“Crying with a Clown,” New Era, May 1980, 46
The first day of my senior year, I felt lucky to discover that Alyce Pringle was in two of my classes. I say lucky because a class with Alyce meant a class with pizzazz. No one ever knew what to expect from her. Alyce was Hollenda High’s school clown, a true comedienne who, with the raise of an eyebrow, could create hysteria. The teachers, therefore, weren’t particularly wild about her, but we, her classmates, loved her.
It was Alyce who was chosen to play the part of the domineering mother in our school play Goodbye Birdie and who brought down the house just by walking out on the stage wearing a gray wig and big sloppy shoes. It was Alyce who ran for cheerleader in her dad’s old army uniform. It was Alyce who outwitted all the candidates for secretary of the school by using portions of all their speeches for her speech. “Did you hear what Alyce did (or said) today?” people would ask each other in the halls. No one asked which Alyce. Everyone knew it was the Alyce.
Why Alyce began picking on me, I’m not sure. Perhaps it was because I was shy and blushed easily. She always mentioned my blushing, which made me blush more. Maybe it was because I was too stoic and serious for my own good. “Here’s Bill,” she’d say, mimicking the way I pushed my glasses back, my nose in a book. Maybe it was because she had found out that I am a Mormon.
One day when Mr. Jackson asked me to work out a problem on the blackboard, I unthinkingly put the chalk in my mouth for a moment. Alyce noticed it right away. “Bill!” she said loudly. “What will people think!” I took the chalk out quickly and blushed as 25 students giggled. When I got back to my seat, I surprised Alyce by joking back. I faked a cough. Alyce liked that.
I didn’t really mind Alyce’s teasing. I’d never been in the limelight before, and it was fun and exciting. If Alyce had been malicious in her teasing, it might have been a different story, but she was never cruel. She never teased behind anyone’s back. Being teased by Alyce, I felt, was a compliment. Because we sat next to each other in one of our classes—algebra—we began talking once in a while before class. At first Alyce only joked, no matter what I said. But then in time she let her mask slip once in a while, and I saw that Alyce wasn’t all clown. I doubted that many people knew that. It was just when I thought Alyce and I might become fairly good friends, however, that I did something that almost ruined our friendship.
Mr. Thorndike had thrown a surprise Spanish vocabulary test at us. It had surprised even me. Usually I was one step ahead of Thorndike and anticipated his tests, but this time he had fooled me. I had only read over the words once and had worked on my physics project the night before instead.
After the test was over, I knew I’d flunked it royally. I’d missed at least 14 of the words. Then, to my humiliation, Mr. Thorndike had us correct the tests in class. He gathered them up and then passed them around haphazardly. I wondered self-consciously who would get mine and think I was a real dunce.
The next day after he had recorded the grades, Mr. Thorndike passed the tests back to us. “Congratulations, Bill. You got the only 100,” he said, as he handed my test back.
“I couldn’t have.”
“Well, you did.”
“No, I …” I looked at the test. It definitely had my name on it, and it also had a big underlined 100 percent in the corner. I controlled a gasp. All the spaces I had left blank had been carefully filled in. Someone had cheated for me. But why? I looked around the room and saw that the students sitting around Alyce were looking at me and giggling. Alyce had her head down but was grinning widely. I realized what I should have known. Somehow Alyce had managed to get my test paper and had corrected it. As a prank she had filled in the right answers. Now what do I do, I wondered. Alyce, why did you have to do that? I thought unhappily. I looked back down at the test. I couldn’t accept an A, and the grades were already recorded in Mr. Thorndike’s roll book. Yet, I couldn’t tell on Alyce either.
“Thought you said you flunked it.” Ralph, my buddy, walked out of class with me. I still had the test paper in my hand, my fingers covering the 100 percent.
“Alyce has really done it,” I said.
“Oh, no.” Ralph began to laugh.
“What can I do? What would you do?”
“I don’t know. Just forget it, I guess.”
“Ralph, I can’t accept an A. I told you, I flunked it.”
“Sneak up and change the grade when Thorndike isn’t looking?”
“Then just forget about it. You get Alyce in trouble and the whole school will be down on you.”
“But most people know what you and I stand for. They know who all the Latter-day Saints are. Even if I didn’t mind being dishonest personally, and I do, I still can’t cheat because it would put the Church in a bad light.”
“Having everyone in the school hate you wouldn’t help the Church much either, would it?”
“Just forget it.”
“You’re probably right.” Sure, I thought, Ralph is right. I won’t make waves. I’ll just forget it. But by the end of the day, by algebra, I still hadn’t been able to forget it. I knew I’d have to talk to Alyce about it.
“Got a 100 on the Spanish test, huh?” Alyce said grinning. Her dark eyes crinkled mischievously. When she wasn’t pulling faces, Alyce was a pretty girl.
“Yes,” I said. “Amazing isn’t it, since I didn’t study?” She could sense my misery.
“You don’t sound very happy for someone who just got an A on a test he didn’t even study for.”
“I’m not,” I said. “Alyce, you’ve put me in a spot. I’ve thought about it, and I can’t accept that A. Now what do I do?”
“Oh, brother! I should have known better. You’re such a bore, Bill, so predictable.” She tried to laugh it off. “Well, go ahead and tell. I don’t care.”
“I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“I said I don’t care. Do what you feel you have to do.” I could tell she did care. Talking to her hadn’t made the situation any easier. Then, in the middle of one of the algebra problems, I thought of something. Mr. Thorndike would have no way of knowing that Alyce had corrected my test unless I told him. I could simply tell him that someone had changed my answers and that I deserved an F, not an A. He wouldn’t ask me if I knew who had corrected the test because he wouldn’t think I knew. How would I know? Even if he suspected Alyce, he had no proof. And, if he asked me if I knew who had done it, I’d just tell him outright that I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. After algebra, I smiled at Alyce and touched her arm.
“Don’t worry,” I said.
After school I went right into Spanish and told Mr. Thorndike what had happened. He seemed angry, but he didn’t ask me if I knew who had done it. I stood and watched as he crossed out the A and put an F in its place.
“Next time maybe I’d better be prepared,” I said sheepishly.
“Yes,” he said.
I thought that was the end of it, but it wasn’t. The next day I could tell by the way Thorndike stood up that he was wearing war paint. I held my breath.
“Day before yesterday someone corrected Bill McKinley’s vocabulary test,” Mr. Thorndike said slowly. “That person filled in some right answers and gave Bill a grade he didn’t deserve. Now I want to know who that person is.” The color must have drained from my face. I didn’t dare look to see what Alyce was doing for fear I’d give her away. “Let me continue,” Mr. Thorndike said. “If that person does not identify himself, this whole class will be punished. I don’t know how right now, but I’m sure I’ll think of something. Now who did it?”
I put my head in my hands and began moaning inwardly. Why did this have to be happening. Tension increased in the room as no one spoke. My chest felt thick inside. Then I surprised myself. “Look,” I spoke out. “I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble.”
“Quiet, Bill,” Mr. Thorndike said sternly. “Once again, I ask, who did it?” he said dramatically.
“I said I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble,” I repeated, once again surprising myself and Mr. Thorndike who still had his mouth open and was staring at me.
Before he had a chance to rebuke me, a clear voice said, “I corrected it.”
“Who said that?” Mr. Thorndike looked around the room.
“Me. I did it,” Alyce said bravely. “It was just a joke.”
Mr. Thorndike, who had never liked Alyce much, nodded. Anger flared in his eyes. “I should have known. Yes, I should have known. Well, I’m tired of this kind of thing, young lady, and we’ll have no more of it.” He was speaking loudly. “You’re seniors now, and I’m tired of this kind of business. It’s thoroughly immature. Next year you’ll be going out into the world, and you are still acting like children. Alyce, you’ll see me after class. I’ll have to take measures. I’m sick of it, and I’ll have no more of it. Do I make myself clear?”
The rest of the day I was miserable. I should have listened to Ralph, I thought. It was such a small thing, one lousy test. Such a stupid thing to make such a big deal about, to have been such a stickler over. Why hadn’t I just kept my mouth shut?
I didn’t know what to say to Alyce later when I sat next to her in algebra, and she wouldn’t look at me. She had her head down, and her hair had draped down in front of her face. “Alyce,” I whispered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know he’d do that. It makes me sick. What did he say after class?”
“Oh, he said it would affect my citizenship for the semester. He was mad.”
“You know I didn’t want anything like that to happen.”
“I know,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it.” But it did matter, for my relationship with Alyce changed. Although she still joked with others, she quit teasing me, and though we still spoke, she seemed aloof. At the time I thought it was because Alyce was angry, but now I realize she was probably just embarrassed. It saddened me to have a barrier between us, but I figured that in time, maybe before the end of the school year, our friendship would be back to normal.
But before the end of the year, Alyce’s brother Pete was killed in an automobile accident. Such news travels fast. The seat next to mine in algebra was empty for a whole week, and my heart went out to Alyce. I wanted to write her a note, but I didn’t know what to say. Anyway, I figured Alyce didn’t want to hear from me. The following Monday when Alyce still wasn’t back in school, however, I decided to send her a card. I stopped in Gilbert’s drugs after school and looked for an appropriate sympathy card. Finally I picked out the one I liked best and took it home. I started putting it in the envelope, but before I sealed it, I took the card back out and wrote a few words on it that I thought might be comforting. I knew Alyce had been close to Pete. She had talked about him a few times. Once she had said, “Pete’s not like me. He doesn’t clown around as much. He has a dry sense of humor like you.” Whenever she talked about Pete, I could sense a pride in her voice, a special lilt.
I decided to mail the card that night before I changed my mind. The least I could do was tell her I was sorry and try to comfort her in some small way. Even if she wasn’t too keen on our friendship anymore, it could possibly still help.
That Friday Alyce was back in her seat next to me in algebra. “How are you doing?” I asked quietly as I touched her arm. She looked drained and thinner.
“Okay, I guess. Thanks for the note.” The next minute some of her friends came in, and she called to them and said something funny. They laughed, relieved to have old Alyce back. She looked down at her desk and then over at me again. “Could I talk to you sometime, like maybe after school?”
“Sure.” I wondered what she wanted to talk about.
“I’ll meet you by the oak.”
She was there after the bell, and we began silently walking to nowhere in particular. “Do you care if we sit down on the grass a minute?” Alyce asked.
“Of course not.”
She didn’t talk but lowered her head; I couldn’t see her face, but then a tear dripped down to the grass. I handed her my hanky. “Let’s go. I don’t want anyone to see me. I wasn’t going to do this.”
We walked around the school until we found an area that was semi-secluded near the bleachers. She had stopped crying and she took my hand. “You know, you’re one of the few people who has treated me like I’m more than just funny. It’s hard to be funny all the time. There’s a lot of pressure.” She began laughing. “Tha’t it?”
“I think I understand,” I said.
“Like right now. I don’t feel much like being funny, but nobody knows how to react to an unfunny Alyce, so I have to joke around.” Her lips began to tremble.
“Go ahead and cry if you need to, Alyce,” I said.
She cried then, and I put my arm around her shoulders and felt helpless as her back jerked with each heavy sob. “I’m sorry,” I kept saying. “I’m sorry.”
“I feel so foolish,” she said.
“No, it’s okay. Don’t feel that way.”
Finally, she got control of herself and bit her lower lip. “I’m not going to cry anymore now.” She swallowed hard and tried to smile. “I suppose you’re wondering why I called this little meeting,” she joked. Then she was serious again. “It’s about something you said on your card, Bill. I memorized it. You said, ‘I have strong faith that Pete still lives.’” She bit her lip again. “I’ve got to know more about that.” She was whispering in spurts. “My family has never been very religious, and I’ve got to know where he is right now.” She was losing control again, and she paused for a moment. “If you believe it, I can believe it too.” She tried to laugh. “Because you’re the most honest person I’ve ever met!” Again she paused and was serious. “And, and I know I can trust you, Bill.”
“I’m glad,” I said softly but emphatically. “Because what I said is true.” This time I sniffed. “Yes, I’d like to tell you more, Alyce.” Now I felt my eyes beginning to well, and now I was the one who felt foolish. “Could I borrow my hanky back for a minute,” I said as ruggedly as possible. “I think I might need it before this little meeting is over.”