An unillustrated version of this story, set in Bogotá, 1964, won the First Annual Palm Beach Country Short Story Contest in January, 2019. The entries needed to revolve around a lesson that illustrated integrity such as truth, justice, honesty, industry, or academic foundation. I hit of few of these. The photographs were taken by my mother’s father when he and Grandma Robb visited us that spring. They were buried among hundreds of slides that I only recently discovered. 

As we approached the end of the year, I was no longer the new kid in Mrs. Ospina’s fourth grade class at the English School in Bogotá. I had caught up on stuff I missed when Dad worked at the Embassy in Rome. Instead of the Etruscans, the English School taught the Henrys, Shakespeare and how we lost the colonies. A good story always held my attention.

The English School was located in a city villa in 1964. It later relocated to a former potato farm outside Bogotá.
My fourth grade classroom was in a quonset hut (like the one at the left) toward the rear of the property.

But a new hurdle loomed: the final examinations, a series of essay questions written in England, mailed across the Atlantic to Colombia and mailed back to England to be graded. I imagined a line of stern women, stuffed into tweed suits like our headmistress Mrs. Mason, hunched over our papers and ripping at them like Andean vultures.

On Tuesday evening, I excused myself from the dinner table before dessert. “I need to call Lisa,” I told Mom as I stood up. “Can’t remember exactly what this one exam question is.”
Mom looked up from the Bobbsey Twins book she’d been reading to my sister and me, as she did when Dad worked late. “You’re going to do what?”
“Call Lisa about Thursday’s questions.” I turned toward the foyer. Sometimes Mom was a bit thick. I heard the book close with a thwack. “You come back here, Jane, and sit down.”
I stopped, startled, and looked back at my mother. She never spoke this loudly. “Susie, you may be excused,” Mom said.
My sister scooted past me and into the TV room. I walked back to the table and sat. 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?” The foreign concept hung in the air. “No.” I hurried to explain. “This is what they do. I mean, we were just talking.” Weren’t we?
“But you’re finding out what the questions are ahead of time, and then you’re studying those things, and then you’re taking the test. Right?”
Well, put that way. I nodded. My face was on fire.
Mom looked me in the eye. “So, you’re cheating,” she said. She sat back, tapping her fingers on the arms of her chair for a very long time. I waited.
“I’m very disappointed in you.” There it was.
I wondered how my face could feel so hot with all the blood drained out of it. My stomach tighten into a hard pit. It was hard to breathe. I could barely stand to hear any more, but there was more.
“I’m going to have to tell Headmistress Mason at the school show on Friday.”
Tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I bit on my upper lip to keep them from spilling.
“Now, go to your room.”

Pilgrims approach the Virgin of Monserrate (a hill overlooking Bogotá) on their knees

I ran upstairs and threw myself onto my bed. A hundred headmistresses whirled around me, glaring down at this horrid little American cheater. Mom was right. I was wrong. How had I not seen it? Would walking on my knees up in the mountains at La Virgen de Monserrate get me out of this? Or a visit to the Salt Mines? At some point, I got into my pajamas and turned off the light.

The church carved into an abandoned Salt Mine outside Bogotá.

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, then left, his black briefcase firmly in hand. It was a quiet walk to the bus stop with Mom and Susie. I sat by myself all the way to school and all the way home again, and I barely talked to anyone all day.

Bonifacio took Dad to the Embassy every morning.
Either Mom or our maid Julia walked us to the school bus stop: child kidnapping was a real danger. Susie and I are wearing the English School uniform, brown blazers and skirts. Mom and I are wearing Colombian ruanas.

Exam week arrived. The back of the Monday afternoon bus became a spontaneous discussion group as my friend Lisa and other kids who had taken the test that day filled the rest of us in on the questions. The ground materialized under my feet: what a great support system. I settled into preparing for my Thursday exam.

Thursday was the exam. I did all right, but it was over for me. They would not let a cheater go on to fifth grad

The interdenominational chuch we attended in Bogotä

On Friday evening, Dad drove the four of us to the English School year-end program at the interdenominational church that Mom took Susie and me most Sundays; there wasn’t an auditorium at the school. Susie was all chatty about some Scottish song her second grade class was performing. I tried to remember the words of the Ogden Nash poem I was to recite. I couldn’t get beyond the first line: Isabel met an enormous bear. A Headmistress Mason bear. They were looking for the fourth graders when we got to the lobby.

“Do your best,” Mom said.
Dad nodded. “What’s a little poem to a writer?”
The three of them went into the auditorium and I went backstage. My turn came up.

I walked onto the stage and into the spotlight. Could they see CHEATER written on my face? I took a breath and began. Isabel met an enormous bear. My right arm traced an arc as tall and wide as the whole headmistress. Another breath, and the poem came to life. Isabel, Isabel, didn’t care. I lifted my left arm, trapping bear Mason. Performance magic propelled me through the poem. She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up. I lifted my chin and declaimed the final line. Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up. If only.

I peered into the wings: no headmistress. Susie passed me as her class assembled. I took her seat between Mom and Dad. Mom patted my hand. Dad mouthed, “Brava!”

The performances ended. Headmistress 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.

“Thank you,” she said and walked off. The parents clapped. The lights came on. We went home.

Mom had not told. I pledged to never again make a mistake.

2 thoughts on “My First Mistake

  1. Great story! I always took my own mistakes really hard, too. Once in high school I did something I shouldn’t have, and afterwards I was too ashamed to write my own name on school papers for weeks. Like I didn’t deserve my own name! 😔

    Like

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