We were sedulous. We were driven. Our vocabularies were formidable and constantly expanding. We knew the chemical elements by number and properties, the names and dates of battles in the world’s greatest wars.
We arrived at school early and put in twelve-hour days. Exhaustion was routine. Most of us repelled it with Pepsi or Mountain Dew. Others took a more holistic approach. Neil Casey did a series of deep-breathing exercises; May Wang sipped from a thermos of ginseng tea. Dale Gilman, the vice principal’s son, whom none of the rest of us could stand, rolled his ankles and wrists around while he sat through each class. “It really gets the blood flowing,” he said in his high-pitched voice, even though we never asked him to explain.
Most of us had older siblings who’d been there before. We’d watched their hands shake as they tore open letters from Harvard and Stanford, from numerous tiny schools in the New England woods. They’d won Presidential Scholarships and National Merit Awards. Jill Jansen’s older brother went on to get a Rhodes. The pamphlets we took home from the Guidance Office showed photographs of trees in a perpetual state of October, and students’ faces laughing under jaunty knit caps.
At various times throughout the school day, we pictured those offer letters. They were on the pages of our Geometry textbooks and our daily planners, in the overstuffed pockets of our AP class folders. At night when we closed our eyes, they shimmered bright white against the black, with our own names on the page, beneath the raised Latin seal.
Nancy Kim knew what waiting for a letter like that was like. During our freshman year at Truman South in the suburbs of St. Louis, she’d entered her Sonata in D Major in the Young Mozart International Composers Competition. First prize was a trip to New York to hear the piece performed by an eighty-two member semiprofessional orchestra. Nancy had never been to New York, but her two favorite movies were Home Alone 2 and Annie Hall. Everyone knew she was meant for the Big Apple.
She mailed off her sonata in December and waited for the results. That winter we were reading The Great Gatsby in Honors English. Whenever Mrs. Singer read out loud one of Nick Carraway’s descriptions of West Egg or Manhattan, we’d look over and see Nancy sitting with her hands on the back of her head and her elbows folded over her chin like a pelican beak. We couldn’t tell if she was lost in a reverie about life in New York or if she was just succumbing to stress, but sometime in January, she began to question whether she’d sent the right piece. “What do you guys think?” she’d ask us at least once a week. “I should’ve cut the minuet down and sent that one, right?”
“Dude, stop freaking out,” Vikram Sengupta would say. Vikram was a short, skinny Indian guy with huge glasses, who called everyone “dude.”
Maybe Nancy should have sent the minuet. It was hard to tell. But we got tired of hearing about it; each of us had private worries that trumped Nancy’s dilemma. Tran Binh had discovered a slow-growing rash on her stomach. Neil Casey arrived at school one morning with his left arm in a sling after he got cornered behind the tennis courts by two guys from the lacrosse team. They’d dislocated his shoulder holding his hands behind his back while they rifled through the contents of his suede-bottomed JanSport. Both Gretchen Kafka’s and Jill Jansen’s parents were headed for divorce. And every time Vikram went to his locker, he faced the bleached outline of a penis that the janitors’ industrial-strength cleaner had not been able to erase.
By April, the tension of waiting had taken its toll on Nancy. She showed up at school looking more and more haggard. She wasn’t sleeping well. Her class participation dropped to a level just above catatonic. A flinching, bruised look about her would get progressively worse over the course of a day, so that by fifth period, we could barely stand to look at her at all.
One Tuesday, she blazed into American History ten minutes before the morning bell. “Sonata in C Minor,” she spat out, glaring around at us, “by some Chinese kid from New Jersey!” We all glanced over at May Wang, as if she might be culpable. Her family owned a restaurant called Hunan Happy Garden in a strip mall next to a bowling alley.
May shrugged. “You know, what sucks is that he’s from New Jersey, so he’s probably been to New York, like, a million times.”
After that, Nancy gave up writing her symphony. She put Columbia University at the top of her school list and turned full-time to studying.
We studied constantly, but never enough; we always had more to learn, more to cram in. We studied the Latin roots of words and Avogadro’s number. We broke down the structure of the Gettysburg Address, then went straight into the chronology of geologic periods.
Some of us believed in flashcards. Others went in for mnemonic devices. Priya Bhatnagar, in her mother’s Taurus on the way to school each morning, sketched the sodium-potassium pump on the fogged-up windows. Dale Gilman listened to books on tape, strapping on headphones in the six-minute breaks between classes. If his father hadn’t been the vice principal, he would’ve gotten beaten up every day before he even got to first period.
Every quarter, we went to the Guidance Office to check our class rank. Cindy Boranodski was number one, and we hated her. The very first week of freshman year she’d joined the Debate Team, Quiz Bowl, American Youth Leadership Society, Spanish Club, Students Against Destructive Decisions, Mock Trial, Model UN, and the Student-Faculty Colloquium. She started writing for Tiger Tracks—the school newspaper—and editing the Truman Literary Journal. Every other weekend she cleaned cages at the Humane Society, and once a month she pushed old people around in wheelchairs at St. Margaret’s.
None of us understood how she had earned the highest GPA.
In the first quarter of sophomore year, Cindy got an A-minus in Chemistry, and Paul Takahashi caught up to her. We liked Paul okay, but once he’d won the top spot, we had trouble maintaining our good feelings toward him. By the midway point of second quarter, most of us had added him to our Mono Wish List.
This wasn’t ill will; it was a calculation of survival. Sometimes late at night, writing a paper or studying for an exam, we reflected that if Dmitri Alexandrov should fall ill or slip into a months-long depression, his grades would suffer and we’d move up in the class ranking. We imagined the same thing happening to Cindy and Paul, and to everyone else who was ranked above us. Occasionally, we imagined it happening to our closest friends.
On those nights, we’d close our eyes in the buzzing, 3 a.m. silence of our homes. We’d lay our heads down on the kitchen table or particleboard desk. Was it really worth it? What did we care about geometric proofs or the dystopia novels? Stress clawed at our hearts. It burrowed into our chests. When we slept, it gnawed away at us from the inside. Waking up each morning, we felt an aching hollowness in our bones that could be assuaged only by a perfect test score, an A on a paper, any small assurance that we weren’t falling behind.
We hated the stress, but we couldn’t give it up. It was our most loyal companion. Without it, we wouldn’t have known who we were.
Sophomore year, Vikram and Neil started taking a census. Both of them had gotten a B-plus on their last two papers in British Lit, and they were convinced that Mrs. Santamaria was grading from a severe gender bias. They approached each of us privately, wanting to know how we’d done on both the sonnet comparison and the Macbeth essay. They asked us to produce our graded papers so they could verify the data. A few of us refused. “Maybe I don’t feel like sharing,” Nancy Kim said. No one who’d gotten an A really minded too much, but among the A-minus crowd some grumbling occurred about the ethicality of the research methods. Gretchen Kafka threatened to fill out a report and drop it in the Bully Box outside the Principal’s Office.
There was a reason none of us had ever been able to stand Gretchen Kafka.
One afternoon, Vikram and Neil approached Dale Gilman after Mr. Penney’s Physics class. They weren’t friends with Dale. None of us was. He wore turtlenecks and his hair always stuck to his forehead. His body shape bordered on the feminine: bulbous, hippy, unfortunate in corduroy. In junior high, he’d gotten a compound fracture in his foot by dropping a huge block of Asiago cheese on it. He was constantly hovering at the edge of our conversations, laughing on cue with everyone else, sliding in at the lunch table when no one was paying attention.
“Salutations,” Dale said to Neil and Vikram as he took off his headphones.
“We’ve got something to ask you,” Vikram said.
Dale shifted his shoulders under the weight of his backpack as Neil explained that they were expanding their sample set for the census. They needed Santamaria’s grading sheets from previous years. Dale’s father was vice principal, which meant Dale had to have a way to get into the English Office after hours. “We’ll be a team,” Neil said, taking a step toward him. “We just need to find out what’s going on.”
The six minutes between classes was almost up. Neil and Vikram both had Latin just a few classrooms over, but Dale had to walk all the way down to the other end of the building for Mrs. Benson’s German class. A trio of senior soccer players went by, laughing loudly and taking up most of the hallway. “Okay,” Dale said, hooking thumbs under the straps of his backpack. “Okay, guys, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Cool,” Neil said. “I knew you’d come through.”
Dale took off at a sprint down the hall, his backpack bouncing with every step.
Before long, word spread that Dale Gilman was in possession of a master key to the school. “Dude, I saw it,” Vikram whispered to Tran at Math League one afternoon. He told her that Dale kept the key on a string around his neck. It was a copy he’d made at Central Hardware one Saturday morning while Vice Principal Gilman was out on his weekly ten-mile run.
“You were going to break into school?,” Tran asked.
“It was a joke,” Vikram said. “It’s not like we were ever going to actually do it.” After they both got A’s on the Dickens paper, he and Neil had abandoned their campaign against Santamaria.
“What about the alarm system?,” May asked Tran the next morning, when they were still at their lockers before the first-period warning bell.
Tran stuffed some books into her backpack and zipped up the main pocket. “Well, Vikram said that Dale said that the district hasn’t paid the company for, like, three years, so the alarm isn’t even on.”
Some of us believed the stories. Others were skeptical. In class, we stole glances at Dale, trying to decide whether someone whose daily lunch unfailingly included both a juice box and animal crackers could possibly have the guts to commit a serious crime. For the most part, we were too busy to give it much thought. We were busy playing violin and clarinet and doing tae kwon do. We were working to make Eagle Scout or win the Gold Award. We were traveling to regional math competitions, playing in piano recitals, polishing essays to send off to contests sponsored by the Rotary Club or the Local Business Alliance.
Periodically, we stopped off after school at the Guidance Office to page through the files of model college applications. Books of them lined the shelf, each one having gained the writer admission to the Ivies, Stanford, or MIT. Nancy Kim learned by heart all the vital statistics on the applications to Columbia, and all of us turned our attention to numbers one, two, and three in the national rankings.
We judged. The essays weren’t that good, we decided; we could do better. But then, standing on the gray carpeting before a huge binder propped open like the King James Bible, we would suddenly realize that we weren’t vice president of anything, and the thick, cold sludge of despair poured down our necks.
Dmitri Alexandrov was a human calculator, and by the beginning of our junior year his mathematical skill had become a community-wide problem. We had all managed to hold our own in Geometry and Pre-Calc/Trig, but Honors Calculus was a whole different ball game. In the library after school, we gathered in groups of three or four around Vikram, Paul, and Tran. They were all in Math League, but even the three of them together were no match for some of the problems assigned by Mr. Everett. We puzzled for hours over derivatives and infinite series. We brought our graphing calculators to bear on them and shot at them wildly with equations from the back of our giant Calculus textbook. When we left in the evening to go home for dinner, our used-up pens littered the floor like artillery shells.
Dmitri rarely went to the library. Even when he did, we didn’t ask him for help. Usually, he was doing work for other classes, but we knew he wouldn’t be able to help us anyway. In Calculus class, he never raised his hand to ask a question. He finished the exams barely ten minutes after Mr. Everett passed them out. He always followed along as Mr. Everett scribbled calculations on the overhead, but we figured that this was simply a formality, a cultural habit bred into him by his Russian heritage.
“Brutal,” we said under our breaths whenever we got back a Calculus quiz. In thick, bold lines at the top, we confronted letters that few of us had ever seen there before: B-minus, C-plus, C for average. But we knew that C was average only for homeless drug addicts and those with learning disabilities.
“He’s throwing the curve,” Neil declared one day. We were at the library after school, gathered in our normal spot—a corner with windows on two sides and a few tables placed close together in a little triangle. On nice days, the sunlight poured in through the windows and heated our corner like a greenhouse, but the sky this day was pewter-dark and heavy with rain. We were all tense. A few hours before, Mr. Everett had handed back our latest quiz; the results were near-catastrophic, and the first big exam was coming up soon.
“Well, yeah,” May said, leaning in over the table, her head sinking down between her raised shoulder blades, “but the point is that all of us are getting punished for taking the harder class.”
“Yeah, we could’ve been like some people and taken the easy way out,” Nancy added.
We all glanced over at Gretchen Kafka. She was sitting alone in a chair across the library, bent over a pink notebook, our Government textbook flipped open on her lap. Gretchen had been scared off by the reputation of Mr. Everett’s class. She was taking Stats instead, so her GPA wouldn’t suffer.
“It’s a problem with the system,” Neil went on, turning back to the table. “Think about it. They didn’t have Dmitri in their class last year, so their grades were all higher.” He paused. “Without the curve, you guys, we’re all getting screwed.”
We fell quiet. In our minds, we lined up rows and columns, plugging low B’s or C’s into our first-quarter report cards. The results were grim. All across the country, we thought, maybe at this very moment, teachers were scribbling little hat-shaped A’s on the tops of their students’ exams. Thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of perfect, unadulterated report cards were papering the fronts of as many refrigerators in as many homes.
Could the students whose names were on those report cards, we wondered, possibly be trying any harder than us? Did they spend any more hours balancing chemical equations or attempting to memorize the Bill of Rights? Had they even read Absalom, Absalom?
In class, Nancy Kim chewed on the ends of her hair. Tran Binh had the habit of pulling her eyelids. Most of us bit our nails so badly during late study nights that the next morning we woke up to our fingers pulsing with pain. We suffered Vitamin D deficiencies from lack of sunlight, and every one of us had problems with spinal alignment.
If we knew one thing about sacrifice, though, it was this: sacrifice made sense only if you made sure you wouldn’t fail.
Nancy buried her head in her hands. “I don’t know about you,” she mumbled, “but I feel like this class is going to ruin my life.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Dale Gilman appeared. He dropped into a chair and pulled off his headphones. “What’re you guys talking about?”
Neil leaned forward, hands pressed on the edge of the table. “Dale,” he said. “You’re our friend, right?”
Dale gave a nervous smile and glanced around at us. “Of course,” he squeaked. “I mean, we’re all friends, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.” Neil swept his gaze around the group. Unlike Dale’s, his expression was hard, but assured. Many of us noticed right then how entirely his acne medication had finally succeeded in clearing up his complexion. He’d even managed to drop the habit of reaching up to feel the phantom spots on his cheek. “All right, guys. Here’s the deal: Calc is going to take us down unless we do something about it. I happen to know of a way, but if you’re not on board, then say something now or forever hold your peace.”
May squinted at Neil. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that if you’re not willing to do whatever is required to get an A in this class, then maybe you should go.” Neil leaned back in his chair, waiting. “Take a minute to think about it.”
We didn’t need to think. Not about Dmitri, how unfairly he had put us in this position. Not about Cindy and Paul and the distinctions that would be tacked onto their names at graduation—valedictorian and salutatorian—while all the rest of us went unacknowledged. Not about our parents, how they thought we were smarter than all the others and how we knew better, but never corrected them. We didn’t need to think about any of it then, because we were already thinking about it all the time.
“Okay,” May said, finally. “Count me in.”
“Me too,” added Vikram.
“And me,” Nancy echoed.
We all agreed, one after the other. Dale stayed quiet, a patient, pug-like look of confusion on his face until Neil turned to him and said, “You’ll have to be the one, since you’ve got the key and all.”
Dale’s eyes widened. “What’ll have to be me?”
“The one who gets a copy of Everett’s test. Teachers have to send papers to the copy room two days before they hand them out. The test is next Monday, right? So they should be in the copy room before the weekend for sure.”
Dale’s glasses had slipped down his nose. He reached up and, grabbing them off his face, proceeded to wipe his eyes with the back of his fist. We all held our breath, waiting. Would he protest? Insist that someone else do the job? None of us was up to the challenge. Breaking and entering was a serious offense, and a short stint in juvie wasn’t going to help our chances with the Harvard Admissions Committee.
Replacing the glasses on his nose, Dale sat up straight in his chair. “I’ll do it,” he said solemnly, looking like he might be sick.
That Sunday afternoon, we met in Jill’s basement. While waiting for Dale to arrive, we talked about Gretchen’s presentation in Government on Friday. She’d made color copies of random senators to try to cover up the fact that she had nothing to say about the difference between expressed and implied powers. Somehow, Mr. Wray had eaten it up. Tran had seen him write an A-plus at the top of the comment sheet.
Dale arrived straight from his mission. He was sweaty from riding his bike a mile and a half from school, his shirt darkened at the neck and in giant circles under the arms. “I got it, you guys,” he gasped. He dropped onto a beanbag chair against the wall and, unzipping his backpack, pulled out a few sheets of paper and lined them up on the carpet in front of him. “It’s a copy. I had to turn on the machine and wait for it to warm up. I was freaked out having to wait that long.”
“You turned it off when you were done, right?,” Neil asked, stepping forward from where he’d been leaning against one wall.
“Good job,” Neil said. “Now let’s split up into pairs and get to work. When we have it all solved, we can copy it down to take home.”
“Wait a second.” Sitting on the couch, May lifted her hand. “Isn’t Mr. Everett going to think something’s up if we all get perfect scores on the test?”
Neil nodded. “Obviously, some of us are going to have to screw up on a few questions. We’ll just have to take turns.” He looked around at all of us. “Any objections?”