Authors: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
ALSO BY LYNDA MULLALY HUNT
One for the Murphys
NANCY PAULSEN BOOKS
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2015 by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
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Fish and tree silhouettes used under license from Shutterstock.com.
Title lettering by Kristin Logsdon.
For teachers . . .
who see the child before the student,
who remind us that we all have
special gifts to offer the world,
who foster the importance of standing out
rather than fitting in.
And for kids . . .
who find their grit to conquer life’s challenges—
no matter what those challenges may be.
You are heroes.
This book is for you.
It’s always there. Like the ground underneath my
“Well, Ally? Are you going to write or aren’t you?” Mrs. Hall asks.
If my teacher were mean it would be easier.
“C’mon,” she says. “I know you can do it.”
“What if I told you that I was going to climb a tree using only my teeth? Would you say I could
Oliver laughs, throwing himself on his desk like it’s a fumbled football.
Shay groans. “Ally, why can’t you just act normal for once?”
Near her, Albert, a bulky kid who’s worn the same thing every day—a dark T-shirt that reads
—sits up straight. Like he’s waiting for a firecracker to go off.
Mrs. Hall sighs. “C’mon, now. I’m only asking for one page describing yourself.”
I can’t think of anything worse than having to describe myself. I’d rather write about something more positive. Like throwing up at your own birthday party.
“It’s important,” she says. “It’s so your new teacher can get to know you.”
I know that, and it’s exactly why I don’t want to do it. Teachers are like the machines that take quarters for bouncy balls. You know what you’re going to get. Yet, you don’t know, too.
“And,” she says, “all that doodling of yours, Ally. If you weren’t drawing all the time, your work might be done. Please put it away.”
Embarrassed, I slide my drawings underneath my blank writing assignment. I’ve been drawing pictures of myself being shot out of a cannon. It would be easier than school. Less painful.
“C’mon,” she says, moving my lined paper toward me. “Just do your best.”
Seven schools in seven years and they’re all the same. Whenever I do my best, they tell me I don’t try hard enough. Too messy. Careless spelling. Annoyed that the same word is spelled different ways on the same page. And the headaches. I always get headaches from looking at the brightness of dark letters on white pages for too long.
Mrs. Hall clears her throat.
The rest of the class is getting tired of me again. Chairs slide. Loud sighs. Maybe they think I can’t hear their words:
Freak. Dumb. Loser.
I wish she’d just go hang by Albert, the walking Google page who’d get a better grade than me if he just blew his nose into the paper.
The back of my neck heats up.
I don’t get it. She always lets me slide. It must be because these are for the new teacher and she can’t have one missing.
I stare at her big stomach. “So, did you decide what you’re going to name the baby?” I ask. Last week we got her talking about baby names for a full half hour of social studies.
“C’mon, Ally. No more stalling.”
I don’t answer.
“I mean it,” she says, and I know she does.
I watch a mind movie of her taking a stick and drawing a line in the dirt between us under a bright blue sky. She’s dressed as a sheriff and I’m wearing black-and-white prisoner stripes. My mind does this all the time—shows me these movies that seem so real that they carry me away inside of them. They are a relief from my real life.
I steel up inside, willing myself to do something I don’t really want to do. To escape this teacher who’s holding on and won’t let go.
I pick up my pencil and her body relaxes, probably relieved that I’ve given in.
But, instead, knowing she loves clean desks and things just so, I grip my pencil with a hard fist. And scribble all over my desk.
” She steps forward quick. “Why would you
The circular scribbles are big on top and small on the bottom. It looks like a tornado and I wonder if I meant to draw a picture of my insides. I look back up at her. “It was there when I sat down.”
The laughter starts—but they’re not laughing because they think I’m funny.
“I can tell that you’re upset, Ally,” Mrs. Hall says.
I am not hiding that as well as I need to.
“She’s such a freak,” Shay says in one of those loud whispers that everyone is meant to hear.
Oliver is drumming on his desk now.
I fold my arms and stare up at her.
” Mrs. Hall finally says. “To the office.
I wanted this but now I am having second thoughts.
Everyone laughs again. She puts up her hand. “Anyone else who makes a sound gives up their recess.” The room is quiet.
to the office.”
I can’t go see our principal, Mrs. Silver, again. I go to the office so much, I wonder when they’ll hang up a banner that says W
“I’m sorry,” I say, actually meaning it. “I’ll do it. I promise.”
She sighs. “Okay, Ally, but if that pencil stops moving, you’re
She moves me to the reading table next to a Thanksgiving bulletin board about being grateful. Meanwhile, she sprays my desk with cleaner. Glancing at me like she’d like to spray
with cleaner. Scrub off the dumb.
I squint a bit, hoping the lights will hurt my head less. And then I try to hold my pencil the way I’m supposed to instead of the weird way my hand wants to.
I write with one hand and shield my paper with the other. I know I better keep the pencil moving, so I write the word “Why?” over and over from the top of the page to the very bottom.
One, because I know how to spell it right and two, because I’m hoping someone will finally give me an answer.
For Mrs. Hall’s baby shower, Jessica shows up with
such a big bunch of flowers from her father’s florist shop that you’d swear she ripped a bush out of the ground and wrapped the bottom in foil.
Whatever. I don’t care. I found a bright card with yellow roses at the store. And a picture of flowers won’t dry up in a week. I feel like it’s my way of saying I’m sorry for being such a pain all the time.
Max gives his present to Mrs. Hall. He leans back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head as she opens it. He’s given her diapers. I think he hoped to get a reaction from her and seems disappointed when she’s happy.
Max likes attention. He also likes parties. Just about every day, he asks Mrs. Hall for a party, and today, he’s finally getting one.
When Mrs. Hall slides my card out of the envelope, she doesn’t read it out loud like all the others. She hesitates, and I know that she must really love it. And I feel proud, which isn’t something I feel very much.
Mrs. Silver leans over to look. I figure I might finally get a compliment for once, but instead, her eyebrows bunch up and she motions me toward the door.
Shay has gotten up to look. She laughs and says, “The world gets dumber every time Ally Nickerson speaks.”
down,” Mrs. Hall says, but it’s too late. You can’t make people unhear something. I should be used to this, but it still takes a piece out of me every time.
As Shay and Jessica laugh, I remember how we dressed up as our favorite book characters for Halloween last week. I came as Alice in Wonderland, from the book my grandpa read to me a ton of times. Shay and her shadow, Jessica, called me Alice in Blunderland all day.
Keisha steps up to Shay and says, “Why don’t you mind your own business for once?”
I like Keisha. She isn’t afraid. And I’m afraid of so much.
Shay turns, looking like she’s ready to swat a fly. “Like it’s
business?” she asks her.
“That’s right. It’s
my business, but it’s as much yours . . . as it is mine,” Keisha replies.
Shay lets out a small gasp. “
talking to me.”
being mean,” Keisha replies, leaning forward.
Max folds his arms and leans forward across his desk. “
There’s going to be a fight,” he says.
going to be a
” Mrs. Hall says.
Suki is holding one of her small wooden blocks. She has a collection of them that she keeps in a box and I’ve seen her take one out when she gets nervous. She’s nervous now.
Shay glares at Keisha. Keisha is new this year and I’m surprised she’s said something.
Everyone is all riled up and I don’t even know how this all happened.
While Mrs. Hall tells them both to cool off and points out to Max that it’s foolish to root for a fight, Mrs. Silver waves me toward the door. What the heck is going on?
Once we’re out in the hallway, I can tell by Mrs. Silver’s face that it’s going to be another one of those times when I’ll have to say I’m sorry or explain why I’ve done something. The thing is, I have no idea why I’m even in trouble this time.
I stuff my hands in my pockets to keep them from doing something I’ll regret. I wish I could put my mouth in there, too.
“I just don’t get it, Ally,” she says. “You’ve done other things that have been inappropriate, but this is just . . . well . . .
It’s not like you.”
It figures; I do something
and she says it isn’t like me. And I can’t understand how buying a card is bad.
“Ally,” Mrs. Silver says. “If you’re looking for attention, this isn’t the way to do it.”
She has that wrong. I need attention like a fish needs a snorkel.
The door swings all the way open, hitting the lockers, and Oliver springs from the room. “Ally,” he says. “I think you gave her that card to tell her you’re sorry she has to leave us to go have some dumb baby. She’s probably really sad. I feel sorry for her, too.”
What is he
“Oliver?” Mrs. Silver asks. “Is there a reason you’re out here?”
“Yeah! I was going to . . . um . . . I was . . . going to go to the boys’ room. Yeah. That’s it.” And off he runs.
“Can I just go now?” I blurt out, feeling like the job of just standing here is something I can’t do for another second.
She shakes her head a bit as she speaks. “I just don’t get it. Why in the
would you give a pregnant woman a sympathy card?”
I think. And I think some more. And then I remember. My mom sends those to people when someone they love dies. My stomach churns, wondering what Mrs. Hall must have thought.
“You do know what a sympathy card
Ally, don’t you?”
I should deny that I know, but I nod because I don’t want to have to hear Mrs. Silver explain it. And besides, she’ll think I’m even dumber than I am. If that’s possible.
“Then why would you do such a thing?”
I stand tall, but everything inside shrinks. The thing is, I feel real bad. I mean, I felt terrible when the neighbor’s dog died, never mind if a baby had died. I just didn’t know it was a sad card like that. All I could see were beautiful yellow flowers. And all I could imagine was how happy I was going to make her.
But there are piles of reasons I can’t tell the absolute truth.
Not to her.
Not to anyone.
No matter how many times I have prayed and worked and hoped, reading for me is still like trying to make sense of a can of alphabet soup that’s been dumped on a plate. I just don’t know how other people do it.