My teeth clicked and clacked when I stepped into my new school. Goose bumps popped up all over my arms like hot air balloons. I wasn’t nervous — just cold. I knew I’d never wear shorts and a t-shirt there again.
Okay — I was a little nervous.
“Come on in,” the sixth grade English teacher said when I stepped into her classroom. She was standing in front of a chalkboard with the name Miss Cox written across the top of it. She was older than any of the teachers I had in the city, and she had a high-pitched twang in her voice that made me shudder. “Don’t be shy.” She waved for me to come to her desk.
Twenty or thirty kids stared at me from their seats. My hands felt sweaty. “Can you dance?” one of the girls shouted at me. I felt ashamed to shake my head no. I did the chicken dance once at a birthday party. I knew that didn’t count.
“Class,” the teacher said, wrapping an arm around my shoulders, “I’d like to introduce you to Jonah Johnson.”
“Joe,” I said right away. I didn’t like being called Jonah. I didn’t expect anyone to understand, but I didn’t want to feel like a little kid.
Miss Cox chuckled. “Of course, Joe. Whatever you prefer.” She motioned toward the class. “Go ahead and find a seat. We only have a few minutes left.”
Some kid in a tank top jumped out of his seat and shouted, “He has to sing the song!”
I had no idea what he was talking about. My mom had begged me not to sing in public after she heard me singing in the shower one day.
Miss Cox shook her head and told the other kid to sit down. “This is Joe’s first day, and he doesn’t know the rules yet. I think we can give him a pass this one time.” She winked at me. “Anyone who’s late has to sing a song in front of the class. We’ll teach it to you later, Joe. Besides, I’m sure you have a good reason for being late on your first day.”
I had a really good reason. It was Friday and I didn’t want to be there at all! Why couldn’t my mom let me start this school on a Monday like everyone else? She had to pry me out of my bedroom kicking and screaming. She even threatened to dress me like the little girl she always wanted.
I walked through the rows of desks to the back of the room. I didn’t want to sit near the front because that’s where you get asked all the questions.
“Not here,” some big kid with wavy blond hair growled at me before I could sit at the only open seat. He was so big he looked like he was supposed to be in the ninth grade. He didn’t look at me when he spoke. “This seat is reserved.”
The desk had dust on it, so I knew no one had sat there in a long time. “I’ll find another seat next week. Let me sit here for now.”
“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear, Jonah,” he hissed. “This seat is reserved, Jonah.”
My face felt hot when he called me that name twice. “It’s Joe,” I reminded him. “Call me Joe.”
He stood straight up, kicked his chair back, and waved a fist at me. I gulped. He was the tallest sixth grader I’ve ever seen. He was wearing a gray t-shirt and gray shorts.
Miss Cox appeared by my side out of nowhere. “Do we have a problem here, Shane?”
The kid snickered, shook his head, and sat back down.
Miss Cox took a deep breath and motioned for me to follow her. She led me right back to the front row of desks and an open seat. I had been there for less than five minutes, and I was already embarrassed out of my mind. It was going to be a long day.
“Don’t forget about the paper due on Monday morning,” Miss Cox said to the room. “I want to see three paragraphs about your best friend. I’ll be grading for grammar, punctuation, and speech.”
I raised my hand. “Speech?”
Miss Cox smiled. “Yes, Joe. In this class we work on presentation skills. Anything you write, you say in front of the class.” She lowered her voice and stood in front of me. “I know it’s short notice, but is this something you can do by Monday? I heard you’re a writer.”
I didn’t have any problem with writing three paragraphs. I was a writer for my other school’s newsletter. But making a speech in front of the class? I gulped. I’d never done that before. I looked up at Miss Cox and said the only thing I could say to save myself from more embarrassment. “Sure, no problem.”
The class bell rang, and everyone jumped out of their seats. There was so much noise and talking in the room I couldn’t concentrate on how scared I was about Monday morning. I knew I shouldn’t have started this school on a Friday. I mean, who starts school on a Friday?
“Are you okay?” the girl next to me asked. She had a ponytail and big dimples.
I stood up and slung my backpack over my shoulder. “I don’t know yet. I’m still trying to breathe.”
She chuckled and stood next to me with a huge smile. “My name’s Melissa.”
I pulled my new class schedule out of my backpack. “Do you know where Room 104 is?”
She snatched the paper out of my hand and headed toward the door. “Yeah. That’s my next class too. Follow me.”
At least there was one friendly person there. She had a bit of a twang in her voice, but not as bad as Miss Cox. I’d have to get used to it there in the country.
“Where are you from?” Melissa asked when we walked into the hall.
“Orlando,” I said proudly. She had to be impressed with a big city boy like me coming to this small country town in Alabama. She smiled and kept walking.
I felt obligated to ask her some questions back. I wasn't a big talker, but I knew most kids liked talking about themselves. Melissa was the only person willing to be my friend so far. I couldn’t risk losing that. “Where are you from?”
She stopped in front of Room 104, looked directly into my eyes, and said, “I came from my mama.” She burst out laughing.
She didn’t stop laughing, and it was so contagious I couldn’t help but laugh with her.
The laughing stopped when Shane appeared by my side. I’m not short, but he was at least four inches taller than me. He was trouble — I couldn’t show him any fear.
“We need to talk,” Shane blurted out. He didn’t look angry like before. I didn’t know how much I could trust him, and I didn’t know how much time there was until the next class started. “It’ll only take a minute,” he pleaded.
I looked over at Melissa. She shrugged her shoulders and walked into the classroom. “I’ll save you a seat,” she promised.
I looked back up at Shane. “I know it’s fun to mess with the new kid. I don’t want any trouble.”
Shane frowned like he was hurt. “I want to apologize for earlier,” he confessed.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. All I could say was, “Oh. Okay.”
He smiled for the first time and punched my shoulder playfully. “So you’re a writer?”
This was going a lot better than I expected. It wouldn’t be hard making friends after all. “I dabble here and there,” I proclaimed. “I won an award at my other school.”
Shane’s eyes got big. “That’s awesome!” he shouted.
Another kid wearing a tank top joined us. His hair was cut like a sailor’s. It took me a second to realize he was the kid from Miss Cox’s class who had tried to make me sing a song.
“Hey, Joe,” Shane said to me. “This is my best friend Sam.” They pounded fists. “Isn’t it funny that Miss Cox wants us to write a paper about our best friends?”
My stomach churned. I had a bad feeling this wasn’t going so well after all.
“Sam and I grew up together,” Shane continued. “We like to go fishing and hunting.”
I tried to step backwards toward the classroom. I already knew what he was going to ask me.
“Say,” Shane said to me, “you’re a writer and we’re friends now, right?” He followed every step I took. I was pretty sure we weren’t friends.
He reached out and grabbed my shirt collar with one hand. “Where are you going?” He cleared his throat. “I’m gonna need you to write my paper for me, Jonah.”
I love to write, but not under threats and not for someone else. “My name is Joe.”
Shane and Sam both snickered as he released my shirt and straightened it out. “This is going to be a long year for you if you don’t write it. And you’ll be very, very sorry.” He pounded his fists together and shoved me backwards into the room. It took everything I had not to fall down. “Make the right decision.”
The two bullies high fived each other and disappeared down the hall. No matter what decision I made, I already knew it was going to be a long year.
“Are you okay?” Melissa asked when I sat next to her. “Shane is a big bully. If you give him what he wants then he’ll never leave you alone.”
She was right. But to be honest — I was scared to death of the big kid! I didn’t know yet my whole world would be turned upside down after school that day, but I knew right then and there what choice I would make about writing Shane’s paper.
Excerpted from "My Fox Ate My Homework" by David Blaze. Copyright © 2016 by David Blaze. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.