IN TROUBLE AGAIN
Nine-year-old Mike Weiss slumped in a hard chair outside the principal's office. Fourth grade was supposed to be a fresh start, but he was right back where he always was. Every year since kindergarten, at least once a week. In trouble.
He wasn't a bad kid. He wasn't mean. He didn't hurt anyone. He just couldn't sit still. Sometimes he did things without meaning to. When he had gotten up and walked around during the math test, he really wasn't looking at anybody's paper. He just had to move! But that was against the rules, and he had ignored his teacher's warning, so here he was.
Over the summer, he'd been working on ways to cope. "Strategies," his parents called them. Sometimes they worked, and sometimes they didn't. It looked like the strategies weren't going to change things at school, though. It just wasn't fair.
The principal was on the phone, behind a closed door. Any minute that door would fly open and the same routine would start all over again. Calling his parents. Talking about consequences. Making a plan.
Mike kicked the bottom rung of his chair until Mrs. Warren, the school secretary, glanced up. Then he stared at the floor. There was a bare spot in the rug beneath his feet. Was he the one wearing it thin?
Mrs. Warren had a jar of candy on her desk. Mike wasn't supposed to eat sugar, but one little piece couldn't hurt, right? He got up and helped himself to a chocolate kiss. It made him feel a little better, and Mrs. Warren never minded. She usually left the discipline to the principal.
"Who's your teacher this year, Mike?" she asked kindly.
"Mrs. Canfield," he answered. "She seems nice." He really meant it, too. Until a few minutes ago, he'd thought that maybe Mrs. Canfield would understand him.
"You're going to love her!" said Mrs. Warren. She started putting flyers in the teachers' mailboxes. "She just needs to get to know you," she added. Mrs. Warren knew all about Mike's problems. She had a son just like him, she said. Right down to the brown eyes and the messy hair.
Some first graders walked in with an attendance sheet, staring at him like he was some kind of criminal. That was bad enough. Then Mike heard a class coming down the hall. One of the other fourth-grade teachers was at the front of the line, reminding the kids to be quiet as they made their way to the art room. Before they passed, Mike ducked behind a file cabinet in the office. But it was too late.
"Mike!" a girl called, her ponytail bouncing.
"Hey, Nora," Mike muttered. Her family had recently moved next door to his, and she was just his age. Just his luck.
"Going home sick?" Nora asked. She would never be in the office for any other reason. Nora was gifted, his mom had told him. She needed special classes and extra-challenging homework. She could handle sitting quietly at a desk.
Mike didn't think Nora seemed any different from most kids. She was friendly, and she liked to play four-square. He might have liked her if he didn't know she was good at everything she tried. They definitely didn't have that in common.
"Not exactly sick ..." he said. It was hard to explain. Luckily Nora's teacher was moving her along.
"See you after school!" she said, waving good-bye.
Mike looked around to make sure nobody had heard that. It was still a new arrangement, and he hoped it wouldn't last. He and Nora weren't really friends, but their parents were. They'd hit it off from the day Nora's family moved in. It only took a couple of backyard barbecues before their mothers had cooked up a plan to help each other out after school.
Both sets of parents had flexible schedules, but they couldn't always pick their kids up at three o'clock. So now Nora came to Mike's house when her parents were busy, and Mike went to Nora's when his were. He was going there today, actually. Another fun afternoon of raw vegetables and no screen time at Nora's.
The principal's door was still closed. Mrs. Warren was making a fresh pot of coffee. Mike wondered what his mom had told Nora's. If Nora was gifted, what was he? What was the opposite?
The idea made him so mad that he didn't notice the shadow in the office doorway. It still wasn't the principal. It was much worse. Jackson Jacobs, Mike's enemy since birth, was shaking his head. "Not again!" Jackson said. "It's only the first week of school, man. You're in trouble already?"
Last year Jackson had been in Mike's class. Mike hadn't seen him all summer, even though they lived in the same neighborhood. It looked like Jackson had grown about a foot at camp.
He always knew how to get under Mike's skin. "Hey, where were you at soccer practice?" Jackson asked. For once, he waited to hear what Mike had to say.
Mike gulped. "I'm not playing this year," he said.
"Not playing?" said Jackson, amazed. "But you always play. Charlie and Zack are playing. I saw them on the field."
Mike's best friends, Charlie and Zack, had already given him a hard time. They were on the same team this year, with matching orange jerseys, numbers 12 and 13. "I need to focus on my schoolwork," Mike said. "Soccer is a big commitment."
"Is that what your parents said?" asked Jackson. "So it has nothing to do with the way you never got a goal, right?" He punched Mike playfully on the arm. "What's wrong with you, big guy? Skipping soccer is never going to help your schoolwork. It'll take a lot more than that!"
Jackson headed toward the boys' bathroom, laughing like it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard.
And of course that's when the principal's phone call finally ended. Mike saw the doorknob turning and Ms. Scott's sensible shoes marching toward him. He sat up straight and tried to smile.
"Welcome back," she said, waving him into her office like he was an old friend. He sat down in his usual place in front of her desk, and she sat down in her huge chair. He felt like he was back in preschool. Ms. Scott sighed deeply.
"I don't know what to say, Mike," she began. "It's too early in the year for this. Your mom said you made good progress over the summer. What happened?"
"I don't know," Mike said honestly. "I was taking a test and I needed to get up. I wasn't cheating or anything. I was just ... moving."
"We need to find a way for you to succeed in school," Ms. Scott explained, not for the first time. "You can't keep roaming around during tests, or missing assignments, or fooling around in class. You need to find a way to focus."
What could Mike say? "I know ..." he trailed off.
"I'll need to call your parents," Ms. Scott said. "Mrs. Canfield and I will meet with them as soon as we can find a date."
Mike's parents had already tried a million ways to keep him "on task," as they said. They'd set alarms to go off whenever he had to start a new activity. They made him eat healthy food and get more sleep. Nothing did the trick. "They're already trying," Mike said softly.
"I know they are," said Ms. Scott. "But I know you can do better."
When he finally left the office, Mike tried to look on the bright side. She hadn't said "I'm disappointed in you." She hadn't said "You need to concentrate," like he could just flip a switch. She was trying to say she believed in him. That he could really do it somehow.
But mostly Mike heard Jackson's words ringing in his ears. "What's wrong with you?" He couldn't play soccer, it was true. He couldn't sit still. Or read a long book. Or remember his math facts. Or get through a week of school without ending up in the office. What was wrong with him? Mike wondered.
The answer was pretty simple: everything.
THE WHITE RABBIT
When the bell rang, Mike left school alone. Usually he walked home with Charlie and Zack, but now they had soccer practice twice a week. It was strange to walk through their neighborhood by himself. He knew the people inside every house, but he was totally alone.
Mike wondered what his friends were doing without him. Running loops around the field? Dribbling the ball around orange cones? He wondered if Jackson's team was practicing, too. Mike really didn't want to run into him right now. He just wanted this day to end.
At Nora's back door, he took his shoes off, left them on the porch, and let himself in. Her family had a lot of rules. No shoes in the house. No snacks with artificial ingredients. No fun till the homework was done.
But today Mrs. Finn, Nora's mom, was standing by the door with her car keys. "There's been a change in plans, Mike," she said. "I need to get to the dentist, and it turns out he can fit me in right now. You and Nora will come along, too. Leave your backpack right here and get in the car, okay?"
Mike shrugged. "Sounds good," he said. He was glad he wouldn't be stuck at Nora's.
Nora walked into the kitchen, holding her mom's phone. "We can play games while we're there!" she told Mike. "My mom said it was okay."
Usually, video games weren't allowed. So Mike felt happy for about a second. Then he saw the game Nora had chosen: Scrabble. Of course, he thought. Just like her. Shooting games were against the rules ... and those were the only kind he liked.
The backseat of the van was quiet while Nora tried to make a word. Mike stared out the window as they passed the college where his parents worked. They were teaching right now. Had Ms. Scott called them yet? he wondered.
Mrs. Finn took a right turn, away from downtown. She drove past the ice-cream stand that had just closed and the waterfront restaurant that had been crowded only last month with tourists eating lobster.
The cold season was beginning to set in. By November, people would be hibernating, only coming out to buy more groceries. Winter in Maine was dark and mysterious, Mike's favorite part of the year.
Nora handed him the phone. She'd used all seven of her letters to make the word "erasers." "Fifty points for using them all up," she said. "Your turn."
Mike's letters were all vowels. What words had only vowels? Maybe Nora knew, but he sure didn't. He was tired of looking stupid.
He shifted restlessly in his seat. Mike's mind was so full of worries that he couldn't find a comfortable thought. The principal. His parents. Jackson. Nora. Scrabble. Each one made him squirm.
When they arived, there were a few other people in the dentist's waiting room, and the woman behind the desk had too much to do. "Yes, Mrs. Finn," she said. "I know I said now. But there were two patients in line before you ..."
Those patients glared at Mike as he drummed on the arm of his chair. Nora nudged him. "What about your word?" she asked. She sounded just like a teacher.
"I'm skipping my turn," he said, handing her the phone. "Giving up all my letters and taking more."
"You know you have to subtract points from your score?" Nora asked.
"I don't even have a score!" snapped Mike.
He turned away from her, toward a stack of magazines on a table beside him. Movies, fashion, sports, fishing. Mike flipped through the whole stack, looking for something interesting. Even that was too loud, though. "Shhhhhhh," someone hissed. Mike slammed a magazine down, hard. He was getting mad.
Nora stood. "Can we take a walk?" she asked her mom. "Just around the corner?"
Before her mom could answer, Nora added, "We'll check in after ten minutes. We won't talk to strangers. Please? We need to get out of here." Somehow, she knew that Mike was about to explode.
He felt better as soon as he took a deep breath of the cool air outside. Sometimes all he needed was a change of scenery.
He followed Nora down the quiet street. Not much was going on out here. The dry cleaner on the corner was closed for the day. There was only one customer in the hair salon. After a little while, Nora stopped in front of a weird shop that Mike had never seen before.
The sign on the door looked like it had been there for a hundred years. It said in handwritten letters. But there was a brand-new welcome mat out front. It said BELIEVE in bright red. Mike couldn't figure it out.
"Believe what?" Nora said. "That people ever go shopping here?"
Mike smiled for the first time in hours. "Let's check it out," he replied.
A bell rang when they walked into the store, but nobody came out to greet them. Nora followed Mike into a room full of what his mom would have called antiques, but his dad would have called junk. There were old mirrors, dented trunks, lamps without shades. Mike wrote his name in the dust on a table.
On a shelf near the back, there were a few cool things for sale. Whoopee cushions, disappearing ink, snakes in a can. Jokes and tricks. Instantly, Mike was in a better mood. Who knew there was a joke shop in town?
"Want a piece of gum?" he asked Nora, handing her a pack from the shelf. She reached for the stick that was poking out, and a hidden spring trapped her finger. Lots of girls would have screamed, but Nora cracked up. A gifted girl with a sense of humor? Mike had never met one of those before.
Mike shoved his hands in his pockets. He felt something crinkle. A five-dollar bill! "Look!" he said to Nora. "Let's see what we can get." He totally owed her for getting him out of that waiting room.
She picked up a set of plastic teeth with bright red lips. She wound them up and set them on the floor, where they hopped across the carpet, jaws moving up and down. Nora giggled. "Looks like they're talking!" she said. "Or chewing gum."
A man in a black shirt finally came to the counter. "Can I help you?" he asked. He had a gray beard and bushy hair sticking out like he'd had a shock. When he got closer, Mike could see tiny silver stars shining on his collar.
Mike remembered his manners. "We'll take the chattering teeth, please," he said, and felt in his pocket for the five-dollar bill. Suddenly there was another one. Ten bucks altogether! More money than he'd had since his last birthday.
Mike had no clue how ten bucks had appeared in his pocket, but he knew just what to do. "Make that two sets," he said.
The chattering teeth made the afternoon a little better. Mike and Nora raced their teeth on a windowsill while Mrs. Finn was in the dentist's chair. Mike still felt like a loser, but at least his teeth won first place.
When they got home, his parents had a serious talk with him. They talked about setting limits. They talked about getting him a tutor. It wasn't as bad as he'd expected. At least it wasn't anything new.
After dinner, Mike went outside to ride his bike in the driveway. Pretty soon Jackson came around the corner on his bike, twice the size of Mike's and painted with flames.
He bragged about the drills he'd done at soccer practice. He was faster and stronger than everyone else, if you believed what he said. He'd scored a thousand goals. He was ready for the Olympics. When he wasn't bullying, he was bragging.
Mike could hardly wait for him to leave.
After a while, he said, "Hey, did you know there was a joke shop downtown? Look what I got." He took the chattering teeth out of his pocket.
Somehow, they'd turned things around for him today. But Mike should have known their power couldn't last forever. He wound them up and put them on top of his picnic table, where Jackson could see them hop.
That's when they split into two and collapsed.
Jackson told everybody all about it the next day. "Watch out for Mike!" he warned other people on the lunch line at school. "Everything he touches falls apart."
He did a little demonstration of the way Mike's new toy broke the minute he touched it. "Can you trust him with a tray?" Jackson asked the cafeteria ladies. Some kids laughed, but Mike wanted to disappear. "I'm skipping recess," he told his friend Charlie. After lunch, he walked back to Mrs. Canfield's room.
"Everything okay?" she said.
"Just looking for some peace and quiet," Mike mumbled.
It was Nora's day to come to Mike's after school, and the rules were a little different at his house. The main thing was to stay out of his parents' way, because they were always on their computers. Once they did their homework, the kids could even watch a movie if they wanted to.
The thing was, Mike didn't want to. For once, he finished his homework sheets in one sitting. He really wanted to go back to The White Rabbit.
"To get more teeth?" Nora asked. "Really? You think another set will be any better?"