The music department had just hired a new band director. His name was Mr. Bo Smith and he couldn’t have come at a better time. The 1993-1994 ferocious Tiger Football Marching Season had been a disaster. Our marching band was in shambles--we couldn’t play or perform to any typical high school band’s standards. Now, it seemed that for the first time, our program had the opportunity to take a fresh, positive direction. Little did we know that as the months would unfold, our dream would turn into the Twilight Zone.In the beginning, everything was going according to plan. After Mr. Smith arrived, the band came to life like the wooden doll in Pinocchio. We performed and played like a high school band. The progress was quite impressive. We were proud of ourselves for the first time. However, while the community was busy crediting Mr. Smith, in reality, our success was entirely due to our drum major, Joe James. It was Joe who wrote all of the shows and Joe who had led the band to success--and Mr. Smith was taking full credit.Joe was a good person. In fact, it was he who had showed Mr. Smith around town when the band director first moved to Arkansas. He wasn’t an outstanding student, but he possessed exceptional musical talent. He had his heart set on going to college on a band scholarship. In order to do so, he needed a recommendation from the department head, Mr. Smith. When he went to Mr. Smith for this routine process, to his (and our) dismay, the director unaccountably refused to furnish one. This benevolent young man, who was an excellent musician was denied a simple gesture by a key instructor. Joe’s heart was broken. He dropped out of band and finally stopped coming to school. From that point on, our band suffered like the victims on the Titanic—and that was just the beginning.As our concert season came to a close, it was time to choose another drum major in anticipation of football season. Although the school had traditionally chosen an upper classman for this honor, Mr. Smith stepped in with new rules. He rewrote the guidelines. For the first time in the history of the Marching Tiger’s band, any student who had been in high school band for at least a year could audition for drum major.We protested, “Mr. Smith, this is not fair. It has always been a junior or a senior as drum major. She doesn’t even know all the members in the band.”“I am in charge,” Mr. Smith said, “I do whatever I want to do.”What bothered us was that under the new rules, a freshman with little or no experience could audition for drum major. And to top the cake, the general feeling was that Mr. Smith changed the requirements so that Cassie Norwood, the daughter of a member of his church, and a freshman, could try out for the coveted spot.In the midst of all this, I decided to try out myself. I knew little about conducting band music, but Mr. Smith had agreed to work with me prior to my audition, so we met after school. "To help you out," he told me, "I'll make a videotape of me conducting your audition song so that you can practice to it.”Saturday morning, I learned that Cassie was auditioning to the same song as I. I didn’t think too much of it until I heard that she didn’t have an audition tape, and without one, she couldn’t try out.I was amazed when he told her that she could use mine--and I felt it wasn’t fair. Cassie should have been responsible enough to have all her equipment ready for auditions.It was decided that I would audition first. The junior and senior majorettes were also trying out that morning, so a large group had gathered to watch. Mr. Smith seemed obsessed with secrecy. He covered all the windows and kept all the parents and spectators outside of the gymnasium. In fact, he was so determined to keep the tryouts a secret that he made threats. “If anyone tries to watch one of the candidate's performances, said Mr. Smith, “I will deduct fifty points from your total score.”The auditions were completed and the drum majors were the last to audition. All of the parents and the spectators were permitted to come into the gymnasium. For some apparent reason, Mr. Smith, not the judges, tallied up the scores. One window was not covered, and Mom was looking through the window in the gymnasium. She witnessed Mr. Smith erasing and rewriting on the score sheets. Neither of us realized what he was doing.Finally, Mr. Smith stood up to announce the results. First, he named the junior and senior high majorette line. Then it was time to reveal the 1995-1996 drum major.He cleared his throat. "The 1995-1996 drum major is...Cassie Norwood."My mouth dropped open. I could not believe what had just happened! He had named the underclassman the drum major! I could see that my mother was livid.I was so hurt that I actually cried in public. I had never been so humiliated in my life. I had worked so very hard for this, and I felt that because of Mr. Smith’s friendships with Cassie’s father, I had lost before the tryouts had even begun!I sat back and thought of comments other students made about drum major tryouts. Now it all had begun to make sense. "Bessie, you are wasting your time trying out for drum major," I had heard, "because it’s going to be Cassie.""They spend a lot of time together," another band member said, "Mr. Smith goes to the Norwoods’ for dinner."The more I thought about it, the more obvious it seemed that Mr. Smith had manipulated the score sheets to ensure that Cassie, his friends’ daughter, would be drum major. Although the band would suffer, it was more important that the Norwoods be happy.Mr. Smith is black and until that moment, I had felt, had hoped, he would do right by his black students. Now it had became clear that he was an "Oreo.” He was black on the outside but white on the inside.Band had become a living hell for all of us in it. Finally, we decided to go, as a group, to the Principal and the Assistant Principal about the drum major problem.To our dismay, the administration refused to believe the band director was capable of this sort of arrogance and irresponsibility. Nothing changed.But I wasn’t finished. I was determined to right what I felt was an injustice towards me.Prior to the first football game of the 1995-1996 season, I composed a petition against Mr. Smith regarding Cassie Norwood. It stated that he had been showing favoritism and was not fulfilling his job as a band director. One-third of the band had agreed to sign the petition but others refused to get involved. The gist of their refusal was that while they agreed with the petition’s premise, it had nothing to do with them specifically.Some band members and I went to the principal with our formal petition and handed it to him."I'll get back to you before the end of the year," he said.I never heard another word about it. The principal either did not believe we were telling the truth or refused to act upon it. I had a problem and no adult associated with my school was willing to help me.Every year I heard, "the gold medal goes to...Jan Brown." If I made a 95/A, she cheated and made the 95.5 that would give her the gold. Because of her cheating, I continually went home empty-handed. I was a black girl trying to make it to the top. I had a goal in life, and I knew how reach my goal and Jan Brown believed I was a tremendous threat to her.This Caucasian girl repeatedly took what was rightfully mine. I had no doubt that her teachers knew what she was doing and allowed it to happen, permitting her to do whatever was necessary to pull ahead of me.Jan Brown had cheated all though high school and I witnessed it time after time. The first incident was in eighth grade science. The teacher stepped out of the room for a minute, Jan went up to her desk, found the answer key, and then copied the answers. She repeated the process in the ninth grade.She recruited her friends to help her by providing a rundown on the exam after they had taken it and before she was scheduled to take it herself.No one on the teaching staff seemed to want to stop her. I remember the geometry class when we again witnessed her copying the answer key when the instructor stepped out.Amazingly, after a student reported it, the teacher turned on thestudent calling him a liar!One day, I had seen enough. We were taking a geometry exam and throughout the whole test I heard her asking other students for the answers.After class I approached the teacher. "Mr. Kurry, those girls in the corner were cheating."His reply? "They probably got it wrong anyway."No one would believe that Jan was dishonest. Then, there was the saga of her term paper. For global studies class, she wrote her paper on The Great Wall of China.In American history class her project was on the Great Wall of China. Each time she used the same facts and the same illustration. Jan turned in this same term paper throughout her entire high school career and was never questioned.It appeared she had every teacher on her side, except Miss Miller, our Honors English and history Teacher. While most teachers gave us tests consisting of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank, Miss Miller required that we actually think. Her exams were “Identify the Following” and essays.However, there was no way she could take Miss Miller's class and secure a good grade--finally, a situation where she could not cheat.But she was determined to come out ahead of me. I had worked hard and honestly my whole high school career. I knew how to study, and I could pass Miss Miller's course with straight A's. Jan simply wasn’t sharp enough to do well in that class, but if she didn’t produce, everyone would know she had been cheating all of these years.In order to get around this problem, she decided to round up her friends and try to convince other classmates not to enroll in Honors world history and Honors English with Laura Miller.Her theory was that if no one took the classes, Miss Miller wouldn’t have anyone to teach. Unbelievably, Mr. Moore and Ms. Mannay, two other teachers, also were trying to persuade students not to enlist in Miss Miller's class.However, someone stood in their way--me. The school could not terminate Honors world history and Honors English if at least one student signed up for the classes.And I was that student.Several teachers commended me for my efforts. “We are very proud of you sticking up for what you believe in. Keep up the good work.”If Jan didn’t enlist in these two classes, her class rank would diminish. I thought I finally had her where I wanted her and I would receive the awards I had worked so hard to achieve.The summer prior to my senior year I was chosen to attend Governor's School. This was a summer enrichment program designed to give seniors a better idea of what to expect in college.Over the course of the summer, I had grown and matured. Governor's School had also strengthened my resolve to get a good education. I felt in touch with my inner self, and that fall I was prepared to study and make straight A's. I was ready for whatever my senior year had in store for me and truly believed that I would break the color barrier and be Valedictorian of my class.Brandon Mosier had been hired to replace a much-loved physics teacher, Mr. Osier, who had decided to leave the school. Mr. Mosier was non - certified teacher without degree in physics! It seemed logical that I could earn an easy A in the course.But as soon as school started, I learned that this situation was going tobe difficult, especially for me. The class started off with eleven students but they soon began to drop like flies. Physics was difficult, and Mr. Mosier was not making it any easier. He based his curve on the mean average of 70. As long as our test scores remained at 70, he would not the curve the grades up. Some students were failing, and only one was receiving an A: Jan Brown.Although I had been making straight A's, I could not make a good grade in physics, no matter how hard I worked. I desperately wanted to withdraw from the class but several teachers, as well as my mother, a secretary at the school, urged me to remain.“Bessie,” they said, “you will need this class for college. Just hang in there a little longer. Everything will be OK. Physics will help in scholarships and class ranking as well.”I always told myself to go with my first instinct. A little voice in the back of my head said to withdraw because I could very well be jeopardizing my 4.0 gpa. All I could see was dollar signs. Besides, I told myself, these were teachers who had been around long enough to know how things work for seniors. I had even convinced myself that staying in physics truly would be in my best interest. I computed that if I made a B in physics, I still had enough Honors A's to outweigh everybody else in the senior class and would still be named Valedictorian.Physics class was down to five students and the course content was not getting any easier. I had never struggled in any class in my life, but I was struggling in physics. I had to ask Mr. Gildon, my trigonometry/pre-calculus instructor, for assistance. I felt that Mr. Mosier had an agenda: As long as Jan Brown was maintaining an A, he had little concern for the other four of us.Just as the semester was ending, two more students withdrew from physics. I couldn’t understand why Mr. Mosier would not give me the two points. That would bring me up to an A.When I asked him, he told me that, "If I give you two points then I have to give all my students two points."Okay, I thought to myself, so just award us all two points. I later learned that many students were failing his chemistry class and he had to curve their grades to appease their parents. I wondered why he wouldn’t do the same for us. Besides, there was something more important on the horizon: my class ranking.My counselor, Mr. Balding, was a Black man. Although he had a reputation of treating Black students unfairly, I thought highly of him. I felt Mr. Balding would never betray me, and I believed he was a fair and just man who would do the right thing, particularly for a student like me.Boy, I was in for a big surprise. In the past, rumors about the identities of the Valedictorian and Salutatorian would start circulating about the third week in January. Mr. Balding was responsible for figuring grade point averages.People began to ask, “When are you going to announce class ranks?”“Well,” as he started, “Mr. Tolliver has not yet given me permission to reveal the class ranks.”What no one knew at the time was the he didn’t need permission from the principal to disclose that information.I had gone home early one day to change clothes and gather my tennis equipment. While I was there, the mailman arrived. As I went through the mail, I saw a letter from the Department of Education in response to my application for the Governor's Scholarship. The correspondent informed me that the Department had received my application and needed to verify some information: I had a rank of two out of eighty- five; I had an ACT score of 21; and my grade point average was a 3.98 on a scale of 4.0.Whoa, let's back up a minute. I was ranked Second? How was that possible? I was stunned. According to this, I was Second in my class! I raced back to the school to show the letter to my mother. She was as upset as I. How is this possible?My next stop was the counselor’s office. I couldn’t believe what I was holding in my hand. If it was correct, a scholarship committee had disclosed information that the school had not yet made public. And, if I were not number one, then I knew who was: Jan Brown.In addition to working at the school, Mr. Balding was also a bus driver and had just left for his bus route. I decided that the first thing the next morning, I would have a "heart-to-heart" with him, but for the moment I had to get to tennis practice.The previous day, I had left the letter from the Department of Education with Mrs. Baney, the secretary in the counselor’s office. When I arrived at 8:00 a.m., I was surprised to see that Mr. Balding was already there and had read the letter.Suddenly the phone rang. Mrs. Baney answered the phone. It was Mr. Tolliver. “I need to talk to Mr. Balding,” he said.Now that was a coincidence. Mr. Tolliver needed to see Mr. Balding just as I needed to talk to him. Well, that was fine. I would simply wait for him to return. This situation was important enough for me to be late to my next class.I started talking to Mrs. Baney. “I realized yesterday,” I said, “that my title was being taken from me.”“Bessie,” she asked, "where do you think you are ranked?""I feel I should graduate First," I replied. “and if the school thinks it has problems now, wait until the student body and the community find out about this.”There was no question that there would be protest from the school’s Black teachers; they had been waiting fourteen years for this day. Believe me, this was just the start.this letter mean?” I said in a firm tone. Was I going to graduate Second? Was this final?Calmly and quietly, without incriminating himself, he responded, "There were two scales, an Honors scale and a regular scale. The only significance of the Honors scale was to line up seniors for graduation. You made a B in physics, so you no longer have a 4.0.” I understoodthat.He continued, “Since Jan had a 4.0 GPA she will be ranked First for scholarship purposes and you are ranked Second because of the B you made in physics."So that was the reason the letter stated my rank as two out of eighty- five. I felt somewhat relieved. I believed what Mr. Balding was telling me, in his own way, that I was Valedictorian. To the very end, he stood by the same story.The following Monday, everybody was talking. The news was official: I was Third in my class, and Jan and Sue were First and Second, respectively.This was a bad dream and I couldn’t seem to wake up--it couldn’t actually be happening. It had to be a terrible mistake. I felt numb. Betrayed by those people I trusted the most.Then we learned that Mr. Tolliver and Mr. Balding had sent the graduation lineup to the newspaper before telling the senior class. The public would know our class ranks before we would! Mom went to the newspaper and asked that they hold back on publication until things could be straightened out.The editor told her that the newspaper hadn’t planned to publish the list quite yet as they had to wait for the superintendent to grant permission to print the news article. She also learned, interestingly, that Mr. Balding had not provided the news editor with the Valedictorian’s and the Salutatorian’s grade point average. This was rather strange, we thought.Mom was furious about this whole matter and I was a time bomb waiting to go off--yet the only thing I could do was to cry. I had kept a cap on my emotions all this time and now it was time to let them flow. Mom scheduled a meeting with the principal and the counselor and I went home to think about all that I had been through that day.Dad often had asked, “Bessie, what I will you do if you do not graduate First of your class.” He continued, “There is always the possibility . . . which one is more rewarding: a few scholarships or the title.”Of course the money for college was more fulfilling. Dad perceived these honors as the school’s way to massage a person's ego; the awards had been created for the sole purpose of making students feel good about themselves.He might have believed that, but my point of view was entirely different. To me, Valedictorian was an honor given to the student who had achieved a grade point higher than any other student in his or her class. In my class, there was no question that the person was me—and yet that honor had been given a Caucasian girl who had practiced deception all of her life.I needed some time to absorb what had happened to me and then deal with it in an intelligent manner. This would take a little time.I was at a loss to understand why, then, Sue was graduating ahead of me.Mr. Tolliver’s explanation had gone something like this, "Bessie can't graduate Valedictorian because she has too many A's and took too many classes to graduate First." Huh?The only thing Mr. Tolliver seemed to be firm about was the Valedictorian and the Salutatorian. He didn’t even know their Honors grade point averages.Now it was time for Mom and me to hear Mr. Balding’s side of the story. It was the day of the Awards ceremony and still the counselor had not notified us our class ranks. This was unbelievable.Mr. Balding did a terrific job of dancing around the issue. “First, I am not accountable for what Mr. Tolliver said,” he said.So I proceeded, “Do you figure everyone’s GPA’s the same way.” He replied, "I am very consistent when I compute GPA’s”. “Well,” I said, “I would like for you figure mine right now if you don’t mind.”He then tried to calculate mine, but it took him four attempts to get it right. It seemed to us, if the counselor was consistent as he had claimed, he should be able to compute any student’s grade point average on the first attempt.I became even more suspicious when we asked him about the rumors that were circulating and Jan’s own claims that she was Valedictorian."You can't believe everything you hear," he said.I told him that Mr. Tolliver said I had too many A's, but not every student had the same number of grades by which to divide.He paused for a moment and agreed that every student had a different number of grades by which to divide. The first part Mr. Balding knew was a bold face lie. He did not say another word about the ordeal.The counselor went on, "I use each student's transcript to figure grade point averages."To make certain we were covering all of the bases, I asked, “Mr. Balding, have you been influenced by anyone when you were figuringgrade point averages.”"No," he answered.Mr. Balding started his sermon: "No matter what the outcome of this situation... you know you received an education that will aid you to become successful in college..."I might as well face it I would be the third graduate to shake the school board member's hand. There was no question that he had evaded a number of questions so that he could not be held responsible later on.Something else that bothered me was that as a person of color, Mr. Balding should have known the obstacles I had overcome and should have come to my defense.I felt as if my entire senior year had been a sham. I had worked so hard and yet my worst fears had been realized. But I knew that I could either let it eat me up or I could put it behind me; and as far as I was concerned, I had no choice. If I wanted to have a fresh start in college with my best friend, Karl, it was time to move ahead."When I opened the paper Saturday morning, I almost had a heart attack at what I read," she said."It is time for the Blacks as a community to come together to stick up for our Black kids." She continued. "I'm trying to get a lawyer create to get rid of Mr. Tolliver, Mrs. Collier, the assistant principal, and Mr. Balding, and if we have to postpone graduation for a week...”Brighton High School already had a lawsuit from other parents about graduation matters. Some White students had been caught in this nasty web and also had lost out on scholarship money. With that as additional ammunition, Suzanne Coleman planned to send representatives to brief the Arkansas Board of Education. She then intended to hire a lawyer to lodge our own suit against the school. Her intent was not to frame this as a racial issue, but one of gross incompetence.Mrs. Coleman was going to pull this all together in just four days and asked that we reconvene on Thursday. All I had to do was to relax and be patient. Mrs. Coleman was going out of her way to make a difference; she had given me a sense of satisfaction, a sense of relief. I couldn’t wait for Thursday night.During this period, I received an anonymous phone call. “Bessie, there will be a news crew at your house between 11:00 a.m. and 12:15 p.m." Could this be? A news crew was coming to my house to hear my side of the story?Earlier that morning, I had called Channel 7 News. I introduced myself to the man who answered the phone and began to explain the situation."I have been cheated out of my position as Valedictorian.” I said. “My grades were higher than the two girls ahead of me and I took more Honors classes.”He replied, “I will have one of his news reporters call me back around 9:30 a.m.” The reporter took down my phone number.At 9:45 a.m., the phone rang, and it was a news reporter from Channel 7. “Before I returned your phone call," he said, "I telephoned the school and questioned them about this situation."He proceeded, “The principal had told me that the reason the two girls were graduating First and Second was because their grade point averages were higher.”"Did he tell you what their grade point averages were?" I asked the reporter. I then tried to elaborate for him.“Honors classes weigh more heavily than standard classes and I took two which Jan and Sue didn’t. These classes are approved by the Arkansas State Department of Education. There is no possible way for the two of them to graduate before me.""Is there a rule book or handbook to verify this information?" he asked."There has never been a handbook because all of this information comes directly from the counselor," I replied. "Well, what can Channel 7 do for you?" the news reporter asked."There really isn’t anything that could be done to change the outcome of my situation," I said, "but I wanted to tell my story to let people around the state know what was going on at Brighton High School."He was silent. Back to Channel 4 News. I called Mom. “Mom,” I said, “the news station was coming to the house.” Then, reluctantly, I told Dad."Dad," I said, "a news crew is coming to the house to interview me about the class rank ordeal. I wanted you to know so that you wouldn’t be surprised when they came up the driveway."His response was a pleasant surprise. “If this is what you want to do, I support you one hundred and ten percent."Just knowing Dad approved made me feel that this interview was the right thing. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to get the story out over the air. They never showed up. I waited and waited, but Channel 4 never arrived. This was my last opportunity to engender support outside Brighton and now I had to face reality: I would march third Friday night.In spite of my disappointment, I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. I was getting out of high school and going to college in the fall. No more cheating, no more lying; I would now be in an environment in which the instructors were impartial and fair. Professors awarded students the grade they earned, not the grade the students or their parents wanted them to have. I knew I could be successful in college, but Jan and Sue were headed down a rocky road which included hard, honest work, and studying.
Each week authors will be given a new question to answer which will lend additional insight into their story and writing process. Do you have a question you'd like to see the authors answer? Tweet it to @aNextAuthor!