Annika Riz sharpened her already sharp pencil. She admired its soft pink eraser. She never made mistakes during math—well, hardly ever—but it was good to have a pencil with a fresh eraser just in case. In five minutes—no, four and a half minutes now—it would be her favorite time of the day, which happened to be the least favorite time of the day for her two best friends, Kelsey Green and Izzy Barr.
“All right, class, time for math!” Mrs. Molina told her third graders.
Sitting in front of Annika, Kelsey gave a deep sigh and tried to finish reading one more page of her library book. Sitting next to Kelsey, Izzy sighed, too. She had been staring out the window at the P.E. field, green on this first Monday morning of May.
Kelsey loved reading and Izzy loved running the same way that Annika loved math. But Annika didn’t hate reading and running the same way that the others hated math. It was hard when your two best friends hated the thing that you loved the most in the world.
At his perfectly tidy desk, Simon Ellis sat with his math book open, ready to go. Simon was a math whiz, too. Simon was an everything whiz.
The only person without a math book on top of his desk was Cody Harmon. Cody hardly ever paid attention in class.
As Mrs. Molina prepared to launch into the day’s math lesson, her gaze fell on Cody.
“Math time, Cody,” she said.
Yes, Annika thought. Math time, everybody!
When Cody still didn’t take out his book, Mrs. Molina asked, “What is it, Cody?”
She sounded impatient, as if she really wanted to ask, “What is it now?” Annika didn’t blame her. Every day there was someone who was reading during math time (Kelsey), or stretching her leg muscles during math time (Izzy), or doing nothing at all during math time (Cody).
“I heard there’s going to be a dunking tank at the carnival on Saturday,” Cody said. “And that people can buy tickets to dunk Mr. Boone.”
Now the classroom was abuzz. Everyone obviously thought a dunking tank at the upcoming Franklin School carnival was more exciting than learning about decimals. Especially if it was the jolly principal, Mr. Boone, who was volunteering to be dunked.
“That’s nice, Cody,” Mrs. Molina said, although it was plain from the expression on her face that she didn’t think a dunking tank was nice at all.
“I heard that some of the teachers are signing up to be dunked, too,” Cody continued.
Mrs. Molina adjusted her glasses, in the way she always did when she wasn’t sure what to say. Annika knew that Mrs. Molina was the last teacher in the school—in the whole entire world—who would sign up to be dunked at a school carnival.
This time Mrs. Molina didn’t say that was nice.
“The school carnival is always enjoyable, I’m sure,” she said. “And it’s the most important fund-raiser of the year for the PTA. But right now we’re doing math. So, Cody, please get out your math book and open it to page 187.”
Cody fumbled in his desk, dragged out his book, and opened it as instructed. Annika could tell that he was still thinking about the dunking tank, and probably also about cotton candy, and a fishpond where you could fish for prizes, and the raffle where the prize was an enormous stuffed elephant donated by a local toy store, already sitting in the front hall outside Mr. Boone’s office.
Each class was going to have its own booth at the fair. Mrs. Molina’s class booth, supervised by Kelsey’s mom, who was their PTA room mother, was going to sell all different kinds of cookies. Annika, Kelsey, and Izzy had already decided that they would bake chocolate chip.
“Today we’re going to learn how to turn fractions into decimals,” Mrs. Molina said, obviously relieved to have diverted the conversation away from dunking tanks.
Annika listened eagerly as Mrs. Molina explained how decimals were another way of expressing fractions. She already loved fractions, and now she knew she’d love decimals, too.
As usual, Mrs. Molina called on people to give answers to the problems in the textbook. She probably did it so that people wouldn’t tune out completely, knowing that there was some chance of being called on and having to give a wrong answer in front of the whole class.
Annika answered her question, easy-peasy, and Simon answered his, too. But then Mrs. Molina called on Kelsey.
“Kelsey Green”—Mrs. Molina used a person’s full name if she was certain the person wasn’t paying attention at all—“what decimal is one-third?”
Sitting directly behind Kelsey, Annika whispered the answer. Even though Kelsey should have been doing her own work, Annika couldn’t bear to see her friends flounder. And she couldn’t bear to leave a math question unanswered, any more than she could bear to leave a blank space in a sudoku puzzle.
“Point three three three.”
“Point three three three,” Kelsey parroted.
Mrs. Molina gave her a suspicious look, but Annika had gotten so good at whispering without moving her lips that they hadn’t gotten caught once all year. Of course, the teacher had to notice that certain of her students who did well in class did vastly less well on their tests. But, then again, math tests made lots of people nervous.
When it came time for the class to do some problems quietly on their own, Annika finished hers in a few minutes. Then she tiptoed over to the pile of sudoku puzzles and word searches Mrs. Molina kept on her desk for kids who finished an assignment early. She took a sudoku puzzle from the top of the pile and returned to her seat.
Sudoku puzzles were tons of fun. You started with a nine-by-nine grid that had some numbers already filled in and others left blank. You had to fill in the blank spaces so that each row contained all the numbers from 1 to 9, and each column contained all the numbers from 1 to 9, and each little three-by-three box in the nine-by-nine grid had all the numbers from 1 to 9, too.
Right away, studying the puzzle in front of her, Annika saw where she could put a 9. And then where she could put a 5, and another 5. Her fingers flew over the page.
The other kids around her were still working on their decimal problems, but she could see that Simon was doing a sudoku puzzle, too.
“Annika, Simon, would you please come up here for a minute?” Mrs. Molina said.
Annika glanced toward Simon, but he seemed as bewildered as she was. It couldn’t be that they were in trouble. Not during math! Not when they were the two math whizzes!
Mrs. Molina spoke in a low voice so as not to disturb the others.
“Because the two of you are our sudoku enthusiasts, I wanted to let you know that the public library is having a citywide sudoku contest this week. I received an e-mail about it this morning. Just go to the library any day, from today until the library’s closing time on Saturday. Tell the librarian you want to enter the contest, and she’ll sit you down with a sudoku puzzle. The person who completes the puzzle correctly in the shortest time wins. The winner for each grade will receive a subscription to a sudoku magazine.”
Annika looked at Simon.
Simon looked at Annika.
Of course, third graders from all the elementary schools in town would be entering, too, and there might be another third grader at another elementary school who was even better at math than Annika and Simon.
Frankly, Annika found that hard to believe.
This was better than chocolate chip cookies, or cotton candy, or a fishpond with prizes, even better than a dunking tank with Mr. Boone poised to splash into the water beneath.
If Annika won a huge sudoku contest, Kelsey and Izzy would see that math was as cool as reading and running. Kelsey loved reading contests, and Izzy loved running races. Well, now Annika had a math contest and a math race of her own.
All she had to do was win it.
Text copyright © 2014 by Claudia Mills
Pictures copyright © 2014 by Rob Shepperson