Being Teddy Roosevelt

Claudia Mills; Pictures by R. W. Alley

Square Fish

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 grinned.
“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 stove-pipe 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!

Excerpted from Being Teddy Roosevelt by Claudia Mills.
Copyright © 2007 by Claudia Mills.
Published in First edition, 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.