The Books on the Top Shelf

Every morning when I got my books out of the closet to start school, I would glance at the top shelf. My mother kept the teacher counterpart books with the answers on the top shelf. During my high school years, she would spent much of the day in the basement with the door shut. And when I didn’t understand something on a quiz or test (particularly in math or science), I held my breath and copied several answers from the teacher book. I even left a few answers wrong to keep it believable. I remember getting caught once, and my mother was angry but let it go with a “don’t do it again” scolding. The answer books stayed in the same exact place, and I absolutely did it again, many times.

Let’s back up a little. My sisters excelled in math and science, and I constantly struggled. Our family held academic success in very high regard, and college was always the goal. I thought for a long time that I couldn’t care less about this, because all college sounded like was an extension of homeschooling: spending my time sitting alone and beating my head against the wall, reading books I didn’t understand. That was a world meant for my siblings, not for me.

When my sisters graduated high school, I began high school (we’re four years apart in age). As a family, we visited each of them several times through their higher education careers, to tour a lab or celebrate an award or hear a speech.

When I saw my sisters’ universities in person, I suddenly realized what college actually was. You spend all your time in building upon building full of people your own age. Doing the same things and going through the same things as everyone else in those buildings. And if you survive the classes part, you get some kind of job that enables you to not go back home.

College could be a new beginning, where I thought I could start my life over. Or start it in the first place at all. This realization completely changed my outlook on my future. I thought about it all day long, and I dreamed about it at night.

If I got into college, I’d get away. Away from the depressed mother and the busy father and the distance between them. Away from the sisters who had to grow up too fast and the brother who was spoiled but never heard. I was willing to do anything to get away, and the cheating on math and science began. I graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA.

All these years later, I feel sad when I look back. I knew cheating was wrong. I never even considered cheating at anything after high school. Still, I remember exactly what it felt like to be me at 15 and desperate, like it was yesterday. Sometimes it can feel like I’m still carrying the guilt of those books from the top shelf.

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