March 23, 2016

Crime Doesn't Pay

In this series investigating my childhood writing, we've lingered in the eighth grade period, studying just a few of the many works to come out of that year's English class. Who could forget the mood of frustration evoked by Mental Turmoil Aboard Flight 103 and its ill-considered revision? Who is eager to forget the soul-bearing honesty of An Introduction to Me and the startling revelations about shopping?

Now it's time to examine the final composition from that class, a 1600-word story that's likely the longest and most complex piece of fiction I'd produced at that point. The last month of school was spent on the various stages and drafts of this assignment, which was introduced this way: "A professional author often uses his/her personal experiences as a source for his/her writing and asks him/herself, 'What if?' Remember one of your own experiences and ask yourself, 'What if?'"

As my story's inspiration, I drew on an event I'd recently witnessed while visiting a different school. I saw two friends pulled aside by a teacher after class and questioned about test answers that suggested there had been cheating. I never learned the truth of the situation or what happened next, so I imagined a possible chain of events for this story. The way things play out in my fictional version doesn't strike me as all that believable today, but it's also not absurdly unrealistic.

I have a similarly ambivalent reaction to everything else in the story. This is not an amazing piece of fiction. It's packed with cliches both linguistic and situational, starting with the title, which doesn't even fit. Much of the dialogue is unnecessary, causing the story to drag, and I'm not surprised to discover that every pointless exchange survived intact from the first draft to the last.

On the other hand, there's a definite, if plodding, competence to the writing. The plot escalates through a series of events across multiple scenes and then reaches a conclusion. Characters develop. The premise and execution deliver a modicum of suspense. It's really not bad for a 14-year-old, and there's little in the story for me to mock.

The lack of childish ridiculousness means this work isn't all that interesting to read, but if you'd like to observe my maturation as a writer, please enjoy.

Crime Doesn't Pay

"Whadja get?" pestered Jennifer, sitting to my right at our lab desk.

"I haven't gotten mine back yet, dummy," I teased, shoving her lightly.

"Don't call me 'dummy'," she said, practically shoving me out of my chair.

"What did you get?" I asked.

"An eighty."

"Eighty? I can call you dummy if I want to."

"Here, Allison," said Ms. Corbin, handing me my science test.

Jennifer saw my grade.

"You got an eighty, too," she shrieked. "Dummy!"

The girl in front of us turned around and gave us a cold, hard stare. Jennifer stared back at her with her eyeballs almost popping out. Then she turned back to me and moved her mouth like a fish to go with her bug eyes. I laughed.

"Allison and Jennifer, could I see you after class?" requested Ms. Corbin, as the bell rang.

Jennifer and I looked at each other and started giggling. We had probably crossed the line with our fooling-around, but Ms. Corbin was our favorite teacher, and she wasn't very tough.

We waited as Ms. Corbin discussed an answer with another student. Her leniency wasn't the only reason we liked her. At 28, she was one of the youngest teachers in the school. She understood what kids liked and tried to make learning fun. She even dressed fashionably, something that most teachers seemed to have forgotten how to do.

"What class do you guys have next?" asked the teacher.

"Computer," groaned Jennifer.

"Art," I said.

"All right, then you can be late for those," murmured Ms. Corbin, as she searched for something on her desk.

"No, anything but missing computer!" cried Jennifer in her most tragic voice.

"Sorry to break your heart," said Ms. Corbin, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Oh, you have them," she said next, taking our tests from us.

"Now, girls," she began. "You are two of my best students..."

"Of course," said Jennifer, flipping back her dark brown hair in an exaggerated motion.

"Shut up," I whispered, nudging her. Ms. Corbin seemed serious and also very nervous.

"Girls, I know... I mean..."

"What?" I prompted. "Just say it."

"I think that you may have cheated," she blurted. "I'm sorry."

I was too shocked to speak. Ms. Corbin showed us the five wrong answers we both had. They were the same questions, and we had the same wrong responses. Three of the answers were way off, and it seemed unlikely that two people would put them.

"I didn't cheat," I insisted, close to tears.

"Me neither," stated Jennifer in a hard voice.

"I didn't really think you did," apologized our teacher. "I'm sure it was only a coincidence. But if you did cheat, I want you to know that you can't get away with it. If this happens again, I'll have to speak to the principal. I'm sorry," she repeated sadly.

"It's okay," I muttered.

"Yeah," agreed Jennifer.

But it wasn't.

* * *

For the rest of the day I thought about the accusation. I was hurt by Ms. Corbin's distrust. But I forced myself to see her side of the situation. After all, our test answers were an amazing coincidence. But were they a coincidence at all?

I hadn't cheated. I would never dream of cheating. I'm such an honest person that I feel guilty when I tell someone that their awful haircut looks nice. Had Jennifer cheated off of me?

I instantly banished the thought. How could I even think such a thing? Jennifer had been my best friend ever since she had moved here a year and a half ago, at the beginning of seventh grade.

I have never been a very popular person. I guess I'm sort of a nerd. I study hard, and I'm bad at sports. And I'm much more interested in books than in boys.

When I met Jennifer, I was attracted to her carefree attitude. She was wild and funny, and she didn't care what people thought of her. Even her dark hair and strong face were a contrast my soft, light features. I guess it's true that opposites attract. But underneath, Jennifer is gentler and less secure than she lets the world know. She wouldn't have cheated, especially from me.

I dismissed the incident as just one of those things and tried not to think about it. Ms. Corbin seemed very happy that we weren't angry at her, and life went on.

* * *

Then about a week later, Mr. Ferguson asked us to stay after class. Now, our history teacher is everything that the science teacher isn't. Mr. Fungus, as we call him, became a teacher in spite of the fact that he hates kids. Every day he stands in front of the class and drones on like a gray bee. I swear, everything about him is gray. His clothes, his skin, his hair, his personality: all gray. The man is really depressing.

When we walked up to his desk after the bell, I saw that Mr. Ferguson had our history tests in front of him. Deja vu, I though, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

"I heard in the teachers' room that you had an... incident in science?" smirked The Fungus. "You were caught... cheating?"

"We didn't," I protested.

"It was just a coincidence!" cried Jennifer, something almost like panic in her voice.

"That Ms. Corbin is far too easy on you," reprimanded the teacher crisply. "Take this letter to Mrs. White."

At the principal's name, Jennifer gasped slightly. I took the envelope from Mr. Ferguson and gave Jennifer a puzzled look. She made a ridiculous face at me, but I couldn't smile.

We trudged to the principal's office without speaking.

"Mr. Ferguson sent us to see Mrs. White," I told the secretary and gave her our names. We were instructed to sit on the hard bench outside the principal's door.

I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. It was so ironic. Me, the disgustingly perfect student, waiting to see the principal for cheating?

Mr. Fungus hadn't told us how much basis he had for his prosecution. Maybe there were only a few wrong answers that were the same, and he had heard Ms. Corbin talking about us, and besides, he didn't like us anyway, so he accused us...

Forget it, I told myself. But had Jennifer cheated? My best friend taking my answers, without my knowledge? Was I being naive?

Before I could reach any sort of conclusion, we were called into Mrs. White's room. The walls were covered with absolutely ADOR-able posters of kittens and puppies, but Jennifer didn't even look at me, let alone pretend to stick her finger down her throat.

"How are you today, girls? What seems to be the trouble?" chirped Mrs. White cheerfully.

I handed her the note from Fungus. As she read it, the mega-smile disappeared from her face.

"I see," she sighed, as if she had just learned that her brother had died. "Girls, I expected more of you."

I wanted to scream, You've never even met us before! The principal went on and on about honor and trust and appreciating knowledge. I decided that it would be a bad idea to tell her that we hadn't cheated. She wouldn't believe us, and we would just have to listen to a lecture on lying.

"...and I hope that you have learned your lesson. Since you have always been such good girls in the past, I am not going to punish you. However, if this happens again, you will be suspended. Good day," she ended at last, sounding close to tears.

I left the room feeling guilty, even though I hadn't done anything. Jennifer and I walked down the hall toward the cafeteria.

"Thanks for not telling on me," whispered Jennifer.

"What?!" I stopped short. "Telling WHAT on you?" I asked in a cold, hard voice, even though I already knew the answer.

"You know. That I took your answers," Jennifer mumbled.

"Jennifer! How could you?"

"We didn't get in trouble or anything," argued Jennifer nervously. "I sure won't do it again..."

"You sure won't!" I screamed. "If the principal wasn't such a flake, we could have been suspended!" Several people stared at me in surprise. I felt my face grow red. "I though you were my friend. I guess I was wrong," I sobbed. Ignoring Jennifer's calls, I ran down the hall.

* * *

"Hi. It's Jennifer," said the voice from the phone.


"Allison, I'm so sorry. I thought you knew I was cheating, and since you didn't say anything, I thought you didn't mind. I didn't think I'd get caught."

"Obviously, you didn't think at all. I always thought you were honest. How can I trust you now?"

"It's not like I lied to you or anything. I was honest to you, just not to the teachers."

Apparently, Jennifer guessed from my silence that I didn't think much of that argument.

"I'm really sorry," pleaded Jennifer.

"So am I."

"Will you ever forgive me?"

"I don't know."

"Allison!" she wailed desperately.


"You're my best friend! Are you just going to walk away and never speak to me again?" She sounded like she was crying, which is very rare for Jennifer.

I began crying, too. "Jennifer, I couldn't stand not being your friend. What would I do without you?"


"Don't push it. That was a rhetorical question."

"Hey, without you around to tell me which questions are rhetorical, I'd be answering all these questions like, 'Have you ever seen such a pretty sky?'"

"You're so weird," I laughed.

"Thanks. Same to you."

It's funny how people's voices sound different when they smile.

Killer ending, Young Lisa.

I turned in three drafts of this story but didn't change much to reach this final version. The phone conversation at the end was shorter in the first draft, and it seems I expanded it based on feedback from my peer reviewer (my real life best friend, who certainly never cheated off me!). Other than that, I only tweaked a few sentences between drafts. Most notably, Allison's original thought about her own honesty gave a shout-out to the world's worst board game: "I'm such an honest person that I wouldn't even stack the deck in Candyland."

However, my pre-writing notes reveal that I had an entirely different ending in mind when I first planned out the story:

triangular plot diagram for Crime Doesn't Pay

This plot diagram indicates the denouement I intended was "Allison stays away from Jen". My outline offers more details: "Allison talks to science teacher, tells her that Jen cheated, but shouldn't get punished, asks to have seat changed, becomes friends with new girl".

I guess as so often happens, when it came time to write, I decided deviating from the outline made for a better story. I suspect the original resolution would in fact have been more interesting, but I've always been a sucker for a happy ending.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Rahul Kanakia examines the problem of stakes in a realistic novel: "I think all novels, to some extent, suffer from the difficulty of creating high stakes while remaining character-driven. The problem is that if your character wants something, then obviously they don't already have it, and if they don't have it, then that means it's possible to live without it."

1 comment:

Andrea Blythe said...

Another fun blast from the past. Way more coherent than any story I wrote as a kid or even as a teenager. Well done.

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