(The balance of Chapter 3).
Maths ate the morning, as it usually does. The thing about me and maths is that I can do it and do it really well when I concentrate. It’s not my native language, like it is for Jen, but when I choose to apply myself, it happens. I decided to push Penny’s problem to the back of my mind for the morning and get on with my work.
Mr O, without ever raising his voice or seeming to get the tiniest bit stressed, worked us hard all morning, adjusting problems to suit people’s different levels, helping here, suggesting there, keeping an eye. He really is a good teacher, even if, as my Dad says, he looks so relaxed that he’s falling over most of the time.
There was one strange thing, though. Halfway through the morning, Miss Bell, the secretary to our principal, Ms Radeski, came into the classroom and had a murmured conversation with Mr O at his desk. Mr O stood up then, looking worried, and quietly announced that he needed to go see Ms Radeski for a few minutes, and that Miss Bell would supervise us while he was gone. Cheery Miss Bell settled herself in Mr O’s seat and pulled out her ever-present skein of knitting (currently, something fluffy in hot pink).
“Gonna get a caning for those sandals, I bet,” said Travis Li, sotto voce, to widespread sniggering. Ms Radeski’s dislike of Mr O’s unkempt appearance was no great secret. Although I thought Travis might be right, I nonetheless shot him my best Death Glare. Mr O was the best teacher I’d ever had, and if I have a strong suit in life, it’s loyalty.
I wasn’t even really aware of how long Mr O was gone, absorbed in my work as I was. He must have come back at some point, because when I looked up to find a fresh pencil, comfortable Miss Bell and her pink knitting were gone, and Mr O was back in his seat.
With our heads stuck in fractions, the recess bell came as a bit of a shock. I finished my last problem, put down my pencil, and waited for Mr O to dismiss the class, which usually happens straight away.
Today something was different, though. Instead of dismissing us with his usual, “Have fun, 5-O”, Mr O sat down on his desk and looked at us steadily. He actually looks ... upset, I realised with great surprise. I don’t think I’d ever seen Mr O look upset before.
“5-O, just before you go, I need to tell you that unfortunately, we appear to have had an incident of cheating in this class.”
(This is the point at which, if this was a 1950s school story, we would all gasp in horror and exclaim “NO! Never! I say, old chap!” Being, however, a 21st century ragtag public school class from an up and coming, but still pretty working-class, Melbourne neighbourhood, we just sat there and waited.)
Mr O sighed. “Yes, the inter-school maths competition that we did so well in last month ... It seems that all but five of our papers, from this class, were identical.” He paused. “Identically good, that is. Hence our great result.”
I was, I will admit, a little shocked. Not at the notion that someone was cheating; no, at the idea that all but 5 of us were cheating. It’s like Murder on the Orient Express, I thought, sneaking glances at my deskmate, Egg (who looked horrified) and across the room at Jen. A conspiracy of cheating.
Mr O referred to a paper on his desk. “So, look, the following 5 students, whose papers were different, you guys can go out to recess now. Jennifer Rogers...” Jen got up and scurried out the door, looking stunned.
“Paul DaSilva, Harriet Backhouse...” The two Special Ed kids got up and left, the frown on Harriet’s face indicating that she had no idea what had just happened.
“Ethan Samora...” Egg got up, looked at me, and left. I waited, expectant, for my name to be called. After all, I knew I hadn’t cheated on that test.
Mr O said, “Christie Lang.” And my mouth dropped open.
What the...? I thought, as Mr O shifted on his desk, his eyes sad. I mean, I know I didn’t cheat. I know I didn’t! So what the everloving heck is going on here?
I looked around at the rest of the class, all 18 of us still awaiting release, and saw a sea of faces that mirrored my own amazement. In fact, no-one had that half-furtive, half-cocky look that usually goes with breaking school rules. Not even Troy and his posse, who, if I was going to make a stab at likely cheats just off the cuff, would’ve been my choice every time. Oh, the posse didn’t have the scared-rabbit look that some of the other kids had, but they sure didn’t look guilty, either. Troy looked astounded, actually, and maybe a little bit irked that someone had apparently pulled off such a major con without his knowledge or involvement.
Well, not to say pulled it off, of course. The evidence of the spectacular failure to cheat undetectably was sitting right in front of us, looking glum.
Mr O was speaking, I realised. I dragged my attention back to him.
“So, class,” said Mr O heavily, “we’re not sure what happened here, or how it happened, but the department is cancelling all of your results on the quiz, and obviously that means the school doesn’t win the district prize the way we thought.” He sighed. “The department asked us to investigate the matter and find the culprits, but I’ve talked to Ms Radeski, and we don’t think that will achieve anything much. So instead, I just want to say, if any of you feels that you want to come tell me what happened, and why, I’d be willing to listen.”
We stared at him, in a state of mass disbelief. You could have heard a pin drop in that room. (Probably that’s why everyone jumped a mile when Teresa Gallio, who’s a bundle of nerves at the best of times, knocked her pencil case off her desk with a nervous jerk of her elbow.)
Mr O sighed again, like he hadn’t really expected anything else. “OK, 5-O,” he said. “Off you go to recess now. Oh, also. Ms Radeski will be writing to all your parents to explain why the competition scores have been cancelled.” He gave a tired half-grin. “Although I expect most of you will be giving the news in person tonight.” He stood up from his desk, his lanky frame as awkward as ever. “Off you go,” he repeated, more gently this time.