How Oliver Olson Changed the World

Claudia Mills; Pictures by Heather Maione

Square Fish

How Oliver Olson Changed the World
1
Oliver Olson looked up at the moon.
The large inflated ball hung on a string from the ceiling in Mrs. O'Neill's third-grade classroom. Earth and Mars and the other planets hung there, too, because this was the Monday that Oliver's class was starting its five-week study of outer space.
"When I was a girl," Mrs. O'Neill said, "astronauts walked on the moon for the very first time."
Oliver tried to imagine Mrs. O'Neill as a girl. The best he could do was picture a much shorter version of a stout, short-haired lady with thick glasses and a kind smile.
"How many of you would like to walk on the moon?"
Every hand shot up, except for Oliver's. Oliver's parents would never let him walk on the moon. The moon was too far away. It was too cold. It didn't have enough gravity. The rocket might explode. Rockets exploded all the time.
Mrs. O'Neill looked at Oliver. He hoped she wouldn't ask him why he didn't want to walk on the moon. She didn't.
But Crystal Harding did. Her desk was right next to Oliver's. "Why don't you want to walk on the moon?" she whispered.
Oliver shrugged.
A shrug wasn't enough of an answer for Crystal. "Do you think it's dangerous?"
Oliver nodded. Maybe a nod would end the conversation.
"Flying is safer than driving a car," Crystal said. "It's even safer than riding a bike."
Well, being launched into outer space in a rocket wasn't the same thing as flying. And Oliver's parents were never going to let him drive a car, either. They didn't even let him ride a bike with his friend J. P. Gleason, except for around and around their boring little cul-de-sac.
"Crystal?" Mrs. O'Neill said.
"I was just asking Oliver why he didn't want to walk on the moon." Now everyone was staring at Oliver. "And he said it was dangerous." Actually, Oliver hadn't said anything. "And then I said--"
"Crystal." Mrs. O'Neill interrupted her gently but firmly. "Right now I need you to be listening, not talking."
Crystal gave Mrs. O'Neill an apologetic smile. At least five times a day, Mrs. O'Neill hadto remind Crystal about not talking. She was the most talkative person Oliver had ever known.
"Astronauts first walked on the moon on July 20, 1969," Mrs. O'Neill told the class. "Neil Armstrong led the way, and he spoke the first words ever spoken on the moon. He said, 'That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.'"
Oliver thought Neil Armstrong must have planned what to say ahead of time. Those words didn't sound like something that would pop into someone's head on the spur of the moment. Maybe Neil Armstrong's parents had written them for him and made him memorize them.
J.P. raised his hand. "Do people still walk on the moon?"
"No," Mrs. O'Neill said. "There hasn't been a manned space voyage to the moon for decades."
"Why not?" J.P. asked.
Oliver could guess the answer: the moonwas too far away, was too cold, and didn't have enough gravity. And when you got there, it was just a bunch of rocks.
"Don't people want to study the moon's rocks?" J.P. continued.
Oliver knew that J.P. loved rocks. J.P.'s desk was full of rocks. Whenever Mrs. O'Neill had a desk-cleaning day, J.P. would drag out dozens of rocks from his desk, and Mrs. O'Neill would make him take them home. And then, Oliver knew, J.P.'s mother would make him put them outside in the backyard.
"I'm sure there are lots of scientists who would like to know more about the moon's rocks," Mrs. O'Neill said. "But recent manned space missions have stayed closer to Earth."
J.P. looked disappointed.
A girl named Sylvie Shi raised her hand. "Do animals ever go up into space?"
Oliver knew that by animals Sylvie meant bunnies. Sylvie had two bunnies of her own, andevery time the class did an art project, Sylvie made hers a bunny. So far Sylvie had made a clay bunny, and a bunny puppet, and a silhouette bunny, and a bunny made out of papier-mâché.
"Some of the first creatures to go up into space were animals," Mrs. O'Neill replied. "The space scientists sent up a chimpanzee to make sure that it was safe before they sent up the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard."
"Didn't they care if it was safe for the chimp?" Sylvie demanded.
"I'm sure they did, Sylvie. And the chimp did survive the trip."
"What was the chimp's name?" Sylvie asked.
"His name was Ham," Mrs. O'Neill said. "Boys and girls, I'm glad you have so many good questions, and I hope we can answer them all over the next few weeks."
Oliver felt guilty. He didn't have any questionsat all. He imagined his parents sitting at the dining room table trying to think of questions he could ask about space.
"Oliver, why don't you ask how cold it is on the moon?" his father would say.
"Oliver, why don't you ask how astronauts go to the bathroom in outer space?" his mother would say.
Oliver smothered a chuckle. His mother would never say that. She'd ask if there were seat belts in the rocket.
"Today I want to tell you a little bit about the early years of the space program," Mrs. O'Neill went on. "President John Fitzgerald Kennedy gave a famous speech on May 25, 1961. In that speech, he said, 'I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.' Until then no one had dreamed of putting a man on the moon. It seemed impossible."
Mrs. O'Neill paused. "But, boys and girls, it happened. Before the end of the decade, a man did walk on the moon."
She paused again. Oliver knew she was going to say something she thought was very important.
"One person with a big idea can change the world," Mrs. O'Neill said. "Maybe one of you will have an idea someday that will change the world."
Oliver stared at his desk. J.P. had big ideas about rocks. Sylvie had big ideas about bunnies. Crystal had big ideas about everything. Oliver wondered if he would ever have a big idea about anything.
"Now, when we finish our study of space," Mrs. O'Neill said, "we're going to have our space sleepover, right here in our classroom at school. This is the most exciting event of third grade! There will be all kinds of space activities, from looking through a real telescope at thestars and planets, to playing space games, to watching a science-fiction movie about adventures in outer space. I'll be sending the information to your parents next week."
"Can I bring my special meteorite rock for everyone to see?" J.P. asked.
"Can we bring stuffed animals with us?" Sylvie asked.
"Do we have to sleep, or can we stay up all night talking?" Crystal asked.
"Yes, yes, yes, and no," Mrs. O'Neill said with a smile.
Oliver tuned out. His parents would never let him go to the space sleepover. He might as well ask them if he could walk on the moon. Even President Kennedy wouldn't have been able to achieve the goal of landing Oliver at the space sleepover. J.P. had invited him for a sleepover half a dozen times, and Oliver's parents had always said no. Ever since he had been sickly as a little boy, and had waited a year tobegin kindergarten, his parents, especially his mother, couldn't stop worrying about him.
Oliver looked up and scowled, as if it were somehow the moon's fault that he'd never get to see it through a real telescope. All he'd ever see was that stupid inflated ball, dangling from the classroom ceiling.