Riley gave up.
He couldn't find his language arts notebook in his desk or in his backpack. He must have forgotten it somewhere.
"Does everybody have his or her notebook ready?" Mrs. Harrow asked. "Riley?"
"I think I left it at home."
Mrs. Harrow sighed. "This is the third time this week that you're missing a notebook, Riley."
Riley was impressed that she knew the exact number of times. She remembered more about him than he remembered about himself.
Sophie sat on Riley's right. Her notebook lay open in the exact middle of her desk. The cursive on each page was as neat and beautiful as Mrs. Harrow's on the chalkboard.
Erika sat on Riley's left. She had her notebook out, but she hadn't opened it. Erika did only what she felt like doing. Apparently, she didn't feel like opening her notebook right now.
Riley's best friend, Grant, sat directly in front of Riley. His notebook was almost as perfect as Sophie's. Grant's parents bought him a video game for every A he got on his report card. Riley didn't think he could get A's even if his mother bought him ten video games for each one. He had a hard enough time getting B's and C's.
Mrs. Harrow handed Riley a piece of paper. "You can write your assignment on this."
Of course, now Riley would have to make sure he didn't lose the piece of paper.
"Don't lose it, dear," Mrs. Harrow said.
"All right, class," she went on. "We are going to be starting our fall unit on biographies. Does anyone know what a biography is?"
Sophie did. "It's a book about someone's life. A true book. About a famous person's life."
Sophie would probably have a biography written about her someday—if a person could be famous for having a neat notebook and 100 percent on every spelling test. Sophie Sartin: The Girl Who Never Made a Mistake. That would be the title.
Riley meant to listen to what Mrs. Harrow was saying next, but he couldn't stop thinking up titles for other biographies.
Erika Lee: The Girl Who Did What She Wanted. He noticed that Erika still hadn't opened her notebook. Mrs. Harrow hadn't said anything to her about it, either.
Grant Littleton: The Boy Who Owned Every Single Video Game System Ever Invented. Plus Every Single Game. Not a very short or snappy title, but a lot of kids would want to read that one.
What would the title of his biography be? Riley O'Rourke: The Boy Who Couldn't Find His Notebook. That didn't sound like a book kids would be lining up to read. Riley O'Rourke: The Boy Who Would Forget His Head If It Weren't Fastened On.
That's what grownups were always saying to him: "Riley, you'd forget your head if it weren't fastened on." The book would have cool illustrations, at least. There could be a picture of a seal balancing Riley's head on its nose like a beach ball. Or someone dunking his head into the hoop at a basketball game.
"Riley? Are you listening to the assignment?"
How could teachers always tell when he wasn't listening?
"Remember, class," Mrs. Harrow said, "the biography you read has to be at least one hundred pages long. Your five-page report on the biography is due three weeks from today, on Wednesday, October fourth. And then on that Friday we'll have our fourth-grade biography tea."
"What's a biography tea?" Sophie asked.
Mrs. Harrow gave the class a big smile. It was clear that she thought a biography tea was something extremely wonderful. Right away, Riley got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"On the day of our biography tea," Mrs. Harrow said, "you will arrive at school dressed up as the subject of your biography. All day long you will act like that person. Then in the afternoon we will have a fancy tea party, and you famous people from world history will sit at special decorated tables and have tea together!"
To say that Riley would rather die than go to a biography tea would be an exaggeration. But not a big exaggeration.
Sophie gave a little squeal of delight. "I love tea parties!"
Erika gave a little snort of disgust. Riley gathered that Erika did not love tea parties.
Grant raised his hand. "We can be whoever we want, right?"
Mrs. Harrow shook her head. "Oh, no, dear. I let the children pick one year, and I got only football players and rock stars. I've prepared two hats filled with names, one for boys and one for girls. You will draw from the hats to find out the subject of your biography."
For the first time, Riley noticed two hats perched on Mrs. Harrow's desk. The black stovepipe Abe Lincoln hat must be for the boys. The flowered straw hat must be for the girls.
The first girl to choose got Pocahontas, an Indian princess.
The first boy to choose got Napoleon, the French emperor.
Sophie got Helen Keller, the blind and deaf woman. She didn't squeal with delight this time.
Erika got Florence Nightingale. "Who's Florence Nightingale?"
"She was a famous nurse," Mrs. Harrow said.
"I don't want to be a nurse."
"Well, dear, we all have to choose out of the hat."
"I don't want to be a nurse," Erika repeated. "I want to be someone who commands armies and rules empires and sinks ships."
"Well ..." Riley knew Mrs. Harrow would give in. That was the only way of dealing with Erika. "I suppose you could be Queen Elizabeth the First."
Riley hoped he'd get some famous musician, like Beethoven or Duke Ellington, or even better, a sax player like Charlie Parker.
He got President Teddy Roosevelt. That wasn't too bad. Riley had seen a picture of Teddy Roosevelt once, wearing a uniform and sitting on a horse. But reading a hundred-page book about Teddy Roosevelt and writing a five-page paper about Teddy Roosevelt and trying to drink tea while wearing a mustache would be terrible.
Grant got Mahatma Gandhi.
"Gandhi!" Grant shouted. "The bald guy who sits cross-legged on the ground in his underwear?"
"Gandhi, the great man who liberated India from the British," Mrs. Harrow corrected.
"Who liberated India from the British while sitting cross-legged on the ground in his underwear," Grant moaned.
Riley knew Grant wanted to refuse to be Gandhi. But only Erika ever refused to do things in school. Maybe Grant's parents would buy him an extra game for having to be Gandhi.
When everyone had drawn a name, Mrs. Harrow gave the class another big smile. "I can't wait for this year's biography tea!"
Riley could wait. A tea party with Pocahontas, Napoleon, Helen Keller, Queen Elizabeth I, Mahatma Gandhi, and Teddy Roosevelt?
No way!CHAPTER 2
Music was the last period of the school day. Riley loved it. He didn't really like to sing or do the dumb hand motions that went along with the songs. But he loved watching Mrs. Eldridge play the piano. She could play fast and loud, every note perfect, without looking at the music, without looking at the keys, and while yelling at the kids talking in the back row, all at the same time.
It was impressive, all right.
That day, another teacher was in the music room with Mrs. Eldridge, a tall man with dark hair and a big smile.
"This is Mr. Simpson," Mrs. Eldridge said. "He's the band teacher, who is here to tell you about instrumental music. Instrumental music will start for fourth graders in four weeks, meetingin the cafeteria on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons."
She sounded as excited about instrumental music as Mrs. Harrow had sounded about the biography tea. But this time Riley felt excited, too.
"Do we have to do it?" Grant asked.
"No. But it's a wonderful opportunity for fourth graders to learn how to play an instrument."
Riley wanted to learn how to play an instrument. He saw that Mr. Simpson had a bunch of musical instruments laid out on a big table behind him. Riley recognized the skinny flute, and the trombone with its long slide, and the cool-looking sax.
That was the one for Riley: the sax. He had loved the sax ever since he had watched a program about Charlie Parker on TV. Now he imagined himself up on the stage, wailing away on the high notes, his fingers moving up and down the keys in a blur.
Mr. Simpson beamed at the class. "I'll let you look at the instruments today, and you can see which one you like best."
Riley already knew he liked the saxophone best. Maybe Mr. Simpson would let them take their new instruments home today!
"How much do the instruments cost?" someone else asked.
"If you don't want to buy an instrument right away, you can rent one," Mr. Simpson said. "Most rentals run about twenty-five dollars a month."
Riley couldn't believe it. Twenty-five dollars a month? Every month? His mother never had extra money. His dad hardly sent them any money at all.
If only someone would ask, "What if you don't have the money?" But nobody did. And Riley wasn't about to.
Mr. Simpson played a short melody on each of the instruments. They all sounded great, but the saxophone sounded greatest by far.
Riley moved closer.
Then Mr. Simpson let the kids crowd around the table to look at the instruments close up.
"First I have to be Gandhi," Grant groaned. "Now I'm going to have to play a band instrument."
"Mrs. Eldridge just said we don't have to play one," Riley reminded him.
"My parents will make me," Grant said. "And then they'll make me practice. Every time I sit down to play a video game, they'll say, 'Grant, have you practiced your instrument?' Then there will be a concert. My dad will videotape the concert. They'll show the videotape to my relatives when they come to our house. And then the relatives will say, 'Grant, why don't you play your instrument for us right now?' Does that sound like fun to you?"
It did, actually. Of course, Riley didn't have any relatives who came over. And his mother didn't own a video camera.
And he wouldn't have an instrument.
"I want to do the flute," Sophie said. "I already play violin and piano, violin since I was four, piano since I was five. But it's not too late to add flute."
Erika wasn't looking at any of the instruments.
"Don't you want to be in band?" Riley asked her.
"Drums," Erika said. "I want to do drums. And I don't see any drums."
Mr. Simpson heard her. "They were too hard to transport today. But you can definitely play drums if you'd like. The percussion section is the heartbeat of the band."
Riley could picture Erika pounding away on drums.
"What about you?" Erika asked Riley then. He wasn't looking at the instruments, either. What was the point of falling in love with something you couldn't have? "Don't you want to do an instrument?"
"I guess not," Riley said.
* * *
"Did you get your homework done?" Riley's mom asked him as they drove out of the school parking lot at five-thirty. Because his mom had to work, Riley went to the after-school day care program in the gym.
"Sort of." He had done his spelling, but not his math homework, since he couldn't find the math worksheet. It was odd how quickly a math worksheet could disappear into thin air.
He thought of another title for his biography: Riley O'Rourke: The Boy Who Made Homework Disappear. It would be a best seller, Riley was sure of it.
Or Riley O'Rourke: The Boy Who Didn't Get to Play the Saxophone.
It probably wasn't even worth asking, but he made himself do it. "Can we rent a saxophone?" he blurted out.
"A saxophone?" She sounded as surprised as if he had asked for a pet elephant.
Riley explained to her about instrumental music. "But you have to rent an instrument. And Mr.
Simpson said it costs twenty-five dollars a month."
She didn't answer right away. That gave Riley a ray of hope.
"It's a lot of money," she said slowly. "But it isn't just the money. You're having a hard enough time with your schoolwork as it is. It takes you forever to get your homework done. I can't see adding another distraction. And you know how you lose things. What if we paid all that money to rent a saxophone, and you lost it?"
Riley wouldn't lose it. Some things you didn't lose. You just didn't.
They pulled into the parking space in front of their apartment.
"Anyway," Riley's mother said, "we really can't afford it, honey. I wish we had the money for extras, but we don't. So there's no point in worrying about it."CHAPTER 3
Dinner was macaroni and cheese, the good kind that came in a box. Riley's mom made him eat some broccoli with it. Once he had asked her if she'd pay him for eating broccoli.
She had laughed. So he still had to eat broccoli for free.
After dinner, Riley told his mother, "I have to go to the library."
"Well, sometime. I have to get a biography of Teddy Roosevelt by Friday." Riley told her about the biography tea.
"That sounds like so much fun!"
Her enthusiasm gave Riley an idea: the teachers and parents could go to the biography tea, while the kids played video games at Grant's house.
"Let's go tonight. I'm so proud of you for wanting to get a good start on this!"
What Riley really wanted to get a good start on was playing the saxophone, but he didn't say anything.
When they got to the library, Grant was there, too. Riley was surprised that Grant's mother hadn't taken him to the library the minute after school got out, at 3:01. But then he remembered that Grant had his soccer practice on Wednesdays.
Riley found a biography of Teddy Roosevelt right away. Unfortunately, there was no biography with exactly 100 pages. The best he could do was 127. Poor Grant's biography of Gandhi had 158 pages.
"Wait till you see the pictures," Grant warned him as they checked out their books.
The guy was bald! And he was wearing some kind of strange, white underwear-like thing.
"It's called a loincloth," Grant informed Riley. "I think it's child abuse to make a kid wear a loincloth."
Some of the pictures showed Gandhi wearing normal clothes, but Grant kept going back to the picture of Gandhi in the loincloth. Riley knew that Grant enjoyed making his project sound as terrible as possible, to upset his mom.
"Do you want me to go talk to Mrs. Harrow?" she asked.
"That's all right," Grant said, sounding noble. "Sometime in life everyone has to wear a loin-cloth. In public. To school. In front of the whole class."
Then Grant's face changed. "Look at that!"
Riley turned and saw Sophie coming into the library, led by her mother. Sophie was blindfolded.
"What on earth happened to Sophie?" Grant's mother asked.
Riley knew. "She's being Helen Keller." Sophie had known about the biography assignment for all of six hours, and already she was acting the part.
Both mothers chuckled. Then they headed off together to look at magazines.
"Hi, Sophie!" Grant called out in a fake high voice.
"Hi, Grant!" Sophie replied serenely.
"Hi, Sophie!" Riley called out in a low, growly voice.
Sophie was amazing.
"Helen Keller was blind and deaf," Grant pointed out, using his normal voice this time.
"I'm practicing being blind first," Sophie said. "Then I'll practice deafness. We stopped at the drugstore on the way here to buy earplugs."
"How are you going to find your biography if you can't see the computer catalog?" Grant wanted to know.
"My mother is going to help me. People helped Helen Keller, too, like her teacher, Annie Sullivan."
"Where did you learn so much about Helen Keller?" Riley asked. "You haven't even gotten your biography yet."
Sophie shrugged. "Everybody knows some things."
Riley felt as if he didn't know anything.
Riley's mother and Grant's mother hadn't returned yet. Sophie's mother was typing away at the computer catalog across the room.
"Let's play a trick on Sophie," Grant whispered.
Grant got down on all fours and crawled over to Sophie's feet and started meowing. Riley set his book down to watch him.
"Very funny, Grant-the-cat."
Grant tried again. "Oh, Sophie, look! There's a snake crawling into the library. A long, slithery one."
"A snake in the library," Sophie said scornfully. "I suppose it just opened the door and came in all by itself?"
"Wait! There's a spider! A big black hairy one. It's coming right toward you!"
It was hard to tell what someone was thinking when you couldn't see her eyes. But this time Sophie wasn't so quick with her response.
"I'm not afraid of spiders," she said uncertainly.
"There really is a spider!" Grant told her. "Honest! I wouldn't lie about something like that. I've never seen such a big one!" He reached out a hand and brushed Sophie's arm.