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Christine Vartoughian

The Benefits of Being Misunderstood

Girl in White by Charles Webster Hawthorne

I am not a liar.

Not exactly.

The first time I cheated on a test, I was only five years old. I didn’t know what cheating was and therefore do not believe I should be held responsible for it. If you do something wrong and you don’t know it’s wrong, then did you do anything wrong? All I knew was that, day after day, I failed to spell my name correctly. As a result, I incurred the wrath of my seriously serious private school teacher who ran her class as if we were all children of the Third Reich and needed to be in excellent form to fulfill the future of a superior species. Her staunch glares and threats of how I better spell my name correctly or else (whatever the “else” was I did not want to find out) caused my young mind such suffering that, at night, I asked my mother to write down my first and last name on a small piece of paper.

My mother, still a relatively new parent and therefore not previously exposed to the sweetly disguised deceptions of children, did what I asked without question. She tucked me into bed as I pretended to fall asleep and kissed me goodnight. After she left the room, I got up and placed the precious scrap of paper into the pocket of my uniform, the one neatly laid out and ready for my next day of school. I suppose I wasn’t completely innocent after all, for why would a little girl who doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong keep her plan such a secret?

During the next morning’s test, I took out the slip with my mother’s lovely handwriting and copied each letter carefully onto the page in front of me with a no.2 pencil. I don’t remember trying to hide what I was doing. I believe I had simply thought that I had come prepared like a good student, with the tools needed to ensure success at something that my teacher deemed important enough to threaten with vague and unmentionable punishments.

I crumpled the evidence in my tiny fist and stuffed it back into the pocket of my pleated navy skirt before the teacher came to collect the tests. She was smiling at all of us now, but would she be smiling later? Even though I had taken measures to avoid failure, I wasn’t completely sure I’d written everything clearly enough for the liking of this smiling maniac. Would I find out what she’d meant when she said, “or else”?  And if so, were there enough children in the class to revolt were she to attack one of us, like in the French revolution? Allons enfants! Fermez les battaillons! I knew some of us would be capable of overpowering her. I distinctly remember one girl who, two years later, would stab me in the back with a sharpened pencil for no goddamn reason, right in the middle of class and in plain view of everyone, including the teacher. I still have a green spot on my back to this day. If she could be that ruthless, she’d have made a fine soldier in our student uprising.

When the school day ended, we got our tests back. I had received a big, red, smiley face stamp at the top of the sheet that matched the teacher’s own big, red, smiley face as she looked down at me with, what was it, pride? Approval? I would not let my guard down and be fooled by this silly stamp, it wasn’t even a gold star sticker. I knew she and I would never be friends.

Still, I had done it, whatever it was. To this day, I still don’t know if I had pleased her or simply avoided punishment. Much like in life, I have difficulty distinguishing what makes me happy versus what is an absence of misery. If only I could cheat at life the way I cheated on that test.

I hadn’t known it was terribly wrong but sometimes I wonder, even if I had, would I have acted any differently?

Would you?


About the writer:
Christine Vartoughian is an award-winning Armenian-American writer and film director. Her work has shown at the Museum of the Moving Image, Lincoln Center, and her feature film about love and suicide, Living with the Dead: A Love Story, received the Audience Choice Award at Art of Brooklyn Film Festival, Best Feature Film at Aberdeen Festival in the U.K., and is available on iTunes and Amazon in the United States and internationally. Christine is the co-founder of (Screen)Play Press, a publishing company for yet-to-be-produced film scripts. Her feature script, Young Monsters, was published in August 2022. She lives in New York City.

Image: Girl in White by Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872-1930). Painting (no medium specified). 30 x 25 inches. Circa 1905. Public domain.

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