“I’m lazy. I know that. I’m nosy. I know that. But I didn’t realize being me, the lazy, lying sixth grader, would change my life.”
I’m lazy. I know that. I’m nosy. I know that. But I didn’t realize being me, the lazy, lying sixth grader, would change my life.
“But you said you would study with me, Peter!” Max whines.
I smile. It’s hard to be mad at my best friend, Max. The sweet seven year old is nice enough to charm the fur off a lion. But he gossips as easily as someone else would pour water.
“It’s okay, Max. I don’t need to study. I’m totally fine.” I say.
“But what about your social studies project?” he replies.
Ouch. He has a point. That stupid, old, little social studies project is due tomorrow. I haven’t even started. I don’t even know what the assignment is.
As I walk down Richmond’s cracked, dirty, old sidewalks, I realize that it is already five o’clock. I need to get home! I’m always putting stuff out of my mind, so homework flies out of my thoughts like scared birds as I rush and race to get to my old house.
It isn’t until halfway into dinner that I remember the social studies project. Oh well. I guess I have to do standard practice, waiting until late at night to do my homework. I can’t become that guy… the disastrous guy… and before I know it, the reason I do my homework late is as fresh as yesterday in my mind.
It was recess, way back in second grade. I was doing my homework when the school bully, Radner Johns, started picking on me.
“What are you doing?” he sneered.
“H-h-homework–” I stammered.
“That is stupid! It’s recess! You are supposed to play, brainiac!” he sneered.
For the next few weeks, I was a social outcast. People picked on me. I was alone, until I started doing my homework later. I knew it was stupid, but I eventually became accepted again. So even now, I do my homework late, especially on the last day. So it’s no new thing that I left my homework until later. Or that I don’t even know what the assignment is until the night before it’s due.
“And that is why I think we should have spaghetti tomorrow,” my dad finishes.
“What?” I say.
My mom and dad turn to face me.
“Were you listening at all, Peter Zenger?” they say at the exact same time.
Across the table, my sister, Sarah, smirks. I give her a tool any big brother should have, the deluxe I’ll-kill-you-later stare. After my dad finishes telling me a few things about listening, I go up to bed. Then I wait for 20 minutes, enough for everyone to either go to sleep or calm down. Then I sneak across my room, get the assignment and my laptop to research, flip it open, look at the assignment, and breathe a sigh of relief.
The assignment really isn’t that hard. All I really have to do is write two paragraphs about the Boston Tea Party. But the hard part is finding out about the Boston Tea Party. The usual website I use has nothing about it. After searching, I find nothing. I stare out the window and dawdle.
A little later, I find a website that has a ton about the Boston Tea Party. I finish my report and go to bed. The website didn’t really have information about my next project, Lexington and Concord. I make a mental note to find a new website before I’m staring the deadline in the face, probably a state website like fairfaxeducation.gov. Then, I jump into bed. Too bad my mental notes don’t last.
Friday comes fast. I wake up, run downstairs, chomp down a bagel, and rush to school. I have math and music (zzzzz… snore) and rush to writing.
Writing is awesome. Normally, I don’t get very good grades, maybe because I do my homework so late, but writing is fun. This unit is on debating, which is my favorite, and once we finish getting our evidence and whatnot, we then get to argue about a point, or an opinion, in class. I’m really good at it, mostly because I have a lot of practice at home (thanks, Sarah!) But that is not the only reason writing is amazing. Our teacher, Mr. Brunnen, is outstanding. He keeps the classroom pace going just the way I like it: not slow, not fast. Kids know not to make him angry, not because he will yell at you, but he will calmly tell you some sort of fact or figure that will leave you confused, then you will have to hurry up. Kids get their work done, and the class moves quickly. Finally, he doesn’t give much homework. What more could you ask for?
The day blows by. The week blows by. I’m up late doing homework, and then I realize that I haven’t researched new websites. I stay up late trying to find websites when something happens that changes everything.
I am surfing the Internet when I find a state website, fairfaxeducation.gov. I click on it, and it asks me for the password. My hand slips and hits something. It turns out to actually be the password! A document pops up. I read it a few times, then my jaw drops. It’s state information that was confidential! It’s pretty obvious because it says “TOP SECRET” at the top.
Two things. Two things that change my life.
The state was, is, cheating on student test scores. The document is really complicated, (exam practicality slightly modified for necessities complicated for blah blah blah) but in English, that’s what it means. If kids got a bad score on a test, government officials changed the score so it made it look like Virginia was doing better at training teachers, so they didn’t have to spend as much money on education.
I click through the document and see that the state is also paying teachers less money than it’s supposed to. For instance, schools are supposed to have paid teachers 65,259 dollars each last year, and that is what was recorded in state records in the library. But Virginia paid them only 50,000 dollars. Now, if they used the money for expensive toilet paper, that would make sense, but Virginia is not using taken money for expensive toilet paper in public schools. That makes me as mad as a squashed ant. Teachers, people making thousands of kids able to grow up and support the economy, are getting cheated out of the money they had rightfully earned.
I say to myself: “I will do something about this. I will make sure that this, this, injustice is locked up and thrown off a cliff. A tall one.”
I hop into bed.
I don’t sleep well that night.
When I wake up, I rush downstairs. I eat breakfast at the speed of light. I rush so fast that my mom, annoying mom, says, “Are you alright, honey?”
I really could have done without the “honey.” I mumble something like a caveman then rush out the door.
I want to get to school before anyone else, so nobody will hear me as I tell Max about what I had found out. Middle school, as everybody knows, is heaven for gossip. One overheard conversation is as good as a call to CNN broadcasting. The secret. I don’t want this out, at least not yet. I had also told him to come to my school instead of his school, which is probably whiney land. There is no way I am discussing something very crucial in my idea of, well, not the greatest place in the world.
I am wondering where he is when he bursts out of the bushes.
“PEEETTTERRRR, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? WHY DO YOU NEED ME?” he says all in one breath.
“Shh!” I whisper. “I need to tell you something. A secret.”
That got his attention. “A secret?”
“About the state. It’s cheating on tests. Let’s say you got a D- on some type of test. The state would report that you got a B because it would make the state look good. It is also not paying the teachers enough. Terrible, right?”
He looks as mad as a kid who discovers that he is going to be used as a human cannonball by the Ringling Brothers, even though he’s afraid of heights.
“That’s terrible! Let’s go start a, um, what’s the word?”
Later that day, while Max goes off and starts an uprising at whiney land, I whisper to kids in my school.
“Hey… the state isn’t letting us have expensive toilet paper.”
Expensive toilet paper is a very sore subject. We have the five-cent-a-roll type. Scratchy!
“Hey… the state isn’t paying teachers enough.”
Not as big, (seriously, it’s really hard to beat itchy toilet paper in the this-matters-meter) but it will make a splash. By the end of the day, everybody knows about Virginia cheating. A few kids have even made some small protest signs. But that is nothing compared to…
The next day
I rush to school. I have a feeling Max had started something that will get me in trouble. I’m right. When I see the massive crowd in front of the school, I gasp.
Tons of kids have protest signs. Plenty of kids have parents with them to protest. Teachers have signs too. Maybe 1,000 people are there. I can hear kids talking to reporters, and I hear my name multiple times. That’s not good. Not good at all. I can hear my heart beating. If the TV people and the reporters find out that I started all this, I could get arrested or worse. Why did I have to tell people about this? Why did it matter? I slow myself down. I told people about this because it matters. People were getting cheated of their money. The state was cheating, and it called itself the land of the free. That matters.
I make it through the day, somehow, alive. But when I get home, my worst fears are confirmed.
On ABC news, a man with perfect teeth and perfect hair reported that I had done a good thing standing up against the state, even though it was so hard. (Uhh… talking is not hard. Especially for Max. Double especially when you go to middle school.) He called me “The young Edward Snowden.” Ouch. That isn’t even true! I accidently read the information and then reported it. But the last thing he said was the worst.
“The state of Virginia plans to prosecute Peter Zenger for releasing highly confidential information.”
Fourteen words. Fourteen words that could throw my life off the tracks. Fourteen words that could twist and turn and poke my life for the worst. Fourteen words that could change my life. Fourteen deadly words.
So now I need evidence. Fortunately, I have help.
I am in writing class when Mr. Brunnen asks if he could help me with my trial. He says he had seen the news and decided that I had done the right thing. I tell him that I had accidently opened that website and never intended to share that confidential information.
“Of course you didn’t.”
I have lots of experience. I can tell when someone is lying, and Mr. Brunnen doesn’t seem to be lying. Of course, I could’ve just been fooling myself because I want somebody to actually believe me. I never know if anyone is actually on my side.
Ugh, why did my mind need to be so negative?
But anyway, I accept his offer. Because I know I need evidence, fast. The trial is in three weeks, and I don’t have many convincing arguments.
Days passed. Weeks passed. I don’t have anything that could convince the jury of my innocence. I need something, someone, anything to help me. I even consider (gasp! Never tell anybody I said this) asking Sarah for help.
I’m starting to panic. I didn’t have many good arguments. Mr. Brunnen had collected a few good pieces, but I needed more. I start looking around. Aha! My security camera that I got for Christmas and turned on and (oops) forgot about. Maybe there will be something good that can lead me to have some more evidence. I turn the security camera on, and my mouth drops wide open.
The security camera shows that I accidently logged into the website, not hacked my way in. It shows how surprised I was when I logged on to the document telling about the lies and myths that were made up. Most importantly, it shows my innocence.
I am prepared.
On Wednesday, the day of judgment is ready. My trial. At exactly 9:00 A.M. (at least I was missing school) I head into the courtroom to see if I’m guilty or not. I feel my itchy tie. My sweaty palms. My stupid sports jacket. Why do fancy clothes have to be so annoying?
The judge starts off by saying, “Mr. Zenger is being tried for spilling state secrets.” The judge gives a snort of disapproval. Not good. At all. The last person you want at your throat (besides a little sister) is a judge.
The state prosecutor breaths fire. She questions whether we should even have this trial, because I’m so obviously guilty that I spread state secrets. I feel my feet tap. My hair sweat. My blood stop cold and my brain begin to lose all hope.
Then the judge says, “Mr. Zenger, please rise and present evidence against the fact that you purposely leaked state secrets.”
My fingers taps worriedly at the cold, wooden floor as I present the security camera video and some facts and figures about how unlikely it is that I purposefully hacked into state secrets. Mr. Brunnen’s pieces of evidence are very helpful. Some expert psychologists look once at the video and say that I was obviously extremely surprised. It looks like more than half of the jury is convinced that I’m innocent and does not, under any circumstances, want to vote against me. My hands relax. My feet stop tapping.
But when did anything go right for me?
Because the state prosecutor got her chance to challenge my evidence. At the end of her arguments, even I start to wonder if I’m guilty or if I’m just trying to fool myself.
The jury looks convinced. Everyone looks convinced. Nobody is on my side. Nobody is voting for me, rooting for me. Everyone is an enemy.
After the other lawyer is done, the jury goes away for discussion about whether I’m guilty or not. My chair sends not pins and needles, but swords and spears up my leg. After all eternity, the jury comes back.
I’m sure that I will be convicted. My life is going to be poked and twisted for the worse. Chills go up my spine. Not 60 degree chills. Sub-zero chills.
The spokesperson clears her voice.
“We have decided on..” she pauses. “I’m sorry.”
That is not good. There’s no way that’s good for me. But, why did she look at the fire breathing lawyer?
I feel a bird get released inside me, my soul floating up. I’m not guilty! I’m not convicted, I’m not a criminal, I’m not having my life get twisted and turned and poked for the worst.
But I remember something. What got me into this.
So now, I’m sitting on my bed, hair messed up, in ratty clothes. My laptop is open, and I’m working on homework the day it’s assigned. I finish one last problem and actually look at the homework packet. It’s halfway done, and it’s due in a week. I see no secrecy, no laziness, no lying now.
It’s time to rid the world of scratchy toilet paper. An engrossing and enjoyable story. Great job!
Kept me glued to my seat, as they say.
Wonderful story about the dangers of procrastination and the joys of last minute discoveries.
Great story, one that every generation that reads it can relate. Very impressed.
Wonderful story — full of suspense and a realistic hero. We need more Peter Zengers in this world!
Fantastic! We are so proud of you, Alex!
An amazing new author…definitely worth following as he fine tunes his craft! I loved it!