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Authors: Gillian Roberts

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BOOK: Adam and Evil
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Entirely too many Samaritans in town, and were we all misguided? “But—”

He put a beefy hand up. “We conferred at length and I was able to delay any such public exposure, although not indefinitely. I trust you comprehend how devastating such negative publicity could be to our entire endeavor. We are still in the enrollment process for the coming year, not to mention the possibility of current enrollees withdrawing. And with graduation approaching, the traditional time of special giving, I wish this moratorium on media involvement to continue. Although, of course, immediately after the agreement with the Evans parents, given yesterday’s events, that has already not been the case.”


The hand again. “You’ve had an unconventional … well, let me say this. I’m not casting stones or blaming you necessarily, but I haven’t otherwise encountered a teacher who—I have never even heard of one in the professional annals. I would doubt that among all secondary-school instructors …”

If only he were my student, we’d work on his communication skills. Of course, he’d fail, because Maurice Havermeyer, Ph.D., did not want to communicate clearly. If he did, his listeners might be able to see how pathetic and petty his ideas were.

“… my observations lead me to believe you apparently have a predilection for nonacademic adventures of a counterproductive and oftentimes hazardous nature. This trait is potentially
incompatible with, I believe you’ll agree, and has a deleterious effect upon one’s pedagogical duties.”

I wasn’t sure what his precise grievance was, but none of this sounded good for me. Did he mean that I got into too much trouble, created too much trouble, or what?

“Repeated instances cannot help but lead me to the opinion that you have a tendency to find yourself involved with law enforcement officials more often than—”

Than what? Than salamanders? Than normal people? Than he would prefer? I didn’t feel like letting him think I understood him, and I didn’t feel like letting him complete the sentence. “You’re right,” I said. “I am involved with a law enforcement official. I have been for several years now. Are you saying he is interfering with my teaching?”

“I never … I didn’t … I’m afraid you’re misinterpreting …” Once again I saw his engines rev up and leave another unsatisfactory stop en route. “Miss Pepper, yesterday your professional inattention allowed a child in your care to wander off. This is a serious problem fraught with both educational and legal ramifications, and although he was unharmed and reached home intact, we are gravely concerned, and of course the media—despite my earnest and previously successful attempts to prevent their presence here—the media has seized upon this.”

I’d had it, whatever it might be. “Dr. Havermeyer, unless Adam is seriously disturbed and in need of special attention, as I suggested, and in which case he should not be main-streamed in the manner he was, he should instead be under a doctor’s care, and his parents’ refusal to look at the situation should not be tolerated—” I not only was copying his verbosity and lack of breaks for breath, but as he started to interrupt, I put my hand up to prevent it, Havermeyer-style.

But the anger was all mine. “Unless you agree with me that he needs attention and probably medications to help him function more normally, then let’s be honest. Adam is a seventeen-year-old city boy who gets himself around on his own all the time. He left the library before he was supposed to. That is all. And that is hardly a child who wanders away. We have a problem here—but with Adam Evans. Not with me.”

I’m not sure anybody has ever spoken that directly or assertively to Maurice Havermeyer. Certainly not anybody who kept his job. But it felt great. Cleansing. I’d use the word
if it didn’t embarrass me. I was tempted to plow on, keep the advantage and ask him questions that had been troubling me for years. Precisely what field was his Ph.D. in? How the hell had he earned it? Could I see his dissertation? I envisioned it as roughly the size of the
Encyclopaedia Britannica
, with about a paragraph’s worth of meaning buried alive in it.

“The police are already here,” Havermeyer said abruptly. “Extremely disruptive of classrooms and routine, although of course there is a civic duty to cooperate in such situations, still—” He looked at me accusingly. This was my fault, too. The cops were here, and I was to blame because I was a cop magnet.

“Today?” I answered stupidly. “This morning? Already?”

He nodded. “In search of Adam.”

“Who is not here, I take it. Is he home? Do Mr. and Mrs. Evans know where he is?”

“May I remind you we are educators and we are not supposed to be privy to police business, despite your own predilection for such matters? I believe, in fact, that in this particular instance, the circumstance that directed official attention to our school is that Adam’s name was cried out in such a public and incriminating manner as to throw him under the shadow of suspicion, to implicate him in the regrettable events in the library yesterday. Furthermore, I have been led to believe, until otherwise contraindicated, that you were said person who did the crying out, Miss Pepper.”

“I couldn’t find him. I was trying to find him.” I didn’t think that was the whole truth, but it would have to do.

“Do you consider that appropriate and protective behavior in regard to one of our own students?”

Yes, indeed, I thought it was appropriate when the teacher was near hysterics and couldn’t find the boy whose behavior had frightened her and whose black scarf was draped over a statue while an alarm was blaring throughout the library and something was really wrong. How much more appropriate could you get?

“This … propensity you demonstrate for overinvolvement in criminal activities and matters that by rights concern only those entrusted to handle such matters—this is incompatible with pedagogical responsibilities, Miss Pepper. I realize that
the term is speedily nearing its completion. In a matter of weeks, we will all be free to engage in whatever summertime activities we so desire, and to my regret, at such time, it will behoove me to reconsider this issue, reassess the situation, and for you as well to determine whether or not you have found that professional position which most suits your particular temperament. It may be that your nervous system requires more excitement than a small secondary school can be expected to provide. It may be that you would find a greater degree of self-satisfaction in a different environment.”

I’d just been fired, Havermeyer-style. Murkily given notice. I stood to leave and, standing above him, could see his bald spot and how he tried to cover it with long hairs growing near his ears. I tried not to look at it because it made me feel sorry for him. It was so silly and pitiable a disguise—and for what? It made me realize what a mess of a man he was, and I wanted to think of him not as that but as my enemy and oppressor.

“In the interim,” he said, “and despite any desire on your part for exposure to the media, I want this school kept out of the newspapers, unless it’s to disseminate good news. I believe the popular term for the behavior I require is ‘keeping a low profile.’ Are you familiar with the term, Miss Pepper?”

I nodded, although I resented the implication that I was a media slut, constantly inviting the press in so I could publicize myself. I understood his plan now. He, too, would be low-profile. Just as low-profile as a snake. And when the term ended, he’d quietly fail to rehire me. No outcry, no high profile, no witnesses.

He pointed to the
on his desk. Emily was on the front page—and so was Adam, always referred to as “a senior at Philly Prep.” “Suffice it to say, no more of this.”

As if I’d murdered Emily, just to push the place where I worked back into the news. “I’ve never contacted the press,” I said.

“Intentionally or not, you nonetheless manage to involve them. You must admit, Miss Pepper, you took your class for what in any ordinary, normal circumstances would be a quiet research outing at the library, and once again, catastrophe strikes in a garish and horrifying fashion. You must admit you have a talent for being near such events and for generating all
manner of unwelcome attention to our student body and establishment. You must admit—”

“You are absolutely correct, Dr. Havermeyer,” I said. “I must admit that the woman who toured us through the library was strangled, potentially traumatizing my students and, may I say, myself. I’m sure you understand the psychological necessity of talking about it, and I want to thank you for being so generous with your time and helping me deal with what I’ve been through. Now, I need to follow your example and extend a helping hand to my students. I assure you I’m fine, despite the trauma, and thank you for asking. Now I have to run or I’ll be late for first period.”

I was going to make his role in my dismissal as difficult as I humanly could. I would not accept his meaning until he said it clearly. The English teacher’s last stand.


fact of my firing. Also, the probable fact of my being sued, arrested, or whatever happened when you’re accused of battering a student. I wanted to talk about it with everybody I’d ever met. It would have been heartening to talk with Mackenzie—if only I knew how to reach him when he was capable of listening and in a mood to chat.

Normally I had a guaranteed fallback in my mother. She so loves a play-by-play recitation of news in the making. Her ideal daughter would wear a microphone at all times and treat her life as if it were featured on CNN. “Now, Mom, I’m bringing you this live from the classroom, where my days have just been numbered by my headmaster.” But today, in her new perversity, my mother would not commiserate. She’d say Havermeyer’s decision was a sign that it was time to begin her agenda for me. She was a bit of a pagan, finding portents everywhere—and, amazingly, those signs always pointed in her direction of choice.

With no one on the horizon who wanted to hear my problems, I hauled myself out of my wallow and loaned an ear to others. The first miserable-looking creature who intercepted my do-gooder beams was a senior, Daisy Rollins. “You look upset,” I said. “I can understand, given what—”

“I’m upset because I can’t find my backpack, so I don’t have my homework because I did it ahead of time and it was in it.” She looked sulky and shifty, as if she were lying—or certain that I’d think she was. Which I did.

“I’m sure it will turn up,” I said, and that was it for grief counseling. Instead I held my tongue, a painful process. I was still an English teacher. This was class. I was supposed to keep a low profile. Being fired was pretty low in itself, but whining about it was apt to bring attention and further blustery wrath from my headmaster. While I was musing about this, two tenth graders, Jill Dunlap and Nancy Cain, quietly approached my desk to softly utter, almost in unison, a request for a conference at the end of the day. “We have something for the newspaper,” they whispered. “Exposé. We’ve been working undercover again.” They each took a step back and waited for my response.

I often had to remind myself that they weren’t twins or a double exposure. Best friends since elementary school, about the same height and body size, both with dark blond shoulder-length hair, they were like old marrieds, finishing off each other’s sentences, and sometimes, as they’d just done, actually speaking in unison.

An exposé, indeed.

“We want to write under a pseudonym,” Nancy said.

“What’s wrong with your names? You’ve used them before.” So far, the fearless duo’s undercover work had revealed that the cafeteria muffins were shrinking as the semester went on. Also that Lollie Jackson, the Spanish II teacher, had paper-trained a puppy in her schoolroom closet for three days. Her students had kept the secret, and even my Woodward and Bernstein waited to report it till the puppy was trained and able to stay home and it was too late to pursue either Ms. Jackson or her dog. “Come on, you’ve got a journalistic reputation. Don’t you want to enlarge on it?”

They shook their heads at the same tempo. I wondered if they rehearsed.

“It could get us in trouble?” Jill said.

“Could we call ourselves Brenda Starr?” Nancy asked.

“That’s been taken.”

“Then make it Brenda Stare.” Jill giggled. “The Watcher of Evil.”

I promised to see them after school.

The seniors talked about the previous day’s tragic events, but after a while it seemed more like tabloid TV than therapy, exploitation without catharsis, so I had them work on their
projects, although I suspected that the murder had probably dampened their desire to spend lots more time at the library. I watched their glances dart to, then away from, then back again to Adam’s usual seat—the way a tongue probes the empty socket of a tooth just pulled. But no one asked the obvious question—where was he, why wasn’t he here, and could we take the combination of those factors to mean that he was involved in this crime?

Perhaps those weren’t their questions. Perhaps only I was thinking in those terms. Once again I felt I could be the governess in
Turn of the Screw
, except at least she had the conviction of her beliefs. I, on the other hand, didn’t know how much I was superimposing on reality. Maybe everyone else thought of Adam as an eccentric goof-off and not so very different from the rest of the Philly Prep population. Maybe that’s what he actually was.

I worried whether the end result would be the same, and I’d wind up inadvertently destroying someone in my charge.

Which reminded me—I hadn’t finished rereading the James “nouvelle” and I’d promised to go over Lia’s notes with her. Where had I put her book? I’d just been reading it, but when? Not when I’d fallen asleep on the couch the night before, so where was that book? The last thing I wanted to do was discourage a self-motivated student.

I was constantly surprised that Lia’s parents had chosen our school—she deserved more academic stimulation than we could provide—but apparently it was a matter of geographic, not scholastic, desirability. We were close to their house and seemed a safe haven from their perception of the public schools.

I had no idea where the book was. No image came to mind. My stomach cramped with fear that I’d lost her labor of love.

Between classes I searched my briefcase and desk, several times, all of them in vain. And then finally I remembered where I’d last seen it—on the library table where I’d pushed it aside so I could study graduate programs. I’d forgotten all about it when the alarm sounded and I left the department.

I was so tired, so ready to go home at the close of day, but I had no choice but to retrieve it—if it was still there. If not, another teacherly failure. And what if Lia’s overprotective parents
complained to Havermeyer about the butterfingered teacher who’d lost their daughter’s work?

Would that violate my low profile? Did news of me—bad news of me—to Havermeyer constitute being high-profile? Or did it only apply to the media? And what was a low profile, anyway? The words made me think of my headmaster’s jowls.

I was carrying on about nothing. I’d find the book, complete the reading, meet with Lia, and keep myself and the school invisible to the press. Easy enough.

I had already packed up when Jill and Nancy appeared. As always, I smiled at the sight of them. They currently thought it cool—or whatever word meant “cool” now—to prowl secondhand stores for fifties garb, poodle or pegged skirts, saddle shoes, et al. The net effect was a shabby but aching innocence. An innocence that was pure fantasy, I’m sure, as if a few decades back nobody had so much as an off-color thought.

Or maybe it wasn’t mythical. Kids didn’t mow down their teachers and fellow students in those days, so it truly was a more innocent time. And very long ago.

“Okay, girls,” I said. They were so into their fifties personas they didn’t flinch at having been called anything but

They closed the classroom door and hovered, silently deciding where to settle. I like desks in a circle whenever possible, as they now were, and they picked the two nearest me.

“We’ve found something like really majorly serious?” Jill said. Nancy’s enthusiastic nods made her ponytail bobble. “Criminal?” Jill said. At this, Nancy’s eyes widened and her expression grew solemn as her nod rate slowed down.

What could the jitterbug twins have found? More cut corners in the cafeteria? Had they perhaps confirmed my suspicion that Helga the Office Witch was secretly selling the supplies she hoarded? Black-market gum erasers?

Nancy leaned close and looked around. I was surprised the girls didn’t pat me down to make sure I wasn’t wired. Their paranoia and sense of self-importance were entertaining. Even when satisfied that we weren’t being observed, she spoke in a whisper. “There’s a big business counterfeiting transcripts and recommendation letters and having other people take your SAT exams. All over the Delaware Valley. The boss of it is here. Our school.”

“Whoa! How could—is this true? How did you—on what are you basing this?” I had trouble switching gears, shifting expectations. Forget muffins. This was serious indeed. And bizarre. This was Philly Prep—who would have one of our students take their test and hope to do well?

“We’re taking swing lessons?” Jill said. “Through this club my parents belong to? And this boy there goes to another school, but, like, I’m not saying he’s dumb, but he’s a really good golfer, so that helps with schools, but still and all—”

“He was telling this other guy,” Nancy continued, “who goes to another school, about how to get in wherever. Like he had. He’s going to Columbia next year. Because somebody took his SATs for him.”

“Somebody who goes to Philly Prep?” It was hard keeping the squeak of disbelief out of my voice. Hiring one of our students to take a test was like hiring somebody from Clown College to perform Hamlet.

“Not exactly.” Both girls said that, then Nancy took over. “What we heard is that the guy who took the test didn’t go here, but he works for a guy who does. You contact the guy here and he finds the other person.”

“And those other things?”

They nodded in unison. “He has, like, forms and things on his computer?” Jill said. “He makes transcripts? And recommendation letters from people who don’t exist?”

If this was true, then Philly Prep had its first genius—albeit one who turned his smarts to entrepreneurial crime.

“We told you it was serious,” they said.

I took a deep breath. “And … what do you want to do about it?”

“Write about it! It’s a crime,” Nancy said, in case I’d forgotten.

“Bad,” Jill added, without even making it into a question.

“We have the facts. We’re ready.”

I barely heard them through the din in my head. If this was true, we had a major scandal. We had Maurice Havermeyer’s worst nightmare, and its timing couldn’t have been worse for me. I knew what the right thing to do was. But I didn’t know if my system could take the results of any more of my doing the right thing. So I hedged.

“This is the sort of story that the newspapers—the real
newspapers, and the TV—are going to pick up on.” They looked at each other and grinned. “This is a serious crime. You won’t stay anonymous for long.”

They darted cryptic signals to each another. I didn’t dare think of what I wanted them to be saying in their private language. It would be so unworthy of me to wish this story unborn. To squelch it. Even to suggest that it should wait till next year. Till anytime but now. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Do students here use these people, too?”

Their nod explained a lot about our improved acceptance rate—that statistic Havermeyer so adored. It probably explained Adam’s good SAT scores, too. I could see the story whirling, spreading, rippling out across the Delaware Valley. “You’re sure about your sources?”

“We knew the name of the guy who got into Columbia,” Nancy said. “And then we went undercover, see?”

I did not, could not imagine the two of them doing anything surreptitiously.

“Pretended to want to know about doing it ourselves. He told us a whole lot.”

“He liked Nancy,” Jill said, rolling her eyes. “Thought she was older—in eleventh grade? He told her about two other people who’d gotten fake recommendations? We have the names and the school names. Is that what you mean?”

“I think so,” I whispered.

“We know the police will probably get involved, but we can protect our sources, can’t we? It’s the right thing to do. Our parents think so. Don’t you?”

Whistle-blowing was the ethical, moral, civic-minded thing to do. Right for everything—except me.

I wanted to crawl under the desk and hide. I had quick and searing fantasies of blackmailing my headmaster with this:
Keep me on your staff or I break the story, Maurice
. “Yes,” I said. “You have to write it up.” Maybe they’d do it really, really slowly. “This is awful. A corruption of everybody’s standards.” My sweet neophyte reporters with such a high-profile story. How many times did this happen to a high-school newspaper? “Take your time. Do a good job.”

“We did. Here. Here’s the story. All ready to go.” Nancy handed me three typed pages headed with “The SAT Scam and Other Crimes.” “You like the headline?” she asked.

“Catchy.” I wanted to bang my head on my desk and cry. There was no hope left for me on earth, at least not in this school. I’d be booted out by sunset.

It was a great headline. Everybody would borrow it—the
, the
Daily News
, and every local TV station. With my luck, the Nancy and Jill show would go national, on
Making Philly Prep a household word. A household bad word.

There was no place left to hide.

Or maybe this was, indeed, what my mother would call a sign. In this case, a billboard-sized sign screaming

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