It was Monday morning of the first full week of school, and Todd Davidson's house was in its usual cheerful chaos--except for the empty place at the kitchen table where his father should have been, finishing up his quick breakfast of Grape-Nuts and coffee before heading off to work.
"Todd, I've put lunch money for you and Amy in your backpack, and the emergency contact forms, and the fifth-grade parent volunteer form," Todd's mother said, checking the list she had made for herself on the dry-erase board hanging by the telephone.
"You know how your sister is." She shot an affectionate glance at Amy, who was lost in a book, as always. She lowered her voice conspiratorially. "If I gave them to her, she'd write poems on the backs of the forms, and they'd end up lost in her desk along with notes from Kelsey and Julia, and who knows what else."
Todd grinned at his mother. On the third day of school, Amy's desk was already a disaster area.
Even though he and Amy were twins, they were as opposite in every other way as could be: Todd was tall, with curly dark hair; Amy was short, with straight fair hair. Todd wasorganized, and Amy was disorganized--as Todd knew all too well from being in the same class as Amy at Riverside Elementary School for the second year in a row. But Todd was glad that at his school twins could be together. Especially this year.
"Check," Todd told his mother. "What's in the sealed envelope?"
"That thing Ms. Ives wanted the parents to write."
"About Amy and me?"
Amy put down A Little Princess. Todd was sure she had read it half a dozen times already. "What did you say about us?"
"Oh, you know," their mother said, "the same old stuff. 'Todd loves to build things. Amy loves to write. Todd is the competitive one. Amy is the sensitive one.'"
"Did you say, 'Amy's desk is a black hole. Todd's desk is the neatest in the class'?" Todd teased.
Amy whacked him with her book, but not very hard, whether because she didn't want to hurt his shoulder or because she didn't want to damage her beloved book, Todd didn't know. Probably both.
"I couldn't say everything. I have to leave some surprises for Ms. Ives."
"Amy's desk is a surprise, all right."
"It isn't that messy!" Amy said.
Their mother looked at the clock. "Ten till eight. We'd better go. I told Max I'd be in early today to help with the inventory." Max was the store manager and their mother's boss. "Where's Dad?"
Amy and Todd exchanged a glance.
"Upstairs," Todd said, keeping his answer deliberately vague.
Todd saw Amy hesitate a split second before she replied, "Reading." When he had walked by the open door of their parents' bedroom ten minutes ago, his father had been lying on the unmade bed, still in his pajamas, staring up at the ceiling, while Wiggy, their fourteen-year-old sheepdog, dozed on the floor next to him.
"I hope he's reading the Denver Post job ads. I know the economy in Colorado is terrible right now, but he's not going to find a job by lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling."
So she did know.
"Okay, let's go. Bye, honey! Get some groceries! The list is on the fridge!" she called loudly, in the direction of the stairs.
If their father heard, he gave no answer.
Todd's teacher, Ms. Ives, had decorated their classroom with a row of six-foot-high cardboard buildings--bank, school, hospital, library, shops--lined up against the far wall. These were for the Mini-Society the kids were going to create together in the first two months of fifth grade.
Todd's best friend, Isaiah Quinn, sat right next to the cardboard city, all the way across the room from Todd. Teachers had some secret way of finding out which kids were best friends and then assigning them desks as far apart as possible. But Todd and Isaiah had been best friends for solong that they didn't need to talk to each other to know what the other one was doing, or thinking, or feeling.
As the fifth graders took their chairs down from the tops of their desks, Todd heard one chair crash to the floor. He didn't have to turn around to know whose chair it was.
"Isaiah," Ms. Ives said. "That's a warning."
Todd knew that in another week she wouldn't be giving Isaiah warnings about falling furniture. She'd just sigh and look away.
After morning announcements, Ms. Ives put the daily math challenge problem on the overhead projector. Todd solved it easily, but most of the other kids needed the full ten minutes.
"Who has the answer to this one?"
Of course Isaiah waved his hand, and of course Isaiah got it wrong. In another week Ms. Ives wouldn't be calling on Isaiah first for the math challenge problem.
He told her his answer.
"Good job, Todd!"
It was a new room and a new teacher, with a few different kids in the class. But for the most part everything was the same as always.
Not at home.
At home everything was horribly different.
Ms. Ives looked over at the board, where she had the daily schedule written out in her perfect cursive writing. Shewas the youngest teacher Todd had ever had. He had heard this was her first year of teaching.
"Class?" she said. Todd could tell she was nervous because she turned everything into a question. "Please get out your Mini-Society folders?"
Todd's folder was right on top of the other folders in his desk. Across the room, he saw Amy fumbling in her desk, searching for hers. He was pretty sure she had left it in her backpack, crammed together with a bunch of other folders, library books, and doodads for her hair.
Isaiah gave a whoop of glee as he found his. The lid of his desk banged down loudly. There was something wrong with the hinge, and Isaiah hadn't yet learned that he had to close the top gently.
Ms. Ives glared at him. "That's a second warning, Isaiah."
Amy raised her hand.
"I can't find my folder."
Todd raised his hand.
"It's in her backpack."
Amy grinned at him and ran to the coatrack to get it. Ms. Ives sighed. "All right, class? Do you all have your folders now?"
Everyone did, though crybaby Violet LaFarge, who sat next to Todd, looked ready to burst into tears as she tried to smooth out a tiny bent spot on one corner of her folder. And Isaiah's folder had slipped off his desk onto the floor. Ashe bent down to pick it up, his chair slid back into the chair of the kid next to him, who was absent that day. That chair tipped over, with another crash.
"It was an accident!" Isaiah called out.
Todd could tell Ms. Ives was debating what to do. She had already told the class she didn't give third warnings. You got two warnings, and then with the third offense you were sent to the office. No one had been sent to the office yet this year. Of course, it was only the third day of school.
Ms. Ives forced a smile. "Let's not have any more accidents."
As if it were that easy. Accidents happened. And they happened often to Isaiah.
"In the Mini-Society curriculum," Ms. Ives said, "we create our own society, right here in our classroom. We'll design a flag, and create a currency--that's our money--and all of you will get paid in that currency for the various classroom jobs that you do each week, like taking the attendance cards to the office and watering our plants. And together we'll make all the rules we're going to follow."
"Can we make a rule that we can chew gum?" one boy asked.
"No. Our Riverside Elementary rules will continue to apply."
"So what rules can we make?" Amy's best friend Julia Fuller asked.
"Rules about our classroom economy. For example, will we pay taxes on our earnings?"
"No!" another kid called out.
Ms. Ives smiled. Apparently she had been hoping this would be the response. "Ah, but taxes make it possible for us to fund various goods and services for our society, which otherwise we wouldn't be able to have. We'll come back to the question of taxes later. For now, I want you all to start thinking about the goods and services that you will be creating. You'll be selling these to your fellow Mini-Society members at our first selling session four weeks from today. And then you'll be selling to your families and the other fifth-grade classes at our 'international' selling session two weeks later."
Isaiah's hand was in the air now. Isaiah didn't wave just his hand, he waved his whole body. "Will we get paid real money for our goods and services?"
"No, you'll be paid in our Mini-Society money, but you'll be able to buy real things with it."
Isaiah's face brightened. He never had any money. As soon as Isaiah got a dollar, he spent it. Or gave it away.
"You'll use the money to buy the products and services created by your classmates."
Isaiah's face fell.
"What kinds of things can we make?" Amy's other best friend, Kelsey Newell, asked.
Ms. Ives liked that question. "The sky's the limit! While you were working on your math challenge just now, I peeked at some of the letters your parents wrote about you. There is a lot of talent in this class. We have artists, writers"--was she looking at Amy?--"and even some budding engineers."
Todd squirmed under her beaming, expectant smile, turned in his direction. Usually he was full of ideas for anything to make or build, but not this time. For some reason, he couldn't think of anything.
"Now, remember, the product you manufacture and sell has to be your own idea, not an idea that comes from your parents. This is your project, not your mom's or dad's."
Well, that was one thing she didn't have to worry about in Todd's case. It had been six months now since his dad had been laid off from his job as an engineer. From what Todd could see, his dad had pretty much forgotten how to work at anything. At first his time off had seemed like a long vacation, and he was getting severance pay, extra pay the company gave him because he had been laid off, not fired. But because he had worked at that company for only two years, the severance wasn't very much. Now, as the weeks went by with no interviews for Todd's dad, and no income except his unemployment insurance, Todd's mom had gotten a fulltime job at the crafts store in the mall. So she wasn't going to be helping with school projects, either.
Isaiah waved his hand again. This time he waved it so hard his chair began to wobble. "I have a great idea! A really great idea. You're not going to believe how great this idea is. Do you want to hear it?"
"No," Ms. Ives said. "I don't want to hear anybody's ideas right now. Just keep developing your ideas. Talk over your ideas with your partners, if you're going to be working with partners."
Isaiah flung his hand into the air again. "But--"
The chair tipped over, with Isaiah in it. He went sprawling onto the floor.
Todd waited to make sure that Isaiah was okay. When Isaiah gave a shaky smile, Todd burst out laughing. He couldn't help it. Isaiah looked so funny, lying there on the floor, like a large upended centipede, or turtle. Hey, what happened? the look on his face said. One minute I'm right side up, and the next ...
"Isaiah! That's your third warning!" Ms. Ives was angry now.
"You said you don't give third warnings," Damon Brewer called out. Damon was the kind of kid who loved to correct other people's mistakes.
Ms. Ives looked uncertain. Todd could tell she didn't want to send Isaiah to the office, but also didn't want to violate her own rules.
"Isaiah," she said sorrowfully, "I'm afraid I'll have to send you to the office?"
"That's okay," Isaiah said cheerfully, as if to reassure her that he didn't mind the punishment. This wasn't the first time in his life that Isaiah had been sent to the office. It was never for something he meant to do. It was always for too many accidents, all on the same day--or, this time, all in the same half hour. It seemed so unfair to Todd. Isaiah might be clumsy, but nobody had a better sense of humor or a bigger heart.
Isaiah leaped up from the floor, grabbed the note Ms. Ives handed him, and bounded toward the door.
Unfortunately, as he went he knocked his shoulder intothe row of cardboard Mini-Society buildings, propped up against the wall by his desk. The entire row of buildings, each connected to all the others, fell forward together in one dramatic, catastrophic motion. Squeals and shrieks came from the kids in the nearby desks, trapped underneath.
"Oops," said Isaiah. He turned to try to raise the fallen buildings.
"Go!" Ms. Ives almost shouted. No question mark this time.
A lot of kids were laughing now, but not Todd. He hated it when Isaiah got into trouble. And the collapse of the entire cardboard Mini-Society seemed so much like the collapse, at home, of Todd's entire life.