The walk from the school entrance to Mr. Lyle’s room was still way too short. A girl should have more time to contemplate the meaning of life on the way to her execution. The small camera perched atop its leggy tripod looked innocent enough, but so did an electric chair.
“Oops. Sorry,” sneered Tanya, “accidentally” bumping my desk. Two books thumped on the floor while my homework papers, like snowflakes, drifted slowly down after them.
And I actually left her alone this morning.
Tanya prodded the mess with her toe. “Charlotte’s Web? Why bother reading it when you can watch the movie?” she jeered.
It didn’t help that I agreed with her.
The bell rang as I shoved the last of the papers inside my desk while the camera glared at me with its Cyclops eye. Under my hoodie, I started to sweat.
Mr. Lyle breezed in, dressed in black from head to toe. “We’ve got twenty-two reports to get through, people, so let’s get cracking.”
Cracking? You mean like bones splintering? My heart rate jumped from “agitated” to “totally freaking out.”
Mr. Lyle patted the camera lovingly. “As you can see, we’re recording again.” Groans. “This time, however, you’ll be taking your DVDs home so you can critique yourselves.”
Several relieved sighs and a quiet, “Yes!” sounded from around the room, but not from me. “Home” meant too little privacy (thanks to no doors) and too much sarcasm (thanks to Nate).
Mr. Lyle waved his hands, his pockets jangling like rusty chains. “However, to make sure you’re properly motivated, we’ll be taking a vote after each report. If the reporter does a good job, keeps you interested, or persuades you to read the book, raise your hand. If not, don’t. I’ll be taking these votes into consideration when I assign grades, so be convincing.”
I wiped clammy hands on my jeans. Why bother reading it when you can watch the movie? Why bother? Why bother? The question tormented me like a mental mosquito. And the worst part was I didn’t have an answer to swat it with.
“We’ll do these in alphabetical order,” said Mr. Lyle. “Please give your attention to Rachel Adams as she tells us about her book. Rachel?”
Rachel might’ve given the best report ever, but I didn’t hear a word of it. Or the seven after her, for that matter. I raised my hand for all of them and prayed someone would do the same for me.
“Christine Kendall, you’re up. Why don’t you tell us about your book.”
I stood slowly and shuffled to the front of the classroom. “Wuss, wuss, wuss,” my shoes scuffed on the gritty floor. My face felt hot, my hands cold. I shoved them in my pockets and faced the class.
“My book is Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White,” I said, my voice cracking.
Tanya had to be loving it, but I refused to look at her. Why give her the satisfaction? My eyes found Eric instead. It wasn’t hard – his fluorescent green shirt lit up two whole rows. Its spidery lettering declared, “I feel much better now that I’ve lost all hope.”
Suddenly, I wanted to laugh.
“My book is Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White,” I repeated louder. “It takes place on a farm.”
I thought about Charlotte and Wilbur, about friendship and loyalty and sacrifice. About miracles. I wasn’t throwing up – a miracle in itself.
C’mon, Christine. Pull yourself together. You read the book!
“It’s got a pretty strange group of characters – a sensitive pig, a motherly spider and a grumpy rat that kind of reminds me of my brother.”
A couple of kids chuckled and I took off. I talked about pig slop and web writing, soap powder and butchering time. I ended with Wilbur’s fateful trip to the county fair, but left everyone hanging at the end. Tanya’s biting question still nagged at me, but I was getting better at ignoring it.
“I actually liked the book,” I said, suddenly realizing it was true. “And I hate spiders, so that’s saying something. But why should you bother reading it when you can watch the movie?”
Oh no. Did I say that out loud?
I talked fast, stalling for time. “If it’s for a homework assignment, you’d better. Because if your parents find out you’re taking a DVD short cut, things can get ugly.”
I searched the faces of my classmates for inspiration, but all I saw were blank stares. Was it lunch time? I couldn’t see the clock. Unless the lunch bell rang in the three seconds, I was sunk – torpedoed out of the water (again) by my own stupid mouth. C’mon lunch bell!
Lunch! That’s it!
“I guess you could say it’s like eating,” I said, like I’d known all along. “Watching a movie is like eating on the run, cramming your food down at warp speed on your way to something else. You have no idea what you ate or if it tasted good. When you read Charlotte’s Web, it’s like eating out. You get your meal a little at a time – a salad or some bread, a steak and maybe later a dessert – so you can enjoy all the different flavors. Sure, steak takes longer to chew, but when you finish a meal like that you’re full. Satisfied. And that’s why you should read Charlotte’s Web.”
“Thank you, Christine,” said Mr. Lyle, smiling.
I floated over to my desk, collapsed in the seat and let out a sigh that came all the way from my shaky knees.
“Class? Let’s get a vote,” said Mr. Lyle, dragging me back to earth. “How many of you would like to read Charlotte’s Web after hearing Christine’s report?”
Tanya folded her arms across her chest and glared at anyone who even thought about moving. One bright green arm stuck high in the air.
God bless Eric!
Slowly, another boy raised his hand. Then two more. It wouldn’t get me elected class president, but it was a start.
When it was Eric’s turn, I decided I’d wave both arms and cheer… until he introduced his book.
The Wind in the Willows? You’ve got to be kidding me! Why, God?
I seriously considered hiding in the bathroom until I saw Tanya’s face. It wasn’t pretty. I stayed put.
Well Lord, I guess I should thank you for the chance to hear what I missed. But please let him talk fast!
Eric didn’t talk fast, but he didn’t talk long either. I raised an unenthusiastic hand when it was over. After all, it wasn’t his fault I didn’t like the book. Tanya sat with her hands in her lap looking as flexible as a granite boulder.
“Tanya Webster, you’re next.”
I perked up.
Maybe she stinks at book reports. Maybe she’ll pass out or throw up. Maybe nobody will raise their hand and she’ll never show her face here again!
Smiling grimly, I contemplated Tanya’s failure, humiliation and embarrassment. My fun was cut short by a harsh sound.
She gets saved by the lunch bell! Oh well. At least I can swallow now. I thought about my handful of votes, my chin coming up. Maybe I’ll have someone to talk to!
Unfortunately, my whole class ended up with silent lunch. After being cooped up all morning with book reports, who could blame us for being a little restless? Okay, we were more than a little restless, but we hadn’t gotten completely out of control. Yet. At the rate I was going, it was going to take until high school to make any friends. I sat in the darkened cafeteria, a limp pb and j dangling from one hand, and counted the seconds as they clicked by.
“You must like the view from up here,” said Eric, joining me on the monkey bars at recess. “Or are you just tired of being short?”
“I’m not short, I’m small,” I argued. Trolls were short. Pixies were small. “Oh – and thanks.”
“For calling you ‘short’?”
I laughed. “No, goofball. For the shirt. It made me laugh when I wanted to… when I needed a good laugh.”
“No problem. I had to get dressed today anyway,” he said, grinning.
“No shirt, no shoes, no service?” I teased.
“Something like that.”
I ducked my head. “And thanks for voting for me,” I said quietly. “I was afraid nobody would.”
“I just did what Mr. Lyle told us to. It wasn’t like I was being nice, or anything.”
“Hey Eric, you wanna play?” hollered Zack, tossing a dark red kickball in his hand. He’d voted for me too. “The foursquare court finally thawed.”
“Sure!” said Eric jumping down. “You wanna come Christine?”
“I dunno. What’s foursquare?”
“You mean you’ve never played? You’re pretty sheltered for a city girl,” teased Eric. “What did you do in Atlanta? Talk on cell phones all day?”
I swung down from the monkey bars, hands on my hips. “Not all day. For your information, I studied capoeira.” I’d only signed up for classes because it had the weirdest name, but he didn’t need to know that.
“Cop-uh-where-uh. It’s a Brazilian form of martial arts that combines both fighting and dance,” I said loftily.
“Well, foursquare is a form of recess arts that combines a ball and four squares. Shouldn’t be any trouble for a martial artist who can fight and dance at the same time.”
Eric walked to the far end of the blacktop where a large square was painted in white. Two crossed lines neatly divided the larger square into four smaller ones.
“Stay in your square,” explained Eric, pointing at one of the small ones. “Bounce the ball into one of the other three. Repel anything that bounces your way before it hits the ground again. Oh – and no cell phones.” He grinned.
It wasn’t capoeira, but that was a good thing. I stunk at capoeira. Eric bounced the ball to me and I gave it a gentle push, afraid I’d hit it out. A few more bounces, though, and I was starting to get the hang of it.
“Is that all you got?” said Eric a few minutes later.
“What is this, pick on the new girl? You asked for it!”
The game sped up, all four of us giving maximum effort. Balls came in low and fast, returns were harder. The playground noises faded to the background, drowned out by the rhythm of the game as I focused on my next shot.
The bell rang and we raced to the door. Tanya took the lead as usual.
Your turn in front of the firing squad, I thought gleefully, tucking my hands under my armpits in anticipation of my “vote.”
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
The familiar words prickled like I’d sat on a pinecone. I’d hoped Tanya would pass out or get sick, but suddenly I felt sick.
But I can’t vote for her! And what about Eric? All he did was vote for my book and she trashed him too.
I shuffled down the hallway, arguments bouncing through my head like foursquare balls.
The bathroom! I’ll hide.
Mr. Lyle’s sawtooth voice cut the thought short. “Okay, time for Book Reports Take Two. Tanya?”