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Someone Like Me
One Saturday morning, I find myself at a desk with three number 2 pencils, miscellaneous erasers, a calculator, and a freshly printed copy of the SAT. All around me, people sit at identical desks with identical supplies.
The first section is the essay. The woman at the front of the classroom reads the instructions on the top of the page. She starts the timer.
I close my eyes.
No one has ever expected me to succeed.
I remember when I was ten and I got in a fight with the new kid next door. His name was Francis. He told me my family was trash because we had a smaller house than them. In fact, we had the smallest house on the whole block.
“Daddy says it’s people like you that ruin good neighborhoods.” He sneered at me as we walked back from the bus stop.
I ignored him because I knew no good could come from acknowledging a statement like that. I hoisted my backpack up higher on my shoulders and counted each step, knowing that in only 300 more I would be safely inside my front door and wouldn’t have to deal with Francis for the rest of the evening.
“Did you hear me?” He spit on the ground, dangerously close to my new sneakers.
200 more steps, I counted silently.
“Daddy says your Mama didn’t even finish high school. What kind of dummy don’t finish high school.”
“Daddy says your Daddy don’t know nothing either. He says he does some work for the school, sweeping floors and mopping up messes like when Sarah McAllister got sick the other day. You’ll probably end up just like him. Being a janitor aint a man’s work. But then we all know you’re daddy aint no man.”
I dropped my backpack to the ground and swiftly turned around, punching him square in the face.
Francis stared down in disbelief as his nose started spurting blood. He fell to his knees and held his hands to his face, watching the red liquid pour through his fingers. Then he started to wail.
He wailed so loudly that his mother and my mother both burst out through the screen doors at the same time, identical expressions on their faces.
“Oh my GOD!” Francis’ mother ran to her son and picked him up, cradling him like a baby. “What happened? What happened?”
Francis sniffed and turned to me. “Michael punched me. I was just walking home with him, trying to be his friend, and he punched me.”
I held my tongue. No matter what I said, I would be in the wrong.
“Is this true?” His mother demanded her eyes wide with horror.
“Yes ma’am, I hit him.” I had been raised to treat people’s mothers with respect, no matter how horrible they were.
Francis’ nose had stopped bleeding, but he whimpered again to for effect.
“Michael, inside, now!” my mother ordered, and I started marching toward the house obediently. “I’m so sorry about this, but I suppose boys will be boys.” My mother said apologetically.
Francis’ mother’s eyes narrowed with hatred. “I knew this would happen moving in next to someone like you.”
I didn’t want to look at my mother’s face. She followed me into the house. She didn’t scold me, or yell, or punish me. She simply asked why.
“He called you stupid and said Dad wasn’t a man because he works as a janitor. They hate us because we’re poorer than them.”
My mother knelt down in front of me. “They’re self-important stuck up people and I don’t want you to listen to a word they say. You’re better than that. You can do anything you want with your life.”
I watched her eyes carefully. She wanted me to succeed, she wanted me to rise above this, and she wanted to believe I could with all her heart. But as her eyes shifted downward, I knew there was some doubt. If my own mother couldn’t even believe in me, how could I believe in myself?
The time is half over. I scrawl down a paragraph emphasizing how I dream of mopping school halls as a career one day. The grammar is sloppy, the misspelled words are abundant. It has nothing to do with the writing prompt. I think of the practice essays I took in the library when I told Mom I was in detention. I think of how the topic sentences were like triggers, opening up my mind to ideas I didn’t even know I had. I think of how I submitted them online and received almost perfect scores.
I hope the sarcasm is not lost in the mess of grammatical errors.
Time is called and I set down my pencil. I flip to the next section. Mathematics.
I remember when I was 14 and I was put into the honor’s math class my freshman year. Mr. Ackerson was the teacher. I walked in on the first day five minutes early. I didn’t want to miss a second of this class. I was ready to learn. I loved math.
Mr. Ackerson looked up from writing his name on the board to stare me down. “I think you’ve got the wrong classroom,” he said sharply.
I shook my head, and handed him a note from the principal explaining why I had been placed into this class. Mr. Ackerson read the note, and then read it again, as if its contents were extraordinarily impossible.
“Well.” He said slowly. By now the entire class was there.
I was turning red in the face. Every kid in the room was giggling.
“Wasn’t your mother a dropout?” Someone asked from the back of the room.
I suspected Francis. His family moved not long after I punched him. Unfortunately, they only moved ten minutes away into a fancy gated community. We still went to the same school.
“Isn’t your father a janitor and your mother a housekeeper?” Francis continued. “I don’t see how Advanced Algebra is going help you learn the family trade.” He snickered at his own joke.
Mr. Ackerson didn’t say a word, although I could see a hint of a smile on his face. “Take a seat.” He finally said, plainly bored by my failure to respond.
I excelled in the class, making grades almost as high as the smartest junior. I enjoyed it. I imagined getting into the honors science program next year, maybe into an amazing science based college later on. I imagined changing the world.
The day after the midterm, I was called to the principal’s office.
Bruce, a fairly intelligent student, was already sitting in front of the desk.
The principal folded her hands on the desk and leaned forward. “Let’s get straight to the point. You and Bruce both made 97s on the midterm yesterday.”
I grinned, imagining the principal had called us there to congratulate us on our near perfect scores. I was naïve.
“Bruce came to me this morning, wanting to warn me. He told me that he thought he had seen you peeking at his answers yesterday during the exam. He said he didn’t want to believe it was true, so he came to me to make sure his suspicions were false. I checked the exams and found out your scores were identical. The two questions you answered incorrectly were also identical.”
My face dropped. “I didn’t cheat on the test.” I insisted. “I studied for weeks for this. I know the material. Ask Mr. Ackerson.”
The principal shook her head sadly. “I’ve already spoken to Mr. Ackerson. He said that he noticed you didn’t know the material as well as you could have and were desperate to pass the test. He confirmed that he noticed you leaning in toward Bruce during the exam.”
I recalled the midterm. I hadn’t looked up once.
“Michael, you know we have an absolutely no cheating policy.”
“Have you thought that maybe it was Bruce who did the cheating?”
Bruce looked hurt. “I can’t believe you would accuse me of that. I didn’t want to tell anyone about this. I was just trying to help you.”
The principal hung on to every word he said, so proud that a student in her school possessed this kind of selflessness. “Michael, why would Bruce and Mr. Ackerson lie about this?”
I could think of a few good reasons. Instead I looked at the floor and clenched my fists so hard my nails cut open the skin of my palms. She took this as an admission of guilt. I was suspended for 2 weeks, and banned from participating in school activities for the rest of the year. I had to learn my lesson.
And I did.
I pick answers at random, sometimes filling in the bubble for a choice so obviously incorrect that it almost hurts. I know the right answer for each and every question. I know there will be at least four more math sections. I know I will score just as badly on each one.
I flip to the next section on reading comprehension. The timer starts. I pick up the pencil with the sharpest tip and start reading.
I remember when I was sixteen and Jasmine joined the creative writing club. I never tried talking to girls like her before because I knew what they thought of me. But her writing was like music and I wanted to hear more of it. So I asked if she wanted to be in my group for the group projects.
She said yes. I was surprised. My group always consisted of me and Miss Martin, since I had no friends in the club and the friends I did have wouldn’t approve of creative writing.
“Wow.” She said, after reading one of my stories one snowy afternoon in late January. “I’ve never read anything from this perspective before. It’s kind of amazing.”
“Thanks. But you’re the best writer I’ve ever known,” I said in return.
She blushed at the compliment.
A week later I approached her in the hallways, wanting to show her my final draft for the project. She was with Jason Carlisle, her latest boyfriend.
“Jasmine, I was wondering if you maybe wanted to come over later and work on finishing the project.”
She blushed, but this time it was a terrified kind of blush. She looked around wildly for someone to save her.
Jason stepped forward. “Look, I don’t know who you are, and I sure as hell know Jasmine doesn’t, so you need to just back off.”
I waited for Jasmine to say something. I was angry. “Why won’t you say anything?” I asked. “Tell him we’ve been working on this together.”
“I think he’s stalking me, Jason.” She finally blurted out. “He followed me home from school yesterday.”
Jason took a step toward me. I loosened my grip on my books, ready to drop them and throw a couple punches if need be. It didn’t come to that. Within seconds, my friends Mason and Anthony were there stepping in between us.
“Trying to start a war?” Anthony asked, so close to Jason’s face that I was sure they could smell the hatred on each other’s breath.
Jason gritted his teeth. “Naw, I couldn’t hit a girl.”
Mason shoved Anthony aside. It was now his turn to get uncomfortably close to Jason. “Who are you calling a girl?”
Jason motioned toward me. “I mean, look at what the little faggot’s got in his hands.”
I looked down, mortified. I had forgotten to put the books for creative writing discussion back into my locker.
“Wuthering Heights?” Anthony said, a puzzled expression on his face.
“What the hell is Wuthering Heights?” Mason demanded.
“It’s a really good book.” I said, but as soon as the words left my mouth I could feel the edge creeping into my voice. I looked at Mason and Anthony’s and Jason’s faces. I didn’t look at Jasmine. “I mean, at least that’s what this one chick said. We went out last night, things went pretty well until she told me we wouldn’t get past second unless I joined her stupid writing club. I pretended like I read the book, and she was so impressed she’s been practically throwing herself at me all day.”
Mason and Anthony nodded in appreciation. Jason even looked impressed.
“Girls can be such dumbasses,” Anthony said, as if that had a context.
I nodded. “Like this one.” I motioned to Jasmine. “She’s so damn self obsessed she swears up and down I was stalking her home. As if we haven’t lived down the street from each other all of our lives.”
Jason didn’t mind me badmouthing his girl. He laughed along with us. I didn’t look at Jasmine.
“We’re in writing club together,” she said quietly.
Jason laughed even harder. “God Jasmine, he’s not in writing club for you. Weren’t you listening?” He playfully punched me in the arm. “As if she’d be interested in someone like you anyway.”
I laughed harder too, as if what he was saying was funny. I disentangled myself from the group. I threw Wuthering Heights in the garbage. I quit writing club. I never picked up another book from the library beside the ones with those pictures of hot girls in bikinis. When my anger finally went away, I looked at Jasmine.
At first she would smile and wave, and when I didn’t wave back she tried to talk to me before I left school every day. When I didn’t talk to her she tried to prove something by breaking up with Jason. When I didn’t pay her any attention she cried, tears streaming down her face marring her perfect skin with ribbons of black mascara.
But it was too late.
I read each section, I comprehend each word. My mind, starved for material, loves each one of these selections. I answer the questions as Anthony and Mason would.
Time is called. Next section.
I sleep through one or two, wildly scribble all the bubbles in the next, and spend the last 2 sections answering everything right just because answering wrong at this point seems to be more work. The test is over.
I pack up my pencils, my calculator, and my erasers.
I turn in the test and walk home.
I sleep for the rest of the day, wishing I could sleep for the rest of my life.
I wait for the results.
When I get the score, I laugh. It is the lowest in the state, possibly the country. I show it to Mom, my teachers, my friends. I hope someone will point out how ridiculously low it is. I hope someone will tell me that I should take it again. I wish someone would encourage me that I could do better. I imagine there’s still one person out there who believes in me.
Mom pushes the paper aside, wondering why she wasted ninety bucks on a test she knew I’d fail.
My teachers smile and make the same old janitor jokes.
My friends don’t know what an SAT is, but they congratulate me on failing it.
After all, what else is expected from someone like me?