As we approached the end of the year, I was no longer “the new kid” in Mrs. Ospina’s fourth grade classroom at the English School in Bogota. For weeks now, Mrs. Ospina had been scolding us to take seriously the final examinations, which were written in England and mailed across the Atlantic to Colombia; our essay answers would travel back to be graded. I imagined a line of stern women stuffed into tweed suits like Headmistress Mrs. Mason, mouths turned permanently into frowns, humped over our test papers like vultures.
Still, I wasn’t worried. I was a good writer, like Dad, and I’d caught up on the stuff I missed when we were in Rome. Instead of the Etruscans and Greeks, the English School taught the Henrys and Shakespeare and how we lost the colonies. A good story always held my attention.
Exam week arrived. On the Monday afternoon bus ride, my friend Lisa and a couple of other kids who had taken the test in the morning filled us in on the topics we’d be writing on. It was helpful, even professional, to exchange this kind of information. Made all the sense in the world. I focused on the topics as I prepared for my Thursday exam.
On Tuesday evening, I excused myself from the dinner table before dessert. “I need to call Lisa,” I told Mom as I stood. “Can’t remember exactly what this one exam question is.”
Mom looked up from the open copy of the Bobsey Twins book she’d just finished reading to my little sister and me. “You’re going to do what?” she said.
“I forgot one of Thursday’s questions,” I repeated and turned to walk toward the foyer. Sometimes Mom was a bit thick. I heard the book close with a thwack.
“You come back here and sit down.”
I stopped, startled, and looked back at my mother. She never spoke this loudly. “Susie, you may be excused,” Mom said.
“But,” Susie started. No reason she needed to skip dessert.
“Go on,” Mom said.
My sister scooted past me and ran up the stairs to her room. I walked back to the table and sat down. My stomach was beginning to hurt.
Mom moved her chair closer to mine. “Are you telling me that you are cheating?” she said, her voice quiet again.
“Cheating? Cheating? No.” I paused, hearing my words and certain of them. “No, no. This is what we do. I’m not cheating. We’re just talking.”
“But you’re finding out what the exam questions are ahead of time from other students, and then you’re studying those things, and then you’re taking the test. Right?”
“Um, yeah.” I felt my face go hot.
She looked at me.
“So, you’re cheating,” Mom said, sitting back against her chair. She looked at me, tapping her fingers on the chair arms for what seemed like a very long time. Then, she folded her arms in front of her chest. I waited for the other shoe to drop.
“I’m very disappointed in you.” There it was.
I wondered how my face could feel so hot while all my blood drained out of it. My stomach was so tight that it was hard to breathe. I could barely stand to hear any more.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to tell Mrs. Mason when we see her at the school show on Friday night.”
I couldn’t answer. I felt tears starting to form in the corners of my eyes. I bit on my upper lip.
“Now, go to your room.”
I ran upstairs and threw myself down on my bed. A hundred Mrs. Masons whirled around me, glaring down at this horrid little American cheater. At some point, I got into my pajamas and turned off the light.
Mom didn’t bring up the topic at breakfast, and Dad seemed to be in his usual hurry to get out to the Embassy car. “Have a good day, honeys.” He gave Susie and me each a quick kiss on the tops of our heads and Mom a longer kiss right on the mouth, and left, his black briefcase firmly in hand.
It was our maid Julia’s turn to walk us to the bus stop. I sat by myself all the way to school and all the way home again, and I barely talked to anyone all day. Thursday was the exam. I did all right, but it was over for me. They would not let a cheater go on to fifth grade.
On Friday, Dad drove us to the English School’s program at the Community Church. Susie was all chatty about some song her second grade class was singing. I tried to remember the words of the poem I was to recite. I couldn’t get beyond the first line. They were looking for the fourth graders when we got to the lobby.
“Do your best,” Mom said, smiling.
“What’s a little poem to a poet?” Dad said with that funny upside down smile that means he was proud of me. For now. The three of them went into the auditorium and I went backstage.
I walked onto the stage alone and turned to face the shadowy audience where Mrs. Mason was no doubt waiting. “Isabel met an enormous bear,” I began. The spotlight followed my right arm as it traced an arc in the air. I felt a little bigger. The second line came, and the third. Somehow, I finished.
I peered into the wings as I walked off. No Mrs. Mason. Susie passed me as her class assembled. I took her seat between Mom and Dad. Mom patted my hand. Dad mouthed, “Brava!”
The program ended, and Mrs. Mason stalked onto the stage, her face pink and blotchy under the lights, her mouth puckered into a fake smile. The arm of justice was about to come down.
Mrs. Mason said thank you and walked off, the church lights came on, and we went home. Mom had not told.
I pledged to never again make a mistake.