In third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Payne, assigned more homework than I’d ever seen in my short life. It seemed like mountains each night. I couldn’t keep up. She gave us weekly homework charts and signed off whenever we completed an assignment. Weeks went by, and I drowned in the unfinished tasks. Sick of all the worksheets and story summaries, I did the unthinkable:
I forged her signature.
Well, really it was just her initials. I came home from school, went into the computer room and pulled out my depressingly blank homework sign-off sheet. Slumped over the stained blue piano bench, I looked over the three examples of her initials and chose a pen the exact color and thickness of the one she used: a thin, green Sharpie.
Very carefully, my 9-year-old little fingers curved and looped the “LP” of her hard won initials. I signed for most of the homework due, not all of it. I may have been a third grader, but I wasn’t a chump. You have to make it believable.
Sitting back, I admired my handiwork. It looked, like, straight up professional. Just wow. Frankly, I was quite impressed with my forging skills. And this was my first time! That Friday, I turned in my homework sheet, praying my plan worked and trying to remember how to breathe normally.
Eventually, the class took a math test. Mrs. Payne looked over our homework sheets and judged us in her gradebook while we slaved over multiplication problems. Working my way through nine times seven (which is the hardest one), I heard her voice drift over the softly scratching pencils.
Ice shot through my veins, and my lungs collapsed on a sharp exhale.
“…Could you come here for a moment?”
I slowly walked to the low, round table she sat at, tears welling in my eyes. The red plastic of the miniature chair never felt so hard and accusatory, punishing my crime with its unyielding form. Mrs. Payne put forth a sheet of paper, my homework sheet, and used her pen to point at a crude green initial, uttering the words of my undoing.
“I don’t remember writing this,” she said.
The dam broke, my guilt washing down my face. I sobbed through an apology, an explanation, all unintelligible through the gasps and chokes that come with deep, honest remorse.
It’s a blur after that. I don’t know how my parents found out, whether it was a note or a phone call. The next thing I remember is standing on the dark green carpet in my parent’s room, my mother and father so tall, brandishing the paper lie, asking me, “Why can’t you get your work done on time? All the other kids can.” I just didn’t have an answer.
I still don’t.
After all these years, I don’t know why my mother had to sit with me every night and drag me through my homework. I don’t know why I continued to struggle through all of the make-up work on top of the homework I couldn’t finish.
The year didn’t get better. Third grade was the year I had the most absences. I had more “stomach aches” than I can count. That year, I figured out you can make your temperature seem higher by warming up the thermometer in your hands before mom gets out of the bathroom.
Maybe that year felt so impossible because that was the first time I was really challenged in school. Mrs. Payne told us older children got more schoolwork and we needed to be prepared, lest we falter when faced with real expectations. The challenge scared me. I didn’t handle it as well as I could’ve.
I looked at that homework sheet years later. It looks terrible. My lines kinked where they should curve, loops stunted and stuttered when they should’ve been effortless.
It seems like I should’ve learned something about work ethic, some crap about applying myself or time management, but I didn’t figure any of that out for another 15 years and even then, pfft.
No, but I did learn that I don’t have a taste for lying. I stutter and stumble, and my lies definitely don’t look effortless. Every moment before getting caught, I live with a guilty fear that ices over my heart, collapsing my lungs in a vacuum.
There have been times when I could’ve cheated on tests or plagiarized my papers. I’ll get so close to pulling a sentence from Wikipedia, but then I delete the words. Wipe the notes off my hand. I can’t do it.
It’s way easier to take the failing grade and accept the disappointment in a loved one’s eyes than to go through my semester preoccupied with guilt. The truth will get out on its own anyway. But now, I’m the one who determines how. I’ll still get a C on a test that I thought I studied enough for, or a B+ on a paper that I slaved away on (but maybe wrote the night before it was due), but that’s fine.
So thanks to third grade me for teaching to avoid the shortcuts, no matter how tempting they might seem. I can sit back knowing that I earned that C, and that’s good enough.