Truth or Dare

Andy, Carlos, and Susan work on their college applications.

Susan wonders just how honest she should be when filling out her college application.

Susan is caught off guard by what she comes across in her college application.

I’m filling out my application to college, all these boring forms, just like the ones you fill out before big tests at school, only longer and with more details. Not hard. I’m almost finished, when I come to this one: Have you ever been subject to disciplinary action resulting in probation, suspension, or expulsion from school? Followed by: Have you ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor? I get this sick feeling inside.

See, I was arrested when I was in ninth grade. It was so stupid. I was on this field trip to the science museum. The bus dropped us off at this big mall for lunch, because the museum only sold popcorn or something. I don’t know. I never made it there. And the teachers said, “You’ve got forty-five minutes. Be back here ON TIME or else!”

Amanda Payne – really cool, seeing some guy, a senior, at Central – was kinda hanging out with me. I’ve always been sort of friends with her, but I never thought I was cool enough. And she said, “Let’s go!” There was no question. We were skipping lunch to roam the mall. Sears was all the way at the other end, so we stopped at a few places first. I bought a stuffed animal for Alicia’s birthday. She and I were just starting to be friends, not like now. So I didn’t really have a best friend and I felt so cool hanging out with Amanda.

I didn’t have a clue what she had planned when we walked into the juniors department at Sears. She just gave me this look, sort of straight on and sort of out of the corner of her eyes, grabbed a pair of shorts, and dropped them into her backpack like it was nothing. Very cool. Says, “See anything you want?”

Susan remembers a day she’d rather forget.

I sort of laughed, cuz I saw tons of stuff, but I don’t steal. Not usually. And then she picked out this belly top, and put that in her pack. I looked around. Nobody saw anything. The clerk was busy helping a few customers. Otherwise, it was pretty quiet.

“C’mon,” Amanda said, impatient for me to join in. “You’d look good in this.” And she added another pair of shorts to her bag.

I looked around again. Still nobody looking at us. “I want that outfit,” I said. I grabbed the same shorts and a pink top, my favorite color back then. I stuffed them as fast as I could into my own bag. And then I laughed. I couldn’t help it. My nerves were buzzing. And Amanda, who hardly ever smiles except at boys, smiled back. It felt like we were for sure gonna be best friends.

So we kept on taking things. I don’t know how long we were there. It was the weirdest feeling, like I was in a dream or something. Everything happened really fast – but it also felt like I was in slow motion or under water or something. Then Amanda checked her watch and said, “Ms. Hollins said the bus was leaving at 12:45.”

We headed towards the door. I had this sick feeling in my stomach, but what was I gonna do? Put the stuff back? And right at the door, I saw two security guards, looking at us hard. “Amanda,” I said, stopping.

She gave me this look, like I was dirt. “Be cool,” she sorta hissed. And kept walking towards the exit, me trailing behind.

The guards stopped us, opened our packs, and made us go way back to the other end of the store, into this hallway, and then into an office. All gray and cinderblock and scary. I was bawling already, but Amanda was silent.

It was a man and a woman, and they took turns yelling at us. I caved right away, telling them everything, and they were nicer to me. But Amanda being silent drove them crazy. They yelled more and more. She wouldn’t tell them her name or her phone number. So I told them that stuff, and then I had to be the one to tell them we were on a field trip. Next thing you know, Ms. Hollins was there.

Ms. Hollins rescues the girls after their arrest.

I thought she was gonna be so mad. I started crying even harder when I saw her. But she gave me a hug, and then put her arm around Amanda and just sorta patted her. “It’ll be okay, girls,” she said. “Just tell me what’s going on.”

Of course the guards had already filled her in, but she heard what I had to say, which was all wah wah wah at that point. Amanda still wasn’t talking. The man said, “She’s a hard one,” to Ms. Hollins. Ms. Hollins didn’t say anything back, just patted Amanda extra fast.

Then she was on the cell phone with the school principal and each of our mother’s. My mom really wanted to talk to me, but I shook my head and Ms. Hollins said, “I’m afraid she can’t right now. That’ll have to wait till we’re back at school.” Amanda’s mom wanted to know how she was supposed to get out of work to meet us back at school.

The police came, and Ms. Hollins signed some papers that said we’d show up in court and some other things. I think we had to sign, too. Then we got to go.

The other kids had all gone on to the museum with the three other chaperones, so we had some time to kill, waiting for the bus to come back and pick us up.

“You girls had lunch yet?” Ms. Hollins asked. And then – this was the weirdest thing – she bought us pizza. She didn’t ask us any questions or say anything about what had happened. When I came back from the restroom, I caught her saying something to Amanda about the tough time she’s been having. It didn’t make much sense to me, and if it moved Amanda, it didn’t show.

After that we had to get on the bus and listen to everyone tease us about what happened. Even if Ms. Hollins said not to. She made us sit up front, but we could still hear everything. At least, I could. Amanda put on her headphones.

There was a lot more yelling to go through: at the principal’s office, in the car ride home, from my dad, from some of the other teachers. Mainly about how embarrassed I’d made them, for myself, for my school, for my family. My mom kept saying, “You weren’t raised that way.” Like I was raised any way at all. But I just kept crying and apologizing, and pretty soon, it was all over. I got suspended for a few days, which was kind of a relief. And I was banned from that mall, which wasn’t that big a deal – I didn’t want to go back there anyway – and I had to do community service.

I don’t know what happened in Amanda’s conference with the principal or at her hearing. We never really talked about it, and we didn’t hang out as much. Junior year, she ended up pregnant by some thirty year old guy. Her mom takes care of the baby and keeps a few other kids to pay for everything. Amanda never talks about her little boy, though. The weird thing is, she was so smart, way smarter than me.

So, yeah, I’ve got a record. The form gives me two blank lines to explain what happened.

Carlos and Andy work on their college applications down in Carlos’ basement.

Andy has a hard time writing his essay.

It’s funny. Andy is the smart one. Everyone knows that. But he’s sweating this essay way more than I am. Not that I don’t care. I do. I don’t like showing my writing to anyone. But this is different. I don’t know who’s going to read it, so I’m not worried what they’ll think. Besides, how much time can they spend analyzing it, when they’ve got thousands of other essays to read?

Andy’s over my house, like always. He likes to write at the computer. That’s another funny thing. I’m the one that has a computer, but I always write on paper first. I think it would’ve been cool to live way back when there were only typewriters. Then, every line would have to be perfect before you typed it – or else you’d have to do the whole page over. Or maybe if you made a mistake, you’d work around it, push your story in a different direction, just so you wouldn’t have to type everything all over again. Maybe come up with something better.

Carlos actually enjoys writing his essay.

So I’m sitting at the floor, pad in hand working on my response to, “Write page 122 of your biography.” What a dumb question! But it gets me thinking, and I start to have fun, imagining what somebody would have to say about my life. So it’s pretty easy for me to write. I’ll just start with a story, a good hook, then finish with a paragraph of analysis – all in 250 words. It’s kind of a formula, but it’ll work.

I look up at the screen. Andy’s only typed a line or two, although I’ve heard the keys clacking away. Someday they’ll invent a silent keyboard, and then nobody will know what anybody’s doing. As it is, I know Andy has deleted what he’s written about ten times.

He sees me looking at him and swears. I laugh. “What’s up, man?”

“Who comes up with these questions?” he asks.

I try to impersonate Dr. MacDonald, our English teacher. “A team of experts who know how to gain unique insight into each applicant through one question.”

He rolls his eyes at me. “You showin’ off your SAT vocabulary?”

“You bet,” I say in my normal voice.

“Anyway, I’m done for today. I can’t write this stuff. It all sounds so stupid.” He highlights the paragraph on the screen, and hits the delete button.

“Stupid? From Mr. Genius?” I laugh at him, but he’s not in the mood.

“Shut up,” he says. “Everyone acts like this is so easy. That guy I talked to at JMU?” I nod my head, vaguely remembering. “He made it sound like it was nothing. But writing about myself is just not my thing.

Click here to watch Raphael, the JMU student, talk about his experiences with applying to college. (dialup  OR broadband)

“When’s your due date?” I ask, even though I know already.

“I gotta get this done by Saturday,” he says. “How about you?”

We’re not applying to the same schools. “I’ve got another month.”

“Awww. You got it easy.” Andy shuts down the computer. “I gotta head out. My moms is off tonight and she wants me to help her move some stuff.”

“When you gonna finish your essay?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Can I come over tomorrow?”

I laugh. “Since when do you need an invitation?”

After he leaves, I finish my essay. When I’m done writing, I leave the piece alone ‘till the weekend. Then, I make a few changes and sit down at the computer to type it. When I click to open a new word processing file, a list of all the recent documents comes up. I see what must be Andy’s essays, saved under two different file names. One is safe.doc, and the other is dare.doc. Andy’s other files on my computer are about molds and mitosis and all kinds of stuff I don’t care about. So these stand out.

I can’t help it. I click on the first one and start reading.

See Andy’s first essay below:

See Andy’s second essay below:

Susan asks Ms. Hollins to write a recommendation.

It’s taken me a while to think of three people who might write recommendations for me. I mean, I’m not Alicia, who wins awards without even trying. Or Andy, who teachers just seem to naturally love. I don’t get in trouble much, but then, I’m not that smart, either. Just average.

I picked this year’s chemistry teacher, my tenth grade English teacher, and then Ms. Hollins, my ninth grade math teacher. Yes, the same Ms. Hollins who knew better than almost anyone what had happened on that field trip.

It was hard for me to ask all these teachers. I mean, I’ve got a C or a B in chemistry, most of the time, but it’s not like I’ve never failed a quiz. Still, it’s probably my best class, and Mr. Wheeler is one of my favorite teachers. He didn’t act shocked when I asked him and cracked some joke about how I’ll have to come back and teach a class once I’ve decided to major in chemistry. Then he stuck a big post-it on the form with the due date and added it to a folder on his desk.

Mrs. Browning, my old English teacher, I don’t think really remembered me from two years ago. She had to look at the form I gave her before she said my name. But she said she’d write it and then asked me a few questions about what I remembered doing in our class, what I thought I’d learned, what I thought I’d contributed. Then she asked me what I’ve been reading on my own. I told her I really like Girl, Interrupted and her face lit up. “Oh, yes,” she said. “That’s one of my favorites, too. Have you read The Bell Jar yet?” I shook my head. “You should. It takes place in the same hospital, only in the ‘50s.” I said I would. So I think she’ll write a good one.

But I’ve put off asking Ms. Hollins. I mean, she of all people has most reason to doubt me. But, like I said, she’s the one who can most explain my arrest and that I’m not a bad person. I so wish I were gonna turn eighteen before I graduate. Then it would be off my record and I’d be off the hook. But I’ve got a September birthday, no luck there. My parents started me at four so they wouldn’t have to pay for daycare any more. But that’s another story.

I finally go to Ms. Hollins after school. It takes all my nerve. I see her around all the time, and she always says hi. But this is different. Important. Of all my teachers, I think she knows me best. She smiles when she sees me, just like she always does. She doesn’t need to look at the form to remember my name.

“What can I do for you, Susan?” she asks.

My heart is pounding, and I practically stutter as I begin. “Uh, well, I’m applying for college, and—“

She interrupts me before I finish. “College? Is that right?” She smiles again. “I knew you could do it.”

I’m feeling better about asking, but then she keeps talking. “You just were so concerned about social things in ninth grade. Boys, and who was popular. It didn’t leave much room for thinking about school, did it?” My stomach drops when she says this, but I nod my head like an idiot. ”I’m glad that’s changed,” she says.

There’s nobody else to ask, so I just say it all at once. “I need you to write a recommendation for me.” She just looks at me. “Please.”

Ms. Hollins is reluctant to write a recommendation for Susan.

Still, she doesn’t say anything, and I want to just give up and forget about college.

Then she sighs. “Susan, I’m not sure I can write you much of a recommendation. I’ll have to talk about what happened that day, you know that. I couldn’t not write about it.”

“I know,” I say, and my voice sounds all tight and funny. I’m trying so hard not to cry. I want to say, I’m not that way. I never stole again. I thought you understood.

“Anyway,” she keeps talking. “You should find more recent teachers, teachers who’ve seen you as a serious student.”

I manage to croak out a, “Thanks,” and head for the door.

“Good luck,” I hear her call after me.

Click here to watch Valerie H. Gregory, Assistant Dean and Director, Office of Admission at the University of Virginia, talk about what colleges look for in prospective students and the importance of contacting the schools you wish to attend. (dialup  OR broadband)

Explore these websites to find information about applying to college:

Apply to Colleges Online

Understanding the Application Process

Completing Applications

Curing the Admission Application Blues

College Interviews: Putting You with Your Name

The College Interview

Letters of Recommendation: An Important Part of the Application Process

For more information about college essay and writing tips, check out these websites:

Sample College Essay Questions

Sample College Essay

Tips to Writing a Great College Essay

Tips for Writing Your College Application Essay

These websites provide calendars to help you keep track of what needs to be done when:

Action Plan for Seniors: Application Process

College Application Calendar

A Quick Time-Line: Make Sure You Are on Track

College Admissions Review