I’m the biggest loser in the seventh-grade class at Calvin Marshall Middle School. So far, nobody has challenged my position. My class was supposed to be the stars in the lower school this year. Then a notice came around in August that said they were changing everything around because of overcrowding. The lower school would be kindergarten through sixth, and seventh grade would move up to the new middle school with grades eight and nine. My grandmother homeschooled me my whole life until this year, so grade levels didn’t mean much to me. Besides, for a bottom-feeder like me, the reorganization was no problem. The lowest point is a secure position—it never changes. But for kids like Joel Mack, the class jock, or Ashleigh Gianelli, the class beauty, missing out on a year of ruling the lower school and dropping to the lowest rung on the middle school ladder was a big shock. Joel, who probably towered over just about everybody in his old school, looks like a fourth-grader here. And Ashleigh is pretty, but she can’t compare to the ninth-grade gorgeous girls. Some of them could be in the movies. Honest. I’m not kidding.
I figured out right away that lunch can be the worst period of the day because where you sit says a lot about how important you are. Not a worry for me. Right at the beginning of the school year, I staked out a claim at a small table—actually a desk—in the back corner of the cafeteria, where I could observe what was going on. From my vantage point, I’ve been watching how the other kids formed groups. It took a couple of weeks for the table arrangements to shake out—three grade levels of every category—the gorgeous girls, the jocks, the brainiacs, the techno-nerds, and the kids who think they’ve hit the jackpot when they get a D plus. Well, that’s sort of a bottom group, and my grades could qualify me for that table. I’m not like them, though, because I’m smart everywhere but in school.
When it was just Gram and me doing lessons together, there were no other kids to compare myself to. We would have long, interesting discussions about whatever subject I was studying. Gram made me feel like I was some kind of genius. Then the first few tests in public school put me pretty much on the bottom of the pile. I didn’t want to upset Gram by telling her how bad my grades were, but I knew she would find out when the first report cards went home.
To make things worse, most of the kids in my class had been together since kindergarten, and I didn’t know any of them. Having a name like Basil Feeney didn’t help me fit in, either. My mother, Carly, named me after an herb. It was the main ingredient in her favorite sauce—pesto—so things could have been a lot worse. Carly dumped me with my grandmother when I was five and ran off to Hollywood to become a star.
I might have been able to overcome the bad grades and the no-friends thing if it hadn’t been for my freakism. I was even starting to make one friend, Jason Ferris. Jason and I sat next to each other in most of our classes because our last names started with the same letter. We weren’t exactly best buddies, but he was the closest thing I’d ever had to a kid friend. For a couple of weeks, Jason and I got along pretty well. I even started sitting with him at a real lunch table once in a while.
Then came the day we were supposed to be correcting each other’s math review worksheets. Jason read the problem out loud. “One jar holds 635 marbles, and another jar has 463 marbles. If you put them all together, how many marbles would you have?” He looked up from the paper. “You said 798. It’s supposed to be 1,098.”
“That’s because of three and six both being yellow,” I explained. “I get them mixed up a lot. Don’t you?”
Jason dipped his chin and peered at me over his glasses.
I should have realized something was wrong, but like an idiot I kept going. “Same thing with one and zero both being white. I mean, there are so many colors. Why couldn’t each number get a different one?” This seemed so logical to me. For as long as I could remember, every time I saw a number, it had a color for me. And every time I saw a color that was the exact shade of one of my numbers, it would make me think of that number. It was as normal as breathing, which was why I couldn’t understand the look I was getting from Jason.
He sat staring at me, but he didn’t have to answer because the bell rang and we went to lunch. At least Jason did. He grabbed his lunch bag and was in line by the door before I could stand up. We weren’t allowed to cut ahead, so I didn’t see him until I got into the cafeteria. By the time I got my milk, Jason was sitting at a table that was full, so I retreated to my desk-table in the back corner.
I saw Jason talking to the kids around him, then they all laughed. He turned and pointed at me, and they all looked at me and laughed again. I was pretty sure he was talking about me, but I didn’t understand what was happening until we got in line to go back to class. The kid in front of me—I think his name was Max—said, “My eight is orange. What color is yours?”
So different people had different colors for their numbers? Was that the reason Jason acted so weird? “Eight is sort of a dark blue-purple,” I said. “Orange is five for me.”
The kids around us started laughing. When I got on the bus for the trip home, I could tell that everybody knew about my numbers and colors freakism. And for the first time in my life, I realized this wasn’t a normal thing that everybody had. I could hear comments coming from all over the bus. By the time we got to my stop, I was convinced I was the only person in the world who saw numbers as colors and colors as numbers.
Gram knew I was bummed the minute I came through the door. “Have a bad day, Basil?” She could read me like a book.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Tell me about it. It always helps me to talk about a problem.”
I was just about to open my mouth when she said, “As long as it’s not a math problem. You know how bad I am at that.”
Of course she would think I was having trouble with one of my subjects. That’s when I realized that I’d never talked about my colors and numbers thing with her. I had probably thought about colors when we were doing math worksheets, but I couldn’t remember ever saying anything out loud. Why would I? I thought everybody saw it the same way. But now I knew I was the odd one. How would Gram feel if I hit her with the fact that her grandson was an all-out freak? So I didn’t tell her.
That’s when I stopped trying to make friends in school—not that I’d ever had any real friends. I never saw that many kids when I was homeschooled. Once in a while, Gram and I would get together with the homeschooled kids in Broxburg for something like a fossil field trip to Craig’s Creek. There were lots of other get-togethers, but I really hated them. I don’t think Gram was too wild about them either, because she never forced me to go. Our friends were all adults, older ones like Gram, who didn’t have kids my age.
Giving up on having friends really hadn’t been my decision anyway. Kids started making fun of other things about me, like my rooster-tail cowlick and my nose, which takes a slight left turn halfway down my face. Everybody thought I was too weird to hang out with. So from then on, I settled into my position as class loser, and I kept the numbers and colors freakism to myself. I kept everything to myself.
copyright © 2013 by MJ Auch
MJ Auch is the award-winning author of One-Handed Catch, Ashes of Roses, Wing Nut, Guitar Boy, and numerous other books for young readers. She lives in upstate New York with her family.