Read an Excerpt
Fair and Square
There is something strange going on. Something in the air. Deja feels it as soon as she enters Room Ten at Carver Elementary School. She looks over at her best friend, Nikki, to see if she’s feeling it, too, but Nikki is busy pulling her homework out of her folder to drop it in the basket on Ms. Shelby’s desk. Deja looks at the other kids. They’re doing their usual first-thing-in-the-morning stuff. Gavin, the new boy, is sitting in his chair with his hands folded. Carlos is taking tiny action figures out of his backpack and squirreling them away in his desk. Antonia and Casey are whispering back and forth—probably backbiting. Nikki says backbiting is her mom’s new word. It means something like gossip, which people shouldn’t do. So now Nikki is all the time reminding Deja that if you can’t say anything nice about someone, you shouldn’t say anything at all. Deja personally thinks she’d have to be some kind of perfect person to say only nice things all the time. How could someone be lunch monitor if he or she could report only on the good stuff the kids at their lunch table did? How could a monitor report on someone talking with a mouth full of food? She’d said that to Nikki, and Nikki had to agree.
Suddenly,Deja knows what it is that’s strange. It’s Ms. Shelby. She’s just standing there at the front of the class with a secret smile on her lips as she watches the kids go through their morning routines. She isn’t doing anything else. She isn’t doing any of her usual fussing. She isn’t marking things in her scary book—the one with all their scores and grades and stuff. She’s just standing there looking at the class with this funny smile on her face. Deja looks over at Nikki. She’s pulled out the entire contents of her desk, and now she’s going through a bunch of balled-up papers that had been crammed in at the back. Nikki is such a neatnik.
Deja hurries over to her and says, "You know Ms. Shelby doesn’t like it when we pull everything out of our desks without permission."
Nikki frowns. "It’s not going to take me long." She goes off to get the classroom trash can. She places it beside her desk so she can sweep out the pencil shavings that have accumulated inside it.
Deja glances over at Ms. Shelby. Now she has her hands clasped behind her back. She’s still smiling as she stands there gazing at her class as if her mind is someplace else.
It’s almost like the time when Ms. Shelby got her engagement ring and she waited until all her students had settled down before showing it off. Today, it seems that everyone has slowed their morning routine as if they have all the time in the world. Only Gavin, the new boy, and a few others are ready and waiting. Deja returns to her desk and looks at the whiteboard. There’s no journal topic posted.What’s going on? She takes out her morning journal, places it in the exact middle of her desk, and then folds her hands.
Finally, Ms. Shelby speaks. "I love the way Row Four is ready and waiting." She moves to the board and puts a tally mark beside Row Four’s space. Deja looks at her classmates two rows over. It’s true. They are all in their seats, ready and waiting. How did that happen? She doesn’t like when Ms. Shelby catches them off guard like that. Row Four has seven points from the day before. Row Two, where Deja sits, has three measly points. She glares at Carlos’s back. He’s the weak link. Ms. Shelby has told them about how a chain is only as strong as its weakest link—which doesn’t seem all that fair to Deja. Carlos with his outbursts and rule-breaking is the weak link of Row Two. It’s not fair.
Ms. Shelby turns back to the students. Her smile is even wider now. "Okay, class," she says. "I have a wonderful announcement." She looks around, as if measuring how her students are taking this bit of information. Everyone quiets. Those who were still milling about now take their seats. Deja hopes it’s not another school election. That was Ms. Shelby’s big news a few months before. Deja ran for student body president of Carver Elementary School and lost, and she’s still trying to get over it. She is pondering this when she hears Ms. Shelby say, "You know, I’m getting married in less than two weeks." All the girls look around at one another and smile. The boys look blank, as if they’re thinking, So? Deja bets they’re probably still hoping for a pizza party.
Deja glances at Nikki. She’s just sitting there with her mouth partially open, looking as if she’s listening very carefully.
Ms. Shelby continues, "I so wished all of you could come to my wedding, but that’s not possible. There just isn’t room." Now the girls look deflated. The boys don’t seem to be bothered. The new boy, Gavin, has a tiny frown on his face, as if he’s just trying to understand what’s going on. Deja wonders about him for a moment. So far he’s been quiet, but there’s something about him that doesn’t seem all that quiet. It’s like he’s trying super hard to be good because maybe he wasn’t so good at his old school.
Ms. Shelby goes on. "But it just wouldn’t feel right if I had no one from my class there." She pauses again. For effect, Deja thinks. Ms. Shelby loves to see who’s hanging on her every word. The girls are, of course. Nikki’s mouth has dropped open even further, in anticipation.
"But yesterday I discovered that four of my guests can’t come. That means I have room for four people. Two of you, plus a parent or guardian."
Now there are happy gasps from every girl.
"Since I can only invite two of you, I think the best way to be fair is to have a drawing."
Now some of the girls look around at each other suspiciously. Who’s going to pick the lucky "tickets"?
Ralph raises his hand. "Ms. Shelby," he says before he has waited to be recognized. "What if two girls win?"
"The tickets," he says.
Ms. Shelby, still in her good mood, laughs.
"No matter, Ralph. It will still be fair because everyone has an equal chance."
The word equal makes Deja think of math, which is not her best subject. She looks over at the star beside Nikki’s name on the Facts Quiz chart. Nikki is almost caught up to Erik. He’s on his eights and she just passed the sixes on the last multiplication facts quiz. Nikki told Deja she likes that Ms. Shelby uses big fat stars, so that they can be seen from everywhere in the room. Her star is red, the happiest color of all, Nikki says. Deja, unfortunately, seems to be stuck on her fives, which is almost as easy as the twos or ones. She wonders if she will ever master anything beyond that. When she turns her attention back to the front of the room, she sees that Ms. Shelby is holding a stack of index cards that have been cut in half.
"I want you to put your names on these cards.Then you’re going to drop them in this box." She holds up an old tissue box that has the top cut off. "I’m going to give it a big shake and draw out two names. And then . . ." Her voice trails off. "How many think that’s fair?"
All the students’ hands eventually go up. Some a little reluctantly, it seems.
"I wish I could have you all there, but . . ." Ms. Shelby’s voice trails off again, and she shrugs and places the index cards on ChiChi’s desk.
ChiChi is the paper monitor for the week. She jumps up and says in a slightly whiny voice, "Can I have a helper?" She glances quickly at Keisha.
"Sure," Ms. Shelby says.
When all the students have written their names on their cards, ChiChi and Keisha go around and collect them and then put them in the special box on Ms. Shelby’s desk. Deja has embellished her name card with daisies and balloons, thinking perhaps it might give her some good luck.
Ms. Shelby picks up the box and gives it a shake, making a point of not looking in it. She reaches in and gives the cards a little stir. Deja holds her breath. She looks over at Nikki and can tell she’s holding hers as well.Ms. Shelby reaches in and pulls out a card.
Deja recognizes it immediately. It’s hers! The balloons and daisies are clearly visible. Ms. Shelby has pulled her card!
"Deja!" Ms. Shelby says, full of enthusiasm.
Nearly all the girls in the class turn to her in unison. A few have suspicious looks on their faces. Deja claps her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide. She looks at Nikki again. Nikki’s lips are parted with surprise and she seems frozen in place. Deja can’t tell what she is feeling. Then Nikki turns to Deja and gives her a weak smile. Oh, no. Deja hopes that she isn’t . . . jealous.
Ms. Shelby is smiling at her, and Deja feels that something is expected.
"Thank you, Ms. Shelby," she says quietly, as if, by saying it quietly, those who were hoping their name would be called might not realize that their chances have just been cut in half.
"Okay," Ms. Shelby says, once again stirring the cards in the box slowly, mixing everything up to show her fairness. "One more invite to go."
Deja is hoping that it isn’t a boy. If it is, the teasing will start right away, probably led by Ralph or Carlos: Ooh, Deja and whoever, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i—Deja can’t even bring herself to finish spelling out the word. She closes her eyes and holds her breath.
Then a miracle happens—something so startling, she can’t believe she heard Ms. Shelby correctly. Did she say Nikki? Did she really say Nikki’s name? She must have, because immediately a chorus of moans and groans and "That’s not fair!" starts up, until Ms. Shelby has to raise her hand and put the forefinger of the other hand over her lips. She has to look around in that fashion until everyone has settled down.
When the class is finally quiet, several girls—especially Keisha and ChiChi—show their displeasure with furrowed brows, poked-out lips, and sucking of the teeth as loudly as they can muster. Antonia has the ability to raise one eyebrow, and she does this now and holds it while moving her pursed lips to one side. Though she is looking down, anyone can tell that she heartily disapproves. Then she turns and whispers something to her best friend, Casey, who sits behind her.
All of this just encourages Ms. Shelby to deliver—in not too many words, thankfully—one of her standard speeches about fairness and accepting results, even if you don’t like them, when things are fair and square, and a bunch of other stuff. Deja doesn’t really pay attention because she’s just fine with the results. In fact, she’s so fine she’s afraid to look over at Nikki. They both might just break out into huge smiles.
"We’re going to Ms. Shelby’s wedding," Deja says as they walk slowly toward the handball court. "We’re going to Ms. Shelby’s wedding!"
"I can’t believe it," Nikki adds. She takes out one of the invitations Ms. Shelby gave her and Deja after she dismissed the class for morning recess. Ms. Shelby had held them back until all the other kids had gone.
"I didn’t want to give you these in front of your classmates," she’d said. "That would have made them feel worse."
The invitations are beautiful. Deja takes hers out as well, and stares at it. "It was fair and square," she repeats after a minute or so, as if she has to convince herself.
"Yeah, it was fair and square."
That’s not exactly how Keisha sees it from her place in line behind Deja when recess is over. "I don’t think people who are best friends should get to go," she says in a whisper at Deja’s neck.
"Ms. Shelby says it was fair and square, and I go by what Ms. Shelby says,"Deja replies over her shoulder.
Keisha ignores this. Obviously, she has a solution. "One of you should let someone else go in your place."
"No," Deja says immediately. "One of us is not going to do that. We’re both going."
"Not fair," Keisha says under her breath in a hissing sound.
Deja shrugs, but she feels a little funny.
Happily, as the day goes on, acceptance that it will be Nikki and Deja going to the wedding seems to grow, and attention shifts to Ms. Shelby’s wedding dress. It’s Rosario’s idea to imagine what the dress will look like. And the idea seems to take hold. During the rest of the morning, at every possible opportunity, the girls work on drawings of Ms. Shelby’s wedding dress—what they would like to see their teacher wear, if they had their way.
All day they pull out the drawings to touch them up: after spelling activities, after math workshop, during free time. Finally, at lunch recess, all the girls bring their artwork to Room Ten’s outside table to scrutinize one another’s creations.
Nikki unfolds hers carefully and holds it down. A circle of heads gather over it. There’s silence for a moment, and then Ayanna says thoughtfully, "I like the colors. Kind of." Nikki has drawn Ms. Shelby in a long yellow and blue gown that’s clingy on top but then billows out in a big fluffy circle.
"But it’s not white," ChiChi says. "Wedding dresses have to be white."
"They don’t have to be," Nikki says quickly. "You can have any color you want."
Next, Deja puts hers down for all to see. She has drawn Ms. Shelby’s dress in lavender and made a train for the dress that swirls down and around and all over the paper. It’s quite different, and several girls ooh and ahh as if they wish they had thought to make a wedding dress train that swirled all over the paper.
Keisha has the best drawing. She has pictured Ms. Shelby in a long white dress with a fluffy white shawl. Plus, she’s drawn a tiara, making their teacher look just like a princess. Keisha is the best artist in the class.
When everyone looks up, Yolanda says, "I wonder what everybody’s going to eat at Ms. Shelby’s wedding." Deja can tell that Yolanda’s mouth is watering at the thought of it. "I wonder what kind of wedding cake she’s going to have," Yolanda continues. Her eyes drift up to the sky as she’s imagining it. "Let’s draw wedding cakes!" she says suddenly.
They all sit back down at the outdoor table, turn their papers over to the clean side, and begin to create elaborate wedding cakes. Ayanna makes hers fifteen-tiered, with alternating pink and blue icing.
"That looks more like a baby shower cake," Keisha says, eyeing Ayanna’s drawing. ChiChi’s eyes get big, then everyone bursts into giggles.
"It does not!" Ayanna protests. "Baby shower cakes don’t come in tiers!"
"What are tiers?" Yolanda asks.
"These things," Ayanna says, pointing to the layers on her drawing.
The freeze bell rings then, and everyone sits perfectly still until the second bell signals that it’s time to line up. Each girl carries her drawing carefully to her place in Room Ten’s lineup spot.