A pulse starts throbbing at the base of my neck. “That’s great…” I look down at the big red 100 scrawled over the top of my quiz. “Are you telling me that when a student answers a question incorrectly, you ignore it if you know they’ve ‘read the work thoroughly?’”
His smile slips a little. “You are an A student. Top of this class.”
Bile burns up my throat. I swallow it down but can’t control the way my heart is now pounding. “Did I get there on my own, or did I have help?”
Gephard sits up straight, his mouth thinning into a purple line. “Just what are you implying, Mr. Baylor?”
“I’m not implying anything,” I say evenly, as though I don’t want to grab hold of his lumpy wool sweater and shake him until his dentures rattle. “I am asking if you make the same allowances for the rest of my classmates.”
His watery gaze flickers away from mine. “My colleagues and I are aware that you have more responsibilities than your classmates.”
“You have got to be kidding me.” It takes everything I have not to smash my fist into the desk. “I never asked for your help. I don’t want it. Ever.”
“Oh, for God’s sake…” Gephard snatches the paper and makes a slash through the question with his red pen. His knobby knuckles tremble as he writes a spindly 99 on the top of the page. He shoves the paper back in my direction. “There. One whole point deduction. You now have a slightly less perfect A, Mr. Baylor. Are you happy?”
Rage pushes its fist against my breastbone. “Don’t you dare try to shame me.”
Gephard’s wispy brows rise, but I don’t give him a chance to speak.
“I have just as much a right to ask questions as any other student.” Holding the test up between us, I glare at him. “Apparently more.”
His face turns magenta. “You are overreacting.”
Bracing my fists on the desk, I lean my weight on them, bringing my face level with his, and he flinches. Fear widens his eyes, and I want to snort. He thinks I’m a thug. Perfect. But I don’t back down. I keep my voice level and enunciate so he can hear every word distinctly. “I beg to differ.”
Snatching the quiz up, I turn and leave the classroom.
I manage to walk out on Gephard without screaming, but I’m far from calm. I can barely see straight as I leave campus and head home. My head is throbbing, my throat is closing up and aching. There is a buzzing sound in my ears.
On the seat of my car, my quiz lays face up, mocking me with its false score. Yeah, I still received an A. But how many other times have I been helped out by my professors? For the most part, English Lit is subjective, the bulk of my grades coming from how well my professors believe I’ve handled the topic. I think of the hours I’ve spent hunched over my computer, trying to put my thoughts down in words. And the pride I felt when I got high marks on those papers.
My sweaty hands grip the steering wheel as a wave of humiliation slaps down on me. Was it all a joke? A f**king joke on me?
I don’t know. And it burns me. I have to know.
At home, I run through my house until I reach my office.
Lies. It could all be lies. Years of it.
Hands shaking, I tear open my filing cabinets, intent on ripping out old tests and essays. Papers flap, slap, and flutter to the floor. I grab an old test, ready to pick it apart, when I stop, my breath coming out in hard pants.
The page wavers before my eyes, the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. And then I crumble the test in my fist. I can’t look.
“Fuck!” I chuck the balled up paper as hard as I can. It hits the wall with an ineffectual tap. “Fuck!”
Sinking to the floor, I grab the ends of my hair and blink hard. I’m shaking, and I can’t stop. I want to vomit. I want to kick my desk apart.
I’m a coward, because I can’t bring myself to know the truth. If they’ve all helped me, I can’t live with the humiliation. But the doubt is already there, and I know it will never go away. I can try to be the best person I can be, but the world only wants to see one side of me. And I feel sick to my bones.
“HERE’S TO MOONEY!”
We all cheer, holding our drinks high in honor of our friend. Mooney, whose real name is Joseph Schwartz, beams, his round face and cherubic curls gleaming in the light over the poker table.
“Yeah, yeah.” He turns pink.
The blush grows when his girlfriend, Jin, gives him a smacking kiss on the cheek. “So humble, my man.”
Outside, it has started to rain; inside it’s warm, pizza and beer scenting the air. I’m hanging with my old study group, playing poker and celebrating that Mooney got a 180 on his LSAT. Though the group disbanded last year, and we rarely see each other, we’ve known each other since we were freshmen, and this meeting is bittersweet now that we’re in our last year.
“You still want to go to Tulane, buddy?” Pete asks him before taking a swig of his beer.
Mooney, having spent Mardi Gras in New Orleans two years ago, has it set in his head that he’s going to law school there. Not to Harvard or Princeton or whatever eastern Ivy League college his parents had their hearts set on.
Still a bit pink about the cheeks, Mooney runs his hand through his overlong brown curls. “If they’ll have me, yeah.”
“If?” Pete grins his sexy-Taye Diggs-has-got-nothing-on-me grin and clamps a Twizzler between his even teeth. “I wouldn’t doubt that, my friend. You are sitting pretty.”
Pete is sitting pretty himself, having sat for the MCATs in July and aced them. Not that anyone was surprised. He’s brilliant. And has his own plans. It will be Johns Hopkins all the way for him. The first of his family to go to college, much less med school.