This week's story was inspired by actual events.
Out of the five sections, she had aced the first four sections, earning herself a score of four hundred. It was the last section – the essay section – that she had failed. A score of zero stared back at her. Amelia’s eyebrows drew together as she read the sentence just beneath the scores. We regret to inform you that you have failed this test.
“Failed?” she said aloud, her heart sinking. She couldn’t believe it. Tears welled up in her eyes, blurring the screen before her. She brushed them away and the numbers came back into focus. Suddenly, her depression was replaced by anger and confusion. “Four hundred out of five hundred isn’t a failure!” Then, second-guessing herself, she opened the calculator and checked. “It’s eighty percent! That’s a B at the least.” And then, “Wait. How did I fail the essay section?!” She pulled out her phone and called the number attached to the email.
An automated voice answered. “You’ve reached the State Offices of Certification. For Spanish, press nine, followed by the pound sign now. For account questions, press one. For certification questions, press two. For testing questions, press three. For financial questions, press four. For all other questions, press five. If you know the name of the person you are contacting, press zero and speak with the operator.” Amelia hesitated, then pressed three. “Thank you for contacting the Department for Testing. Please leave a message at the tone and we will return your call as soon as possible.” Ugh, she thought. She hated leaving messages.
“Um, hi. This is Amelia Fredricks and I think there’s an error with my qualifying exam. I received an email that has a score of four hundred, but it says that I failed. Please call me back so this can be fixed. Thank you.” She left her number and hung up.
An hour later, an email came through from one of her classmates, Ian. He was asking if anyone else got a passing grade, but had been marked as a fail. She responded immediately. She had never expected Ian to pass; he was somewhat lacking in the brains department, but he had surprised her. He was happy to hear that someone else had had the same problem and he suggested that they go to the State Offices and meet with the officials in person. Amelia wasn’t sure that they could do such a thing, but Ian was insistent. She was afraid that he would say the wrong thing while he was there and somehow screw it up for the rest of them, so in the end, she agreed to it. The State Offices were at least an hour away by train.
They met at the train station at nine in the morning. Ian was wearing a backpack and a determined expression. His straw-colored hair hung in his eyes. “What’s in there?” Amelia asked as he handed her a train ticket.
“Just some things I think we might need. I brought my notebooks in case they ask us to take a retest and I need to study. I also have snacks and water in case we get hungry or thirsty.”
“And you know where we’re going?” she asked him as they got on the train and found seats.
“I have it right here.” He pulled out his phone. “The State Offices of Certification are at 1429 Great Heron Avenue in Hamilton.”
“I’m sorry,” the boy across from them broke in, “but did you say you’re going to the State Offices of Certification?”
“Yes. We received errors on our qualifying exams,” said Amelia. “Both of us passed, but they marked it down as a fail.”
“That happened to me!” the boy said, tears in his eyes. “I couldn’t believe it. I’m still upset about it.”
“Come and sit with us,” said Ian, patting the seat next to him.
“I’m Erik,” said the boy. He was a tall, willowy lad and reached for his crutches to help get to his feet, one of which was in a cast. He noticed them looking and explained with a sheepish grin, “I fell a week ago.”
“I’m pretty clumsy myself,” Amelia admitted. “I’m Amelia and this is Ian.”
The boy dropped into the seat and put his crutches against the wall. He extended his hand rather stiffly. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too,” said Ian. “What was your score?” he asked.
“I got a ninety-two percent,” said Erik, “but the email still said I failed.”
“Same here at eighty,” said Amelia. They looked expectantly at Ian.
“I passed. Barely, but I passed. I studied really hard for that exam and I deserve my certification.” His hands were clenched into fists.
“I’m sure that once we explain our situation, they’ll fix it,” Amelia said, but her voice sounded thin to her own ears.
The trio lapsed into silence for the rest of the trip, each lost in their own thoughts. When they pulled into Hamilton, Ian took the lead once again, leading them confidently down the main street toward the Offices, his phone in his hand. “It says that we’re to go east at the next street,” he told them, turning right at the corner.
“We’re going the wrong way,” said Erik.
“East is that way,” Erik said, pointing back behind them.
“He’s right,” said Amelia.
“How do you know?” Ian said, a flush of anger rising in his cheeks.
“Look at the sign,” said Amelia. She indicated the street sign which bore an E and a W on either side.
Ian’s flush deepened. “Oh.”
They turned around and headed back the other way. They almost got lost twice more before they reached Great Heron Avenue. 1429 was a modest-looking building with only four floors and the state flag hanging over its door. The three of them walked through the double doors where they met with a security officer.
“State your business.”
“We’re here to see the officials for qualifying exams,” said Amelia.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Then you can’t go in, I’m sorry. You’ll have to make an appointment.”
Erik’s eyes filled with tears once again and Amelia put a hand on his back. “It’s about an error on our exams,” said Ian.
“I don’t care what it’s about,” said the guard. “You can’t get in without an appointment.”
“Look, we just have to talk to them very quickly. It doesn’t even have to be all of them,” said Ian. “Just the main one.”
“Are you stupid?” the guard asked him. “I’ll speak slowly for you. You. Need. An. Appointment.”
“We’re not leaving until we see the officials,” said Ian.
“Then you can join your friend there,” said the guard.
“Friend?” Amelia asked in confusion.
The guard gestured to indicate a large girl with a mane full of red-gold hair sitting in the lobby, biting her nails. She was watching them carefully.
“She’s waiting to see the officials as well. I explained to her that she needs an appointment, but she seems to be as thick as you all are.”
Amelia saw she wasn’t going to get much more out of the guard so she walked over to the girl. “Hi, I’m Amelia.”
“Nannette,” the girl chirped. She peered nervously at the two boys.
“Ian and Erik,” Amelia indicated, pointing to each in turn. Ian nodded and Erik performed a rather stiff bow. “Why are you here?” Amelia asked her, her instinct already telling her the answer.
“I got a passing grade on my qualifying exam, but they marked down that I failed,” said Nannette in a soft voice. “I thought it best to ask them about it directly, but I can’t get past the guard. He just keeps saying that you have to make an appointment.”
Amelia paused. “Follow me,” she said.
“Amelia?” Nannette asked, anxious.
“Come on!” She marched back up to the guard, the other three behind her.
He groaned at her approach. “I’ve already told you: you need-”
“-an appointment. Yes, you said that. So, how do we make an appointment?”
He blinked. “Well, you just…go online and schedule one.”
Amelia already had her phone out. “What’s the website?” He told her and she clicked through, quickly discovering that there were a number of people listed. “Which are the officials who handle certification?” she asked him, showing the website.
“You’ll want Martin Schuer or Margaret Baumgardner,” he told her.
Amelia checked the website and saw that Martin had an available time at 11:00. It was 10:37. Margaret wouldn’t be available until 11:20 and Amelia didn’t want to wait. She booked a session with Martin and showed it to the guard. “There. Now we have an appointment.”
“Well, that’s more like it! Please go and have a seat. I will call you when they are ready for you.”
Feel triumphant, but still confused, the group returned to the chairs in the lobby. “That was brilliant!” Ian exclaimed.
“Don’t get too excited yet,” said Amelia. “We still have to convince him to change our files.”
“Do you think he’s a nice man?” Nannette asked.
“I hope so,” said Erik.
“Whether he’s nice or not, they can’t deny us our certification,” said Amelia. “We all got passing grades.”
The four of them made chitchat for the next fifteen minutes and then, it was their turn. The guard came over and bade them walk through the metal detector. He scanned them for weaponry and then told them to go up to the third floor, room 313. Amelia led them through the green-tiled halls to the office of Martin Schuer. She knocked and a deep baritone called out, “Enter!”
The first thing she noticed was the enormous desk that barely fit inside the tiny room. It was impeccably crafted and so cleanly polished that she could see her own face reflected in it. The walls were filled with certificates that boasted the accomplishments of Martin Schuer. Behind the huge desk sat an even larger man wearing a dark suit and a lime bowtie. He smiled at them, but there was no warmth in the expression. There was nowhere for the visitors to sit and they were forced to stand side by side as though at a firing range. “What can I do for you?” the man boomed out, his voice filling the room.
“Um, Mr. Schuer, we’d like to speak to you about our qualifying exam grades.”
A wary look entered the man’s eye. “And who might you be?”
“Oh! Yes, um, well, I’m Amelia Fredricks.”
“I’m Ian Wiltshire.”
Nannette whispered something. “What was that? Speak up, my dear!” the man roared at her. Amelia could see that she was visibly shaking. She reached out and took her hand.
“Nannette Sactor,” she squeaked.
“Yes, well, let’s just see what’s going on,” Martin said, turning to his computer. The only sound in the room was the click of the mouse and keyboard as the official retrieved information. “Ah, yes. I see your scores. You should be very proud of your scores, now, shouldn’t you? You all did fairly well.”
“Yes, but Mr. Schuer, it says that we failed,” Amelia pointed out.
Amelia stopped, shocked. She had been sure that once he saw the grades, he would realize the mistake. “But…but…my score is an eighty percent. By regular standards, that’s a B. A passing grade.”
“We do not follow regular standards, Miss Fredricks,” Martin informed her.
“That makes no sense!” she protested. Erik let out a wail of doom and began to cry. Nannette covered her face in her hands. Ian was dumbfounded.
“It makes perfect sense, I’m afraid,” said Martin. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another appointment.”
“You can’t just leave us like this!” Ian shouted. “We earned passing scores. We should qualify for our certifications!”
Martin Schuer gazed at him. “A change of this magnitude must be approved by both officials. You must speak with my colleague, Margaret.”
“If we can convince her to change our statuses, will you agree to it?” Amelia asked hopefully.
Martin took a moment before responding. Finally, he sighed. “Very well. If Margaret agrees to change you all to ‘passing,’ I will sign off on it as well.”
“Thank you, Mr. Schuer. We will be back.” Amelia jumped on her phone and was thankful to see that Margaret’s 11:20 time had not yet been claimed. She put their names in. “Which room is she in?”
“She’s right next door,” said Martin. “315.”
“Thank you again,” said Amelia. Ian and Erik nodded. Nannette began biting her nails again.
They headed back out into the hall. “We have to convince her!” Erik cried passionately. “She just has to listen to us!”
“We will do our best,” said Amelia. She looked at the door to 315, then glanced at her phone. It was 11:15. She waited.
Ian started pacing. Nannette had sunk to the floor. The minutes crawled by.
Finally, it was 11:20, but no one emerged from the room. Amelia walked over and knocked on the door. A sigh of exasperation was heard and then a woman’s voice said, “What?”
Margaret Baumgardner’s office was nothing like her colleague’s. The room was the same size, but it was covered in stacks of papers. There were filing cabinets everywhere, some of them half-opened. A thin woman in dark clothing and horn-rimmed glasses peered at them with a pinched expression. “You’re the ones who want to be given your certifications, are you?”
It wasn’t really a question, but they chorused, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Amelia Fredricks, your essay was one of the worst I have ever read. I couldn’t even stay awake to read it. Nannette Sactor, your handwriting was abysmal. I could barely make it out. Not to mention that your answers on the multiple choice were often so lightly answered that it was hard to tell that you had even put down an answer. Erik Guerrero, your papers were so sopping wet from tears or sweat that we had to put them on the radiator to dry them out enough to score them. And Ian Wiltshire, you’re lucky you were given the score you received. Your grammar is so atrocious that if it weren’t for the fact that multiple choice is hit or miss, your short answers and essay would have sunk you completely.”
The foursome stood still in shock and anger. Surprisingly, it was Nannette who found her voice first. “You horrible witch!” she shrilled. “We worked hard for those grades and whether you had trouble reading them or what, the answers were right. We deserve to be marked as passing!”
“Deserve, do you?” Margaret Baumgardner’s lip curled. “You deserve exactly what you got!”
“And we got passing grades! You’re just being horrible because you hate your job and you want to make the rest of us miserable!” Nannette shouted.
“It’s one of my great joys in life,” Margaret sneered. “Squashing hopeful little girls like you.”
“Don’t be mean to her!” Erik jumped into the fray and grabbed a cup of water from the desk in front of him. He flung the little bit of water at Margaret who jumped back with a shriek. “You give us our passing status now!”
Margaret wiped at her damp shirt, but when she looked up, they were surprised to see that her expression was kindly, even sympathetic. “I know. I had hoped that you would just find an enemy in me and leave, but it doesn’t seem that you will. So let me explain something to you. We have an obligation to certify only those who have earned it. That being said, we also have an obligation to fail at least thirty percent of the supplicants. That’s our quota and unfortunately, this year, it’s you.”
“What? You have to fail thirty percent?” Erik asked, flabbergasted.
“Of course. If everyone passed, it would be determined that the test is too easy. The state would come down on us to make a harder test. So, despite the fact that you each earned passing grades, so did many others. We had to choose certain people to fail and ended up doing a random selection this year. Your names came up in the lottery.”
“So you didn’t mean anything you said before?” Amelia asked.
“Of course not. I sympathize with your plight. I wish I could change it, but it’s a systemic issue. Testing is not a perfect science. Nothing is when there is a human factor.” She shrugged.
“So that’s it? We can’t get our certifications?” Ian asked.
“I’m sorry,” said Margaret. “There’s nothing I can do.”
“There must be something!” Amelia said. “Martin said that you could change the status if both officials agree.”
Margaret shook her head. “Martin always does love to make me the bad guy. The system is what it is. Until someone changes the system, we have to abide by the laws of the state.”
“That’s stupid,” said Ian.
“I agree,” Margaret admitted, “but I don’t see what else we could do.”
“We could change the system,” said Amelia.
“We could what?” Erik asked.
“We could change the system,” she repeated. “There must be a way to fix this and I’m not going to stop here. I earned a passing score and I deserve my certification. The same goes for all of you.” She turned back to Margaret. “Will you help us?”
It had been a long time since Margaret had seen anyone who had the motivation and idealism to think that she could effect such a change. She was reminded of herself twenty-five years prior, when she had first started on her journey. She felt inspired, but she also knew the challenges that Amelia and her friends would face.
“Amelia, I don’t think you realize what you’re taking on,” she began. Amelia’s face hardened into a stubborn, determined cast. Margaret sighed. “I would be happy to help as much as I can.” She wrote the name of her supervisor with contact information on a piece of paper and handed it over. “I can’t guarantee that he’ll speak with you, but you can try.”
“Thank you,” said Amelia. “We will be in touch.” She marched out of Margaret’s office and out of the building, clutching the paper in her hand like a trophy. The others followed behind her. Margaret watched them go through her office window. There was a knock at her door.
“Come in, Martin,” she said without turning around.
“I gather they were unsuccessful,” he rumbled.
“As you knew they would be,” she responded. “Still, they may yet surprise us. It only takes on voice of dissent to make a difference.”
“That’s very optimistic of you.” He came to stand by her at the window.
“Perhaps I’m getting hopeful in my old age,” she joked. Then she added quietly, “I wish her luck.”