Book excerpt

Zero Tolerance

Claudia Mills

FSG Books for Young Readers

Sierra Shepard sat in the office at Longwood Middle School during lunch recess 5A, waiting to see her principal, Mr. Besser. She adjusted her red plaid skirt so that it draped neatly over her knees and tucked a strand of shoulder-length brown hair back into her matching headband. Outside in the hallway, some kids peered in through the glass windows to see who was in trouble this time. She could tell that they were disappointed when they saw that she was the one sitting there.
Oh, it’s just Sierra.
Above her head hung the banner she had helped sew with the other seventh-grade members of the Longwood Leadership Club. Letters cut from different-colored squares of fabric were appliquéd onto a large white cloth rectangle, spelling out the four words that formed the Longwood Middle School creed:
It still bothered Sierra that the fourth “R,” the one in RELIABILITY, was slightly crooked. She had wanted to tell Em to snip it off and sew it on again more carefully, but Celeste had already been acting so bossy and critical that Sierra hadn’t wanted to sound that way herself.
She would have brought the banner home and fixed the crooked “R” without saying anything. But Mrs. Frederick, who had been the Leadership Club adviser ever since Sierra had joined in sixth grade, had already started folding up the banner to take home to press. So now the “R” was crooked forever.
The “R” in RELIABILITY was unreliable.
The door to the office opened—not the door into Mr. Besser’s inner sanctum, but the door that led out into the hall. Two boys entered—Luke Bishop and another kid Sierra didn’t know. They were herded by a playground lady who wasn’t exactly dragging them by their collars—touching students wasn’t allowed—but who was keeping them in line with her scowl.
Sierra drew herself even more upright and looked down at the folder that she held in her lap.
The playground lady turned to Ms. Lin, one of the two school secretaries.
“Fighting,” she said. “Again.”
“He started it,” the other boy spat out.
Luke sneered.
“I don’t care who started it,” Ms. Lin said.
The playground lady turned on her heel and marched away, as if relieved to be done with the unpleasant duty of delivering them to the office.
Ms. Lin pointed to the appliquéd banner. It really was useful to have it hanging right there.
“Rules,” she read. “You boys know what the rule is about fighting at school. The rule is that all students involved in a fight are punished by in-school suspension. All students.”
Luke dropped down into the chair directly next to Sierra, and the other boy into the chair next to him. Sierra thought about getting up and shifting into the remaining empty chair on the other side of her, but that might look rude, and Luke, who wasn’t dumb even though he was in trouble all the time, might say something rude back.
He already called her by her last name instead of her first name, changing it to “Shep-turd.” The only class they had together was health. Sierra was in honors classes for everything else, but there was no honors section for health. Luke had called her by that hideous name one day in health class, and some of the other not-so-good students had laughed.
Luke leaned over and said, “What did you do?”
At first Sierra didn’t even understand the question. Then she got it. Was Luke joking?
“I didn’t do anything!”
Luke glanced around the office as if to say, Then why are you here? He was one of the tallest seventh-grade boys, broad-shouldered, the kind of boy who would have been on the football team if his grades had been good enough to allow him to play. His long dark hair fell over one eye, and his T-shirt was torn, maybe from the playground fight with the other boy, who sat staring straight ahead.
“I’m here to talk to Mr. Besser about an idea I had—that the Leadership Club has—for a new school program.”
It was actually Sierra’s father’s idea—he had read about it somewhere and told her about it—but then she had taken it to the Leadership Club, and they had thought it sounded great. The program was called ZAP, for Zeroes Aren’t Permitted. Any kid who didn’t turn in an assignment had automatic detention that day in a special study hall until he or she got the assignment done. That way no one ever got behind, and lots of kids who were failing wouldn’t fail.
Luke gave a snort of contempt. Sierra clutched the folder that had her typed-up notes explaining this new idea.
“How do you know it’s not a great program?” she asked him. “Actually, it’s a program designed to help kids like you.”
Luke gave her a look of such fury that she wondered if he might have attacked her physically if they hadn’t been sitting outside the principal’s office under Ms. Lin’s watchful eye.
And then she, Sierra, would be in trouble for fighting! Because the rule said “No fighting,” and it didn’t matter who started it. Which did seem unfair, come to think of it. It would hardly have been Sierra’s fault if Luke attacked her. It was hardly the other boy’s fault if Luke had attacked him.
“Don’t do me any favors, Shep-turd,” Luke snarled.
Sierra wanted to snap back at him, Maybe there isn’t any program that could help a kid like you.
But Ms. Lin called over to them, “No talking!” She gave Sierra an apologetic smile, clearly to let her know that the command was addressed to Luke, not her.
The other office door opened, and Mr. Besser stuck his bald head out. A lot of kids made fun of Mr. Besser for being bald—he made fun of it himself—but Sierra liked how he looked, with his bright eyes and waggling, bushy eyebrows.
Mr. Besser scanned the lineup of kids in their hard plastic chairs. He gave the two boys a stern stare. He gave Sierra a friendly wink.
“Sierra was here first,” Ms. Lin said.
“All right, Miss Shepard, come on in,” Mr. Besser said. “Tell me what I can do for you today.”
As Sierra accepted the principal’s invitation to follow him into the inner sanctum, she heard Luke mutter something. She was glad that she couldn’t make out the words.
*   *   *
After her short meeting with Mr. Besser, who had promised he would give the ZAP idea “serious consideration,” Sierra hurried to her locker to get her lunch. At Longwood Middle School, the lunch period was divided into an eating part and a recess part. Sierra had recess 5A and ate lunch 5B. So did her friends Emma Williamson, Lexi Kruger, and Celeste Vogel, which was lucky.
Sierra opened her locker, glancing at the things she had taped to the inside of her door—a picture of snow falling on the mountains that she had made in art class last semester, some goofy pictures of her and Em taken at a photo booth in the arcade at the mall, a printout of her goals for the semester, which she had made just over three weeks ago, on New Year’s Day: Speak up more in class. Read a library book every week. Don’t let people push you around. “People” meant Celeste. Get more involved in Leadership Club. She had done that one already, with her ZAP idea. Don’t think so much about B. “B” meant “boys.”
And “boys” meant Colin Beauvoir, who was in her accelerated language arts class, her math class, and her French class, as well as in the Octave, the elite eight-student a cappella choir that practiced Tuesday and Thursday mornings before school. Colin with the dreamy gray eyes and the slow, shy smile. Sierra loved the way his hands trembled just a little bit when he had to read aloud in class.
Sierra grabbed her insulated lunch bag and slammed her locker shut. She was definitely doing better at Get more involved in Leadership Club than at Don’t think so much about B.
The noise level in the cafeteria was deafening as Sierra headed to the table by the window where her friends sat every day. She had thought Celeste wouldn’t be back yet from getting her braces tightened, but there she was, her long, straight blond hair easy to see even from across the room. Tiny, smart-mouthed Lexi sat next to her; brainy, bookish Em was sitting across from them.
Sierra sat down next to Em.
“Do your braces hurt?” she asked Celeste sympathetically.
Celeste nodded. “But look.” She flashed her smile; Sierra saw that Celeste’s braces were now blue, the same blue as her eyes. “I got sick of pink. Pink is so last semester, don’t you think?”
Sierra knew Celeste was joking, pretending to be a big authority on fashion. But Celeste definitely was a big authority on a lot of things.
“Did you talk to Besser?” Celeste asked Sierra.
“He said that ZAP was a great idea, and he’d give it serious consideration.” Sierra felt herself beaming.
“Grownups say that when they’re not going to do anything,” Celeste said.
Sierra was glad to see Lexi give Celeste a withering look. All three girls were in Leadership Club with Sierra.
“Well, they do,” Celeste said. “I’m just saying.”
Lexi crumpled up her sandwich wrapper into a small, hard sphere and tried to toss it into the trash can, the way the boys did. She missed.
“Are you just going to leave it there?” Sierra asked.
“I’ll get it when the bell rings. On my way out.” As if registering Sierra’s disapproval, Lexi added, “Look, it’s not like it’s going anywhere.”
Sierra hopped up and walked the ten feet to the trash can, collected Lexi’s wrapper, and disposed of it properly.
“You can’t stand for a piece of litter to be on the floor for half a minute,” Lexi teased when Sierra sat back down at the table.
“You shouldn’t make Sierra throw away your trash for you,” Celeste scolded.
“I didn’t make her do anything. It’s not my fault if Sierra’s so anal.”
Sierra knew that “anal” was a psychological term for someone who was compulsively neat and organized, which she was—well, neat and organized, not compulsively neat and organized. She hated the word, though. It made her think of Luke’s nickname for her.
“Aren’t you going to eat your lunch?” Celeste asked Sierra.
Sierra wasn’t really hungry; she was too busy mentally replaying her conversation with Mr. Besser. And, unlike the grownups of Celeste’s apparent acquaintance, she knew that Mr. Besser did mean what he said.
Celeste never seemed to want to give anybody else in Leadership Club credit for having good ideas. It was one of the most annoying things about her. Sierra had become friends with Celeste mainly because they were the only two seventh-grade girls singing in the Octave; Colin was the only seventh-grade boy.
Sierra opened the Velcro flap on her lunch bag. Hungry or not, she’d better eat something, or her stomach might start rumbling in French class, right as she was sitting next to Colin.
She opened her sandwich and was about to take the first bite when she looked at it more closely. It was ham and cheese, not plain cheese. She must have grabbed her mother’s identical lunch bag by mistake: Sierra hadn’t eaten ham or pork or bacon ever since reading Charlotte’s Web back in third grade.
“Great,” she said. “I took my mother’s lunch, and she took mine.”
Irritated, Sierra dumped the contents of the lunch bag out onto the table. The loathsome sandwich, two oatmeal raisin cookies, an apple, and a paring knife to cut it with.
Sierra stared at the knife as if a coiled serpent had appeared from her mother’s lunch bag, poised and ready to spring.
“Uh-oh,” Lexi said.
“No weapons” was the biggest rule of all the rules at Longwood Middle School. No guns, not even toy guns. No knives, not even plastic knives.
For the first time since Sierra had come to the table, Em spoke up. “Just put it back in your lunch bag. It was your mother’s knife, not yours. No one’s seen it but us.”
Lexi, who couldn’t be bothered to pick up her own trash, quickly snatched the knife and stuck it back in the lunch bag, safely out of sight.
“It was just a mistake,” Em said. “You took the wrong lunch. It could happen to anyone.”
Celeste didn’t say anything.
“No,” Sierra said. “The rule says ‘no knives.’ Period. Not ‘no knives unless you have them by mistake.’ Or ‘no knives except if they’re not very sharp.’ I’ll take it over to the lunch lady, and she can put it in the kitchen or in the office, and my mom can come and get it when she picks me up after school.”
Before she could change her mind, Sierra gathered up the rest of the contents of her lunch, put them back in the bag, and got up from the table. Carrying the lunch bag with the knife inside, she walked over to Sandy, the lunch lady.
She would explain everything to Sandy.
And then everything would be all right.

Copyright © 2013 by Claudia Mills
Claudia Mills is the author of many chapter and middle grade books, including 7 x 9=Trouble; How Oliver Olson Changed the World; and, most recently, Third-Grade Reading Queen. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.