The Spelling Test

Inspired by some of my favorite writers on Twitter, @DeeshaPhilyaw, @llapen and @OneChele, I’ve decided to post some of my own unpublished short fiction on my blog. Comments welcome.

I rifled through the papers I had just dumped out of my book bag, knowing the search was futile.  The noise attracted Mama, who smelled trouble the way a dog smells fear. 

When she looked at the pile on the floor, I trembled.

“What are you looking for?”

I took a deep breath and blew out the truth. “We have a spelling test tomorrow, and I think I left the list of words at school.”

I looked up at her, trying to guess my punishment by the number of wrinkles in her forehead. All four were there. Not good.

“How could you do that?” she asked, I think just to make me more afraid.

It was clear no answer I could come up with would make a difference. So I gave the standard child’s response: “I don’t know!”

She sighed in disgust.  I knew why she was mad.  She had just successfully battled with the principal to have me transferred into Mrs. Linden’s third grade class because I told Mama the other third grade teacher, Mrs. Hoover, was mean.  

Mrs. Hoover didn’t paddle us, but what she did was worse – she punished us for every little thing we did by making us crouch under our desks for up to an hour.  The principal liked Mrs. Hoover because her classroom was always quiet.  I hated Mrs. Hoover’s classroom because the quiet reminded me of the funeral home where Granddaddy was laid out last year – silence occasionally broken by the sniffling of muffled tears.

I had never been made to crouch under my desk, but I couldn’t take it any more after watching Mrs. Hoover force poor sweet Jacques Pennyman spend almost the entire day under his desk for popping gum.  I told Mama about it as soon as I got home from school.   

Mama made me tell her everything that went on in Mrs. Hoover’s room. The next day, she put on her good dress, coat and hat, and marched me to school the next day, walking so fast I had to run to keep up.  She didn’t even walk me to my classroom, just went straight to the principal’s office and left me standing in the hallway wondering what was going on.  I had no idea how long she was there, but when I got home, she told me, “You won’t be going back to Mrs. Hoover’s classroom.”

I was glad to be out of Mrs. Hoover’s room, and Mrs. Linden quickly became my favorite teacher of all time.  I knew whatever Mama had done in the principal’s office, it was a Very Big Thing and I couldn’t mess it up by failing my first test in Mrs. Linden’s room.

As for the spelling test, I expected yelling, but instead, Mama opened the side table drawer and pulled out her phone book, with numbers written on the covers and on envelopes stuck between them – everywhere, it seemed, but on the alphabetical tabbed pages.  She paged through the book, careful not to drop any of the loose pages, and then shut it. The creases around her pursed lips matched the ones in her forehead.

“I don’t have Mrs. Linden’s home phone number,” she announced. I knew that oversight soon would be corrected.

I thought quickly. “Michelle Gary is in my class. Do you have the Garys’ number in there?”

Mama’s frown lines grew deeper.  The Garys lived in the corner house at the other end of our block but acted like they lived in the rich part of town.  Mr. Gary worked in the auto plant like my father, but he was a foreman and had only two children, not six, to support on his salary.  Plus, Mrs. Gary was a seamstress whose most notable client was Selma Gaston, the co-host of the eleven o’clock news.

Mama was convinced she was a better seamstress than Mrs. Gary and believed, somehow, that Selma Gaston shared her opinion, but we kids were her only clients and we complained all the time about having to wear “homemade” versus “store-bought” clothes.  Michelle Gary was slim and popular and never wore her mama’s handmade clothes, three things I could never claim.  Mama’s reasons were solid, but I had my own reasons for not liking the Garys.

I hated to ask Michelle for a favor, and Mama knew it.  Mama’s anger lines softened. “Are you sure you want to do that?”

“I don’t think I have much choice.”

She nodded but looked displeased.  Back when they were sort of friends, before Mrs. Gary started sewing for Selma Gaston, Mrs. Gary had told Mama she felt their oldest daughter, Renee, had been unfairly denied the school’s academic achievement trophy and she was going to make certain Michelle got it. 

Sometimes, Mrs. Gary acted like she didn’t know Mama didn’t like her and came down to our house to visit.  Mrs. Gary would ask some polite questions about the family, then walk right over to my mother’s sewing machine to inspect whatever my mother was working on, all the while bragging about the clothes she was making for Selma Gaston and how Selma was so impressed with her work that she was introducing Mrs. Gary to all of her friends.  Mrs. Gary would pretend to admire something Mama was making and innocently ask her how she had gotten the seams to lie so flat, or the fabric patterns to match, and Mama would end up revealing one of her sewing secrets, something she had learned from her own mother or from the sewing classes she always seemed to be taking. 

I had learned to leave Mama alone for about half an hour after those visits – long enough to watch Speed Racer or Underdog or one of my other favorite cartoons, with Mama muttering in the background, “she ought to go to a tailoring class instead of coming here and trying to get me to teach her how to sew.” 

Mama would also mutter to herself about the way Mrs. Gary looked around our house when she came to visit, looking down her nose at our things compared to all the nice things the Garys had in their house.  The Garys had done a lot of work on their house ever since Selma Gaston started coming by for fittings, and Mama said Mrs. Gary was “phony as all get out” and was trying to make her house look like Selma Gaston’s house. 

Mama often wondered aloud if Selma Gaston “knew who Mrs. Gary was.”  One of our neighbors had told Mama that Mrs. Gary used to work in a bar somewhere near the old Motown recording studio and that she had “gone with” several famous entertainers before marrying Mr. Gary.  In Mama’s view, a woman of such low morals had no business sewing for a pillar of the community like Selma Gaston.

Mama watched the evening news every night so she could find Mrs. Gary’s mistakes in Selma Gaston’s outfits.  “Look how that collar curls up on the end,” she would say, drowning out whatever news was being reported. “I can’t believe she charges Selma Gaston all that money and she won’t even take the time to do it right.”

Mama leafed through the phone book again, and after a couple of tries, she put her finger on a number written neatly on a page tabbed G.  “There’s one in here, but I don’t know if it’s right,” she said.  Mama only trusted the numbers that were scribbled on odd pages or envelopes.  She sighed. “I’ll try it.”

As I listened to her dial the phone, I put my head in my hands and looked down at the table.  Mama seemed calmer now, but I still had a test to worry about.  I had never gotten a bad grade in my life.  Granted, I was only in third grade and it wasn’t much of a track record, but getting good grades and being smart was what I was known for.  If I got a bad grade on my spelling test because I left the words at school, maybe I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was.

I heard my mother’s business voice, the one she used when she called to complain about a bill or when Mrs. Gary came to visit.  “May I speak to Mrs. Gary, please?”  I tuned out the business voice and kept my head down until I heard her say, “Carmen, you can take the phone now, Mrs. Gary is going to put Michelle on.”

I felt naked as I stammered my way through my introduction, my mother’s eyes watching me the whole time.

“Hel-hello Michelle? Yeah, it’s Carmen, Carmen Bishop?  I accidentally left my word list at school for tomorrow’s spelling test and– You do? Great!  Okay, I have a pencil” –

I took the pencil my mother shoved my way.  I scribbled the words down on the front of an envelope my mother had pushed over with the pencil, careful to make sure I wasn’t writing over any phone numbers.  But the words didn’t make sense.

“Are you sure this is the right list?”

My mother looked up, the frown lines returning.

“Okay.  Thank you, Michelle.  See you in school tomorrow.”

I hung up the phone and looked at the words I had just written down.

“What’s wrong?” Mama asked.

“I don’t think she gave me the right word list.  I looked at it before I left school – these words weren’t on that list.”

“Are you sure?” my mother asked, but I could tell she believed me.

I didn’t want to accuse Michelle of playing a bad trick on me, but something was wrong.  I could tell from the look on Mama’s face that she was no longer angry at me about losing the word list.  Now, we were in this together, Bishops versus Garys.

“Do you remember any of the words?”

“Let me think.”  I closed my eyes. “If I can picture the paper in my mind, I can remember at least some of them.”

Mama raised an eyebrow at me. “If you think you can do that,” she said, sounding impressed. She got up and got me a clean sheet of paper, sharpened my pencil for me and left me alone at the dining room table.

I concentrated on the patterns behind my eyelids.  I was back at school, sitting at my desk, holding the paper, still slightly warm from the copier. “I got it!”

I wrote down as many of the words as I could remember.  By the time I stopped I had fifteen words, none of which was the same as any Michelle had given me.  “I think there were twenty; I know I’m forgetting some. But this is what I remember.”

Mama looked at my list and nodded her approval.  “Good. That’s really good, Carmen.”  I could see I’d done something she thought was pretty amazing.  “Can you do that all the time – you know, memorize things like that?”

 “Not all the time, but sometimes.”  I was glad she was impressed, but I was a little embarrassed to talk about it.  It wasn’t anything special, just something I could do.  I had other things on my mind, anyway.

“Are you going to call Mrs. Gary back and tell her about Michelle’s mistake?” I asked.

“For what?”  Mama looked at me with a sad smile on her face. “Carmen.  Michelle didn’t make no mistake.”  Mama said nothing about the tears that suddenly filled my eyes, just patted my hand and went into the kitchen. “Go on and wash up for dinner.”

I did as she told me and managed not to let more than one or two tears fall.  I looked again at the list I had made, fighting the doubts that counseled me to look at Michelle’s list in case my memory and my mother were both wrong.

I was mad at Mama for not calling Mrs. Gary back.  After dinner, I tried to raise the subject again.

“Mama, what if Michelle took the wrong list home?  Shouldn’t I tell her?”

Mama sighed again. “I don’t think Michelle took the wrong list home.”

“But why else would she give me the wrong words?”

“Carmen, if you keep thinking about what that girl did and why she did it, you’re going to wind up failing that test just like she wants you to.  Best thing you can do for yourself is to believe what your memory told you, and go in there tomorrow and take that test with confidence.  That’s the best revenge you can get.”

I was confused and unsatisfied by Mama’s answers, but I knew I wasn’t going to get anything more from her. It didn’t make sense to me.  Why would Michelle deliberately give me the wrong list of words?  Her mother could talk all she wanted about Michelle winning the scholarship trophy, but I knew Michelle’s grades were definitely not the best in the school, because they were nowhere near as good as mine.  

Maybe she did want me to flunk, but one test wouldn’t make much of a difference either way.  Maybe her mother had put her up to it, but it seemed to me the Garys had plenty to lord over us Bishops already.  And it seemed wrong not to tell them about the word list mix-up in case Michelle had studied the wrong list by mistake.

I also questioned Mama’s advice. If Michelle had done it on purpose, I wasn’t so sure confidence was the best revenge.  My fist to her jaw might be better.  But I had never punched anybody in my life, and I wasn’t about to get suspended from school for fighting Michelle Gary.

I decided Mama was right, in part – I would try being confident in the list I remembered – and wrong, in part.  I decided to tell Michelle she had studied the wrong list of words as soon as I got to school the next day. 

The next morning at school, I found my word list in my desk, where I’d apparently left it, and compared it to the one I’d made at home. They were the same except the five I’d forgotten, and I committed those to memory in the minutes before the test began.

I tried to talk to Michelle before class, but she was surrounded by her usual clique of popular girls and pretended not to hear me when I called her name.  I began to think Mama may have been right on both counts.  Even if Mama wasn’t right, if Michelle was going to ignore me, there was nothing I could do to help her.  But I did turn around for a few seconds when Mrs. Linden called out the first spelling word, and Michelle’s face didn’t register shock or surprise upon hearing what would have been an unfamiliar word if she had studied the wrong list. Perhaps Mama was right after all. 

I focused on the words the teacher was calling out.  We had to raise our hands when we were done, and my hand was the first to go up.  For a change, I was glad my last name seated me in the front of the classroom. 

Mrs. Linden looked over my test as she collected it, and a broad smile crossed her face. “Nice work, Carmen,” she stage-whispered.

“Thank you,” I said.

I couldn’t help turning in my seat to look back at Michelle.  She had seen everything, and the shocked look on her face was worth the teacher’s sharp admonishment for me to turn back around in my seat. 

I got an A on the test, and proudly showed it to Mama when I got home from school.

“See!” she said, giving me a rare hug, “I told you, just be confident!”

But later that night, listening to her nightly recital of Mrs. Gary’s sewing errors during the evening news, I wondered why she didn’t have enough confidence in her own sewing skills to take her own advice.

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2 Responses to “The Spelling Test”

  1. Samuel F. Reynolds Says:

    Nice job, Carolyn. It would be ironic if one of the spelling words was rivalry.

  2. Viliam Says:

    One of our readers recommended this blog post:…

    “I think there were twenty; I know I’m forgetting some. But this is what I remember.” Mama looked at my list and nodded her approval. “Good. That’s really good, Carmen.” I could see I’d done something she thought was pretty amazing. ……

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