By Corinne H. Smith
1974: I turned seventeen years old. I was in twelfth grade at Hempfield High School. Daddy was 45, and he worked as a research chemist at Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Penna. Mom worked as a nurse at a local clinic. We lived on Dale Avenue in West Hempfield Township. The #1 popular song on the radio on my seventeenth birthday was “Whatever GetsYou Thru the Night” by John Lennon with the Plastic Ono Nuclear Band. Mom snapped this photograph.
|Don't laugh. It was the 1970s. We blended in.
[In order to protect the identities of the very real people in this story, I use letters here to stand for individuals. Names of five boys/men are represented by letters from the beginning of the alphabet, A-E. Names of six girls/women come from letters from the end of the alphabet, Z-U. The two adult educators are identified by their real initials, for my classmates will recognize them anyway. And it should be emphasized that I can report on these details only from my own view of them. CHS]
The Spring of 1974 marked the second semester of my junior year at Hempfield High School. My least favorite class then was English literature with Mrs. K. She was the kind of teacher who expected and gave points for class participation. I was an introverted adolescent who was loathe to offer my opinions and interpretations (and often, seemingly incorrect ones) in public. She forced us to read and analyze Hamlet and Samuel Pepys’ diary and “That’s My Last Duchess on the Wall,” and I just didn’t get any of it. I was a C student in her class, and I wasn’t alone. Mrs. K. was a hot topic amongst us. She taught two academic sections of English lit, so she had an impact on at least 50 of the 400 kids who made up the HHS Class of 1975.
One of those 50 was Z, who sat next to me in homeroom. To make idle chit-chat one day, I asked her what she thought of a recent English test. Our class had taken the test one day before hers had. When I asked Z for her impression the following morning, her eyes got huge. “Oh, Corinne,” she said, “Some people had copies of the test ahead of time!” We looked at each other in naïve horror. I know my jaw dropped to the floor. How could such a thing have happened? Neither one of us would have ever thought of cheating. We weren’t sure we knew anyone who would. But someone must have done the unthinkable. This was certainly a disturbing development.
When our class walked into Mrs. K.’s room that morning, the woman was not her usual chatty, irritating self: barking out page numbers or handing back corrected and sarcasm-laden assignment notes. She waited until everyone was seated; then she picked up a piece of chalk and wrote seven digits on the blackboard. A dash turned them into a phone number. She laid the stick of chalk back in the tray. “Something has happened,” she said quietly. And she proceeded to launch into a long and rambling lecture, never quite nailing down the exact topic of her composed but passionate tirade. “If you know what I’m talking about,” she said finally, “I would like you to call me at home” – she pointed to the numbers on the board – “and provide whatever information you can. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, then you have nothing to worry about.” We stared at our desktops or looked around the room in confusion. For a teacher to give students her home phone number was unheard of. This was huge, whatever it was. I could feel my heart pounding double- and triple-time. My worst nightmare was being accused of doing something I had not done and for which I could not prove my innocence. Was just knowing what Z had told me enough to put me in the slammer? I was shaking in my 4-inch cork-soled shoes.
A formal investigation was launched. Someone had stolen the test and/or its answer sheet from Mrs. K.’s desk, and that someone would be found and punished. One by one, selected members of my class were called down to the principal’s office over the course of the next few days. I had never personally crossed paths with Mr. H., our principal. But I was terrified that he might confuse me with somebody else and ask me questions under a bright and beady light, and I would cave in and sign a confession to an act I never committed. I used to love going to school. Now I got a queasy stomach each time I boarded the bus.
Eventually the official verdict came down from the authorities. The culprit was A, they said. He was suspended for a week and was made ineligible for early admission into the National Honor Society. But the word throughout the hallowed halls of Hempy High was that A was not the test-stealer at all. I wasn’t part of the in-crowd and so could not learn more details then. While I was relieved that I had never been questioned, I always felt as if the real thief could still be walking amongst us, undetected and unpunished. Maybe it was even someone I knew.
Decades passed. One day in the 2000s, I was visiting with Y, a classmate I hadn’t seen in at least 20 years. She had occupied the desk next to mine in Mrs. K.’s English class during our junior year. Loving always to dwell on the past, I asked her the big question: Did she know who stole Mrs. K.’s test back then? I was hoping that she somehow had the key to the crime, even though she wasn’t part of the in-crowd then, either.
Unfortunately and unbelievably, Y didn’t know what I was talking about. She didn’t recall anything about a stolen test, Mrs. K.’s plea for information, or A’s indictment. All she remembered about that class was that B sat behind her and constantly jiggled a nervous foot against her chair the entire time. What a let down! I thought she might be able to give me at least a leading clue or a list of possible perps. After all, she had once practiced as an attorney.
But for the next few days, I kept thinking about the incident. If A didn’t take the test, then who did? Now that Hempfield had published an alumni directory, I had contact information for most of my classmates. If I asked the right people the right questions, I might be able to solve this decades-old puzzle. I didn’t read all those mystery novels and watch Murder, She Wrote and Columbo reruns for nothing.
In those days just before Facebook’s popularity, I could best use only e-mail to my advantage. I sent a message to C, a classmate who lived a few hours away from me, and whom I ran into in person on occasion. C’s reply to my question was eerie, for his reaction mirrored mine. Without my prompting, he wrote that he too remembered Mrs. K.’s lecture vividly, as well as the fact that she had written her phone number on the board. He too hadn’t initially understood the reason for her behavior; and later, he too had been worried about being called to the office. He hadn’t been interrogated either, and he didn’t know who had really stolen the English test. When it was announced that A had been suspended, C was disappointed because they were friends who performed in the same rock band. But C never asked A about the issue later, and he had lost touch with our classmate over time.
A, I thought. I could e-mail A, the supposed thief. But we hadn’t been friends back in school. What was I supposed to say? Hey, how are ya, it’s been a long time, who really stole that test when we were in eleventh grade? I actually formulated a polite message to that effect, but the e-mail was rejected. A could no longer be found at the e-mail address listed for him in the alumni directory. His name didn’t come up quickly in an online search, either. So I couldn’t go to the source. I’d have to keep asking others to sift through their memory banks.
D was a classmate whose birthday was near mine. We still exchanged birthday cards and Christmas letters. But when I sent him a message, it bounced back from a full e-mail box. Darn.
X, who was my lab partner when we were in biology in tenth grade, wasn’t much help. “A did it,” she quickly replied in an e-mail of her own. “He got caught and couldn’t get into NHS until we were seniors because of it.” So X believed the official story. Too bad. I hadn’t pegged her as a party-line kind of gal.
I used to cross professional paths with W from time to time, over the years. She had been involved in a lot of school activities and had served as one of our class officers. I thought she might be a good source for the truth. “I always thought C did it,” she wrote. “That’s what I told Mrs. K. when she called me on the phone. You might want to ask V. Mrs. K. called her at home, too.”
This was indeed interesting and unsettling information. First of all, C didn’t know how close he had come to implication. And secondly, Mrs. K. had used V and W as informants. Granted, they were both serious and trustworthy students back then. But for a teacher to call her students at home? This was a borderline surreal revelation for me. Both for my high school days, and even for now.
Although W had given me a lead, I began to question my sanity over this issue. Why did I care, so many years later, and why was I contacting people out of the blue about something that happened in 1974? I had played my closest cards and had come up empty. Maybe it was time to stop the madness before the rumor spread that I was crazy-gone-nuts. I stopped my e-mail investigation and let the matter lie.
In 2010, at our 35th high school class reunion, I spied V and her husband E, both of whom had been in my ill-fated junior English class. I sauntered over to them; and above the din generated by the disc jockey at the other end of the room, I leaned in to V’s ear and yelled: “I have a question. Who stole Mrs. K.’s test back when we were in eleventh grade?”
V nodded, as if she had heard of my investigation and had been expecting my query. “U,” she shouted back at me. “But don’t say anything. She has a really good job.”
I shook my head in disbelief. First of all, up to that point, I had been assuming that the test thief had been male. This was a gender bias on my part, I guess. U and I had been members of another organization together, and we had participated in meetings and events with one another. We weren’t close friends, but we were not strangers. Secondly: If U once slipped a piece of paper from a teacher’s desk into her own notebook back in 1974, why should it matter to anyone, anymore? It shouldn’t. But as we well know, various celebrities and individuals in public service have been brought down by such similarly tame circumstances. Or less.
No, I didn’t ask U if she did it. She wasn’t at the reunion that weekend. And I have never contacted her to pose the question. I hold no grudge against her. But who knows? Someday I may find myself traveling in her part of the country; and I’ll just happen to stop in and ask her what she remembers about having Mrs. K. for English. And I’ll get her side of the story.
Why has this episode stayed with me over the years? I guess it’s because of its sense of injustice. An innocent person was accused, found guilty, and punished; and all along the perpetrator went free and unnoticed. To a naive teenager, this was a scary situation and a lesson learned. If this could happen within the protected sanctuary of our then-safe school building, what kind of rules could be enacted in the world beyond those walls?
|Mementos from those good old days