Heather Primm never anticipated that a single blog post could ruin her life.
Heather’s scoop about steroid use by key players on the school football team sets off an investigation that strips the Orchard Valley Thunderbolts of their state title—and earns Heather a coveted journalism prize. Hated by those involved in the scandal, despised by jealous members of the newspaper staff, ignored by her newly-popular ex-boyfriend, and even berated by her mother, Heather is attacked and a chilling “T” is carved into her face.
Now stigmatized as a traitor, she becomes the object of scorn for nearly all of Orchard Valley High. But when the school offers to send her to a private academy to hush up the matter, Heather is forced to make a decision. Should she refuse to allow fear to control her life by holding to the truth, or accept the chance to escape and build a new life?
Written by a veteran English teacher, The Scarred Letter weaves themes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter into an accessible, intelligent tale of modern isolation and a young woman’s quest for truth and acceptance.
“Authentic reboot of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for today’s readers. Heather Primm publishes the truth on her blog and pays an appalling price. It’s up to Heather’s younger sister to remind her what’s true and what’s not—and help her find a way forward. A powerful book.” — Adele Abott, author, Of Machines & Magics and Postponing Armageddon
“High school becomes the perfect substitute for Hawthorne’s Puritan society in this accessible take on The Scarlet Letter. Surrounded by ruthless cliques and wannabe outsiders, Heather finds out just how hard standing up for yourself and your beliefs can be. A powerful message for readers of all ages.” — Sheri S. Levy, author, Seven Days to Goodbye
If you’re here looking for an apology, you won’t find it. All I did was write the truth, so why should I apologize? Is it my fault that everyone wants to be ostriches with their heads in the sand?
I’m not apologizing.
I’m not sure what to expect for the first day of school. I never anticipated such a reaction from the community. I never anticipated all the anger. It’s just… my father always told me to follow my heart, and that’s what I did.
So why should I apologize?
It’s been just two days since the post and already 457 comments, mostly negative. Talk about going viral… I think I’ll keep this blog offline for a while. At least until the fallout clears.
In any case, the deed is done. The pen sure is mighty (the keyboard, that is).
# # #
Burton leaned over the rail as his fellow students scurried below him like rodents. Jocks, nerds, Goths, gamers, popular preppies, isolated rebels—all of them horrible and cruel—poured their way into the ancient auditorium of Orchard Valley High School. Burton scowled at the way the Thunderbolts’ red and black spirit-wear dominated the rest and seemed to congregate toward the front. But it wasn’t the school colors he was searching for—she wouldn’t be wearing those. He sneered at those below, glad that the shadows of the catwalk, dozens of feet above the crowd, hid him from the spirited masses. From the shadows, he could find her. If someone were to look up, only Burton’s sneering teeth would be visible in the darkness.
A group of the school’s most popular girls gathered behind all the seats. They stepped daintily down the sloping aisle with their perfectly-coordinated fall heels and smoothed their hair each time they moved. Their shrill voices traveled up to Burton, and he listened, savoring their words. They’d heard rumors about that gossip, Heather Primm, and her role in this assembly, and they wanted to see first-hand just how the situation would play out. They held their cell phone cameras at the ready in case she decided to embarrass herself.
The football players, dressed in uniform for the evening’s game, pushed through the crowd to sit together, coloring the front corner of the auditorium with bright red jerseys. Burton clenched his teeth at the terrible things they said about Heather. The subject of the assembly had changed their lives. They wanted a front-row seat to watch her fry.
Other students shuffled in leisurely, probably glad for the opportunity to miss class. Teachers ushered them into the seats, suppressing looks of worry in bitten lips or frowns, throwing looks at each other that asked, “How is this going to end?”
Burton crouched on the catwalk to catch a final glimpse of the situation. The ancient auditorium had seen little renovation since its construction. The hard, wooden chairs were stiff and rickety. They creaked and groaned as if the tortured souls of past students—cruel, careless students—were trapped inside and struggling to get out. Burton couldn’t help but smile. The seats were commiserating—or perhaps celebrating—with him.
He shrugged off the idea and hurried away. The auditorium was beginning to quiet, and if he was going to get down from the catwalk, he had to do it now. He hurried down the ladder toward the control box at the back of the auditorium’s second story and then took secret shortcuts through the twisted maze of the aging school’s haphazard second floor. Much of Orchard Valley remained in the same state as the auditorium, and sneaking around was easy enough for someone who knew the way and could stand the aging building. The heating units clanged in the winter; the windows stuck in the summer. In classrooms, walls crumbled and paint cracked. The cafeteria retained decades’ worth of school lunch smells in the form a musty film that clung to the clothes of all who entered. None of this bothered Burton, of course.
But there were two elements of Orchard Valley that the School Board saw fit to keep in prime condition—and even renovate. And these bothered Burton immensely. The first was the school’s football stadium. What was once a baseball diamond and a pastoral tree-lined field had been renovated into a multi-million-dollar affair. The rubberized track boasted the school’s colors, red with sharp black lines marking the lanes. The red-and-black track surrounded bright green Astroturf, something other teams described as “awesome but intimidating,” Burton remembered reading in The Observer. The stadium had been a gift from the taxpayers thanking the Orchard Valley Thunderbolts for their steadily-increasing achievements in football, culminating with their rise to state champions two years in a row. With the prodigious success of the team came countless college scouts and newspaper reporters bringing yet more acclaim to the high school.
The football stadium even spilled into the main entrance of the school, above which Burton traveled even now. There, the hallway between the main office and the auditorium had been renovated to include prominently-lit display cases draped with red and black velvet under a glowing row of track lighting. They offered great photo ops for an aspiring reporter like Burton, especially the largest case, which displayed—until recently—the school’s newest state championship trophy.
The second element of Orchard Valley High School that had earned a renovation was the newspaper office. With the rise of the football team, the school newspaper had been cited state-wide for its coverage of the team’s unbelievable success. The office had been requisitioned from the library. The library’s second floor, once used to archive periodicals, had been cleared out and renovated for the now-famous—but still ungrateful, Burton noted—state championship newspaper staff. What’s more, a series of three windows had been cut into the walls, allowing those in the newspaper office to look down upon the plebeians in the main hallway below.
Even now, as the population struggled into the auditorium, he pulled his black leather jacket tighter and snuck into that office through a little-known hallway that connected to the auditorium’s control box. R. Burton Childress stood in the shadows of the darkened office of the Orchard Valley Observer. He leaned against the glass of the newspaper office as the last of the student body struggled into the auditorium below like mice gathering into a hole in the wall. His eyebrows drew up, unsettled. The lighting shadowed his eyes, hiding them in the crevices of their sockets, and he made sure his hair remained brushed down over the left side of his face and ear. His lips moved, though he did not speak. They moved repeatedly, mouthing the same two words over and over again: Heather Primm.
# # #
While students struggled into the wobbly chairs, a lone girl snuck through the auditorium doors and dashed into shadow behind all the seats. She pressed her body against the cold concrete wall all the way in the back and tried to remember how to breathe.
“Find a seat—any seat!” the teachers shouted above the din of student chatter.
The students quieted somewhat, but even the teachers were upstaged by the stentorian roar of Jared Winters, the former football captain, calling his former teammates to his side. As the jocks sauntered to the left wing of the auditorium, the most popular girls congregated at the back. The lone girl hiding in shadows pricked up her ears: they seemed preternaturally active, hearing every horrible thing spoken about her.
“It’s Heather’s fault that Jared was kicked off the team,” one of the girls said, standing right in front of the shadowed Heather. Her red lips pouted, and she pointed to Jared with her eyes. “I heard he lost his college scholarship. If I were him, I’d want Heather to have an accident. A bad one!”
“Totally,” agreed one of her companions, smoothing out her hair. “I heard, like, the school’s going to recognize her at this assembly. I think she should be expelled or something. She’s a traitor. How could anyone turn against her own school like that?”
The newspaper’s assistant editor, Melanie Williams, added her opinion. “If this were a novel, she’d totally be the antagonist. The school should, like, expel her.”
The girls stood so close that their strong, fruity shampoo nauseated Heather, and their bodies radiated the heat of their anger. The shadows squeezed against Heather, and the walls closed in.
A girl snapped her gum and looked around. “This year, we had a shot at our third state championship in a row. Like, no other school can say that! I can’t believe we might have to forfeit last year’s title. What a—” But she had to watch her language because there were teachers everywhere, something for which the hiding Heather Primm was thankful.
“I would be ashamed to show my face around here.” The first girl flicked her hair and scowled. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Heather ended up beat up in the alley behind the dumpster. She’d better watch her back.”
“Ah, but,” added a timid freshman who had contributed an article or two to the school’s newspaper. “Don’t you think it’s punishment enough? I mean, all the athletes hate her now. And if she is recognized at today’s assembly, everyone will hate her for exposing Jared’s steroid use—and getting our title stripped. With every step she takes inside this school, the pain of what she’s done must be excruciating.”
The other girls huffed.
“I just think, like, someone of her talent should be more responsible in how she applies it.” Melanie rolled her eyes. “If I had her writing ability, I wouldn’t waste it exposing things no one wants exposed. At least now, she’s totally ruined her chances of being editor next year.”
“She’s not even on the newspaper staff,” the little freshman reminded them.
“No.” Melanie scowled. “But, like, with the success of her blog, everyone thought she was going to join the staff this year. The newspaper advisor was going to talk to Guidance about it. I guess now with all that’s happened—Mrs. Williams wouldn’t dare! Like, I would hate to have her join the staff and be promoted to editor or something. I’ve been waiting for four years just to be assistant editor. It would be totally unfair.”
Another agreed. “She wouldn’t dare. Besides, have you seen how upset Adam Hollowcast has been lately? You’d think he’d be happy now that he’s the captain of the football team, and only a junior, too. But even he can’t stand what Heather’s done!”
At the insistence of the teachers, the girls walked toward the seats all the way in the front row. They smoothed out their clothes and hair, and checked their makeup and cell phones as they walked.
“Millie’s home sick,” one of the girls announced as she flipped her finger across the screen. “But I promised I’d text her as soon as anything good happened to Heather. I hope she trips or something.” She turned toward the back of the auditorium, and her lips curled into a cruel smile.
In the shadows, Heather wrapped her arms around her abdomen, trying to calm a gurgling stomach.
Throughout the auditorium, the students waited for the assembly to begin. The low rumble of gossip echoed through the antiquated room, but mercifully it had silenced enough that the girl in the shadows could no longer hear the individual conversations. The students were still talking when the guest speaker made his way to the stage. His suit and tie indicated his status, and as he mounted the stage, the students quieted.
Wilson Johnson, the student body president, stood on stage to greet the visitor. “It is my pleasure to introduce our guest speaker for today.”
The girl in the shadows swallowed hard. Wilson paused and squinted at the audience as if his eyes were searching for someone. Reluctance reflected in his face as if he resented his current task, and Heather fought a tinge of guilt.
“Our special guest is a member of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Integrity in Journalism. It’s a rare occasion that a member of such an organization would be visiting a high school…” Wilson paused here, as if he might not finish speaking aloud what was written on his index card. But he took a deep breath, averted his eyes, and continued. “We should all be proud that a member of our very own high school acted in such a way to earn such a prestigious visit. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce Mr. Dan Soothe.”
A spattering of awkward claps filled the silence as Dan Soothe stepped into the spotlight.
“Good morning, Thunderbolts!” he shouted into the microphone.
An ear-piercing squeal reverberated through the speakers. Mr. Soothe frowned and studied his notes to pretend he couldn’t hear the students moaning. Then he looked out onto the audience, seeming to consider each group separately. His eyes lingered on the popular girls up front, the jocks at the side, the Goths in the corner. His eyes seemed contemplative. There was some hesitancy in his face that the girl in the shadows could read well enough to explain. He was afraid he would hurt her. He was afraid the recognition would be a hindrance to Heather rather than a help. But his opinions didn’t matter. As Heather had been informed, the Chapter voted unanimously to confer its most prestigious honor on Heather Primm of Orchard Valley High School, and Mr. Soothe’s duty was to see the matter through.
Mr. Soothe cleared his throat again before continuing, more softly this time. “Today, you have access to an amount of information inconceivable to older generations. You have cell phones, instant messages, email, blogs, news sites, not to mention traditional print sources and a twenty-four hour news cycle. Amidst it all, it’s difficult to keep one’s integrity. Often times, journalists decide to report on what’s popular, or what will bring them positive attention. It takes a rare journalist to divulge the truth without regard for personal consequences.”
At this pause, the squeaky door opened in the back of the auditorium. Myriad eyes turned to stare as Principal Elders appeared in silhouette in the doorframe. With the gesture of his hand, another figure stepped out of the shadows. Principal Elders put a hand on the figure’s shoulder, and the silence in the auditorium grew excruciating.
The two shadows stepped forward, and the door slammed shut, blocking the light which had obscured them from view. A spotlight from the control room above illuminated the mysterious figures, and then only hushed whispers echoed as all eyes watched Principal Elders and Heather Primm walk slowly from the back of the auditorium.
Though she was now the center of attention, Heather worked hard to appear calm. Her dark hair fell smoothly over her shoulders, and she kept her face somber and even. She knew the power of her beauty. It was a look that defied classification into any social clique. She often earned attention from members of the opposite sex. She blinked her eyes, large and inquisitive, drawing in the entire world and all those who caught her gaze. She set her lips and brow in such a way that determination, kindness, and beauty emanated from her.
Though her natural looks could have made her the most popular girl in school, the whimsy of her personality kept her one step removed from social life at Orchard Valley. She often wore vintage clothing which she bought and tailored to suit her peculiar style. Today’s outfit was a royal blue blazer embellished with gold buttons. She looked more suited to anchor a news show than to attend high school, as her mother had reproachfully told her that morning. Her pants were not quite casual and not quite dressy, giving her a bohemian look that seemed to elevate her above the petty concerns of high school fashion.
But the overall blue coloring of her outfit clashed dreadfully with the red-and-black of the rest of the school-spirited auditorium, and that fact brought the semblance of a smile—perhaps only a sneer—to her lips. The spotlight that now illuminated her descent toward the stage spilled into the audience just enough to show her the glowing eyes of her classmates. Some seemed to stare with awe at her beauty or conviction. Others, with jealousy. Heather even felt a few eyes stare with hatred.
But they all stared.
As they did, Mr. Soothe continued speaking on stage. “I’m happy to present this year’s Excellence in Journalism Award to its youngest recipient in the history of our organization: Heather Primm!”
Students clapped, but their applause was swallowed by the silence of the room. Principal Elders pushed Heather forward, but she repelled him with the flick of her shoulder and walked down the sloping auditorium aisle under her own power. Hushed whispers joined the creaking seats as students shifted to follow Heather’s slow descent to the front of the room. Mr. Soothe pulled at his collar, dabbing sweat on his forehead and neck. He was obviously unaccustomed to ear-deafening silence at events like these.
As for Heather, she continued her slow journey—one that seemed excruciatingly painful with all those silent eyes upon her—until she stopped just in front of the stage. Mr. Soothe nodded down at her from his place on the stage and continued speaking. Heather turned around to face the myriad eyes of her peers, but she did not yet climb the stage. The edge of the spotlight danced in her hair, and she peered out through the circle of illumination.
Principal Elders, who had followed a few steps behind Heather, continued up onto the stage. A chair behind Mr. Soothe creaked as Principal Elders sat. Heather felt the burn of his gaze even without looking back.
Mr. Soothe cleared his throat. “I’m sure you’re all well aware of Heather Primm’s blog, Heather’s Letters.”
At the mention of the infamous blog, the auditorium filled with chatter. Heather’s blood burned in her cheeks. She turned to Principal Elders, but he offered no help.
“Now then.” Mr. Soothe cleared his throat against the chatter. “Just before the start of the school year, just as football practice was getting under way, Heather discovered that some students on the football team were gaining an unfair advantage by using performance enhan—”
“Boooo!” one of the football players moaned.
Other members of his team took up the call.
A teacher made a half-hearted effort to silence them.
“As your high school has enjoyed the limelight of two consecutive state championships, this was a disturbing discovery. A discovery many would have ignored.”
Heather glanced back. Principal Elders had lowered his eyes, apparently captivated by the stitching on his shoe.
“And yet Heather had the integrity to bring into the open the possibility that these championships may not have been fairly earned,” Mr. Soothe said.
This last statement prompted even more feedback from the audience, including hissing from the girls in the front row and fake sneezes by the football team to mask their shouted profanities. Heather shrank from the crowd, taking two steps backwards until her back was pressed flat against the stage.
They hissed and hissed at her, and Heather turned, keeping her gaze on the principal; but from his expression Principal Elders seemed not to hear it. Or maybe—judging by the slight way the corner of his lips drew up in the smallest of smiles—he did.
“It took great bravery to break such a story.” Mr. Soothe’s voice shook, and his lips twitched as if he were trying to remain composed. His brow creased in anger as he gazed at the audience, and he had to take a deep breath before continuing. “And while it may not win her popularity, at least she can take pride knowing that she worked with integrity, always in pursuit of the truth. And so Heather Primm, I call you upon the platform to accept your award.”
Heather’s eyes turned to the crowd. It silenced immediately. Some students seemed to look upon her in simple amusement, glad to be out of class for an hour. Others looked upon her the way one looks upon a car wreck, with an uncontrollable pull towards the macabre. Some seemed to draw their lips up ever so slightly, as if they could sympathize with Heather’s agony. But mostly, the students in front—the popular girls and the jocks—looked upon her with malicious enjoyment, for now her transgression against school spirit was being called out into the open, and they could not wait to witness her demise.
Heather stifled a shudder and turned slowly, mounting the five stairs up to the stage. Her footsteps echoed throughout the auditorium, accompanied only by the groaning of the wooden seats, which seemed to be crying out in anguish, vocalizing what she could not.
On the stage, Heather was blinded by the spotlights. She raised her hand to her forehead to block the glare. As her pupils adjusted, however, she took relief: the lights, so painfully bright, blocked her view of the audience, save for the first few rows of spectators. The world moved in slow motion. The speaker on stage was saying something else now, and the students were applauding half-heartedly. Mr. Soothe was presenting something to Heather now, and as if without her approval, Heather’s hands reached forth and grasped it. Not until it was in her hand did Heather see what it was: a black onyx obelisk standing on a base of ivory. On the base plate was inscribed in blinding gold:
# # #
Excellence in Journalism
National Association of Integrity in Journalism
If you would like to teach The Scarred Letter in tandem with Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, we are pleased to offer a free companion study guide, which contains 60 pages of worksheets and exercises that can be copied and distributed to your students. The study guide is also suitable for teaching The Scarred Letter as a stand-alone novel.
Since numerous study guides already exist for The Scarlet Letter, this guide focuses on the compare-contrast aspects of both novels, or The Scarred Letter alone, rather than an in-depth look at The Scarlet Letter.
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