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IN TROUBLE AGAIN
Nine-year-old Mike Weiss slumped in a hard chair outside the principal's office. Fourth grade was supposed to be a fresh start, but he was right back where he always was. Every year since kindergarten, at least once a week. In trouble.
He wasn't a bad kid. He wasn't mean. He didn't hurt anyone. He just couldn't sit still. Sometimes he did things without meaning to. When he had gotten up and walked around during the math test, he really wasn't looking at anybody's paper. He just had to move! But that was against the rules, and he had ignored his teacher's warning, so here he was.
Over the summer, he'd been working on ways to cope. "Strategies," his parents called them. Sometimes they worked, and sometimes they didn't. It looked like the strategies weren't going to change things at school, though. It just wasn't fair.
The principal was on the phone, behind a closed door. Any minute that door would fly open and the same routine would start all over again. Calling his parents. Talking about consequences. Making a plan.
Mike kicked the bottom rung of his chair until Mrs. Warren, the school secretary, glanced up. Then he stared at the floor. There was a bare spot in the rug beneath his feet. Was he the one wearing it thin?
Mrs. Warren had a jar of candy on her desk. Mike wasn't supposed to eat sugar, but one little piece couldn't hurt, right? He got up and helped himself to a chocolate kiss. It made him feel a little better, and Mrs. Warren never minded. She usually left the discipline to the principal.
"Who's your teacher this year, Mike?" she asked kindly.
"Mrs. Canfield," he answered. "She seems nice." He really meant it, too. Until a few minutes ago, he'd thought that maybe Mrs. Canfield would understand him.
"You're going to love her!" said Mrs. Warren. She started putting flyers in the teachers' mailboxes. "She just needs to get to know you," she added. Mrs. Warren knew all about Mike's problems. She had a son just like him, she said. Right down to the brown eyes and the messy hair.
Some first graders walked in with an attendance sheet, staring at him like he was some kind of criminal. That was bad enough. Then Mike heard a class coming down the hall. One of the other fourth-grade teachers was at the front of the line, reminding the kids to be quiet as they made their way to the art room. Before they passed, Mike ducked behind a file cabinet in the office. But it was too late.
"Mike!" a girl called, her ponytail bouncing.
"Hey, Nora," Mike muttered. Her family had recently moved next door to his, and she was just his age. Just his luck.
"Going home sick?" Nora asked. She would never be in the office for any other reason. Nora was gifted, his mom had told him. She needed special classes and extra-challenging homework. She could handle sitting quietly at a desk.
Mike didn't think Nora seemed any different from most kids. She was friendly, and she liked to play four-square. He might have liked her if he didn't know she was good at everything she tried. They definitely didn't have that in common.
"Not exactly sick…" he said. It was hard to explain. Luckily Nora's teacher was moving her along.
"See you after school!" she said, waving good-bye.
Mike looked around to make sure nobody had heard that. It was still a new arrangement, and he hoped it wouldn't last. He and Nora weren't really friends, but their parents were. They'd hit it off from the day Nora's family moved in. It only took a couple of backyard barbecues before their mothers had cooked up a plan to help each other out after school.
Both sets of parents had flexible schedules, but they couldn't always pick their kids up at three o'clock. So now Nora came to Mike's house when her parents were busy, and Mike went to Nora's when his were. He was going there today, actually. Another fun afternoon of raw vegetables and no screen time at Nora's.
The principal's door was still closed. Mrs. Warren was making a fresh pot of coffee. Mike wondered what his mom had told Nora's. If Nora was gifted, what was he? What was the opposite?
The idea made him so mad that he didn't notice the shadow in the office doorway. It still wasn't the principal. It was much worse. Jackson Jacobs, Mike's enemy since birth, was shaking his head. "Not again!" Jackson said. "It's only the first week of school, man. You're in trouble already?"
Last year Jackson had been in Mike's class. Mike hadn't seen him all summer, even though they lived in the same neighborhood. It looked like Jackson had grown about a foot at camp.
He always knew how to get under Mike's skin. "Hey, where were you at soccer practice?" Jackson asked. For once, he waited to hear what Mike had to say.
Mike gulped. "I'm not playing this year," he said.
"Not playing?" said Jackson, amazed. "But you always play. Charlie and Zack are playing. I saw them on the field."
Mike's best friends, Charlie and Zack, had already given him a hard time. They were on the same team this year, with matching orange jerseys, numbers 12 and 13. "I need to focus on my schoolwork," Mike said. "Soccer is a big commitment."
"Is that what your parents said?" asked Jackson. "So it has nothing to do with the way you never got a goal, right?" He punched Mike playfully on the arm. "What's wrong with you, big guy? Skipping soccer is never going to help your schoolwork. It'll take a lot more than that!"
Jackson headed toward the boys' bathroom, laughing like it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard.
And of course that's when the principal's phone call finally ended. Mike saw the doorknob turning and Ms. Scott's sensible shoes marching toward him. He sat up straight and tried to smile.
"Welcome back," she said, waving him into her office like he was an old friend. He sat down in his usual place in front of her desk, and she sat down in her huge chair. He felt like he was back in preschool. Ms. Scott sighed deeply.
"I don't know what to say, Mike," she began. "It's too early in the year for this. Your mom said you made good progress over the summer. What happened?"
"I don't know," Mike said honestly. "I was taking a test and I needed to get up. I wasn't cheating or anything. I was just … moving."
"We need to find a way for you to succeed in school," Ms. Scott explained, not for the first time. "You can't keep roaming around during tests, or missing assignments, or fooling around in class. You need to find a way to focus."
What could Mike say? "I know…" he trailed off.
"I'll need to call your parents," Ms. Scott said. "Mrs. Canfield and I will meet with them as soon as we can find a date."
Mike's parents had already tried a million ways to keep him "on task," as they said. They'd set alarms to go off whenever he had to start a new activity. They made him eat healthy food and get more sleep. Nothing did the trick. "They're already trying," Mike said softly.
"I know they are," said Ms. Scott. "But I know you can do better."
When he finally left the office, Mike tried to look on the bright side. She hadn't said "I'm disappointed in you." She hadn't said "You need to concentrate," like he could just flip a switch. She was trying to say she believed in him. That he could really do it somehow.
But mostly Mike heard Jackson's words ringing in his ears. "What's wrong with you?" He couldn't play soccer, it was true. He couldn't sit still. Or read a long book. Or remember his math facts. Or get through a week of school without ending up in the office. What was wrong with him? Mike wondered.
The answer was pretty simple: everything.
Text copyright © 2014 by Kate Egan and Mike Lane
Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Eric Wight