By John Rey Dave Aquino
It was the third PTA meeting of the school year. Instead of students, their parents occupied the classrooms of the six buildings on campus and listened to the class advisers' announcements regarding the upcoming JS promenade. Their children loitered across the rectangular campus, mainly the canteen, where there was food, and the basketball court, where a crowd watched a casual sophomore-junior basketball game. Some were reading or studying in the library, others sat on the stairs of the stage and talked, still others – couples, puppy love – were tucked away in the nooks and corners of the small campus. As for Marcella, she hid in the hut near the Virgin Mary's grotto near the gate. Every now and then, she looked at the saint and saw her merciful eyes looking straight at her, as if telling her everything was fine, like a mother should. She wanted to believe her, but she had already assumed the worst before today.
Marcella had never been anxious about report cards. Since she graduated valedictorian in elementary, Marcella was able to enroll in Saint Joseph's High School with a full scholarship. Her tuition was completely free; textbooks and miscellaneous fees were a different story. However, the scholarship was only available for freshman year. To maintain the scholarship every year, she had to achieve an average grade of 90 at the end of every school year, that is, the same grade required to be on the honors roll, and she did.
Not only did she maintain her grade, she was always at the top of her class and of her year level. More impressive was the fact that she belonged to the science curriculum. In their junior year, the science section would take three science subjects: Chemistry I, Physics I, and Science Research I. Marcella's teachers recognised her academic excellence, buttressed with outstanding diligence and determination; she read and re-read, reviewed lessons, and worked on projects and assignments every day after school, with little time for hobbies and whatnot. They sent her to represent the school in various co- and extra-curricular competitions. Meanwhile, her classmates were either dismissive of her, because this was a class of smart teenagers who also compete for the honors roll, or friendly with her, because they could use her help with their Math IV homework. Behind her back, she had been called the pejorative 'pabibo' or 'papansin,' or sometimes the milder 'overachiever.'
Marcella didn't mind; what mattered to her was maintaining her scholarship and making her parents proud. If her being an overachiever fulfilled that, then she would accept the descriptors. After all, those words didn't stop her from receiving the medal bearing the words 'First Honours' on the back, her parents beaming with her onstage in the obligatory picture, for the first two years of high school. Rolando and Janet Mendigo always boasted of their daughter.
"Wow, look at all these medals! Your daughter must be very intelligent!" a neighbour exclaimed when she saw the wall dedicated to Marcella's diplomas, certificates, and awards.
Her mother laughed. "Of course! She got her smarts from me!"
Another time, a visiting uncle said, "My daughter received an award last week, best in math," after a swig of his beer.
Not to be eclipsed, her father responded, "My daughter placed first in her class again, bayaw, and I assure you, she's going to be the top student again this year!"
Marcella wondered if her uncle still remembered that boast. She knew she wouldn't be the top student in school. In fact, she wouldn't even be in the honours roll.
Her friends were back from the canteen. Sydney was holding two waffles on a stick. Symeon held a plastic cup of breaded chicken skin and gizzard soaked in vinegar and sweet gravy on one hand, which he must have bought outside the school, while on the other he held three plastic bottles of iced tea by the head. Marcella took Sydney's offered snack. "What waffle is this?"
She bit the end of the waffle. Inside, the chocolate was already cold and hardened; the waffle machine must have been turned off. Out by the court, the students cheered when a player dunked in the basket. Marcella sighed.
"Still nervous?" Symeon asked.
Marcella took one of the iced tea bottles beside Symeon and opened it. "I just want this to be over already."
Sydney asked, "Are your parents still angry?"
During the third periodical examinations, two weeks ago, she finished her exam in Christian Living thirty minutes before the time limit. She stood up and walked to the teacher's table. Sir Oliver nodded and took her exam paper. Finishing early meant she could still get some last minute reviewing for the next exam, English. She sat on the floor of the corridor with her notes open when Sir Oliver called her. He was standing by the door, and Marcella approached him, thinking that he might have an errand for her.
"What is this?" Sir Oliver held up a piece of pad paper with creases indicating it had been folded.
Marcella squinted at it, recognising formulae and equations for trigonometry scribbled all over the sheet. She realised that it was hers; the morning of the previous day, she practiced solving a few problems from the textbook before the first exam, Math. She looked at Sir Oliver's accusing eyebrows. "I found this on your seat," he said.
Her head spun. Before the exam, she had folded the paper and squeezed it between the thick wooden slats of her seat. She had forgotten about it, in the whirlwind of the exams, but Sir Oliver found it. Her classmates started to whisper. Sir Oliver banged on the door to silence them. "We'll talk about this later."
Her adviser talked to her during lunch break, and she denied having cheated. She explained what the paper was for, but Sir Oliver didn't believe the story. Instead, he took her to the Prefect of Discipline, a post occupied by the most senior teacher in the school, who in turn called her parents. When she went home that day, her parents asked why they were being asked to come to school. She narrated the incident.
Her parents were livid. Even they didn't believe Marcella when she repeated her story to them, once they were home. "I'm disappointed in you," Rolando said. Janet kept silent, but her expression showed that she probably felt the same.
"I regret that this means your daughter will be barred from the honours roll," the Prefect informed her parents during the meeting. She also said that she would automatically get a score of zero on the exam or a grade of 70 in the subject, whichever her Math teacher chose. Knowing Ma'am Carol to be a strict teacher, Marcella was certain it would be the latter.
Since the meeting, they'd been a bit short-tempered with her the past weeks, if not cold or moody. "This morning, I dropped a glass on the floor. Papa scolded me for half an hour," Marcella replied.
Symeon sighed. "Why aren't they believing you? It's not as if they actually caught you using the sheet during the exam. It was just your practice sheet, right?"
"They said that it doesn't matter. I had a cheat sheet in my seat. That meant I cheated."
"I'd really hate it if Prince becomes first honours. I can't stand him. He's been going around and talking crap about you," Sydney said.
Prince was a classmate of theirs. Like Marcella, he was a perpetual honours student, but he only placed second, so their classmates considered him a rival to Marcella, and there were times that they bet on whose exam scores will be higher. It was almost like a betting sport; she had seen the table of exam scores along with a list of names and the amount his classmates bet. Most of them put their money on Prince. It reminded her of his uncle who liked cockfighting.
"What's he saying now?" Symeon asked.
"That Marcella's been cheating all this time, and that's why she always places first every grading period."
"That's not true," Marcella protested.
"We know. Prince has just been trying to one-up you since first year, and this is an opportunity for him, I guess."
Marcella finished her waffle. She scooted over to Symeon and poked in his cup of vinegar-soaked chicken parts. The smell of vinegar threatened to make her vomit, but she endured it. She was hungry. While everyone considered Prince to be her 'rival,' she didn't really care about placing first or second. At least, not until she noticed that Prince didn't like how she placed first every grading period. She thought that his jealousy was the reason for class discussions turning to debates between them, exchanges that only ended when the teacher cleared their throat. Or maybe they just have differing views on things. She didn't consider the rivalry that serious.
To Prince, it was. He was the one who told Sir Oliver about the folded piece of paper. Marcella learned from the twins that Prince, who was seated beside Marcella during exams, called their adviser and pointed at the 'cheat sheet' inserted between the slats of the wooden desk chair, after she submitted her exam in Christian Living. He must have just noticed it then. Marcella reckoned that he would have told Sir Oliver immediately if he had known earlier.
She understood why he did it, of course. Everything stood on being the top student. For Marcella, the reason she studied hard was to eventually graduate valedictorian. The college department of St Joseph's offered those who graduate valedictorians a full tuition scholarship to any degree programs offered. Scholarships were also available in universities of neighboring provinces and those in Manila. Graduating at the top of her class would allow Marcella to study anywhere she wanted. Prince must be thinking of the same thing.
Sydney laid a hand on Marcella's shoulder. "You still have a chance, though. Didn't they say they will talk about it first?"
Marcella nodded. The Prefect told her parents that the matter wasn't resolved yet. She said, "Normally, academic dishonesty in any form is grounds for withdrawal of honours roll privileges, but the school," she paused, looking for the right word, "recognises your daughter's record of excellence. Since it's Marcella's first offence as well, this might only serve as a warning."
"What does that mean?" Rolando asked.
"Normally, cheating on a test means automatic disqualification for honours, but given Marcella's exemplary performance in her studies as well as co-curricular activities, and good conduct," she paused again, but to let the last two words resound, "the matter will be reconsidered by myself, the principal, and the guidance office. We will conduct a meeting to decide the appropriate punishment. We'll also be asking for opinions from Marcella's teachers about the matter."
"That's good," Symeon said in the present. "I mean, our teachers like you, right?"
"Except Ma'am Victoria." Sydney rolled her eyes. "But she doesn't like anyone, anyway. She's old and cranky that way."
"I feel like it's unfair though," Marcella said. "I don't think that would look good if the other parents heard about it." She had been thinking of the other parents whose children were just as studious as her, and how they would definitely protest if she somehow got into the honours roll.
"It's fine, Marcella. You've earned it," Sydney said. "Hey, the meeting's over."
Looking up the building, Marcella saw that parents were starting to emerge from the classrooms. She followed her friends upstairs to meet their parents. The parents they passed on the way were holding report cards and looking at their children's grades while their children walked with them nervously. When they reached their classroom, Marcella greeted Sydney and Symeon's father, then searched for her mother.
She found Janet talking to Sir Oliver by the teacher's table. Only a few parents were still in the room. Marcella hesitated, deliberating if she should approach her mother or just wait outside. She did the latter.
Prince was there with his father. Mr. Patricio smiled widely as he looked at Prince's report card. He was talking to his son, but Marcella couldn't understand what he was saying in his language. Marcella involuntarily glanced at Prince, who was looking at her. He was smirking at her.
Glancing away, Marcella trained her eyes on a potted plant by the corner of the corridor. Denied of sunlight, parts of its leaves were withering brown. She suddenly thought of ratting out her classmates to her teachers, especially Prince. Their classmates liked him more because he let them copy his homework and exam answers. She had always fantasized telling her teachers regarding the widespread cheating during exams, but she never went through with it. It would only make her more unlikable as it was. Though she had her friends in the class, Sydney and Symeon, her seatmate Calvin, and her second cousin Lianne, many of them only talked to her out of necessity, for homework.
When her mother finished talking to Sir Oliver, she went out to meet Marcella with a resigned expression. The report card, tucked in her handbag, peeked out from the partially opened zipper. "Come, let's go home."
Marcella followed Janet to the line of tricycles in front of the school. There was only silence as they rode home, while the report card seemed to be beckoning to Marcella, asking to be opened. She wanted to ask to see her report card but, somehow, she didn't know how to ask. At home, they waited for her father to arrive. Marcella helped her mother in the kitchen. She minced the onions, crushed the garlic, diced the ginger, peeled and cubed the sayote and papaya. Janet chopped the whole chicken into pieces, washed it with water earlier used to wash the rice already boiling in the rice cooker, and parboiled the meat with the sauteed spices and patis.
Rolando arrived and they all sat around the dinner table. Janet put the report card in front of her husband. "I talked to Sir Oliver," she said, "He said that Marcella's Math teacher decided to give her zero just for the exam. The school is also going to keep her scholarship."
It felt like a thorn was pulled out of Marcella's chest. She took several deep breaths and struggled to keep her eyes dry. Putting her hands together, she muttered gratitude to the Virgin Mary.
"But Marcella's been struck off the honours list."
Marcella's hands fell to her lap. Her eyes watered.
"What does that mean?"
"She won't be eligible for honours this grading period, and at the end of the year."
"What about next year?"
"She will be."
They were talking about her, not to her. Raising her head slightly, Marcella saw that Rolando had opened her report card and was looking up and down the table of grades. When he finished, he handed it over to Marcella without a word. Her parents started to eat, and while her dissatisfaction overshadowed the eagerness to see her grades, she still looked at them. Besides her 80.2 in Math IV, she maintained a line of 9 in all her other subjects—English III: 93.4; Filipino III: 92.5; Math IV: 80.2; Chemistry I: 92.5; Physics I: 95.7; Science Research I: 96.8; Christian Living III: 92.0; Araling Panlipunan III: 95.6; Journalism in English II: 91.2; Journalism in Filipino II: 96.3; MAPEH III: 95.3.
Her weighted average: 92.610. She had reached the required grade for honours.
Marcella looked at her parents again.
She was suddenly reminded of the Arts I painting she brought home before. She spent more hours on deciding what to paint, having no idea about painting. She wasn't an artist and didn't know what to draw, but she was reading a novel about a human-turned-phoenix. Inspired, she drew the legendary bird of fire – spreading its red-orange-yellow wings with a darker human silhouette between them – on the paper-maché canvas that had to dry under the sun for two days.
It looked awful. As she expected, she got neither a high nor decent score. Her arts teacher, Mr Alcantara, a 50-year-old man who always talked about the one painting he had sold a decade prior, looked at her work for only five seconds before writing a score in his record book: the loops of an 8, the stroke of a 1.
Creeping in through the back door with the canvas tucked under her arm, Marcella was surprised that her parents were already home and in the kitchen. They asked what she was holding. She showed them the painting. Her mother said it looked fine, but when they asked her what grade she got for it, and she told them, their disappointment showed. "Do better next time," her father told her, and she knew she was dismissed.
It didn't matter that a year from now she will graduate high school as valedictorian, or that she will finish college with Latin honours in a prestigious Manila university, or that she will accomplish many things in her career: awards, recognition, prestige. What mattered in the moment was the look of frustration in her parents' faces as they ate dinner, a look she didn't expect to be familiar with. "I'm sorry, Ma, Pa," she said.
"Do better next time."QLRS Vol. 20 No. 2 Apr 2021