My daughter Haley and I were eating breakfast in our tiny apartment kitchen when we saw the envelope from her school. This was her Junior year and she had to have all A’s to secure a college scholarship. I tossed the junk mail aside and opened the report card and yes, it was all A’s. Except for Biology. C minus.
This was a mistake. Obviously. Her bio tests were all nearly 100%. Haley had worked diligently in school ever since first grade. She was a good student. Not a saint, mind you–she had attempted once or twice to get me to call her in sick when she hadn’t finished an assignment or studied properly for a test–but on the other hand, she never wasted the expensive tutoring sessions that I worked overtime to pay for. Never met an extra credit assignment she didn’t like. She definitely thrived in her academic success. I attributed her fierce personal drive to her compensating for not having a father in the picture. There were worse things she could be compensating for.
I immediately emailed Mrs. Landers, her teacher, and requested a conference. The next day I hurried down the school hallway and turned into an empty classroom, where Mrs. Landers sat at a stunningly orderly desk, grading papers. She looked about my age–46–wearing a black turtleneck and jeans, straight dark hair perfectly parted on the side, chalk-white complexion.
I started to introduce myself, but the teacher cut me off. “Debbie?” She said my name like she knew me, and there was a look of genuine shock on her face. I honestly couldn’t figure out what was going on. I mean, I’d never met this woman in my life. Then it hit me. I about sank through the floor. Haley’s teacher and I had known each other in high school. She was Kathy Riley back then. Zits. Braces. Massively insecure. Not a friend in sight. And I was not nice to her. I did my best to make her high school years a living hell.
“It’s so good to see you!” she said now.
I hesitated. “Really?” I said.
“Hah–still funny!” she said. “You always were.”
“I just meant…”
“You okay?” she said.
“Great,” I said.
We updated each other: I had one child, never married, and worked at Sweet and Pink candy factory. She had no children and had lived in Seattle for 13 years but recently moved back to Chicago when her marriage ended. She was currently working on her doctorate in Molecular Biology at Northwestern. The whole time she talked I could barely stay focused. Horrific memories kept weaving in and out of my thoughts.
“Well!” she said. “That’s enough about us, right?” Kathy indicated the chair opposite her desk. Grimly, I took a seat–my mind a tangle of worry. She clasped her small hands onto her desk and gave me her full attention. “What can I do for you, Debbie?” she said.
Carefully, and with lots of deference, I explained that Haley had done well on all of her tests. That the C minus must be a mistake. I really didn’t understand it. Kathy nodded sympathetically. At first. Almost like she understood–was in fact happy that I’d pointed out her error and would be delighted to correct it. But then, suddenly, she looked uncomfortable.
“Her class participation,” Kathy said, “is underwhelming.”
“Oh. Right. Well, she’s pretty shy.”
There was a flash of something I couldn’t quite identify in her eyes.
“Yes. Of course I understand,” she said, looking down, studying the tip of her red pen. “It can be difficult to speak up in front of your peers. Especially at sixteen. That’s a tough age to assert yourself, isn’t it?”
I swallowed, not knowing if she wanted me to answer that or not. “I think you’re right,” I said, “and I really appreciate your, um,–”
Her face darkened as I searched for the word.
“…empathy?” she said.
“I was going to say sympathy–”
“Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone,” she said. “Empathy is when you actually feel the emotions that another person feels.”
“Oh,” I said, avoiding eye contact.
“I certainly understand where Haley is coming from.”
“You do?” I said.
“It’s difficult for students to absorb all that they need to learn,” she said, “without having to cope with other stresses.”
The room got quiet.
My palms started to sweat.
“But unfortunately with Haley,” she said, “as with all of my other students, I need to monitor how much biology they actually know. And I can’t do that with written tests alone. Participation is critical. And mandatory.”
She stood up just then and I realized for the first time that she was taller than me. There was a confidence about her that hadn’t been there in high school. She extended her hand, like the meeting was over. Her manner was all business–the exact opposite of the personable way she’d acted a few minutes before.
“I’m sure you can understand that my hands are tied, so to speak. I have to do what I have to do. And you wouldn’t want me to treat your daughter any different than the other kids, right?”
The whole drive home I worried that maybe I should have brought it all up at the conference. Gotten it all out into the open. Apologized. Begged her forgiveness. That way we could have gotten past all this. Maybe even laughed about the whole thing. Then I thought that maybe that was a bad idea. It was a risk to remind her of all those awful things.
I closed the front door, clutching a bag of cheap Chinese food and walked into the kitchen. Haley was in her usual spot, twirling her long straight blonde hair in between her pale slender fingers, head down, studying. Books were piled everywhere–you could barely see the rickety, round Formica table where we ate dinner every night.
“You need to talk more in class,” I said.
Horror spread across her face. Which I had expected, but not to that degree. Something else was going on. I put the food down on the counter. Took off my coat and placed it around the back of the other chair. I looked at her.
“What?” I said.
“Two of my friends haven’t said a word the entire quarter. They both got an A on their report card,” she said. “Why would I be singled out?”
Just then, the people upstairs started playing music and as usual it was too fucking loud.
“You don’t know she’s singling you out,” I said. My voice sounded harsh, even to me. I really don’t ever raise my voice to Haley so she wasn’t used to it.
The only thing to do was to obey her teacher’s rules and see if this whole thing would pass. I told Haley she was just going to have to suck it up and participate in class discussions.
“What if that doesn’t work?” Haley said. “What if it turns out this teacher just hates me? Like, for no reason?”
Growing up my home life was a notch below horrifying. If my dad wasn’t at his job fixing cars in a garage on Western Avenue he was inside any number of frequented bars in the city, pounding them back until they kicked him out. To be fair, his own childhood hadn’t exactly been stellar either, so he most likely had no idea how to be a good parent. On his own at fourteen. Only finished half a year of high school. Not that he ever talked about himself, but that much I knew.
My mom hadn’t done much better in life’s gruesome lottery–she’d endured a fair amount of sexual abuse. I eavesdropped on drunken conversations in our kitchen on Friday afternoons, after my mother and her friends got off work from the Vienna Sausage factory a few blocks away.
She wasn’t one of those fun kinds of drunks. I never knew when her rages were coming. The teachers at my grade school weren’t much help, deliberately looking the other way when she sent me to school in filthy clothes, no possibility of a lunch, and without completed homework. Bruises. Lots of them. By the time high school came along, I needed somewhere to put my anger. The place I’d decided to dump all that rage was right on top of Kathy Riley’s teenage, greasy, dandruff-spewing head.
The situation didn’t go away. On Monday I took pen to paper and went over my finances, searching for a way to send Haley to college even if we didn’t get much scholarship money. The prospects were dismal. I worked in a factory, and it had taken me eight years to get promoted to floor manager and even that position didn’t pay much. I had some savings but with the price of college, it wouldn’t go very far. On Thursday, Haley told me that Mrs. Landers gave her a detention for being late to class.
I stopped peeling potatoes. Stared at her. “Were you late?”
“Does half a minute count as late?”
I looked at her. “Are you not getting this? Obviously, she is running a tight ship here.”
“Thirty seconds?” she said.
“I’m not making the rules here. She is. Just obey them.”
“This isn’t fair,” she said. “Can’t you do something?”
I shook my head. “She’s the one with all the power,” I said. “You’re just going to have to deal with whatever she dishes out.”
Over the next few days Haley started becoming distant. I felt her pulling away from me. She was avoiding her friends, too. I saw one of her friends’ moms at the market who told me that Melinda said Haley won’t return her texts. She barely talked at home. Not even at dinnertime. She gave yes or no answers when I asked about her day or photography club. When I pressed her for specifics about Biology, she told me–her voice agitated–that she had been talking in class. I wanted to push harder for details to get a sense of how her teacher was treating her, but a friend from work warned me not to overstep. “Pick your battles,” she said.
Haley started to lose weight. I found out on Facebook that she’d quit photography club and the yearbook. A couple of nights I heard her in her room crying. When I asked her to talk to me she snapped at me. Told me it was none of my business.
The next week, on Friday afternoon, Haley called me about three hours into my shift. I told Lucy to cover the floor for me and went outside onto the loading dock. I got on the phone and heard the sobbing. Deep breaths, I said. Haley told me that–in front of the whole class–Mrs. Landers had accused her of cheating.
The following Monday I was in the office of the principal, Dr. Lewis, at Haley’s school. I’d actually never spoken directly to him before. He seemed like a particularly sour little man. He had no hair, a long nose, and wore a gray suit a size too big. His face became more and more pinched as he listened to me accuse one of his teachers of trying to ruin my daughter’s life. When I finished, he sat back and looked up at the ceiling.
“This is quite an accusation,” he said finally.
“I don’t make it lightly.”
“The reason for mandatory class discussions in Mrs. Landers’ class is that there has been cheating. She’s trying to get to the bottom of it. I’m afraid that in this case–as with most cases like this one–I’m going to have to defer to Mrs. Landers’ judgment.”
I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. Even when I did sleep I had nightmares and woke up in a cold sweat. Then, because I was exhausted all the time, I started screwing up at work. I mixed up two orders for a big client and got chewed out by my boss who warned me to get it together or he’d have to let me go.
On Monday evening I wrote Kathy an email.
Listen, I know that between teaching teenagers and all of your doctorate studies at Northwestern (smart much?) you probably don’t have the energy to be reading emails from student’s parents.
So thanks in advance for your time.
First I wanted to let you know that it was so much fun to re-connect with you the other day! By the way you look really young! Seriously. We’ll have to talk moisturizers in our next catch up session.
Okay. So as you know Junior year in high school is super important. Not only do these kids have to have a perfect record to get into the colleges they want but they also have to get straight A’s. That can mean how much student aid they are awarded. Talk about pressure!
I’m sure you can empathize (I used it correctly thanks to you!).
I was just wondering if there was a possibility that you and I could have lunch sometime? I’d be more than willing to meet you somewhere on campus at Northwestern if that helps.
It took me over an hour to write that stupid email. I figured if I kept things upbeat it couldn’t hurt.
I waited for a reply, but days went by and there was nothing.
I thought about writing to her again. This time apologizing. For everything. I actually sat down at the computer to do just that. But as my fingers hovered over the keyboard and I considered what to write, I realized it would all be in black and white. Everything I had done. Everything I had to be ashamed of.
I couldn’t chance Kathy Riley showing my email to Haley. It would change the way she regarded me. Ever since she was a little girl, the way my daughter looked at me was my sole reason for getting out of bed in the morning. I couldn’t risk losing that.
When I got pregnant, the out-of-work bartender I was seeing took off. I smoked and drank my way through the pregnancy but when the midwife told me I had a daughter and laid this slimy screaming purplish creature on my chest it was love at first sight. The universe shifted. I couldn’t stop staring at the thick black hair, the perfect hands clenched into tiny fists whenever she cried. Her big blue eyes that never seemed to blink. I totally cleaned up my act. I stopped smoking–cigarettes and weed. Stopped drinking. Joined AA. Stuck with it. Before Haley I couldn’t hold down a job for any length of time but after her, I landed a position as a receptionist at Sweet and Pink candy factory and stayed put. I was determined Haley was going to be a success in life. I made sure she understood and completed her homework, I spearheaded her school projects and provided a parade of tutors to help her gain an edge. Before Kathy Riley came along, Haley had never gotten anything less than an A. She used to be a happy hard-working kid. Now she was an empty shell of a girl. Kind of like the old me.
On Saturday afternoon I bought vodka. I wasn’t going to drink it. Honest. I just thought I’d feel better knowing it was in the apartment. And even if I did drink any, it would only be to help me sleep. I really didn’t want to lose my job because I was too tired and screwed up again at work. In the lobby of our building I grabbed the mail and headed upstairs. I put the bag of groceries down on the kitchen counter and the vodka away. I opened the mail. A letter from the school informed me that Haley had been placed on academic probation.
I grabbed my car keys. Told Haley I forgot something at the store. Seven minutes later I was standing in front of a modest one-story white clapboard house. Kathy’s house. I rang the bell, the blood pulsing inside my ears. I was shaking. Scared to death.
No answer. Just as I turned to get back in the car she appeared in the doorway. She’d clearly just gotten out of the shower: wet hair, tying the belt of a blue, worn-out terry cloth robe.
“What are you doing here?” she said, clearly irritated.
All the work I’d done in the last few weeks–trying to stuff all those horrific memories into the large trash bin of my brain–suddenly didn’t matter. They were all there. Every ugly frame. The first time I hit Kathy Riley. I saw her sitting on the bus looking all happy or content or whatever that expression was, and I just wanted to ruin her day. I moseyed my way up the aisle as she stared down at the pathetic math notes sitting on her lap and I punched her. Then I kept walking. Sat down, my own hand stinging from my shoving it into someone’s unsuspecting cheek bone. There was a huge pulsing red mark on the side of her face.
Other cruelties followed. I accused Kathy Riley of cheating–copying answers off my Spanish test. I made the whole thing up. I went to the teacher and told this huge lie about how she had a mirror and took all of my answers and how outraged I was. I was adept at crying on cue and started to sob and the teacher got all rattled and got me a box of tissues–his own personal stash. In those days I could really spin a yarn and Mr. Connor believed me simply because I made him laugh a couple of times at the beginning of the year. She got an F on the test. A month of detention.
“Stop bullying my daughter,” I blurted.
She took a second, then she said, “You are out of line.”
The whole drive over I thought she’d back off when she saw me on her front stoop. Out of the school setting she’d be a little more intimidated. Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen. The directness of her words–the unwavering certainty with which she said them–caught me off guard and I was suddenly lightheaded. My mouth was dry. She didn’t let up.
“How well do you know Haley?” she said.
I suddenly got a bad sense of where this conversation could be headed. This was a bad idea. I pictured the medium-sized plastic bottle of vodka hidden underneath an old apron, in the back of a deep drawer to the left of the stove.
“I have to go,” I said, making a beeline for my car.
She followed me. Even though she was in her bathrobe and didn’t have shoes on and it was cold, she still came after me.
“You need to know that Haley–
I tried to open the car door but it was locked.
“…has been cheating on her bio tests.”
“Not listening to this!” I said, fumbling with my keys.
“We just had an exam on photosynthesis. Haley got a hundred. Two days later, when I asked her to explain what photosynthesis was, she couldn’t even begin. It’s obvious she’s been cheating all year.”
Slowly, I took my hand off the car door. Closed it. Faced her, my heart pounding. The part in Kathy’s hair was crooked and you could see gray at the roots. Her cheeks were still damp from the shower and there were faint traces of acne scars. I pushed down a sob. Blinked. “No,” I said, my voice wobbly. “No. She wouldn’t do that. She’s a good person.”
Her eyes flickered and for a second it looked like she maybe felt sorry for me. Like she didn’t know quite what to do with me. Then she glanced away, pushed damp wavy brown hair behind her ears. I wanted to apologize, like for days, but my throat was thick and the words wouldn’t come. I wanted to tell her how much I envied her in high school. Her self-regard. Her sober parents. How she probably got lunch every fucking day of her life. But then, in an instant, in a quick flash across her acne-scarred, compassionate face, I saw that she knew all of that already.
“You know it’s not the end of the world, right?” she said now, locking eyes with me. “Kids in high school do stuff. Shitty stuff. Really fucked up. It doesn’t mean they’re horrible people.”
I went home and poured the vodka down the kitchen sink. Tossed the empty plastic bottle into the recycling bin. I went to Haley’s room and knocked on the door. Told her we needed to talk. She screamed at me. I was a shitty parent! It was all my fault–because of my impossible standards–that she was forced to cheat!
Things between Haley and me were bad for a while. Finding our way back to each other was a long, tough haul. In a weird way, fighting with Haley gave me compassion for my parents that I’d never had before. In June, after school let out, Haley and I took a road trip to look at colleges. At the end of our week, as we were just on the outskirts of Chicago, Haley brought up Mrs. Landers. Haley told me that toward the end of the year Mrs. Landers had actually become one of her favorite teachers. She’d tutored her a couple of times. Offered to write her a recommendation letter when she applied to colleges next year. Told Haley she was happy to do it.
“I guess what amazed me most about her,” Haley said, turning her head, looking out the window at the emerging Chicago skyline, “was that even though I lied and cheated, even though I did all that nasty stuff, in the end, she still forgave me.”
Madeleine Belden lives in Chicago with her husband, three children, and adorable pup, Nino. She was a cast member with the renowned Second City theater for many years. Her short stories have appeared in Hive Avenue Literary Journal and Arkansan Literary Review. She is hard at work finishing her novel, Can’t Thank You Enough. Her hobbies include wine, more wine, and shopping for wine. Cheers!