I wake up and decide to have a stomachache that’s so bad I have to stay in bed.
“Hey, Stu-pid!” yells my big brother, Anthony, who’s four years older than me. “Move it or you’ll miss the bus!”
I never let it slide when Anthony calls me stupid. The very least I do is tell Mom. But this time, I don’t say a word. I don’t move. I don’t get dressed. I don’t go downstairs.
It’s Wednesday, French toast day. The middle-of-the-school-week day, when Mom makes a special breakfast.
Mom walks into my room. “What’s going on, Stuey?” she asks.
“Stomachache,” I say in my whiniest voice. “I’m too sick to go to school.”
She puts her hand on my forehead. She gives me the real once-over. “You don’t have a fever. You look fine. Get dressed and come downstairs. Your French toast is getting cold.”
I eat three pieces of French toast. I know it doesn’t look good for someone with a stomachache. But I can’t help it, Mom makes the best French toast. Maybe she won’t notice.
“I guess your stomach must be feeling better,” says Mom.
Oh well. Maybe if I eat another piece, I’ll really get sick.
“Come on, Stu,” says Anthony. “We have to get going. We don’t want to miss the bus.”
But of course I want to miss the bus. I’ll do anything to miss it. I’ll clean my room. I’ll clean Anthony’s room. I’ll even clean the whole house. Bingo! That’s it! Mom’s always wanted a housecleaner.
“Hey, Mom! How about if I stay home today? I’ll clean the whole house for you.”
She rolls her eyes.
“First it was a stomachache, and now you want to clean the house?” She feels my forehead again. “Maybe you’re sick after all.”
I try to look as green as possible.
“Okay, Stuey, what’s going on?” she asks.
“I’m sick of school,” I tell her.
Anthony snorts. “Hey, Stupi—” He catches himself just in time. “How can you be sick of school? It’s only our third day.”
I decide not to tell the truth. How can I tell them my awful secret? How can I tell them, I’ve been in second grade for two whole days and I’m still wicked slow at reading. Everyone said the lightbulb would go on by now. It’s bad enough it didn’t happen last year or over the summer. But if the kids figure out I’m still no good at it, or even worse the teacher does, I’m toast.
“Last call for the bus, Bro,” says Anthony. And he pulls me out the door.
* * *
I walk into my classroom. It’s actually full of very cool stuff. A person could have a lot of fun in here. If that person already knew how to read.
My teacher, Ms. Curtis, is writing the morning message. She wants us to call her Ginger. Mom thinks that’s very modern. I think it’s dumb. We’re the first class she’s ever taught. She says we have a lot to learn from each other. And she wants us all to be good friends. If she was my good friend, I could tell her my secret. But she’s not.
“Hey, Stuey,” says Will. “Dad’s taking me fishing on Saturday. Want to come?”
“Thanks,” I say. “I’ll ask Mom and tell you tomorrow.”
Me and Will Fishman have been best friends forever. He shares his dad with me ’cause mine moved away. Today, Will is the only good thing about second grade.
I always feel better when I share yucky stuff with him. So I decide to tell him my secret. On the count of three, get ready … One, two …
“And after fishing, we get to go to Paperback Heaven!” Will is all pumped up. “They’re having a giant sale. If you buy one book, you get one free! Dad said I could get five books. So I can actually get ten. Maybe you can get ten, too.”
My stomach does a little flip. There’s no way I’m going to Paperback Heaven with Will. No way at all.
“I just remembered something, Will,” I say. “Mom says I have to clean my room on Saturday.”
“Well, can you ask her anyway?”
“Okay,” I say.
I feel really guilty now. Not telling the truth is not getting easier. But what else can I do?
Will was reading way back in preschool. He was reading when he was born. He’s like a reading monster. He eats books up. Humongous fat ones, even. He’s been real patient, too. He’s been waiting years for me to catch up and read as fast as he does. I just can’t let him know it still hasn’t happened yet.
“Good morning, everyone. Please join me on the meeting rug.” Ms. Curtis is waiting in her rocking chair, by the easel with the morning message.
“Just follow my pointer and we’ll all read today’s message together,” she says.
I look around. If everyone is looking at her pointer, I’m safe. ’Cause then no one will be looking at my lips, which definitely won’t be moving.
Hello, Second Graders,
This morning we have D.E.A.R.
That stands for Drop Everything And Read.
Our D.E.A.R. buddies will be Mr. Stone’s sixth graders.
Later we will have gym. Let’s talk about how D.E.A.R. works.
“Nice reading, friends,” says Ms. Curtis. “Does anyone have any questions about D.E.A.R.?”
“I know all about deer,” says Sam. “I’m a deer expert, Ginger. My grandpa lives in the country. He’s got tons of deer that live near him.”
“Duh,” says Lilly Stanley. “Ginger doesn’t mean that kind of deer, Sam. She was talking about the D.E.A.R. program. Right, Ginger?”
That Lilly is a big know-it-all. Only she doesn’t know how annoying she is. I almost tell her, too, ’cause Sam looks really embarrassed. But I’m trying very hard not to be noticed. And that’s not always so easy for me.
“We’d love to have you tell us about deer, Sam. Perhaps at our next sharing time?” Ms. Curtis smiles at him.
Then she gives Lilly one of those teacher looks. Not the happy kind, either.
“Friends, listen up, here’s the number one rule in this classroom. Put-downs are not allowed. It is never okay to embarrass anyone. Understand? We all need to feel comfortable here.”
Everybody nods. But I’m not taking any chances. I’m keeping my secret all to myself.
Ms. Curtis explains how D.E.A.R. works. Every second grader gets a sixth grader for a reading buddy. For fifteen minutes we share books with them. We have D.E.A.R. every Wednesday for the whole year. It’s supposed to be fun.
Fun? For some kids, maybe. For Will, definitely. For me, No way!
Then she gives us the names of our buddies.
“Stuey Lewis’s buddy is Steven Roy.”
Will gives me the thumbs-up. But my stomach does an upside-down roller-coaster ride. I think I’m gonna lose Wednesday’s special breakfast. For real, this time. No lie.
“Are you feeling all right, Stuey?” Ms. Curtis asks. “You look a little green.”
“I feel a little green,” I say.
A few kids laugh. But my stomach feels too shaky to care. Steven Roy is Anthony’s best friend. They tell each other everything. No way is any secret safe with Steven Roy. No way is he ever gonna be my reading buddy.
Ms. Curtis shushes the other kids. “What did we just talk about, friends? Now pick out a book to share with your reading buddy.”
Then she asks me to come over to her rocking chair. “Do you need to go to the nurse?” she whispers.
“Yes,” I say. “I guess I’ll just have to miss D.E.A.R. time today.”
She gives me one of those teacher looks. The maybe-something-else-is-going-on kind.
“Is there anything you want to tell me, Stuey?” she asks.
“Well, I’d like you to change my reading buddy.”
“How come, Stu?”
She seems to really care. It almost makes me want to call her Ginger. It almost makes me want to tell the truth. But not the whole truth. So I decide to tell a piece of it.
“I won’t be comfortable with him.”
“Are you sure?” she asks.
I nod my head yes.
“Do you want to tell me why?” she asks.
I shake my head no.
And do you know what? She doesn’t ask any more questions. She just gets up and gets her list.
“I could switch your partner with Sam’s. Would you be willing to give Natalie Archer a try?” she asks.
“I guess so,” I say. “Can I go to the nurse now?”
She gives me another one of those looks. But she lets me go anyway. Yes! I’m safe till next Wednesday!
My stomach starts feeling better when I get to Mrs. Cotton’s office.
“What’s the problem, Stuey?” she asks.
“Too many pieces of French toast,” I say. “But I’m gonna feel better in time for gym class.”
She puts her hand on my forehead. Then she gives me a wink.
“I’m sure you are,” she says. “Want to lie down for a bit?” Then she fluffs up a pillow for my tired head.
Keeping a secret is a lot of work. I close my eyes and have a little rest.
“Hi, are you Stuart?” A girl with dark hair and glasses is standing by my cot. She’s got a book in her hand. “I’m Natalie, your reading buddy.”
Relax, I say to myself. She’s only a dream. I pinch myself, but guess what? She isn’t!
“Want to hear a story? It might make you feel better,” she says.
“Do I have to read?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “You just get to rest. This is one of my old favorites. It always makes me feel better. Maybe it will help you, too.”
And then, Natalie Archer, my D.E.A.R. buddy, begins to read.
I close my eyes and feel my crowded thoughts slowing down. I’ve just bought another day. My secret’s still safe.
* * *
I was right about Steven Roy having loose lips. He blabbed to Anthony at lunch about my trip to the nurse and Anthony blabbed to Mom. So now she’s rethinking Wednesday’s special breakfasts. And she’s gonna monitor how much I eat. All because Steven Roy can’t keep his mouth shut. I knew he couldn’t be my reading buddy.
* * *
“You look like you’re feeling great this morning, Stuey,” says Ms. Curtis when I walk into my classroom the next day. “Want to help write the morning message?”
“I’d love to help, Ginger!” says Lilly. “I’m an excellent writer.”
For once I’m happy to have that annoying girl in my class.
“Thank you, Lilly, but I asked Stuey,” says Ms. Curtis.
“I’m happy to give my turn to Lilly,” I say. I give them both my best smile. “I can do it another day.”
“That’s very friendly of you, Stuey,” Ms. Curtis says.
I can’t tell which kind of teacher look she’s giving me, but she hands Lilly a blue marker.
“Hey, Stuey,” says Will. “Did you ask your mom about Saturday?”
I take a deep breath. “I can go fishing. But I’m not sure she’ll let me go to the bookstore,” I tell him.
“I don’t get it, Stu. What’s going on?” he asks.
I take another deep breath. It’s now or never. I’m gonna tell him.
But then Ms. Curtis calls, “Good morn- ing, everyone, please come to meeting.”
“Ms. Curtis is waiting, Will. We better get over there,” I say.
“It’s time to read the morning message,” says Ms. Curtis. “Please follow my pointer.”
Hello, Second Graders,
Today’s lunch is pizza.
We have library this morning.
Let’s go over the rules.
“I know all about the library rules,” says Lilly.
“I’m sure you do, Lilly,” says Ms. Curtis. “But the rules are a bit different for second graders. This year you get to take out four books.”
“Cool!” yells Will. Then he turns a little red. Normally he’s pretty quiet.
“You can pick any three books you want,” says Ms. Curtis. “Picture books or chapter books. Fiction books or nonfiction books. And your mom or dad can read them to you.”
Yes! It’s still okay for Mom to read to me! I look at my teacher. I give her my first real smile since school started.
“But you also have to pick a book that you can read. So here’s the five-finger rule, for the fourth book. Open the book. Read the first sentence. If you get stuck on more than five words, put it back. That’s a book for later. For now, try an easier book.”
No! That is not okay. No way is anybody gonna see me taking out a baby book. I roll my eyes at Ms. Curtis.
“Don’t worry.” Ms. Curtis looks right at me. “I’ll help each of you pick out the perfect book.”
She’s right. I don’t need to worry. ’Cause I am not going to the library. Not now, not ever.
“Can everyone please line up at the door,” says Ms. Curtis.
“Let’s go, Stu.” Will grabs my hand. He’s hot to trot.
Only I don’t move. My bottom is glued to the floor.
“Come on, Stuey.” Will is losing his patience. “We only have twenty minutes in the library.”
“You go ahead, Will,” I say, and he lines up.
“Ginger.” Lilly’s voice gives me an instant headache. “Stuey Lewis isn’t lining up.”
“Thanks, Lilly, I appreciate your concern,” Ms. Curtis says. She walks over to me and leans down. “I’ll be back in a minute, Stuey,” she whispers. “Stay put, okay?”
Then she walks to the front of the line, and everyone files out the door.
The room is very quiet. I think I am very alone. I think it’s no fun to miss library. And I think I would like to go home. But mostly, I think the five-finger rule stinks.
* * *
I hear Ms. Curtis, but I hope that, if I keep my eyes closed, she’ll go away.
“I’m your teacher, Stuey,” she whispers. “But I’d like to be your friend, too.”
I don’t say a word. But she knows I’m listening ’cause I open my eyes.
“Friends trust each other. So I’m going to trust you with a big secret. Okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
“I didn’t learn how to read until second grade,” Ms. Curtis says.
“No way,” I say. “Not till then?”
“Worse, really,” she says. “Not until the end of second grade. And not really well until the end of third.”
“Wow,” I say. “That must have been hard.”
“Sometimes life is hard. But you have to try to make it work.”
“I guess so,” I say. “I have been trying.”
“I know,” she says. Then she puts her arm around me. “So, what’s making life hard for you, Stu?” she asks.
And do you know what? I tell her.
“But, Stuey,” she says. “You’ve only been in second grade for four days. I can’t wave a magic reading wand to make it happen. I have to teach you. Not everyone in this class knows how to read well.”
“But they all know how to read way better than me. Especially Will.”
“Well, you’re right about Will,” she says. “He’s one of the lucky ones. Every now and then someone gets it right away. But hardly anyone in this class reads as well as he does. Nearly all of us have to work at it.” Then she gives me a little squeeze. “And for most kids it’s fun.”
I give her a kid’s look. The kind that says, I don’t believe you.
“Don’t believe me, huh?” she asks. She walks me over to the morning message. She starts pointing to words.
“Pizza,” I say. “Hello. Second. Graders. Happy. Thursday.”
She takes her pointer and waves it over my head.
“Stuey Lewis, Reading Wizard!” she says.
“But I remembered those words,” I tell her. “That’s not real reading.”
Then she laughs. “Real reading is remembering words. And looking at pictures. And sounding out letters. Try this.”
She grabs a little book from the book box.
I open it and take a deep breath.
“I see a robin in a tree.
I see a seagull in the sea.
I see a blue jay in the snow.
I look for birds and wave hello!”
We look at each other and smile.
“Hello, Reader,” she says.
“Hello, Ginger,” I answer.
We give each other a high five.
“Can this be my five-finger-rule book?” I ask.
“It’s perfect,” she says. “If you like, the two of us can choose the five-finger-rule book from here every week until you feel ready to pick one out at the library.” She looks at the clock. “If you hurry, you still have time to go to the library and get your other books.”
I give her the thumbs-up. Then I’m off to find Will, and the rest of my books.
After supper, I decide it’s time to come clean with Will, so I give him a call.
“I can go to Paperback Heaven after we go fishing, but there’s something I have to tell you. I don’t think I’m ready for ten humongous fat books yet.”
“That’s okay, Stuey,” says Will, “you will be soon enough.”
And soon enough suddenly feels all right.
Text copyright © 2011 by Jane Schoenberg
Pictures copyright © 2011 by Cambria Evans