When I was in elementary school, my motto was “Another day, another A.” I didn’t go around chanting it in the hallways or anything like that; I wasn’t quite that smug (at least not publicly). This mantra of mine was more like a private joke, something my mother and I could laugh about when I got home each afternoon. After all, school was so easy. Why shouldn’t I boast about it? It made us both giddy. And as I piled up A’s, I also piled up awards: scholarship awards, citizenship awards, perfect attendance awards. I looked forward to the end-of-year assemblies, daydreaming about the accolades I might receive this year. By the time I reached fourth grade, Mrs. Corbet’s class, my obsessive grade-mongering was beginning to take on maniacal proportions.
One day, toward the beginning of the school year—there were tons of beautiful orange leaves on the ground outside, which were almost driving me to distraction—Mrs. Corbet announced that we were going to have a “pop quiz.” It was the first time I’d ever heard that term. I listened with alarm as she explained that it meant she was about to administer a test that we’d had no opportunity to prepare for whatsoever. My hand shot up immediately.
“But Mrs. Corbet, that’s not fair!” More than just fear that if I hadn’t had a chance to prepare, I might not know the answers, although that was certainly part of it, this idea of a “pop quiz” upset some fundamental idea I had about the way the universe is supposed to work.
“Life is not fair,” Mrs. Corbet said, her tiny puckered mouth curling into a small smile as she handed me the quiz.
It was a single sheet of flimsy paper, printed with familiar, fragrant purple ink. Ten questions, with an extra-credit problem at the bottom. Fortunately, it seemed my alarm had been premature. As usual, these questions were easy. I worked through them quickly, knowing my answer was correct each time … until I reached the extra-credit problem. I felt a twinge of panic. I wasn’t sure about this one. True, it was only the extra-credit question, but I wanted to get them all right. The longer I stared at the page, the more uncertain I became. Mrs. Corbet announced time was up, and as she came down the aisle to collect the quizzes, I wrote down my best guess. But I was already consumed with doubt.
“Mrs. Corbet, when will we get these back?” I demanded as I handed her mine.
She narrowed her eyes at me. “I’ll have them graded on Monday.”
The weekend was agonizing. I could think of nothing but the quiz. What if I got the question wrong? On one hand, this seemed preposterous. I always got the answers right. But on the other hand, this particular question felt … off.
When Monday finally did roll around, I spent the whole day on the edge of my seat, waiting for Mrs. Corbet to hand the quizzes back. At three o’clock, when she started scribbling the day’s homework on the board, it was clear that this was not going to happen. My hand flew into the air.
“Mrs. Corbet, when are you going to hand back those quizzes we took last week? You said you were going to do that today.”
Everyone around me looked at me like I was insane.
“Yes, I did say that.” She deposited the chalk back in its tray and brushed her hands off on her skirt. “However, I didn’t have time to grade them this weekend. So I’m afraid you will just have to wait.”
Alone in my room that afternoon, I railed against Mrs. Corbet in my mind. The idea that she “didn’t have time” to grade our quizzes was appalling. As a teacher, wasn’t that her primary function? And if I hadn’t said anything, she wasn’t even going to mention it! Clearly her word meant nothing. Plus, her whole attitude was obnoxious. You will just have to wait. The gall! If a person says they are going to do something, they ought to do it—especially a teacher.
It wasn’t until a full week and a half later that Mrs. Corbet actually handed the quizzes back. Marked and circled in red ink at the top of mine was “100%”. My heart sank. Frantically, I scanned the bottom of the page. I knew it: I had gotten the extra-credit question wrong. But something still didn’t make sense.
“I’m pleased to say that some of you did very well on the quiz,” Mrs. Corbet said, addressing the class, “however, none of you got the extra-credit question right.” She smiled at us mischievously: “The truth is, it was a trick question. There is no right answer. So, the ‘right answer’ would have simply been that there isn’t one.”
I almost leaped out of my chair. A “pop quiz” and a “trick question”—how much abuse was I going to endure at the hands of this mousy little woman?
I waved my hand in the air frantically. Why did everyone else appear so unfazed? Mrs. Corbet didn’t want to acknowledge me, but she had to.
“Mrs. Corbet—a trick question?” My voice sounded even higher than normal. “I really don’t think that’s fair at all.”
Silence engulfed the room. Her hands on her hips, Mrs. Corbet appeared to be choosing her words carefully, relishing what she was about to say.
“Robert, someday you are going to have to learn that the world does not revolve around you.”