Updated: Jul 18, 2022
Shayla Williams knew the routine of Report Card Day by heart, and it still made her nervous. She'd received the same envelope as everyone else, and hadn't opened it yet. She had every reason to believe that there'd be no issues with it, but that wouldn't matter. On Report Card Day, all that mattered was getting Mom's stamp of approval. Dad was fine as long as she wasn't failing or getting grades below an A or B. But Mom expected excellence. All the time. Straight A's were the only option.
Sitting next to Shayla on the bus ride home, CJ had different reasons for not opening her envelope. To her, Report Card Day meant the passing of another academic milestone. One cycle closer to the end of the school year. At her house, Mom didn't care about anything except herself. Report cards and school in general weren't priorities, so even if CJ were failing, Mom wouldn't flinch. Fortunately, CJ had stopped worrying about whether Mom cared by now.
CJ's full name was Crystal Jenkins, and she'd been Shayla's best friend since kindergarten. Both girls lived in the same neighborhood with only three houses between each other. When the bus reached their block and everyone got off, CJ could see how nervous Shayla was by the way she ran her thumb back and forth over her fingernails. She didn't know how Shayla's mom punished her if her grades didn't meet her standards, but she guessed it wasn't good because Shayla never talked about it. No complaints about not being able to hang out with her over the weekend. No frustration over being grounded until grades improved. No acknowledgement at all.
The girls parted ways, and when CJ walked through her front door, she was greeted by silence. A year ago, silence scared her because it meant Mom was gone and might not come back. The meaning hadn't changed since then, but CJ had. In Mom's absence, she'd learned how to take better care of herself. Now, she was more comfortable cooking and cleaning up afterwards, then settling in to watch a movie, read, or listen to music.
On especially good days, Shayla's mom would let her come over to spend the night, and the girls would have the house to themselves. CJ knew enough about Shayla's mom to know the older woman didn't care much for her or her mom. Not enough to speak when they crossed paths, and when CJ had walked to Shayla's house once to ask if she could come out to play, the woman had stared with a look of open disgust before gesturing Shayla out the door.
'I overheard her and Dad one night.' Shayla had explained nervously. 'Mom told him she knew where your mom liked to spend her evenings, and it wasn't in respectable positions.'
At that, CJ had grown quiet. Too many nights had ended with her waking to the sound of a different car pulling into the driveway. Sometimes, the driver would talk to Mom, then leave after she walked into the house. Sometimes, the car would sit idling before a door opened and Mom came inside. Only once did CJ hear a car shut off completely before both doors opened and Mom came inside with the driver.
'She spends nights with men.' CJ had said bluntly. 'That shouldn't mean I'm disgusting to your mom.'
'I think...she just thinks you'll end up like her.' Shayla had replied.
'Oh well. Then that's her.'
CJ had accepted the reason Mrs. Williams thought the way she did by realizing that it was due to Mom's behavior, not hers. Just because she looked like Mom didn't mean she was going to make the same bad decisions as her.
Dragging her thoughts back to the present, CJ walked into the kitchen to consider her dinner options. The refrigerator held thawing ground beef and leftover chicken along with a pot of rice and green beans. Still unsure of what she wanted to do with the beef, CJ took out the chicken, rice, and green beans and made two plates using tupperware containers. Then she left one in the fridge, put the pot in the sink to be washed, and warmed the second plate in the microwave. Once the food was ready, CJ took the plate into the living room and set up the DVD player.
Tonight's film was Joseph: King of Dreams, a classic in CJ's mind. She'd read the biblical story several times, but enjoyed the adaptation too. It helped encourage her to stay the course in spite of her circumstances.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Shayla suppressed a shiver as she waited for her mom to say something. She hated it when Mom just stared at her because she could never tell what she was thinking. Dad wouldn't be home for another hour or two, so it was just them now. Shayla should've been used to the silence by now, but she wasn't. She just wasn't.
Tiffany Marie Williams considered herself an accomplished Christian woman. She'd insisted that Jeremy marry her when she found out she was pregnant, and done all she could to make sure Shayla's delivery into the world was successful. Now, as she looked at her daughter's report card, she wondered if she'd made the right choice when she allowed her to enter public school. Of her four primary classes, she was only passing Language Arts with a ninety. Social Studies: eighty-seven. Science: eighty-nine. Math: eighty-six. Unacceptable. They might as well be F's.
Struggling to control her anger, Tiffany slammed the paper down on the table, stood, and folded her arms, ignoring the way Shayla flinched.
"Why..." Tiffany asked "do you insist...on bringing this garbage home to me?"
Shayla couldn't stop the tears from forming as she forced herself to keep looking at Mom's face.
"An eighty-seven?! Eighty-nine?! Eighty-six?! Is that really the best you can do?!"
Shayla tried to answer, but couldn't. Every time Mom yelled at her like this, her throat seemed to close up and her voice faltered. There never seemed to be an acceptable answer.
"You barely made an A in Language Arts," Tiffany continued. "But you can pass P.E. and Keyboarding with flying colors?! You think that's going to get you anywhere good in life?!"
"I...tried." Shayla managed.
Taking her report card off the table, Tiffany squatted in front of Shayla and held it up to her face.
"Not hard enough." She said coldly. "When I look at this, I see garbage. I don't want garbage from you, Shayla. I want gold. And unless you want your play times with that street girl to stop for the rest of the year, you're going to give it to me."
At the mention of CJ, Shayla's eyes widened in horror. Tiffany stood again and held out her report card.
"Take this and go to your room," She ordered. "I want one hundred lines done before dinner tonight. I will not bring home garbage. I will bring gold."
With a soft whimper, Shayla snatched the paper and ran upstairs. She knew better than to slam the door, but once it was closed, she buried her face in her pillow and screamed. Screamed. Screamed.
I will not bring home garbage. I will bring gold.
I will not bring home garbage. I will bring gold.
Shayla stared at the last page of her lines and sighed. She didn't understand what she'd done wrong. Why couldn't Mom be happy with her A's and B's the way Dad was? He wouldn't call it garbage or filth or unacceptable. But Mom wanted straight A's like Shayla's first progress report and report card.
School had been easier then. Shayla had understood all the work. But gradually, more and more things were added, and she started to get confused about which event went where in Social Studies or which area to start in when it came to equations in Math. Asking teachers for help led to after school tutoring, and even though it didn't cost anything, Mom was annoyed.
'How is it that the time you spend in class already isn't enough?!' She'd demanded. 'What are you doing all day?!'
Thankfully, Dad helped convince Mom that the tutoring was for the best. It had helped, but not as fast as Mom wanted. Now, Shayla's grades weren't improving enough and her rare days with CJ were at risk.
Just as Shayla felt fresh tears forming, her computer's screen lit up.