By Jacob Yaple
I was in the chow line when I saw her. Karole Dodd. She was sitting with her back to me in a far corner of the cafeteria, but I’d know that long, purple hair anywhere. We hadn’t seen each other or talked to each other for three weeks, but I still had strong feelings for her. I hoped she hadn’t forgotten about me.
I filled up my tray and headed for Karole’s table. Stu Mapleton saw me approach and pointed over Karole’s shoulder. “There he is, Karole,” he said. Karole turned around and looked me up and down. This didn’t take long, since I’m kind of short and stubby.
“Do you remember me, Karole?” I asked anxiously.
“Greg Stuckey, right?” she said noncommittally. Then she grinned. “Just messing with you, Greg! Of course I remember you.”
“Sorry I didn’t show up for our date,” I said. “My parents grounded me and took away my phone.”
“No big deal,” she said. “My parents grounded me, too.”
“Same here,” Stu said.
For the past three weeks, Karole, Stu and I had been suspended from school for violating one of the umpteen zero tolerance rules enforced by our fearless leader, Principal Bitterman. By now, I had only a vague idea which rule I had violated, which showed how effective long suspensions were.
“If you’re not grounded anymore, Karole, we could still go on that date,” I said. “If you’re still interested, I mean.”
“The current grounding period is over, until I find a new way to break the rules,” she said. “And yes, I am still interested in going on a date with you, Greg.” She leaned forward and brushed her lips lightly against my cheek.
Stu clutched his enormous stomach with both hands and pretended to throw up. “Please, not while I’m eating,” he said.
“But you’re always eating, Stu,” Karole teased.
“Chew on this, Karole,” Stu said. “The school website says there’s a new club for straight-A students called the Elite. Members of the Elite will compete for a full scholarship to the college of their choice. The principal decides who gets in.”
“Huh.” I said. “Straight A’s. That leaves me out. I have a straight C average.”
Stu smiled. “I have a photographic memory,” he said. “I’m a natural-born member of the Elite. Just you wait: I’ll be the next person the principal calls to the office.”
As it happened, Stu wasn’t the next person Bitterman called to the office.
Bitterman paced back and forth in front of his desk. He looked like a giant weasel in a cheap suit.
“Think about your future, Stuckey,” he said. “You’ve got to maintain a higher grade point average.”
“Is this about me being suspended for three weeks?” I asked. “Don’t worry; my teachers and I corresponded by email, and I never missed an assignment.” That didn’t stop me from being my normal underachieving self, however: I kept up with my assignments but got low grades on every single one. No wonder Bitterman was upset.
“I don’t care about assignments, Stuckey,” Bitterman said. “I care about tests. Tests, the ultimate proof of achievement.”
I was confused. “But I’m passing all my courses.”
“How do you expect to survive in the job market with a C average, Stuckey? Meanwhile, I’m supposed to assign our already meager resources to students like you, who don’t care about applying yourselves.”
“I care about applying myself,” I protested. “If it weren’t for all these zero tolerance rules—“
“Maybe you need a new learning environment. How about we send you to the state alternative school for the rest of your high school career?”
“But all my friends are here! And only kids with real problems go there. That’s not the kind of learning environment I want to be in.”
“Okay, then,” Bitterman smiled. “If you don’t want to go to the alternative school, then I suggest you buckle down and start getting some straight A’s. Dismissed.”
“It’s all about the glory,” Karole said. It was the next day at lunch, and I had just finished telling Karole and Stu about my meeting with Bitterman. “The higher the school’s average test scores, the more prestige our teachers and principal will have. He might even win an award. The sad thing is he’s not willing to earn it honestly, by teaching. Instead of teaching the problem kids, he’s sending them off to alternative schools where they won’t drag down our average test scores. And he’s cultivating the students who learn naturally, who hardly need teaching at all.”
As soon as she said “students who learn naturally,” Karole and I looked over at Stu. “Can I help it if I have a photographic memory?” he said. “I need that scholarship to get into a good college and stay competitive in today’s tough job market.”
“I know how that goes,” Karole said. “You want to get a stressful, high-paying career so you can save money for retirement as the reward at the end of it all. If you live that long.”
Stu stood up. “I don’t have to take this anti-intellectual crap,” he said. “I’m going to sit with the cool kids. I’ll see you nerds later.” He strode over to the table that had been taken over by the Elite. He immediately hit it off with them, smiling and laughing with no regretful glances in our direction.
“Uh-oh,” I said.
“Relax,” Karole said. “He’ll come crawling back. You’ll see.”
Several days later, Karole and I were planning our first date.
“I don’t care what we do as long as we’re together,” I told Karole. “You get to choose the restaurant and which movie we see.”
“Dinner and a movie,” Karole said. “How stereotypical. How about a poetry jam at the local coffee shop?”
I looked up, and our eyes met. In unison, we said, “Please, not while I’m eating!”
When our laughter had died down, Karole said, “You know, I really miss Stu. Where is he, anyway?”
I looked over at the Elites’ table. It was empty. “I haven’t seen Stu at all lately, in any of the classes we share. In fact, all the Elites seem to be missing.”
“Something’s up,” Karole said. “I smell a weasel named Bitterman. What’s our plan, Greg?”
“He must be holding the Elites in one of the abandoned classrooms. As soon as lunch is over, we start the search.”
Art and Music classes had been cut from the budget because creativity wasn’t considered a necessary skill for today’s competitive job market. More to the point, it was hard to measure creativity in a way that made for award-winning test scores. The classrooms were still empty because Bitterman had decided to spend the savings on more security guards and surveillance cameras.
Security guards were posted at every large meeting area, including the cafeteria, the gym, the library and the “exercise yard,” but it was hard for them to track our movements in the chaos between classes. As soon as the bell rang, Karole and I headed for the abandoned Art classroom.
Just as I suspected, the door to the Art room was locked, with a big sign on it saying, “Do Not Disturb. Testing In Progress.”
“How do we know he’s in there?” Karole asked.
“We don’t. We’ll have to wait for him to come to us.” I grinned. “They have to let them out for bathroom breaks, at least. Stay here in case he comes out. I’ll check the nearest boys’ bathroom.”
The bathrooms were the only places in the school that weren’t yet under video surveillance. The nearest bathroom was crowded as usual, but one crowd member stood out: a security guard waiting in front of an occupied stall. The next stall was empty, so he wasn’t waiting for the occupied stall to become available, he was guarding the occupant. I heard Stu’s distinctive cough and understood. The Elites knew privileged information, so they were guarded everywhere they went, even to the bathroom.
I went into the next stall and locked the door behind me. I couldn’t talk to Stu or the guard would hear me, so I took a notebook from my backpack and wrote, That you, Stu? What’s up? –Greg. Then I passed the notebook and a pencil under the partition. Stu grabbed it and passed it back within seconds. He had drawn a frowny face with the word “BURNOUT” in caps. We continued passing notes, using texting shorthand to save time. It would have been even more efficient to use our phones, but all electronic devices had been banned from school as part of Bitterman’s War on Cyberbullying.
Finally we stopped. The bell was about to ring, and any kid caught out in the emptying hallway would have to answer tough questions from patrolling guards.
I went back to the old Art room and rejoined Karole. “No time to talk right now,” I told her. “I’ll meet you in the hall after the next class.” I handed her the notebook. “In the meantime, take a look at what Stu wrote. It’s fascinating reading.” We split up and found our way to our next assigned classes, just moments before the bell rang.
I had a whole class period to let Stu’s story sink in. Using the actual test, the Elites were drilled on the questions days before test time, ending up with perfect scores. But there was no end in sight for poor Stu. As soon as they took one test, they started prepping for the next one. Stu tried to leave, but Bitterman said he could either stay with the Elites or risk expulsion based on his recent suspension. Stu’s parents agreed.
When the class ended, I met Karole in the hallway.
“I can’t believe they’re prepping them nonstop!” Karole said. “It’s like a testing sweatshop or something!”
“I may have come up with a solution,” I said. “If Stu agrees to it, his photographic memory will come in very handy.”
“You mean cheating?” Karole said. “He’ll never agree to that!”
“Stu’s so burned out he’s willing to give up a chance at a full scholarship. Things are that desperate,” I said. “If all the kids in the school are able to get straight A’s, it’ll take the pressure off the Elites and get him out of there.”
I visited the bathroom and communicated with Stu as before. After some token resistance he agreed to our scheme. He wrote down all the answers for the upcoming schoolwide test.
The rest of the scheme depended on me. I wanted to make extra sure that Stu didn’t get implicated if I was caught. He was sticking his neck out a lot further than the rest of us on this one. I went to the school library and signed up to use one of the Internet computers. Sites with any sex or violence were blocked, along with social media, leaving only educational sites and email. The staff kept records on who signed out what computers so they could review the search history, but I wasn’t worried about that. I visited only one site: the email site used by Principal Bitterman. I set up a new email address that was the same as Bitterman’s minus one letter. This way I could send out the test answers while hiding the source of the message. The unfamiliar address would make the email land in some students’ junk mail folders, so I had to make sure it stood out. I titled it “A Message from Principal Bitterman,” the same way he usually titled his emails. In the body of the message I typed, “Here’s the answers for Friday’s big test. Study hard!” Then I typed in the answers and sent it to all the students I could think of.
The next day there was a buzz in the air as word spread from student to student. I sat in the cafeteria as gossip swirled around me: “The principal is helping us cheat!” “He must really want the school to get a good grade!” “Looks like Bitterman’s seen the light at last!”
Karole joined me at the table. “The news is all over the school,” she said. “Congratulations, Greg: you framed the principal. Bitterman’s bound to be out for blood on this one. Are you sure the email was untraceable?”
“Sure I’m sure. But there’s no way the plan will work now. Bitterman’s sure to change the answers. All because nobody in this school can keep their mouths shut.”
That was when the security guard walked up and told us to come with him to the principal’s office. I should have known. Who needs to trace emails when you can just blame the usual suspects?
Stu was in the waiting room when Karole and I arrived. He opened his mouth to say something, but Bitterman emerged from his office and yanked Stu inside. It was no accident that Stu was being interrogated separately. Bitterman would tell him Karole and I had already betrayed him so he would confess. Even if he didn’t, Bitterman would tell Karole and me Stu had betrayed us to get our confessions. It was a neat little trap.
I knew Stu would never betray us. I just felt guilty that Stu had been caught along with the rest of us after I had tried my hardest to prevent it. I was stewing in my own guilt so deeply I barely noticed when a woman rushed into the waiting room and pounded on Bitterman’s door. He opened it, they exchanged urgent whispers and he let the woman in.
A few minutes later Bitterman opened his office door and waved Karole and me inside. We sat down next to Stu in uncomfortable chairs facing Bitterman while Bitterman slid into a high-backed chair behind his desk. The new arrival sat facing us. She had shoulder-length, glossy pure white hair. Her intelligent grey eyes pierced us through round rimless spectacles.
The principal gestured toward the woman. “Allow me to introduce Martina Pearson, a representative of Educational Measurement Publications, the company that provides us with testing materials.”
The woman leaned forward and shook Karole’s, Stu’s and my hands. Bitterman looked a little uncomfortable, as if, as the accused, we didn’t deserve any tokens of respect.
“These are the three cheaters I told you about, Miss Pearson,” Bitterman said. He gestured to each of us in turn. “Stuart Mapleton had access to the test and was able to copy the answers thanks to his photographic memory. Karoline Dodd and Greg Stuckey masterminded the plan and are also guilty of impersonating me and distributing the test answers via email.”
“You have a photographic memory?” Pearson said, giving Stu her full attention. “So do I. I can remember all of the correct multiple choice answers for the various tests we make.” She turned to Principal Bitterman. “How did Mr. Mapleton get access to the test answers?”
“He was part of a group of students called the Elite, who we were drilling on the answers to prepare for the test on Friday.”
Pearson raised an eyebrow. “What’s the evidence against him?”
“Mapleton was the only member of the Elite to attempt to leave, complaining about ‘burnout.’ When I was alerted to the offending email, I knew he and his buddies were behind it.”
“So you have only circumstantial evidence,” Pearson said angrily. “These students were only able to cheat because their teachers cheated, by feeding them the test answers ahead of time. No wonder my company had to find out about this situation through the rumor mill instead of from you. You were hoping to find a scapegoat before anybody else could get involved.”
She picked up her purse and stood up. “I’ll recommend to my superiors that, pending an investigation, all testing at this school should be suspended.” She glanced at us kids, then looked at Bitterman. “I’m sure you’ll agree that these students are innocent until proven guilty. Don’t punish them until we have all the facts.”
Bitterman glared at us. “Of course, Miss Pearson,” he said. “You’re excused, students.”
Stu, Karole and I escaped into the hallway. “I think we’re okay now,” I said. “See, Stu, I told you we’d get you out of the Elite!”
“Thanks, Greg,” Stu said. “I want you to know that anytime you guys need help getting out of a high-IQ organization, I’ll be ready and willing to lend a hand.”
“Like that’ll ever happen,” Karole laughed.
I kissed Karole Dodd deeply, then pulled away and gazed into her eyes. We were finally alone, on the date that had been delayed for so long.
“I love you, Karole,” I said.
“I love you t—“ A mob of little kids ran past, screeching and yelling. Karole burst out laughing.
On second thought, we weren’t completely alone, after all. We had decided to have our date at Super Mario’s Pizza, a neighborhood pizza place/video arcade/mini golf hangout. It wasn’t the most romantic site for a first date, but I wanted to make sure everybody had fun, especially our special guest.
“Hey Greg,” Stu said from behind us. “I need more quarters for the Space Invaders machine.”
I peeled myself away from Karole and reached into my pocket. “Here,” I said to Stu. “Here’s five bucks. Why don’t you test out that new game in the corner?”
“Don’t say that word,” Stu said, cringing.
“Which word? Test?” Karole teased. “Test test test?”
I laughed. The Zero Tolerance Trio was back in action again.