Key to the Test

By Hy Conrad

It’s the first really cold day of the school year, and I guess the furnace isn’t quite cranked up. We’re all shivering in the hallway, but that doesn’t stop Logan and his friends from stopping to chat about the big news.

“Someone stole a copy of the standardized test,” Pete Lopez whispers.

“I hear they’re selling the answers,” Jocelyn whispers back. “I wonder for how much.”

By this point, we’ve all heard the story. “Come on,” says Logan. “You guys would never buy test answers.”

“You wouldn’t.” Pete laughs. “Your mom’s the principal.”

That’s true. Our mother, Mrs. Monroe, is principal of Clifton Lake Middle School. And this is the one year, with me in sixth grade and Logan in eighth, that both her sons are serving time in her school.

I’m standing right by them, wondering if I should go to Mom’s office and tell her. I don’t want to be a snitch, but this is important. And then I see Mom and Mr. Johnson, the big security guard, heading straight for us. I can tell from her attitude that they already know. All the kids stop talking.

“Logan, what do you know about this?”

“Nothing.” Logan hates being caught between Mom and his friends. “I don’t even know if it’s true.”

“It’s true,” Mom tells us. “I left my desk drawer unlocked this morning when I went for coffee. When I came back, the key to the file cabinet was missing. In the file cabinet, I immediately checked the folder with the statewide tests. All the tests were there – except the last page of the eighth grade test. I found that page inside the photocopy machine.”

Mr. Johnson shakes his head. “Not returning the key? Leaving a page in the copier? The thief was obviously in a hurry. Pretty sloppy.”

“Who else was in your office this morning?” That’s me talking as I step out of the shadows.

“Good question,” she says, finally noticing me. Then she turns to Pete and Jocelyn, using that scolding tone principals love to use. “Perhaps you two can answer him.”

It turns out both Pete and Jocelyn were in Mom’s office. Pete came by to drop off his permission slip for a school trip. A few minutes later, Jocelyn came in to hand in the marching band’s newsletter for approval. It would be hard for either of them to deny being there, since the newsletter and the permission slip were both on Mom’s desk when she got back from the teachers’ lounge.

“I went in your office for a few seconds,” says Pete. “And I didn’t touch anything. You can check for fingerprints.”

“Me, too,” says Jocelyn. “I hung around because I wanted to talk to Principal Monroe about the band uniforms. I sat down and looked at a magazine, but then I had to get to class. I don’t think I touched anything else.”

“Couldn’t someone else have been in your office?” Logan asks.

“It’s possible,” Mom admits. “But I was only gone ten minutes.”

“Would it help if you searched their lockers?” Logan asks. Both Jocelyn and Pete agree that they have nothing to hide and that Mom should do it.

Jocelyn is the first. She twirls her combination, opens her locker and stands back. Mom inspects the contents – a few books and notebooks, her coat, a scarf, and a little mirror attached to the back of the door. There’s nothing incriminating and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

Pete’s locker is a few feet away. He twirls his own combination and Mr. Johnson inspects the inside of this one. The security guard pulls out the books stacked on the bottom. All of a sudden something falls out and clangs onto the floor, right by my feet. It’s a little key, and without thinking, I pick it up.

Mom takes it from my hand. “My file cabinet key. Peter?”

“I didn’t do it,” Pete shouts. “Someone must have planted it.”

“Planted it in your locker?” Mom’s eyes are full of disappointment. “Who?”

“Jocelyn knows my combination. A lot of kids know each other’s combinations.”

Everyone starts arguing back and forth, except Logan and me. I catch my brother’s eye and pull him aside. “The key was warm,” I say softly. “When I picked it up.”

“The key was warm?” he repeats. “Is that a clue?”

“It’s a very big clue.”

Are you as smart as Hunter?



“Was it Jocelyn or Peter?” Logan asks. We’re halfway down the hall, all by ourselves.

“Neither,” I tell him. “It was Mr. Johnson.”

Logan is relieved. “And you know this from the warm key?”

I nod. “The key couldn’t have been sitting in the locker. It would have been cold. The easiest way it could be warm was if someone was holding it. I think Mr. Johnson had the key in his hand. When he pretended to be searching Peter’s locker, he dropped it to the floor.”

“So, he’s the one who stole the tests? A security guard?”

“Why not?” I say. “He had access to Mom’s office. I guess he was planning to sell the answers. But when he made his mistake with the key and the copier, he knew he had to blame someone else.”

Logan looks back to the lockers where Jocelyn and Pete are still arguing and a whole crowd is looking on. “Do you want to take credit for this one? You really should.”

I seriously consider it for about three seconds. “No thanks. Maybe next time.”