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My sweaty palm pushes the Media Center door open on the second day of senior year. The single most important class of my life is about to begin.
"Don't look so worried, Val," Marci tells me. "We got this covered."
I give my best friend since eighth grade a pained look. Sunny Marci. Always seeing the bright side. Except this time, she's especially naive. There's no way it's a sure thing.
Together, we move to the table Mr. Carleton assigned to us. Yesterday, he divided the class into two permanent Campus News teams. First order of business today: each crew votes for producer. The job I covet. The position I worked really hard, during both sophomore and junior years at Washington Irving High School, to get. If mine, it could propel me straight into the college of my dreams.
I steal a glance at my competition. Raul Ortega. His dark chocolate eyes take everything in. Taller by about three inches than me, he wears his hair in a brush cut that tops a solid body. Raul's definitely the guy you want on your side in a fight. Not that he's a hothead. On the contrary, the dude's cool. He knows his way around TV Production almost as well as I do. Exactly the reason he might get more votes than me.
He feels my look, turns. Grins nervously. Oh yeah, Raul wants it, too. The real question is: which of us does the group want? Besides Marci Lee, the team consists of Omar Bryant and Henry Dillon. With five votes, there won't be a tie.
Mr. Carleton takes attendance and then says, "Okay, folks, you know what to do."
For a moment, our table is silent. Afraid that I'll come off as either too confident or too bossy, I resist the urge to take charge. Raul's busy giving the other two boys meaningful glances. A sinking feeling hits the pit of my stomach. Did he talk to them last night? Make them promise to vote for him?
That would totally suck.
Marci jumps in. Energetically, she tears a piece of paper into five pieces. "You all have something to write with?"
Henry whips out a pen. A classic overachiever, he skipped both second and third grades, won a national award for drawing in eighth and captains the chess team.
"I've got extras!"
Underneath the curtain of brown hair that covers his forehead, Henry shoots Marci puppy dog eyes. He's been quietly crushing on her for at least a year. Quietlysince she's dating a football player. Doesn't matter to Henry. He'd probably faint if Marci actually kissed him.
Omar extends a well-manicured hand. "I forgot a pencil."
"Forgot?" Marci counters. "Or never had one in the first place?"
He wriggles his eyebrows. She indulges him a laugh before handing over a slip of paper.
At first glance, Omar Bryant's a diva. When he was eight, he put on a sparkly cape for Halloween and refused to take it off until Christmas. Didn't care what anyone saidthen or now. But dig deeper and you'll hit the sensitive soul of a true artist. Everyone in Campus News knows he has a great eye and a steady hand. When he gets behind the lens, his focus is total.
Marci hands out the rest of the paper. Names are scribbled. Without a word, we all fold the slips into tiny squares, as if that can disguise who voted for whom. Five tiny bundles are tossed onto the table.
"I'll count." Carefully, Marci unfolds the first piece of paper. "Valerie Gaines."
I keep my face neutral because that doesn't mean much. It's either my voteor hers. The second paper has Raul's name on it. So does the third.
A wave of disappointment hits. I told Marci I might not win. Not if it's boys vs. girlswith the boys outnumbering us.
Marci gives me a cheerful look after unwrapping the fourth vote. "ValGal."
Obviously, that's hers. The score's tied. Raul leans forward, triumph etched across his face. I can practically see the writing inside the final piece of paper.
"Valerie," Marci says.
She waves the slip. "The last vote's for you. You won!"
The shock on my face is genuine. As is the surprise in Raul's eyes. Marci shoots me an "I told you" smile before prancing to the whiteboard. She grabs an orange marker and writes Valerie Gaines, B Team Producer.
Mr. Carleton nods. "Team A, you have a winner?"
Scott Jenkins raises his hand. His stick-up sand-colored hair and square jaw make him look skinnier than he actually is. Given who's on A Team, he's the person I'd vote for, too.
Scott's good but I'm better. I work harder. I care more. I won't ever let my team down.
The teacher heaves himself out of his chair. "Good choices, folks. Now listen up! Rule review so you can't say you didn't know 'em when you break 'em. Each show consists of four segments, no more, no less, interspersed with anchor ins and outs. Sixteen minutes total. Remember to look for the angle. What's the way into the story? Teams alternate weekly broadcasts. B Team's up first, then A."
Which doesn't make sense. You'd think A Team would start because, well, it's first in the alphabet. But that's how Mr. Carleton thinks. Roundabout. And backward.
"Last three rules. First" he holds up an index finger "a Question Sheet must be filled out before every interview." Two fingers go up. "Rude behavior or fooling around in hallways when you're shooting Will. Not. Be. Tolerated. Third. Do not open a case unless it's on a table or the ground because equipment in said case will fall out. If it breaks, your folks pay. Trust me, they Will. Not. Be. Happy."
Mr. Carleton, a portly African-American man, keeps his head shaved smoothly and his desk immaculate, proof positive that he's a fan of the "less is more" theory. Tightly edited sequences, one-word sentences.
He continues with basic equipment sign-out procedures. When he's done, he glances at the clock. "Okay, teams, with whatever time's left, start planning your first broadcast."
Excited, I pull out my Campus News notebook, but before anyone can say a word, the door flies open. Every head turns.
"Omigod!" Marcis hisses. "What's he doing here?"
My heart takes a nosedive straight into my stomach.
Jagger Voorham! Pouty, rocker-boy lips, hazel eyes that change color according to his mood, and yes, supercute. Slacker Jagger crosses the room without bothering to look at anyone, including me. As if he doesn't know I'd be front and center.
He hands Mr. Carleton a mustard-yellow Schedule Change form. The teacher frowns.
"Don't worry, Marci," I whisper. "Carleton'll never let him into the class. Jags didn't take Intro. He can't be in Advanced."
Resolutely, I tap the notebook and try to discuss stories for the first broadcast. But everyone's focus is on the quiet conversation at the front of the room. Finally the teacher nods.
"B Team!" Mr. Carleton points a finger at Jagger. "New member."
Do something, Marci mouths.
Like what? Throw myself under a bus? Jump off the Brooklyn Bridge? Drop the class?
Jagger saunters over. I look down, refusing to give him the satisfaction of acknowledging his existence. There's no way I want himor anyone else in the roomto see the tears of frustration forming hot in my eyes.
How could Jagger do this to me? My triumphant momentruined!
My BFF, a four-foot-eleven, barely one-hundred-pound Korean dynamo, kicks me. I don't have to look at Marci to know what she's thinking.
Who wants to deal with Jagger all year?
That's the moment the bell rings. Everyone in class jumps up, as if electroshocked into obedience. Mr. Carleton gestures. "Stay a moment, Val?"
Marci glances at me, but I wave her on. Scott Jenkins smirks as he passes, knowing my team's just been saddled with a complete neophyte. Hailey Manussian, on the other hand, shoots me a look of sheer hatredor maybe it's jealousy. Like most girls at WiHi, Hailey's probably going through an if only Jag-ger wanted to get into my pants phase.
Backpack on shoulder, I walk to the teacher's desk.
"I put Jagger Voorham on your team," Carleton tells me.
The blood rushes to my cheeks at the mere mention of his name. "I noticed."
"He can't fit Intro into his schedule. I let him in because he's a senior like the rest of the class. Although that doesn't mean you let him slide. He needs to do his share. Show him the ropes, won't you, Val?"
Despite the fact that I find it hard to breathe, I put on a tough act. "Sure, Mr. Carleton. I'll kick his butt."
The teacher laughs. "I bet you will." He points to a couple of Student Emmy Awards gathering dust on the shelf above his desk. "Get those stories, girl. I'm counting on you to win us another."
"No pressure," I say.
His bald head gleams. "Would it be Campus News if there wasn't?"