Doubt rippled inside us. We were good students. Every day we strained ourselves to exhaustion to prove it; we worked; we sacrificed. But good students didn’t get bad grades on their tests. Good students, above all, never let themselves fall behind.
“All right,” Neil said. “Let’s get down to business.”
The exam went off without a hitch, and from there, stopping just didn’t make sense.
Before each Calc test, we convened at Jill’s house to work out the answers. Dale was always the last to arrive. By an unspoken rule, we didn’t talk about why we were there until he appeared. Instead, we talked about the kids we looked down on, and the ones who looked down on us. We talked about the teachers we despised, the mold in the library that we feared might be killing us, the victims of the latest cold or flu that was going around. Only after the basement door squeaked open and Dale ran down, clutching his backpack, did we turn our attention to the business at hand.
Each night as we lay in our beds, we imagined what would happen if we were caught—our prospects breaking up, falling down upon us like a sheaf of snow sliding from the roof to the windshield of a moving car. But by the light of day, we banished these thoughts.
Instead, we worried that Dale would get tired of his role as volunteer goon. Danger hadn’t improved him in our estimation. In Calc class, as we bent confidently over test papers whose equations we’d already solved, we snuck glances at the dandruff that clung in thick flakes to his shirt and hated him for it. Nancy, who sat behind him in Chemistry, was constantly twisting around to examine her own shoulders, horrified to think that she might share his condition.
But we hid our contempt. Every day, we saved a place for Dale at the middle of the table at lunch. We began calling him D-Dawg and invited him to join us for Pizza Night at Vincetti’s. Neil even started giving him rides home in his 1991 Corolla, whose heavy-metal-band bumper stickers he’d never peeled off after buying it used. After a few weeks, no one knew for certain that they weren’t really friends.
“It’s kind of weird,” Jill said to Nancy and May one evening as they headed to her car after a National Honor Society meeting. Neil and Dale had walked into the meeting together, both of them sipping from Jumbo Slurpee cups, just as NHS President Ari Bratz was calling us to order. Even Vikram, who was seated at the front table as treasurer, had looked surprised to see them together.
May snorted. “I honestly don’t see how Neil can stand to be around him.”
“Just as long as it helps me get into Columbia,” Nancy said as she climbed in the backseat, “I don’t really care.”
“Me neither,” Jill said. She turned the ignition and waited, hands on the wheel, while a car passed behind them. “Just as long as nothing goes wrong,” she added.
We were juniors and everything was just getting more intense. In October we’d trooped down to the gym and sat at long tables to take the PSAT with the rest of our class, and our nerves were running high. Our hands left sweaty prints on the papers. Breakfast cereal churned in our stomachs. We knew the results really mattered: National Merit Awards hung in the balance.
The test took three hours. We got tunnel vision staring at the booklets before us, and had to look up every now and then to steady ourselves. The test-taking was lonelier than we’d thought it would be. When time was called, we blinked around at each other and maintained a solemn silence until we were out in the hall. “That could’ve been worse,” we said to each other. “It wasn’t too awful.” Some of us truly felt that way, but most of us didn’t.
We wouldn’t receive our scores until January, but some questions from the test continued to haunt us. Had we calculated area instead of circumference by accident? In the reading passage on farming techniques, was the author trying to inspire, or merely to educate?
May Wang had gotten a near-perfect score the previous year in her SAT prep class. She knew she’d done well on the PSAT, but wanted to be sure. Jill Jansen had felt pretty solid on Critical Reading, but she’d gotten tripped up on some of the Math questions. Paul Takahashi, we all agreed, would do better than Cindy, who probably wasn’t all that intelligent.
January was taking forever to come. In the meantime, we met with our guidance counselors to discuss college prospects and the current state of our résumés. We began to map tour loops of potential schools. During spring break and over the summer, those of us whose parents could afford it would follow these maps through New England and California and the upper Midwest. We’d finally get to see firsthand the chalky brick buildings where our futures lay waiting for us, the places where we’d forge new friendships, new lives, where we’d forget everything we’d had to do to ensure that we got there.
As fall semester spiraled down to its finish, word went around that Dale was going to demand money for a copy of the Calc final. May told everyone she thought Neil was behind it. Dale wouldn’t try it unless Neil was telling him to, she argued. “It’s like Batman and Robin or something.”
She confronted Neil in the library one afternoon before everyone else had arrived. “I bet you’re taking half that money,” she said, her brows moving toward the center of her forehead.
Neil glanced around the library. It was empty except for Mrs. O’Connor, lost in her giant librarian-sweater, sorting through a stack of books at her desk across the room. “Do you maybe want to be a little more careful, May?”
“I’m being careful,” she hissed. “She can’t hear me over there.”
Neil sighed. “Look, the Calc final’s on a Wednesday, which means that Dale has to get it on Monday.”
“So breaking into that room is a lot more dangerous on a weekday. He should be compensated.”
“What are you, like, his manager or something?”
“I’m his friend, May, which is a lot more than I can say for you.” Neil sat back in his chair and shrugged. “From now on, no more free handouts.”
After that, the missions expanded in scope. By spring semester, whenever Dale snuck in for Everett’s test, he’d copy whatever else happened to be on the shelves by the machine: Advanced Comp paper topics, French and German and Latin exams. Once, he even copied a Health quiz, though we all could have taken it in our sleep if asked.
It was all about focus. We had no reason to study Beer’s Law if it wasn’t even going to be on Mr. Kipp’s Chemistry exam. Knowing what the essay question would be on our Econ test meant we could streamline our studying, put in a few hours on currency inflation, and then move on.
With SATs and college applications approaching in a few months, our actual schoolwork began to seem like a distraction. High school wouldn’t last forever. We were looking ahead. “My dad says that Harvard Law won’t even look at you if you don’t do your undergrad someplace that matters,” Gretchen told us. Her father was a lawyer, although as far as we knew he hadn’t gone to Harvard. “What school we get into now determines the rest of our lives.”
The third week of January, we had received our PSAT results. A few of us were overjoyed, but most were disappointed. We sought out one another to discuss our scores, hoping to discover we were smarter than the person we were talking to, or else smarter than the person he or she had spoken with last. Neil found out he’d done better than Vikram. Vikram found out he’d done better than Tran. Priya learned she’d done better than every one of us except May and Paul, and though we tried to act gracious, privately we reflected that we’d never liked her that much.
May and Paul had gotten the exact same score and placed in the ninety-ninth percentile in all three categories. Cindy scored high in Critical Reading, but in Math she was only in the ninety-fourth percentile. Nancy was horrified by her results and wouldn’t share them with anyone. She’d never be a contender for National Merit. “I never win anything,” she said, bitterly. “I don’t even know why I’m still trying.”
By the middle of junior year, we were all run-down. Spring came and exhausted us with its sunshine and flowers. We had been sleep-deprived for nearly three years, and now when we slept, our dreams only wore us down more. In them, we were forever getting lost in the school. The building sometimes expanded to become an infinite labyrinth; other times it was reduced to a solitary desk, a single long hall, the face of someone we recognized but couldn’t quite place.
In the mornings, as we stood in our bathrooms brushing our teeth, we tried to avoid meeting our own eyes in the mirror. Just another few months, we told ourselves, and the worst would be over. No more meetings at Jill’s house. No more filching twenties from our mothers’ purses to hand over to Dale.
The class above us was coasting now: college acceptance letters in hand, their futures sealed. But we’d been surprised by the mediocrity of their prospects; only three of the Top Ten were going Ivy League. Bethany Waters, ranked number five, hadn’t gotten into a single one of her top picks. Come August, she’d be headed to the big state school a few hours down the interstate—four years of toil reduced to powder, to nothing.
What mistakes had she made? We were terrified of repeating them. Data from all the best colleges and universities reported that applications were up, acceptance rates down. We saw no room for error, no redemption for the mediocre.
“This sucks,” Priya complained one morning in late April as were waiting for the second-period bell to ring. Her parents were sending her to India for the summer to visit her relatives. She was worried about the gap in her résumé.
A few people were still missing—Nancy had been absent in first period—and Mr. Everett hadn’t walked in yet to begin Calculus class.
“Maybe you could get a job while you’re there, at an NGO or something,” May suggested.
Dale giggled. “Yeah, like Mother Teresa.”
We did our best to laugh, but Priya ignored him. “I mean, if it’s between me and some girl who did a program or something, who do you think Princeton is going to choose?”
We knew she was right. With the exception of Nancy, who was still waiting to hear back about an internship in the Cancer Center at St. Timothy’s Hospital, the rest of us had all finalized our plans for the summer. Paul was headed to Harvard, Vikram and Dmitri to Michigan; Jill was doing a writing workshop somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Others were doing internships at museums or offices. Both Cindy and May had been nominated for Girls State.
“Seriously,” Priya said, glancing around at all of us. “This could be the thing that brings me down.”
Just then, we heard steps echoing down the hallway. Mr. Everett walked in with Vice Principal Gilman and the two of them stood framed in the doorway, the teacher’s arms crossed over his plaid-shirted chest, the vice principal with his hands hanging limply at his sides. Mr. Everett’s gaze moved slowly over the room with the menace of a raised gun.
“The following students will gather their belongings and come directly to my office,” the vice principal said, lifting a piece of paper from his side and taking a small step forward. A frown latched onto his face as he began to read: “Priya Bhatnagar. Tran Binh. Neil Casey.” He read out each name, a pause after each, each one a sentence. Some of us stopped breathing. Others started panting. When he got to Dale’s name, the vice principal’s face registered nothing. He read it and kept going, on and on down the list, our names falling in a volley like cannon shot.
When he’d finished, we packed up our things and rose to follow him. Our classmates eyed us curiously as we went; Mr. Everett, arms still folded over his chest, snapped his shoulders back another inch. In the hall, we fell into a single-file line. The fear was burning white-hot inside us, but none of us said a word as we followed the vice principal down the hall.
Nancy was the one who had broken.
The afternoon before, she’d found a letter in her mailbox informing her that she hadn’t gotten the internship at St. Timothy’s. At 8:10 the next morning, instead of heading to first period, she went straight to the main office and told the secretary, Mrs. Feather, a jowly woman who favored plum lipsticks and beige clothes, that nearly half of Mr. Everett’s Honors Calculus class had been involved in a cheating scheme for the past six months.
Mrs. Feather told Nancy to take a seat. She got up from her desk and crossed to the half-open door of Principal Brown’s office.
A few minutes later, Nancy was ushered in to repeat her story for the principal and vice principal. She was asked to give more detail, to name names. Who actually broke into the school?, Vice Principal Gilman wanted to know. Who else was involved?
Nancy told them everything. When she’d finished, she asked if she could go home for the day. The principals couldn’t allow that, but they relented and let her lie down in Nurse Nowak’s office, where she spent the next two periods contemplating the ruined landscape of her future.
Whose idea was it?
Whose idea was it?
How long has it been going on?
“Five months, maybe six.”
“Since, like, October?”
And the stealing?
“Dale had a key, but I don’t know how he did it.”
“I think my parents should be here.”
“Are you going to tell my parents?”
Who’s the one responsible?
“Dale’s the one who broke in.”
“Dale had the key.”
“Yeah, it was Dale.”
Eight years after his expulsion from Truman South, Dale Gilman, on a Tuesday night in late June, hopped on the interstate headed west—away from the city, out of the suburbs where he still lived with his parents in the ranch-style home he’d grown up in—and forty miles out into flat, scrubby land that seemed to go on forever, nothing on the road but the car he was driving (a green Mazda Miata his father had passed down to him when he upgraded to a newer model four years before), he plowed into the base of a billboard sign going ninety miles an hour: sober, then dead, at the moment of impact.
The story reached everyone at different times. May Wang got a phone call from her sister the next morning as she was studying for the bar at a coffee shop off Harvard Square. Priya, halfway through her doctorate in French literature at Duke, got an e-mail from her mother later that week. Tran heard about it a few months later; half a year after that, Vikram came across an article during an idle Internet search at his job at an investment firm down in Dallas. Jill got the report when she ran into Cindy the following spring in Shanghai. By the time the news reached Neil Casey in Silicon Valley, Dale had already been dead for almost two years.
Nancy was living in Brooklyn when it happened. She shared an apartment with two roommates on Union Street. She walked dogs in the mornings, worked in a cupcake shop afternoons. Her mother saw the story on the news and called her the next day, catching Nancy on her way to the subway. “That boy,” her mother said, “he was trouble for you. But this is too bad.”
After hanging up, Nancy sat down on the curb. Above her were leafy trees and crisscrossing wires; on the street one block over, the honking of cars. She was alone in the city. She couldn’t remember if that was how she’d imagined this life would turn out. Maybe she’d had other plans, but none of them mattered, because back then, we all thought we knew just what we wanted, and who could say now that we hadn’t gotten it?