeching of the chalkboard. I can still feel the scratchy chalk in my hands.
I got in trouble a third time. 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. I buried the secret in my gut. I would clench my stomach any time Ms. Shoebill looked my way.
Each day, I looked for them on the campus. I was 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. We had to memorize the date of the Versailles Treaty, the date when 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 the midterm in Ms. Shoebill’s class?”
“Go to the Pepsi machine at the tennis courts at twelve-thirty. You’ll see Joe Renna selling them for twenty dollars.”
“Twenty dollars? That’s highway robbery.”
“Do you want them or not? He’ll ask if it’s your first deal. Say no.”
I met Joe 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 are them Agassis?”
The tennis player Andre Agassi had his own Nike shoes 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. I kept that to myself.
“If you want the answers, it’s twenty bucks,” he said.
My weekly allowance was worth the cost. I handed over a bill. Joe gave me a piece of paper with poorly written letters to fifty multiple-choice questions. Obviously, I couldn’t take the exam with the paper on my desk. I had to stash them somewhere where Ms. Shoebill couldn’t see them. So I decided to use the inner bill of my baseball cap.
My eyes would look up at the bill during the test. No one else wore hats in the classroom, so they must’ve been cheating in some other way. All I knew was I wasn’t the only one.
Ms. 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 took that away as well. “Who else?” she said. “Raise your hand.”
No one made a peep.
“You stay after class,” she told me.
The bell rang. She said, “Class dismissed.”
I remained at my desk.
“Come up here,” she said.
I stood at her desk and stared 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 her bat. Her stapler jumped. “And I say good riddance,” she said loudly.
I couldn’t speak. It wasn’t only because of the fury inside her. It was the crime I’d committed. I’d never gotten in trouble that severely. I was just a confused freshman. I gorged on too much mac and cheese. Now I was a criminal who was lower than dirt. Expulsion would’ve sucked up every speck of me for good. I would’ve become an outcast to the worst degree.
“Who gave you the answers?” she asked.
“Don’t try getting out of this.”
She stood from her desk. She 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 Principal Wible. 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.”
What would happen if I snitched on him?
When she picked her phone up, I blurted out 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. “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. 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. She’s very sick.”
“What does she have?”
I had to think of something, anything. What was the first disease that came to mind?
“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… It went on for the whole period. I began to sweat from the chalk in my hands. The first squeak on the board caused a dry heave.
She was playing an album by 10,000 Maniacs as she graded papers. My teeth and fingernails began to scream.
“Doesn’t Natalie Merchant have a great voice?” I said. I was trying to flatter her.
But she ignored me for the rest of the time being.
After she released me, I began to run to the nearest bathroom. I held my hands under cold water. That water couldn’t relieve the anxiety. It washed the chalk from my hands, but my hands were still dry with guilt.
Ling found me in there. He was a foreign exchange student from China. He had a flattop and 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 checked under the bathroom stalls for shoes: “Joe Renna?”
“Yeah. He was dissing my shoes anyway. Karma’s a bitch.”
I’d learned about karma from Ms. Shoebill. It was one of the few interesting subjects in her class.
“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 panic only got worse. I should’ve known 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 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.
My parents that night acted like it was just another day. I pretended it was, too. I was quiet at the dinner table. Part of me wished they’d known already.
“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 on my bed. I pictured Mr. 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. Shoebill had caught others. But I was the only one in my social studies class she’d caught. The gossip had already spread.
I tried to conjure the right words on my way to Wible’s office. The cold wind in October began to blow against me. It was an overcast morning. The fog dropped in. It covered the top halves of the school buildings.
I sat in his office next to his secretary. One stroke from her typewriter made me jump in my seat. She slammed the platen left again and began the following line. She knew Principal Wible better than anyone. I never saw him on campus. It was like he lived in his office. What did a person like him do outside of school? Did he have a wife? Or did he live alone? Did he count the number of students he’d ruined?
“What’s he like?” I asked her.
She laughed to herself, and that was it.
The bell rang. Joe Renna left Wible’s office. He smirked with a cigarette tucked in his left ear. Wible must’ve let him off. It paid to be a mobster’s son. The secretary scowled at me without the need for words. She nodded at his office for me to go in.
“Wish me luck,” I said.
The principal had turned the lights out, but the lamp on his desk shined across his lower face. His eyes glowed under a shadow. Wible wore black leather gloves. It was something killers wore to choke their victims.
“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. There was a deep dimple on his chin with evil in it. 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. I was like a defendant in court. It felt low to the floor. Maybe Wible’s desk was elevated. Either way, he looked scarier up close. Maybe his home was inside a cave. He retreated to it behind the filing cabinets. I imagined him living in a dark castle. Thunder rumbled every night. His hair was black and silver and parted to the side. He was medium weight. He crossed his fingers across the desk over a paper. It had students’ names crossed out.
“I’m going to ask you a question, and you’ll have to answer it,” he said.
His voice was raspy. He was covering up his real voice. Or maybe his real voice had become gravelly. He’d yelled at students and inmates after too many years.
“What is six inches long, has a bald head, and drives women crazy?” he asked.
“I said, what is six inches long, has a bald head, and drives women crazy?”
I was confused he would ask that. I knew what the answer was, but I wouldn’t say it, so I played dumb. “I don’t know,” I said. “What?”
He pulled a one-hundred-dollar bill from his desk drawer and smacked it on the table. Benjamin Franklin stared back at me. The bill was crisp, fresh from the federal reserve. 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. He wouldn’t 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 were caught cheating on her midterm. That includes you. 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 worse than that,” he said. “Some of those criminals never get caught. They can keep doing it to their graves. Their hands get cut off in some countries. Cheaters can prosper here, but they 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 acne.
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. He was once a handsome freshman with all his hair, with tiny features of a child actor. But he looked gaunt by senior year, gray and malnourished. Patches of hair had gone missing. Students thought it was a disease.
“I caught him spraypainting the statue of Buster the Bull in his sophomore year,” Wible said. “I punished him. He cheated on an exam like you did. I guess my punishment wasn’t severe enough. Thus I took drastic measures. I didn’t expel him. I made him stay here to set an example for other students. Look at him now.”
Craig Bowman was seventeen going on fifty. He had the look of demise. He looked like 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 bad kids went to the basement. The lights were dim. The hallway and the bathrooms, and the classrooms were windowless. The kids came out pale like Craig. Craig cleaned up after students during lunch. I always saw him with a broom and a dustpan. Students felt sorry for him on the whole.
So how bad was expulsion? My parents would find out I was cheating either way. They would look differently at me forever. But like I’d said, expulsion meant disappearance. If Wible was right, I would end up like Craig Bowman anyway.
“The basement,” I said.
Wible spread his arms 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. He leaned back in his chair. “Very well then,” he said. “I’ll remove you from all your current classes. We’ll begin the process. You’re to perform service on the campus during lunch. That means you’ll pick up the trash. 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. Are there any questions, Mr. Pasquetelli?”
I had a million questions. But I could form none of them into a sentence.
“No, sir,” I said.
The principal remained in the shadows. “You may leave now, Mr. Pasquetelli.”
I wanted to die after leaving Wible’s office. I understood why students had dropped out of school after a meeting with him. I had Joe Renna’s father to worry about, not to mention.
The bathroom was a good place to hide from Joe. I waited there during lunch. I looked for shoes in the other stalls, wires in the sinkhole. I 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. My eyes reopened. Joe stood at the next urinal. He pissed a stream as long as the Nile. I avoided him. But I felt his presence looking at me.
“It was you,” he said.
I kept my mouth shut. Somehow rumors became true.
He finished peeing. He turned to me and stared, smiling.
“Please,” I said. “I’m in enough trouble as it is. Just give me mercy.”
Joe spat in the urinal.
“He let me off anyway,” he said. “See you around, puss.”
Joe left me at the urinal.
Another freshman had taken the fall, as it turned out. I wasn’t the only one who’d snitched.
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 could barely hold my fork without shaking.
They sat at the other end of the dinner table. They didn’t want to be near me. My father crossed his arms. My mother warmed her hands between her legs. She’d cooked lasagna that night with a salad and garlic bread. 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 kitchen light over my head outshined the moonlight. It pointed down at me. It was engraved: 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. What were their crimes? The only light came from the lights from the ceiling. Halogen lights. They were like something you would see in a tunnel. The classrooms were darker than the hall.
One class every student in the basement had to take was shop. We would make small bookshelves and ceramic mugs for the teachers.
I cleaned up in front of my friends at lunch. They felt sorry for me. And students loved to litter. I walked by Craig Bowman. We exchanged looks. Both of us held our brooms and dustpans. He kept his head down. He looked away from me after a glance.
Normal students wanted nothing to do with us. They knew us as cheaters, or vandals, or thieves.
I guessed the thing between Shoebill and Bates remained a secret. And Ling moved back to China at the end of the school year. He and I would stay out of contact.
But Wible’s words followed me through high school and beyond. Was he right? I would check mirrors and swear I saw crow’s feet. I would find hair on my pillow. One morning, my left eye was bulging more than my right eye. I became too obsessed with my body for any long-term goals. My future tumbled into a junior college.
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. She was the one with scoliosis.
“I snitched on Renna,” I said.
Her eyes were about to fall 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.