My mom had made a fantastic meal and we ate in the dining room. Steak and baked potatoes and green beans and a fresh fruit salad and hot rolls and butter and strawberry jelly. There was a white tablecloth and lace placemats and tall green candles and the best silverware. Even cloth napkins.
We always had great food on report card day. No meatloaf. No macaroni and cheese. No tuna-noodle casserole. Not on report card day.
Then came dessert, also wonderful. Apple crisp made with fresh apples from the orchard over on Route 27. Plus vanilla ice cream.
But I wasn't that hungry. It reminded me of the last meal they serve to a prisoner before an execution.
After the dessert dishes were cleared away, we were all sitting at the table, and my mom said, "All right, who wants to be first to read a report card tonight?"
It was a pointless question. The Reading of the Grades was a well-established ritual. It followed a definite pattern. Ann always read her grades first, then Todd, and then me.
Ann said, "I'll go first." No smile. Ann was all business.
It was Ann's junior year in high school. Ann is tall, blond, athletic, and intense. Kind of pretty, too. People say I look like her, except I'm not tall. And my hair's more reddish than blond. And I try not to be intense. So I guess those people who say we look alike are crazy.
Ann had been elected junior-class president. She was cocaptain of the girl's field hockey team and the girls' basketball team. She had been the youngest member of last year's Math Decathlon, and the team had placed first in the state competition. Ann was taking two Advanced Placement classes and the rest were honors classes. She was trying to graduate from high school a semester early. She wanted to get a scholarship to Georgetown University and study international relations. Intense is the right word.
Mom smiled and said, "All right, Ann. Let's hear how you did."
Ann unfolded her computer-printed grade sheet. I knew what was coming. Everyone knew what was coming.
Ann began reading. "Honors Chemistry, A plus. Honors English, A. A.P. World History, A. A.P. Physics, A plus. Phys Ed, A plus. Mixed Chorus, A plus. And an A minus in Drivers Education, but that won't count in my class rank."
"That's terrific, Annie!" My dad's smile made him look like a piano. He said, "Not much room for improvement, and that's the way it ought to be. Great! Just great!"
Mom said, "You should be very proud of yourself, Ann. All your hard work is really paying off." Then turning to my side of the table, Mom said, "Okay, who's next -- Nora or Todd?"
Another pointless question. Never in his life had Todd let me do anything ahead of him. He said, "I'm next."
Todd was in eighth grade. He had lots of friends and lots of interests, like mountain biking and snowboarding and playing electric guitar and being a 1960s rock-and-roll trivia nut. Todd's school sport was soccer, but he wasn't a star player -- which is what I am. And that's not bragging about my soccer playing. That's just a fact. Schoolwork wasn't easy for Todd, especially reading. But Mom and Dad kept after him, so he worked pretty hard, and his grades usually showed it.
Todd cleared his throat, glanced at Dad and then at Mom, gulped once, pushed his straight, brown hair up off his forehead, and then began to read. Todd always read his best grades first. "Gym class, A plus. Math, A minus. Science, B...uh, no, I mean it's a B plus. Social Studies, B. And a B minus in English...but I was only two points away from a plain B."
Mom and Dad nodded thoughtfully for a moment, and then Mom said, "Well, that's a pretty good report, Todd. But I don't think it's really the best you can do, is it? Especially that B minus in English. I'd think you'd be a little disappointed with that. At the conference last month Mrs. Flood said you need to spend more time with your writing, and you need to take your outside reading assignments more seriously. Don't you think that would help?"
Todd nodded and said, "Yeah, I guess. But still, Mom, I got a B average and that's good. You should see Tom's grades."
"But we're not talking about Tom." Dad was not smiling. "We're talking about you. You're almost in high school now, and you've got to start being more serious. Grades like that might get you into a state school, or into a little college somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. But those grades wouldn't get you into a good college. No way. Time to get down to business. Agreed?"
Todd made a sheepish face and nodded. "Yeah. Okay. I'll...I'll do better. I will."
And then all eyes swung to me.
My cheeks felt hot. I hadn't planned well for this part. I had thought reading my grades out loud wouldn't be a problem. But it was.
Before Mom could ask, I said, "I don't want to read them. Don't try to tell me that my fifth-grade grades are important, because I know for a fact that they aren't. And they're all based on a bunch of stupid information that anybody with half a brain can memorize. Tests and grades and all of it -- it's all...just stupid."
Then in a calm voice my dad said, "Please read your grades to us, Nora."
I shook my head. "You can look at them if you want to. But I'm not going to read them. My grades are my business, and nobody else's."
My dad started to say something, but Mom cut in and said, "Nora, I know this may be hard for you, but it's important. You're in fifth grade now. You have to get used to the fact that grades do matter. They matter a lot. So please, read your grades. We know everybody's different, and not everyone's going to do as well as everyone else. We're not comparing you to Todd or Ann or anybody. We just want to be able to talk about school and how you're doing, talk about it as a family."
I didn't budge. "There's nothing to talk about. May I please be excused?"
That was too much for my dad. "No!" he shouted. "You may not be excused! You're not leaving this table until you have read your grades out loud to your family!"
I put my sealed report card on the middle of my placemat. "Fine," I said. "Sit here as long as you like. But I'm not reading my grades."
A long three minutes passed in silence. Then I folded my arms and put my head down on the table.
Todd cleared his throat and said, "Dad, Tommy's mom is gonna be here in ten minutes. She's driving us to the movies and I've got to get ready. So may I be excused? Please? And could I have my allowance?"
Five minutes after that I was alone at the table.
Around nine-thirty I pulled three chairs together so I could lie down. I kicked my shoes off, moved a bunch of things out of the way, and slid the tablecloth toward me so I could use it like a blanket.
I'd been asleep, so I'm not sure what time it was. But it was later and I heard my mom say, "Carry her up to bed, Jim. She's won this round, and we might as well admit it."
I kept my eyes shut.
My dad said, "Yup. She can be a tough little cookie, all right. She'd make a great lawyer, I bet. Except first she'd have to get into law school somewhere."
I heard the sound of ripping paper. And I knew what it was. He was opening my report card.
I heard him pull in a sharp breath, and then, "My gosh! No wonder Nora wouldn't read this! Look, Carla -- all Ds! Everything but spelling, and that's a C!"
"Goodness!" That was Mom. "I don't believe it! How did this happen?"
Dad said, "Well, let's shake her and sit her up right here and find out!"
Mom said, "No, Jim, not now. Poor child -- think how ashamed she must feel about such terrible marks. Just take her upstairs. We can talk about it tomorrow."
I felt the tablecloth slip off my back and legs, and then Dad's strong arms lifted me up.
It had been a long time since my dad had carried me up to bed.
I heard my mom behind us on the stairs. "Careful you don't bang her head on anything."
And my dad said softly, "With grades like those, it prob'ly couldn't hurt."
Mom said, "That's not funny."
I was glad they didn't try to get me into my pajamas because I'm sure it would have tickled. My mom just peeled off my socks, tucked the quilt up under my chin, kissed me softly on the forehead, and then closed my door.
I opened my eyes and stared into the darkness.
I wondered if I had done enough thinking about my plan. Because first I had tried to think about what I wanted to accomplish, and then I had tried to think of all the steps I had to take, and how my steps would lead to the steps other people would take. I had done a lot of thinking, and that's something I've gotten good at.
But had I thought of every single thing that could go wrong at every single step, and had I thought of enough ways to get around each possible problem?
Lying there in the dark, I faced a fact: I wouldn't know if my plan would work until it did. Or didn't.
Copyright © 2004 by Andrew Clements
Chapter Five: Solitary Confinement
Ann and Todd were still in bed when I walked into the kitchen on Saturday morning. My parents were sitting at the table with their coffee mugs. I could tell they had been waiting for me.
I didn't like this part of the plan. This part of the plan was going to be pretty hard on Mom and Dad. And so were some other parts. It wasn't really fair to them, but it couldn't be helped. After all, I wasn't the one who had made up the rules around here.
Mom didn't even say "good morning." She said, "We opened your grade report last night, Nora."
My dad shook his head and growled, "Never seen such bad grades in my life -- even on my report cards."
I said, "I don't want to talk about it. You saw the grades. I got Ds. And one C. Those are my grades. I don't want to talk about it."
"Nora, please," Mom said. "There must be a reason you got such awful grades. Are you unhappy? Have the children at school been teasing you? Have you been feeling sick? Or is it something else?"
I shook my head as I scanned the row of cereal boxes on the counter. I poured some cornflakes into a bowl and said, "I don't want to talk about it, Mom. I got the grades I got, and that's all there is to it."
Dad exploded. "'All there is to it'?! Well, then you're grounded, young lady! And that's all there is to it! You don't want to spill the beans and let us help you out, then that's the way it is. You can just sit in your room until you decide to cooperate."
I munched my cereal, swallowed, and took a sip of orange juice. I said, "Fine by me." Then I said, "Am I allowed to read, or do I have to sit in the corner and look at the flowers on the wallpaper?" Which was a lot sassier than usual. But that was part of the plan too.
Mom put a hand on Dad's arm. She said, "Nora, don't be disrespectful. You know better than that. And you know us better than that too. We only want to help you. But first you've got to help us."
I looked at them. "But I don't want any help. Did I ask you to come to school and take my tests for me? Did I ask you to read my assignments for me? Or do my homework? I don't need help."
They didn't talk anymore and neither did I. After my last spoonful of cereal, I tipped up my bowl and drank the milk. I wiped the milk off my upper lip, laid my napkin on the table, got up, and put my bowl and spoon and glass into the dishwasher. Then I said, "I'll be up in my room."
I spent the rest of Saturday reading the article on the history of China in the Britannica. It was a long article. I'd been chipping away at it for almost a week and I was only up to a.d. 1368, the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. It felt good to have some forced reading time.
I was allowed out of my room for meals, and on Sunday morning I went to church with everyone, but then it was right back to my cell.
At about eight o'clock on Sunday night my mom came in and sat down on the edge of my bed where I was reading. I knew why she'd come. It was time to get ungrounded. The way I figured, unless you're a teenager with places to go and friends to go with and money to spend when you get there, grounding is a pretty pointless punishment.
And sure enough, Mom's first words were, "Nora, your father and I have decided that your grounding is over. But I don't want you to think we're not concerned about this. This isn't like you, Nora."
I looked up from my book. "Isn't like me? What am I like?"
My mom smiled. "Why, you're sweet and thoughtful, and you want to do your very best at everything, Nora. That's what you're like." I gave a little snort, but Mom ignored the noise. "And if you need help," she continued, "you're smart enough to ask for it."
"I told you, Mom. I don't need any help. And since when have I been sweet? Or thoughtful?"
Mom stayed focused on her main topic. "But there's nothing wrong with asking for help. We all need help now and then. Besides, you don't want to get a reputation for not caring about your work. Grades are very important, Nora. So, whether you like it or not, first thing tomorrow morning your father and I are going to school to talk with Mrs. Hackney. It's just not right that a perfectly normal student could be allowed to get all Ds. And one C. And your father and I did not get a single academic warning letter from the school, not one. The school has some explaining to do." She paused, her eyes searching my face. "You understand, don't you, Nora? We're not trying to embarrass you. But we have to get to the bottom of this."
I shrugged and said, "Sure. I understand." And I did. Completely. I had been certain they would visit the school after they saw those grades.
Mom stood up and started to leave, but she stopped at the door, turned back, and said, "Your dad and I love you, Nora."
I looked up and said, "I love you too."
And that was a fact.
Copyright © 2004 by Andrew Clements