What’s Wrong with a B+?

What’s Wrong with a B+?

From Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul

What’s Wrong with a B+?

Reality isn’t the way you wish things to be, nor the way they appear to be, but the way they actually are.

Robert J. Ringer

It seemed to take forever, but I finally turned thirteen last Saturday. I felt warm and happy inside, and would have spent the day with my friends, but alternating sleet and rain kept me at home. I decided to hang around my room and junk a bunch of kid stuff. By midafternoon, three bulging garbage bags leaned against my door. As I grabbed the first bag and began dragging it down the stairs, a snapshot fell to the floor. The face staring up at me was Jane’s. We had been friends in the fourth grade and probably would have been friends forever if her father hadn’t been transferred to Japan. He was vice president of some big hotel chain.

Jane Farmer was the smartest girl I’d ever known. She almost always got straight A’s, and she was pretty, too. Part of me wanted to hate her, but I couldn’t. She was too nice. Instead, I envied her and longed with all my heart to be just like her.

Her hair was the color of honey. She had a zillion corkscrew curls, usually held back by a satin headband that matched our school uniform. When she walked, the curls bounced up and down and reminded me of my pogo stick. My hair was straight, wispy and braided every morning into pigtails.

She was a little plump, but that didn’t matter. Like the other popular girls, Jane was short. That’s what really mattered since most of the boys in our class were also short. I was tall and skinny. Even Jane’s freckles were the cute kind, and the dimples on either side of her mouth made her look like she was always smiling.

My grandfather often called me “funny face” to get me to smile. He wasn’t being mean. He just didn’t understand that my face was the serious sort. My mother didn’t understand either. “Stand in front of your bedroom mirror, Donna,” she’d say. “Practice for five or ten minutes each day, and before long, you’ll have a lovely smile, too.” I tried it a few times, but I felt dumb, and it didn’t work anyway.

Jane was an honor student and got to sit in the front of the class. My desk was in the back, on the side of the room that had no windows. I’d watch Mrs. Schnell, our teacher, pace back and forth in front of us. She was short and stout with wiry red hair and a smile she turned on and off like a water faucet.

I always slumped way down in my desk, desperately hoping to hide myself behind Stanley, the kid who sat in front of me. It was difficult. Stanley was a head shorter than I was, and he often also scrunched down, trying to hide from Mrs. Schnell. There I would wait, terrified that the next name I heard would be my own. Sometimes my heart thumped so loudly that I was sure her ears would find me even if her mean eyes didn’t.

Day after day, she strutted up and down the aisles, her right hand clutching a sheet of paper that listed every one of us alphabetically. She pretended to study it for a moment, and then her eagle eyes, searching out their prey, would dart from kid to kid. “Who shall it be this time?” she’d crow.

Each time she called out a name, the victim would have to rise, stand straight as a broomstick, shoulders squared, and with a book resting across open palms, read to the entire class. Sometimes the person was lucky and only had to read a few sentences or a short paragraph. Other times, it would be a page or two. Once in a while, a whole chapter would be read before she called out the next name.

More than anything, I hated to stand and read aloud to the class, a feat so easily accomplished by Jane. Unlike me, she never slurred her words or stuttered, and she rarely made a mistake. And if she did, she was never made to feel ashamed. Mrs. Schnell would flash a pleasant smile and patiently guide her toward the correct answer. I wasn’t good at reading and could tell that Mrs. Schnell was often not at all pleased with me. If only she had treated me the way she treated Jane, I would have done much better. But she was always correcting me too soon, never giving me a chance to say the words.

One day after soccer practice, Jane and I were standing together waiting for our mothers. All of the other kids’ parents had come for them and taken them home. Jane leaned against one of the stone columns that supported the wrought-iron gate at the front of the school. I leaned against the other and watched Jane read a textbook. We weren’t friends yet. I wanted to ask her if she liked movies and if her parents ever let her go to weekend matinees, but I changed my mind when I looked at her face. I just stared at her instead. She seemed to feel my eyes.

“What are you looking at?” she asked. Her voice was soft and kind, not what I expected.

“You,” I said, unable to stop staring.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because you look so sad,” I said. It’s rude to stare. My mother’s words played over and over in my head.

“I got a B+ on the history test,” she said, sounding like she had committed some awful crime.

“That’s why you’re sad?” I asked. It didn’t make sense to me. What’s wrong with a B+? I wondered. Before I knew it, I was talking so fast I couldn’t stop myself.

“Gosh, Jane, a B+ isn’t exactly the end of the world, you know. I’d love to get your grades, read and spell like you, have the teachers like me for a change—and you’re worried about a B+? You must be nuts! What’ll happen to you anyway?”

She looked at me for a moment, maybe deciding if she should trust me. Then she leaned over and whispered in my ear as if we were best friends sharing a secret.

“Promise me you won’t tell anyone. Promise.”

The fact that Jane wanted to share her secret with me made me feel good, important like the popular girls she hung around with. But it surprised me, too. She grabbed my arm when I didn’t answer her right away, and I felt her fingernails dig into my skin.

“Promise me,” she demanded. I nodded, and she released my arm.

“My dad uses a leather strap on me,” she said, her voice so low that I could hardly hear her. Tears had welled up in her eyes, but she kept talking. “Straight A’s are all he wants to see. I have to get straight A’s.”

I was sure I had misunderstood what she said. “You mean he takes off his belt and hits you with it? He hits you because you get a B+ and not an A?”

“Yes,” she cried, hanging her head as if she were ashamed to show her face. “He will tonight, just as soon as he gets home from work.”

“He hits you?” I asked again, not wanting to believe her, not wanting to believe a dad would do such a thing or be so cruel.

“Yes. He says there’s no excuse for poor grades. He always got straight A’s in school, and since I’m his daughter, I must do the same.”

She lifted her head and looked at me, but I knew she wasn’t seeing me.

“It’s expected,” she said, in a tone that was as flat and cold as the stone floor in our basement.

“What about your mother?” I asked.

“Oh, she leaves the room. But she comes back later, after he’s gone. She hugs me and tells me how much Daddy loves me, how he’s only doing it for my own good.” Jane shrugged her shoulders as if it didn’t matter. “Besides, it only hurts for a little while. You see, Donna, grades are very important. Doesn’t your dad think so?”

“My dad is always saying that my brother and I must have a good education. When we get home from school, we’re not allowed to play outdoors or have friends over until all of our homework is done. He’s pretty strict about that, and it sure doesn’t make him happy when we get bad grades. But he never hits us.”

“But doesn’t he punish you when you mess up?”

“Well, not really,” I said, “at least, not the way your dad does.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“If you knew my dad, you’d understand. He just stands there, straight as an arrow, his gray eyes locked onto yours. Then he says your first name very slowly, in a very low, stern voice. Then he says your middle name very slowly, and in the same low, stern voice. That’s all he does, and believe me, my brother and I know he means business.”

“And then what?” Jane asked. She seemed to shiver, and I saw fear in her eyes. I knew she expected to hear a truly horrid thing, some sort of gruesome punishment far worse than being beaten with a leather strap.

“And then what?” she repeated, impatient for my answer.

“We fix the problem real fast,” I said. “We work harder the next time and do a better job.”

Just then, we saw Jane’s mother coming up the circular drive in a big, white, shiny car.

“That’s my mom. Gotta go now. Bye, Donna,” she said and dashed to the car. She opened the door, then suddenly looked back at me and whispered, “Remember, Donna, you promised.”

I nodded and watched her climb into the passengers side of the front seat.

“Bye, Jane.” Their car cruised around the drive, then sped away down the long, narrow, tree-lined street. I watched Jane’s big car get smaller and smaller until it disappeared around the corner at the end of the lane.

Jane and I became best friends after the day she shared her secret with me, but from then on I never again envied Jane Farmer.

Donna M. Russell

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