Being sent to the principal’s office as a fully grown adult is its own kind of humiliation.
I sigh, sitting back on the wooden bench, shifting to attempt comfort while I wait. But these empty minutes are filled more with the fear I will be fired rather than scripting an apology. Because I am not sorry.
Being my first year in this district, I wanted to make my mark. I’m only a few years out of undergrad, my bachelor’s in education still shiny on the wall. I have been jumping around from school to school, never sticking more than a long-term substitute. One teacher gave birth and the other had surgery. So it goes.
Finally, after enough rejected applications and savings made from substituting, I received an offer from the best school district in the county. I had had my eye on it, a step in the far-off future. Landing this sped up my five-year plan into about one and a half.
Being assigned 11th grade English is a high honor for me. It was the year I had truly fallen in love with the subject, diving into every text and soaking up every word of analysis from my teacher. I wanted to be that teacher for my students.
It isn’t enough to read literature. Without living in the time of writers, how are we to truly experience it? Pride and Prejudice has so many adaptations, but we’ll never know which is truly correct without Austen here to tell us, and without contemporary readers to back up that choice. Realizing this, my original lesson plans all had to be scrapped. To fully understand a piece, my students need to live it.
When I read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in 11th grade English, I distinctly remember my classmates. They were more memorable than the text. (I’ve subsequently read it since and thoroughly enjoy it.) There was a group of nasty girls, the leader being Pam, and Pam just seemed to hate this mousy one. She was quiet and held great insight on the texts we read. She would have made a great English professor, not stuck at my current level teaching thick-headed children. Regardless, she never spoke up, and the lack of eye contact from her was perfect fodder for Pam and her cronies. They enjoyed making hell of this girl’s existence. Only for 50 minutes every week day, but it was enough.
I only caught glimpses of the torment. They would “accidentally” run into her in the hallway just before the door, making a mess in front of everyone, stepping over her in degradation. Further, they would drop things in her hair: gum, bits of paper, pencil shavings. Sometimes she would doze in class, and the girls sat around her in the back of class. Their barrier hid their nature, the mouse coming out a fool every time.
Their cruelty mirrored Miller’s work, and I recalled it heavily when I read it later in life. I knew my students needed that. Lessons from a text to apply to their lives. A real life simulation of mass hysteria, accusations from thin air, and someone at the end of a pointed finger to take all of the blame.
Classes began in earnest, with days of going over syllabi and students’ favorite summer memories waning, and the real work began. I couldn’t start with my Crucible project right away. I first had to find the nasty girls, and then the mouse.
The mouse was easiest to spot. Nearly like my own. A pale thing, she kept her head down and her bookbag on her back, even when stuffed into the narrow desks. Most eyes looked upon her with pity, and finding any malice was impossible. Where was the evil in these children? Children are wicked! Yet I see no evidence of it!
I realized then they simply needed encouragement. Through the paperwork I have access to as a faculty member, I was able to find the locker of a particularly bright, popular girl. She waved hello to everyone, smiled brightly, and always asked about the night’s reading (college syllabi will be her best friends). But I knew under that soft, homecoming queen exterior was wickedness waiting to be unleashed. She had the potential, she only needed a match.
And so I gave her one.
Alongside evil, romantic longing is just as easy to spy in students. Our bright star, our Abigail Williams, certainly wished to be closer to the football player. Who wouldn’t? He is our John Proctor: Abigail wants him, but he cannot love her back. This means he will be one hanged.
I knew I couldn’t actually hang any students; think of the paperwork! And so I decided, in this cut-throat academic field, as a class to be noted on transcripts sent to colleges, I decided the tests would create the accusations.
Our Abigail is academically driven, but to an unhealthy degree. The way her face falls when she receives a mark not to her standard. But what if our Goody Proctor scored better than her? And at the hands of cheating? What would she do then?
The plot was simple. I gave tests as any teacher does, and ignored the grades to determine new ones for my scheme, as any teacher does. Abigail originally scored top of her class, which is so boring time and time again. I gave her an 83 percent. Goody Proctor scored just above at 85. This never happens. It’s enough to catch her eye.
The mouse’s score stayed the same. She has a different role. As Tituba, she will write notes to allude to the truth of how Proctor received his grades; thus creating the rumor, being the source of all of the trouble. I believe her will to be weak enough to agree that she wrote it (though she will not) and to name others if pressured (she will be).
The first stage had exactly the reaction I had hoped for. Abigail’s face contorted in self-loathing and disappointment. Especially because she believes she understood the material. I make a point to place Proctor’s test face up, as he sits next to our fair maiden. She notes the grade, angers more. Though I am not in her head, I can picture the cogs turning, swearing to study harder, be better, and beat him out. Boys only want smart girls anyway.
As the tests get easier, she will fail more.
With each one her grade fell lower and lower, and his grew higher and higher. Instead of a two percent difference, it eventually grew to twenty and even thirty percent. Her grade for the class plummeted, and I got several tear-stained emails begging to let her retake. I reminded her of the policy I stated at the beginning of the year: no retakes, and no cheating. Cheating will result in suspension, whereas retakes are only examples of a poor student.
She stumbled into class most days angry, frustrated, full of self-hatred. She needed an outlet. I gave her one.
In the mouse’s handwriting, I slipped a note in Abigail’s locker that does not give away all pieces to the puzzle, but enough for the clever girl to put it together. Another test comes and goes, another fail and pass for the star-crossed pair. But now she eyed him curiously, almost cat-like. She believed she was on to his secret.
Another note is planted, this time in the locker of one of Abigail’s friends. It only takes a handful of bad grades and rumors on pink paper to get on the wrong end of teenage girls.
I had expected to have to force the hands of my students. I thought I passed Abigail, her friends in the know, and the mouse talking in a corner of the hall, but I believed it was about a rather confusing paper I assigned. I would not have been able to write it either, but teachers are there to make their students better. So if they can be smarter than me, then I have succeeded.
One fateful day, after Abigail received a truly abhorrent grade–just above the threshold of failing–she exclaimed, “I’m tired of this! He’s been cheating this whole time!”
The stunned silence of the class was immaculate. I was certain this would go on for weeks before anything happened; I was afraid all it would amount to was more weepy emails. Instead, Abigail stands, pointing fiercely at our Goody Proctor, her eyes like hellfire.
“It’s not fair!” one of her friends added. Other voices joined in. Questioning ones, angry ones, fearful ones, but one was missing.
“Do you have something to add?” I asked the mouse. She shook her head frightfully.
“Come on, you’re the one who told me,” Abigail said. Her friends chimed in the same.
“I– but I didn’t–”
“You told us in the hallway one day! Admit it! You know who’s cheating!”
“There are multiple cheaters in this class?” I asked. I couldn’t believe how far this had gone.
“She knows it. Tell them!” Abigail shouts, her voice stinging my ears.
The mouse is silent, frozen. Abigail screams.
Her voice is barely comprehensible, anger and frustration and tears mixed. She screams of the unfairness of it all, her hard work, his lack of work, how the whole world is against her. The room erupts, and before I have a chance to introduce them to the classic that is The Crucible, the principal arrives.
“He’s ready to see you now,” the secretary tells me. I heave up, ready to face my punishment. It will be far beyond what I really deserve–a medal perhaps? A documentary about me–but I will take it diligently, as Goody Proctor does in the play.
“What the hell were you thinking?” he asks me even before I sit, spit flying from his chapped lips.
“Only what I felt was necessary.”
“Causing a psychotic break in one of your brightest students is hardly necessary.”
“We’re about to read The Crucible. Do you know it?”
“Witches and whatnot.”
“Baseless accusations, mass hysteria. That is what my students needed to understand.”
“You went too far. You went too far.”
“Alright,” I concede, throwing my hands up. “I’ll tone it down next time.”
His face is the picture of incredulousness. “There won’t be a next time! You’re fired!”
“Is this my exit interview?”
“You’re dismissed. Immediately.” Security was not far behind to escort me out.
As I walked to my car, I saw the faces of my students in the window. They stared at me wide-eyed, the mouse most of all. I had expected her to hang, but it is I walking to the gallows. And they are witnesses.
Meet the Author
Gabby Buchholz is a Creative Writing student at Lindenwood University. When not writing, she is an avid reader and defender of young adult literature. This is her first publication, and she is excited to begin this journey. She would like to thank her cat, Percy, for his continued support.