Summer Essays: Writing on the Wall
We told the truth, but Mrs. Johnson doubted us.
Editor's Note: Summer essayists contemplate personal moments of disloyalty, sharing their stories that range from a failing body and objection to war to peer pressure and loss of faith.
An act of betrayal can cause hopelessness and despair. But people show amazing resilience and often overcome the temporary setbacks disloyalty leaves in its disastrous wake.
The East Bay Monthly asked East Bay writers to consider a moment of betrayal in the summer essay contest. The theme seemed to resonate well with the wordsmiths, and essayists responded by turning in moving prose about infidelity, loss, abusive relationships, inside jokes, bullying, and other topics.
The essays chosen to present in print address betrayal in wide-ranging ways, touching on the strains of a weakening body, standing up to the U.S. Marines, and making a gut decision that puts a group of friends at odds. They explore a loss of faith in a trusted adult and a careless act in wartime. They are poignant, dramatic, exciting, heartwarming, and humorous tales, and they are well-written.
Congratulations to the winning essayists, Naneen Karraker, Robert Menzimer, Stacy Appel, Patricia Young, Anna Rabkin, Flossie Lewis, and Bobbie Stein. Thanks to all the many Bay Area writers for submitting such wonderful prose—it was truly great reading. Look for our next essay contest in the winter.
This is the fourth of the seven winning essays:
I'm in the fifth grade at Pleasant Valley Elementary. I'm hanging out with my friends on the playground after lunch. We're all in line waiting for our turn to play tetherball. We're taking turns, trying to beat Ben, but nobody can, not even the sixth-grade boys.
Ben is the king of the tetherball court. He's wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt. It's unbuttoned all the way down the front—I can see his clean white T-shirt underneath. He keeps his left arm close to his side and his right arm whacks the ball, around and around the pole. His hair flies out and covers his eyes, but he never misses the ball when it comes around.
Rrriiiinnng. It's the end-of-lunch bell. I walk slowly back to class with May Chandler and some other girls. Mrs. Johnson hasn't opened the door yet, so we all line up outside our room, next to the playground. I always like to start class again after lunch. Mrs. Johnson is a good teacher. She thinks of really interesting things for us to do. She's fun but she's not super peppy. She's really late today.
May and I are bored. I can tell the other kids are bored, too, especially the boys, because they're starting to move around and shove each other. One of the boys takes a pencil out of his pocket and writes something on the wall. Pretty soon everyone is writing on the wall. I don't know where all the pencils come from—they seem to come from nowhere, by magic. Even Cynthia Clark is writing! Cynthia never, ever does anything wrong, but I see her! She's standing up close to the wall. Her straight brown hair is covering her face, so I can't see it. Her elbow is close to her side, but I can see her hand holding a pencil, making little marks on the wall. The wall is rough, but I make some marks too; everyone is doing it.
All of a sudden, Mrs. Johnson comes around the corner. The big bunch of keys in her hand is jangling as she rushes toward us. She stops suddenly when she sees what we're doing.
Everyone stops writing. We freeze, like when we play statues.
Mrs. Johnson is really mad. She unlocks the door and tells us to go inside and take our seats. She walks slowly to the front of the room and stands by her desk, pulling a little bit on the side of her gray dress to straighten it out. I look at her short, curly gray hair and her glasses that are black just on the top. But what I notice most is her mouth: It's a straight line. Her lips open just a little bit and they hardly move when she talks, but we can all hear her because the room is so quiet. "I am very disappointed in all of you. I want everyone who was writing on the wall to tell me who you are."
A lot of hands go up in the air. Almost everyone tells her that they were guilty, including me. Except for Cynthia Clark. Cynthia says she didn't do it.
The other kids shout, "Yes you did—she was writing too!"
Mrs. Johnson says, "I believe Cynthia. Cynthia wouldn't tell a lie." What? My eyes pop open wide.
I look over where Cynthia is sitting at her desk, her hands folded together on the top. Her back is very straight. Her hair falls down from her part, down both sides of her face and stops at her mouth. Her lips are shaped into a little smile. She doesn't look like a liar.
Except for admitting my guilt, I am silent. I can't bring myself to call Cynthia a liar out loud. But she is. Cynthia isn't my best friend, but I always thought she was nice. Everybody else told Mrs. Johnson the truth. Why didn't Cynthia?
I like Mrs. Johnson. She is a nice teacher. Why does she believe Cynthia and not us? Does she think we are all lying? Cynthia lied. We all know it. Teachers are supposed to know about lots of things. Why doesn't she know that Cynthia lied? Does this mean she likes Cynthia best? It isn't fair. Teachers are supposed to be fair. I would never lie to Mrs. Johnson; she should believe me. I don't think I like Mrs. Johnson as much as I did before. I don't trust Mrs. Johnson now. Maybe I shouldn't trust any teachers anymore.
Pat Young lives with her husband in Berkeley. She is an enthusiastic reader and memoirist who is spending her retirement seeking out the stories in her own life.
Editor's Note: This story appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.