Janet was the only one who saw Sloane put the tack on the substitute teacher’s chair. As Sloane returned to her seat, she saw Janet looking at her and gave her a wink and a smirk. Janet looked around the room to see if anyone else in Ms. Ronsanna’s second period English class had seen what Sloane had just done, but all the other students had their eyes fixed on the difficult, one-question essay test Ms. Ronsanna had left for them to labor through in her absence. Janet had only happened to look up and notice what Sloane was up to because she had been trying to remember the word “synthesize” and casting her eyes heavenward sometimes helped her remember words that had momentarily slipped her mind. So in the midst of her eyes’ transition from pointing test-ward to pointing heavenward, Janet had caught sight of Sloane tip-toeing up to the teacher’s chair with a tack pinched between her thumb and forefinger while the substitute was standing by the window on the other side of the room, texting on her phone, oblivious.
And then, after determining that she had been the only one to see Sloane place the tack, Janet remembered the word “synthesize,” returned her attention to the test, and forgot about Sloane’s prank entirely. She never expected it to work. The tack would fall off the chair or the sub would see it before she sat down, or even if she sat on it, the tack would tip over and just feel slightly uncomfortable beneath her. Tacks on chairs only worked in cartoons. So Janet was as surprised as anyone when the studious silence in the classroom was shattered by the sub’s yelp of pain and shock. And then Janet watched in horror as the sub, standing with an unflattering, hunched-forward posture, reached around behind herself, winced, and extracted the tack from the seat of her pants. The sub then held the tack out in front of her and, voice cracking, asked, “Who put this on my chair?”
No one said anything. No one snickered. Janet sensed that her classmates were too confused to respond, struggling to grasp what was happening without access to the extra context to which only Sloane and Janet were privy. From her seat in the front row, Janet could see that the tip of the tack was dark with the sub’s blood. Janet didn’t dare to look at Sloane, not even out of the corner of her eye.
“No one?” asked the sub. “None of you put this tack on my chair? No one saw anyone put this tack on my chair? It just appeared there on its own?”
“We were taking the test,” said Kyle from the back of the room.
“Most of you were,” said the sub. “But one of you put a tack on my chair. And I find it very hard to believe that no one else saw who did it. Or that the person who did it didn’t tell someone that he or she was going to do it or had already done it.” She paused, glaring at the class. “All right, well, Ms. Ronsanna will be hearing about this. Whoever did this, you probably think this is funny, but this is actually assault, it’s very serious, and when you’re found out – and you will be found out – there are going to be very serious consequences.”
Janet completed her test in a state of intense distraction. She forgot several good words and was forced to use worse synonyms when even casting her eyes heavenward failed to bring them to mind. She didn’t think she should tell the sub who put the tack on her chair…should she? No, she didn’t think she should. For one thing, the sub was overreacting. Sitting on a tack wasn’t really that big of a deal, even if it drew a little blood. She was probably mostly just embarrassed and trying to save face in front of the class. But Ms. Ronsanna would be back the next day and the sub would never have to face the class again if she didn’t want to. Also, if Janet did tell the sub who put the tack on the chair, Sloane would know it was Janet who had ratted her out. And Janet wasn’t afraid of Sloane and didn’t particularly care whether or not Sloane liked her, but it would still be embarrassing, there might be some kind of confrontation, and Sloane might tell other people that Janet was the snitch, and then that might negatively impact her reputation with the whole school, especially since the thing she’d be snitching about was so minor. No, keeping Sloane’s secret was clearly the best option, Janet was almost one hundred percent sure of that.
For the rest of the day, Janet wondered if Sloane would come find her and check in to make sure Janet wasn’t planning on telling on her, to confirm that she planned on continuing the silence she’d demonstrated in class, but none of that happened. In fact, when Janet passed Sloane in the hall between 6th and 7th period, Sloane didn’t even look at her, she walked by as if Janet didn’t have the power to harm her tucked away inside her head with only her own resolve preventing her from letting that power loose. Well, that was actually fine with Janet, because she wasn’t going to tell on Sloane and maybe Sloane had intuited that about her in that private moment when their eyes had met right after Sloane had placed the tack, maybe she had looked at Janet and just known, somehow, that in spite of all the pro-snitching posters around the school and the recent rash of pro-snitching convocations and Principal Urliss’s impassioned speeches on the morning announcements intended to destigmatize snitching, Janet was not a snitch.
As soon as Janet walked into Ms. Ronsanna’s class the next morning, she sensed the dark mood in the room. Ms. Ronsanna was back, but instead of greeting her students with a smile as they arrived, she sat at her desk with a solemn expression on her face, saying nothing. The students who had arrived before Janet had sensed the mood too, and they sat silently at their desks, foregoing the usual idle, pre-bell chatter. Only Mitchell seemed oblivious, but when he tried to strike up a conversation with Jenna and then another with Logan, he was shushed and ignored respectively.
The bell rang. Everyone looked at Ms. Ronsanna, but she did not look at them. She busied herself at her desk, letting the tension build. Janet couldn’t resist a sideways glance at Sloane, who could not have looked less concerned. Then Ms. Ronsanna rose from her chair and walked to the podium at the front of the room. The building tension built further. “Everyone,” she finally said. “Get out a clean sheet of paper and a pen.”
With a muted rustling, the class complied.
“And now,” said Ms. Ronsanna, “you will write the following sentence: ‘If I know who put the tack on the substitute’s chair, I will tell Ms. Ronsanna because it’s the right thing to do.’ And you will, without any talking, write that sentence over and over until the end of class or until one of you comes forward to tell me who did it. When you run out of space on your paper, take out another sheet and keep writing. And if you think this is miserable, well, it’s supposed to be, and I hope whoever knows who did this horrible thing realizes that the entire class is now suffering because of your refusal to speak up.” Then Ms. Ronsanna returned to her desk.
Janet wrote until her hand hurt. She wrote very neatly as if that would somehow make up for the fact that she wasn’t telling Ms. Ronsanna what she knew. She allowed herself a few more glances at Sloane, but Sloane did not look guilty or conflicted, she just looked grumpy. Five minutes before the end of class, Ms. Ronsanna walked back to the front of the room and told everyone to pass their papers forward. After she’d gathered all the papers, Ms. Ronsanna dropped them into the recycle bin. Then she said, “I’m going to leave the room now. If you don’t want to spend tomorrow doing exactly what you did today, then I suggest you talk amongst yourselves and come up with a solution. If I can’t get through to whoever knows who put the tack on the sub’s chair, then maybe one of your classmates can.” Then she walked out of the classroom and closed the door behind her.
As soon as the door clicked shut, Sarah, the acknowledged smartest student in the class, spoke up. “She can’t keep making us do this. She has to teach, that’s her job. She’s wasting time when we could actually be learning something. And now she’s trying to get us to turn on each other.”
“Yeah,” said Kyle. “We already know no one’s going to snitch. Watch, this is just going to go on and on.”
“Seriously,” said Mitchell. “Even if I knew who did it, I wouldn’t tell her.”
“They’re obsessed with getting us to tell on each other,” said Marjorie. “Administrators, teachers, all of them.”
“Exactly,” said Sarah. “Almost all of us are innocent, but she’d rather we all suffer than have one guilty person get away with something. That’s messed up. That’s just wrong.”
Janet looked at Sloane to see how she was reacting to all of this. Sloane wasn’t reacting at all. She appeared to be playing a game on her phone, which would not have been allowed if Ms. Ronsanna had been in the room. It bothered Janet that of all the students in the classroom, the one who should have been most against snitching seemed the least interested.
“Or,” said Janet. “Whoever did it could just confess. And then no one would have to snitch and none of us who are innocent would get any more punishment.”
Everyone looked at Janet as if she were insane. Janet noted that Sloane unselfconsciously joined them in their bewilderment.
“Yeah,” said Kyle. “OK, but it’s not like whoever did it is going to confess now that Ms. Ronsanna made such a big deal about it. It’s obvious that if she finds out who did it, that person’s going to get in huge trouble. There’s nothing to gain from confessing. Right?”
“Well, maybe the person feels bad that the rest of us are suffering because of what they did,” said Janet. “And maybe they just feel guilty and they want a clean conscience.” Janet could feel exactly how not persuaded her classmates were by her words, which was all the way not persuaded.
“Well, maybe whoever did it will confess,” said Sarah, conciliatory and condescending in equal measure. “But until then, the important thing is to not turn on each other.”
“Right,” said Janet. “I obviously agree with all that. But maybe if we tell whoever did that we won’t be mad at them if-”
The bell rang and class ended. Several of Janet’s classmates nodded goodbye to her with eyes that seemed to be vibrating under the strain of not rolling until she couldn’t see them.
Nothing changed for the next two days. Ms. Ronsanna made the students write the sentence over and over until the last five minutes of class, then she left the room so they could pressure each other until someone snitched, then the students spent those five minutes complaining about how awful and unfair Ms. Ronsanna was being. The prevailing sentiment of her peers made it clear to Janet that she should definitely not snitch, but she was starting to resent the complete lack of pressure for Sloane to confess. In fact, since Janet had brought it up that first time, no one had said even one more word about the possibility of the guilty party confessing, it was just assumed that it would never happen. All the conversation focused on snitching. Janet agreed that Ms. Ronsanna was being unfair, but she felt like her classmates were losing sight of who the real villain was, that they were forgetting that none of this would have happened if someone hadn’t decided to play a stupid, juvenile prank in the middle of a test. Which, yes, Ms. Ronsanna was overreacting to the prank, but that should be Sloane’s issue to grapple with, not Janet’s, Janet was just an innocent bystander who happened to look up at the wrong time. She knew she couldn’t snitch, but she hated that she had to have a practical reason to have an opinion on snitching, she hated the way what she knew burdened her with a share of the responsibility for the crime. And she especially hated that the person who should have by all rights borne all of the responsibility didn’t act like she was bearing any of it. It was one thing to not confess, but it was another thing entirely to be totally unaffected while Janet fretted and stewed.
After the bell rang at the end of second period on the third day since the tack incident, Janet followed Sloane to her locker.
“Sloane,” said Janet. “We need to talk.”
“We do?” asked Sloane. “About what?” Her question seemed genuine.
“About what’s going on in English,” said Janet.
“Oh yeah,” said Sloane. “That’s so stupid. What about it?”
“Well, how much longer are you gonna let it go on?” asked Janet.
“How much longer am I gonna let it go on?” said Sloane. “What are you talking about?”
“Because you put the tack on the sub’s chair,” said Janet. “So this is just going to keep getting worse until you confess.”
“Oh,” said Sloane. “No, it won’t keep getting worse, Ms. Ronsanna will eventually figure out that this is all pointless.”
“OK, maybe,” said Janet. “But how long will that take?”
“I don’t know,” said Sloane. “Not very long.”
“But you don’t know that,” said Janet. “You’re just guessing.”
“If you want it to be over so bad, why don’t you just snitch on me?” asked Sloane.
“Because,” said Janet. “I don’t want to.”
Sloane shrugged. “Then I guess you can just wait Ms. Ronsanna out like me and everyone else. Unless you want to tell on me with an anonymous note and then lie and say it wasn’t you. You could always try that.”
“No,” said Janet. “I’m not a snitch.”
“Then I guess trying to talk me into confessing is the only option you have left,” said Sloane. “And that’s not going to work because I don’t want to get in big trouble over something so stupid. So now you know. I’ve set you free. You never have to think about it again.”
And for one night, Janet tried to take Sloane’s words to heart. She went home and she mostly didn’t think about the tack incident. Janet decided that Sloane was a bad person and there was nothing she could do about it so why worry? She slept well.
But that was all before the surprise convocation at school the next morning.
The convocation was held between first and second period and it was in the gymnasium instead of the auditorium so the entire school could attend at once. The students were less noisy than usual as they took their seats on the bleachers. They sensed that this was not going to be one of the convocations where the administration tried to trick them into learning something by first softening them up with a misguided attempt at entertaining them. This was going to be worse. Janet, seated with her friends at the east end of the bleachers, just five rows up from the floor, recognized the feeling in the gym as the same one that had pervaded Ms. Ronsanna’s classroom all week.
“I hope this isn’t going to be about snitching again,” said Janet’s friend Abigail.
“It is,” said Janet, and knowing she was right made her stomach start to hurt.
On the floor of the gym, facing the assembled students, was a large, white screen mounted on a stand. On a cart in front of the screen was a projector which was connected by a black cable to a laptop on the floor. A wireless microphone also lay on the floor next to the laptop. The convocation appeared to have been thrown together at the last minute.
Once the last few students had straggled in and found places to sit, the teachers began to say, “Shhh! Shhh!” And then Principal Urliss entered the gym and strode toward the microphone while radiating an air of disapproval that said “Shhh!” more than all of the teachers’ mouths put together, and so the students shushed completely. Principal Urliss bent to pick up the microphone and turned it on. By some miracle, there was no feedback.
“I’m going to show you something,” said Principal Urliss. “And then we’ll see if any of you still think that snitching isn’t the right thing to do.” Then, to someone unseen, she said, “Lights, please!” And the lights went out. The gym was plunged into darkness but for the light coming in from the hall through the windows on the gym doors and a small, pale light low to the ground near where Principal Urliss had been standing that Janet eventually realized was a light on Principal Urliss’s phone. Then the laptop screen lit up and illuminated Principal Urliss, who was kneeling on the floor and pressing buttons on the projector with her left hand while glaring at the dark screen with a scowl. She still had the wireless microphone in her right hand and she would occasionally bring it to her mouth to say, “No talking” whenever a murmur began to rise in the student body.
And then, at last, Principal Urliss pressed the correct button or combination of buttons and the projector turned on and filled the screen with an image that caused the assembled students to gasp in horror. Janet gagged and looked away.
“Yes,” said Principal Urliss, standing up again, just a little stiff in the knees. “Yes, exactly. Disgusting, isn’t it?”
Janet couldn’t make herself look at the image again.
“You’re probably all wondering what this is,” said Principal Urliss. “Well, I’ll tell you. This appalling picture is actually a picture of the buttocks of one of our substitute teachers.” It was a testament to the power of the image that not one high school student burst out laughing at this declaration.
“And now you’re probably all wondering why I would call a convocation for the entire school to see a graphic image of one of our substitute’s grotesquely infected buttocks,” said Principal Urliss. “Well, I’ll tell you. It’s because one of our students did this to her. One of your fellow students put a tack on this poor substitute’s chair, she sat on it, the tack punctured her flesh, and the wound became infected. And no one – no one – has come forward to identify the person who did this horrible, horrible thing to an innocent woman. Why? Because you’ve decided, collectively, that snitching is always, always wrong. And now look where that’s gotten us. Take a long, hard look at where that’s gotten us.”
The gym was so still that the whirr of the projector filled it entirely.
Then, from somewhere just a few rows behind Janet, a girl called out, “But snitching wouldn’t have stopped the infection, that already happened!”
Principal Urliss peered in the direction of the voice. She clearly couldn’t make out any faces in the darkness. “Who’s saying that? This is a convocation, not a discussion. Unless you’re going to tell me who put the tack on the substitute’s chair, you shouldn’t be calling out.”
From the other side of the gym, another voice called out, male and pubescent. “Maybe no one else even knows who did it!”
“Of course someone else knows who did it,” said Principal Urliss, peering fruitlessly in the direction of this new voice. “Someone else always knows who did something. Always. I’ve been a principal for over a decade, and someone else always knows. And this is not a discussion!”
Janet couldn’t help herself, although she successfully resisted the urge to stand as she shouted, “But the person who did it should confess, no one should have to snitch!”
Principal Urliss peered in Janet’s direction and Janet almost felt as if Principal Urliss could see her. “Boy, wouldn’t that be nice,” said Principal Urliss, her tone mocking. “A world in which bad people turn themselves in. A world in which people who do that to someone” – she pointed to the image on the screen – “snitch on themselves. Get real, people! Bad people only get caught because good people tell on them!”
And that’s when the paper wad bounced off of Principal Urliss’s shoulder.
“Who threw that?” she shouted, and now there was feedback in the microphone, and plenty of it. “Who threw that? I know some of you must have seen who threw that at me, tell me now! Tell me now!”
A murmur again rose among the students, but this one felt ominous, almost menacing.
“Lights!” shouted Principal Urliss. “Back on!”
Whoever was taking the light commands complied and the lights came back on. Janet and the rest of the students blinked as if waking from a dream, but the image of the sub’s infected buttocks, though dimmed by the lights shining down from on high, persisted on the screen like when a child in a horror movie wakes to find that the monster from his nightmare left real claw marks on his closet door.
“If you don’t tell me who threw that paper wad at me, you’re actually worse than the person who threw it,” said Principal Urliss, gripping her wireless microphone like the hilt of a dagger. “If you know and you choose to not tell me because of this absurd refusal to ‘snitch,’ then you’re immoral, you’re feeble-minded, and you’re a coward. Snitching is good! Snitching is what allows society to function! None of you would even be here without snitching! We’d all be dead! Without snitching, the world would be a barren wasteland ruled by beasts!” Principal Urliss pointed at a girl sitting on the front row of bleachers who was wearing a pair of large, gaudy sneakers. “There wouldn’t be cool shoes without snitching, think about that!”
The girl with the sneakers blushed. Janet felt sorry for her.
“Snitching divides!” shouted a girl from the top of the bleachers. “You’re using snitching to divide us!”
Everyone turned to see who was willing to confront Principal Urliss with the lights on. Janet craned her neck and rose out of her seat just enough to catch a glimpse of the brave soul. It was Sarah, the acknowledged smartest student in Ms. Ronsanna’s second period English class.
Principal Urliss, now with a specific target on which to focus, regained some of her composure. “Well, Sarah, how interesting to hear your perspective. Especially since you’re one of the students in the class where this happened.” She again pointed dramatically at the image on the screen. “Perhaps you’re feeling defensive because you know a little something about who may have done it?”
“No!” said Sarah. “I have no idea who did it, that’s not the point!”
“Oh, isn’t it?” asked Principal Urliss. Then, again issuing a command to someone unseen, she said, “Bring her out.”
A few moments later, one of the gymnasium doors opened and through it came a custodian pushing a woman in a wheelchair. The woman wore a ratty gray bathrobe over a hospital gown and her feet were bare. The students, who had been growing increasingly restless, again fell silent. It wasn’t until the custodian parked the wheelchair next to Principal Urliss that Janet realized that the woman was the substitute who had sat on the tack and whose infected buttocks was still displayed on the screen behind her. She looked much worse than she had in class four days prior. Her hair was a tangled mess and she sat in the wheelchair with a pronounced leftward lean.
“All right,” said Principal Urliss. “Now, Sarah, tell your substitute from Monday how bad snitching is.”
Sarah said nothing. The substitute shifted in the wheelchair and winced.
“Go on, Sarah,” said Principal Urliss. “Tell this innocent woman, who is in constant agony, that she’s wrong to want anyone who knows who might have done this to her to bravely come forward and tell what they know to people who have the authority to see that justice is done.” She handed the microphone to the sub.
“Please, Sarah,” said the sub, her voice small and wounded. “Tell me who did this.”
“I’m not a snitch!” said Sarah. “You can’t guilt-trip me into becoming something I’m not!”
Principal Urliss took the microphone back from the substitute. A look of unnerving self-satisfaction took hold of her face. “Sarah, if you tell me who put the tack on this substitute’s chair, I’ll use my influence to get a scholarship named after you. I know how much you love scholarships.”
“No,” said Sarah.
“We’ll have cherry crisp in the cafeteria every day from now until the end of the school year,” said Principal Urliss. “I know how much you love cherry crisp.”
“No,” said Sarah, but Janet thought her voice sounded weaker.
“If you tell me who put the tack on the substitute teacher’s chair,” said Principal Urliss, “I will have a bronze bust made of you Sarah, and it will be displayed in the common area outside the auditorium next to the other bronze busts, among the other bronze busts, equal to the other bronze busts.” She paused. “And,” she continued, “that holds true for anyone who tells me who put the tack on this substitute teacher’s chair. The first person to snitch on the person who put the tack on this poor substitute teacher’s chair, or to snitch on whoever threw that paper wad at me, or to snitch on anyone for anything, as long as you do it here and now, in front of the entire student body, that person gets to have their likeness cast in bronze and displayed in the common area for as long as Multioak High School persists, and may that be forever!”
Janet couldn’t take anymore. She stood. “I put the tack on the substitute’s chair. And no one’s snitching. I’m confessing, which is how it should be. I feel bad because of all the hurt and trouble I’ve caused, so I’m confessing to put my own conscience at ease. Why is that so hard to believe? Why is that so impossible? It’s not impossible! I’m doing it right now!”
Principal Urliss looked at Janet with what seemed to Janet to be an inappropriate amount of hatred for an administrator to be nakedly displaying toward a student, especially in front of every other student, teacher, and administrator in the school. “You foolish girl,” said Principal Urliss. “Don’t make this mistake. This isn’t going to accomplish anything.”
And then, from the other end of the bleachers, a boy with a patchy beard stood up and said, “I threw the paper wad. I’m confessing too. You’re not gonna use me to pressure people into snitching.”
And then Janet’s friend Abigail stood up next to her. “You’ve been trying to pressure my friends to tell you if I really missed school three weeks ago because my uncle was being held hostage in another state or not. Well, guess what, I’m confessing: my uncle was being held hostage in this state and I didn’t even really care, I spent all those days I was gone snooping through my parents’ secret storage units. You don’t have power over my friends anymore, Principal Urliss!”
And then more and more students rose to their feet, crying out their confessions, yelling over each other, their voices mingling and raining down on Principal Urliss as she shouted for order, but her shouts were swallowed up by squeals of microphone feedback, and the “shhs” of the teachers fared no better.
And then the substitute, with energy Janet hadn’t seen from her even when she was actually subbing, jumped out of her wheelchair, snatched the microphone away from Principal Urliss, and pointed at the image on the screen, shouting, “That’s not me! That’s not my…backside! I’m totally fine!”
Principal Urliss lunged for the microphone, but the substitute sprang away. “The puncture wound healed fine! But Principal Urliss told me to pretend to be severely hurt so she could use me to pressure you into snitching! She just found that picture of the infected…bottom…online! This isn’t even my bathrobe! It’s Principal Urliss’s deceased mother’s bathrobe! She made me put it on when I got here! Same with this hospital gown!” And on and on the substitute went, continuing even after Principal Urliss succeeded in getting someone to cut the power to her mic, shouting the incriminating details of Principal Urliss’s fraudulent convocation, snitching on Principal Urliss to the whole school.