The Heart Of The Matter by JaneLebak
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The Heart of the Matter
By Jane Lebak (January, 2004)


Mark happened to catch an unguarded smile from Jason as they took their seats for sixth period AP English. Looking away, he tried to hide his own satisfied expression. Mr. Price would be handing back their test papers today, and he knew how important this grade was to Jason. The Chief had made it clear that unless he got Bs for the quarter, across the board, he wouldn't be permitted to race again in the spring. Jason needed at least an 80 on this test to guarantee a B, and he'd approached Mark and asked to study together beforehand. Mark felt confident in his own command of the material, and Jason apparently felt the same.

Mr. Price entered the room and said quietly, "Everyone, put away your notebooks and take out two pens." The chattering classroom had fallen absolutely still other than the sound of rustling papers. He went to his desk, unlocked the top drawer, and pulled out a stack of stapled pages. He began handing them out.

"What's this?" said one of the girls in the front row. "We took the test yesterday!"

Mr. Price continued handing out the test papers. "It became apparent," and he was walking the aisles looking each student in the eyes as he handed out each test, "as I was grading, that someone had stolen a copy of the test." He handed a paper to Mark, then pivoted and handed one to Jason. Ramrod straight, Jason scanned the paper. Mr. Price said, "I am not pleased. I trust my students to give me their honest work, even when, frankly, it stinks." He turned and faced the class before heading down the last aisle. "So my opinion is, if you are going to collaborate against me, then I'll give you a test that all of you working together couldn't pass."

Mark's heart pounded. He glanced at Jason to find him ashen. A sudden sideways glance, and Jason met his eyes. Mark swallowed. One of the other students said, "You can't do this!"

Mr. Price said, "Believe me, I can. Please begin."

The book was A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene. Mark had read it; Jason had read it. They'd gone over their class notes; they'd looked up something in their English text book. They had prepared as well as they reasonably could--and looking at this test, Mark realized it was insufficient. Mr. Price believed the entire class working together couldn't pass this exam, and he was right.

There was nothing for it. Mark didn't even understand half the words in the first question. He skipped it and went to the second, which he understood but couldn't think of an answer to. The third he had a prayer of tackling, so that was where he began. And Jason needed to score an 80.

Toward the end of the test, Mark looked up from whatever he had scrawled on his paper. Mr. Price sat looking stone-faced in his seat at the fore. In the desk beside him, Jason scribbled furiously. Mark could tell with his peripheral vision that Jason had answers for every question, but he couldn't read enough to know if Jason knew what he was talking about--heck, he might not even recognize the correct answers if someone did hand them to him. What the hell was ontological significance? How did dramatic irony relate to the underlying themes? And what on earth did images of leprosy have to do with Querry's trajectory toward oblivion (or salvation) and the way he acted as a means for Greene to question the moral, spiritual and social functioning of society?

The bell rang. Jason passed his paper forward, then sat unmoving. Mark slipped his pen into his backpack and groped his way to a stand. His legs felt weak. Without a word, Jason just got up and left. He'd needed an 80.

Mark didn't see Jason again that afternoon until after 8th period, when he and his friend Tom encountered him outside the row of lockers. Leaning against the wall, Jason had his arms folded and his head down.

"This stinks," Mark said.

Jason only said, glaring at Tom, "I so much want to rat you out." Leveling his stare on Mark, he ignored Tom's jolt backward. "Tom offered to sell me a copy of the test paper. It does stink. It might be selfish and treacherous to turn him in, but I may just do it."

Mark's eyes widened. "Tom?" He and Tom had lunch together about four times a week. They hung out together on the weekends. Right now, Tom looked ready to run.

Like a gun sighting on a target, Jason's eyes locked onto Tom, and he took a step closer. Mark automatically shifted to put himself between them, and Tom sidled around behind him. He could gauge Tom's position by reading Jason's gaze.

"You made a few quick bucks, but you were too damn greedy. If four or five kids ace the test, he thinks it was a study group. But if sixty kids across four classes end up with perfect scores, we all get caught." He took a step closer, but then he stopped, and Mark didn't move.

Tom said, "Mark, stop him."

Jason smoldered. "I needed this grade. There's no way I passed that monstrosity of a test. I know you're Mark's friend, but I don't care. I needed that grade, and you stole it by being stupid."

Jason had no reason to be lying, and Tom had yet to provide any defense whatsoever, but Mark tried to believe it was a misunderstanding. Maybe Tom hadn't really had a test paper. Why wouldn't Jason have mentioned it sooner? Why wouldn't Jason have picked up a copy of it, since this grade was so important? He had to be lying. It didn't make sense otherwise.

Jason pivoted and walked away. Mark opened his locker while Tom waited, but he didn't say much other than, "Is he right about the test."

Tom's head dropped. "You studied for this. You probably did okay."

"I think I got my clock cleaned." Mark took a deep breath. "Whoever stole that test has a lot of explaining to do to the rest of us." And Tom didn't answer.


At dinner that night, Jason said, "Hey, Chief, how about an ethical question?"

Chief Anderson paused, fork in the air, and said, "The kind of ethical question that makes food turn to dust in my mouth?"

"Kind of less important than that." Mark could see how Jason was trying to look casual. "If you have a choice between doing the right thing and saving yourself, is it always wrong to save yourself?"

The Chief put his fork down and thought momentarily. "In a battle situation?"

"Close enough."

Mark's gaze dropped to his plate. The others were passing looks around the table that might as well be flash cards: "You have any idea?" "No. You?" "No. You?" "No. You?"

"It's me and another guy in a dark alley. We get attacked. I can't outfight the attacker, but I can run faster than the other guy. One of us is going to get killed. I can either stand my ground and get shot so he can escape, or I can run and let him get shot."

The Chief said, "You'd be better off not being in the alley in the first place."

"Ideally." Jason's head cocked. "Let's say it can't be avoided."

The Chief said, "Can you guarantee that if you stand your ground and get killed, the attacker won't then follow and kill the other guy?"

There was a long silence. Jason said, "No, I guess in this"

But it's a fake dilemma, Mark thought. If Tom stole the test, then doesn't Jason have a duty to report him? It's a question of doing the right thing and saving himself at the same time. Assuming you even can outrun the guy in the alley.


The next day, Mr. Price handed back their papers. Mark had scored a 65. He'd never seen so much red ink on a test in his life. Looking at Jason's, he saw a 56. He said nothing. Jason balled up the paper and shoved it into his bag. Mr. Prince began to teach about Madame Bovary, the book they should have started working on yesterday. He said the biggest theme of the book was, appropriately, honesty.

At the end of the class, Mr. Price said, "Regarding your test scores, I have to repeat how displeased and disheartened I am by the theft of the original test." Mark felt himself becoming small. "The original test scores have been discarded. The make-up test scores stand."

Mark saw Jason visibly deflate a bit. We'll explain to the Chief. He'll understand--he's got to understand. You tried your hardest. I swear, I'll tell him we studied together--

One of the students asked if Mr. Price was going to curve the grades. Mark knew he wouldn't. But he raised his hand and ventured, "Why are you punishing everyone?"

"Because you all colluded together. Even those who didn't cheat had been offered the test and didn't report it." Mr. Price folded his arms. "If you learn nothing else during your time in high school, you need to learn that what hurts one, hurts all."


Mark avoided Tom after eighth period let out. He tried to avoid Jason, but on his way to his locker, they met. Jason grasped the strap of his backpack in a white-knuckled grip, and his jaw was tight. He was coming from the direction of Mr. Price's classroom. His last class of the day should have been in the other direction. Mark didn't ask.

Tom skittered up to Mark after Jason had slammed his locker and gone home. "Are we still heading out to Forest Hills tonight? Katie and Lauren said the dance starts at eight."

The thought of the dance, with the loud music and the garbage food, put Mark's stomach in a spin. The thought of going with Tom and forcing himself to have a good time, whatever that might mean...he wanted to brood. Maybe Jason felt this way sometimes. Where he really wanted to go right now was a library. Or a church. Better yet, a really old museum with wide halls and forgotten works by an artist long dead. It was too bad the Pompeii exhibit had moved on last week. Mark had found a terrible perspective in the plaster molds of people hiding from a wall of lava beneath benches and in doorways.

Studying Mark's face, Tom whispered, "He didn't tell him, did he?"

Mark said, "If not, he should have." He zipped his bag and added, "You should turn yourself in."

"You're not going to--"

"I have no proof. I have Jason's word, and that's it. But think about it--that's got to be the stupidest thing you've ever done. I don't care how badly you want everyone to like you." Mark hefted what felt like thirty pounds of textbooks onto his back. It was the weight of the world.

They walked to Tom's locker and found Mr. Price standing there. The other students steered a wide space around the teacher, as if by magnetic repulsion. "Mr. Preston, I need to have a word with you."

Tom shot an angry look at Mark. "Mr. Washington may leave," the teacher added. "You're the one I need for a brief chat."

Mark took a deep breath as they left. So.


Tom phoned that night, and making no mention of the "chat" with Mr. Price, asked Mark what time they would meet at the subway stop. Everyone was out of the house for the night. Reluctantly, Mark confirmed, and they met without incident.

All he asked about the English test was, "How'd it go?"

Tom said, "Your brother's a selfish jerk."

Mark swallowed. "But he wears it well." And then he didn't pursue the matter.

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