Rope Burnby Jan Siebold, Denise Shanahan
Richard gets frustrated by most of Mr. Best's assignments, but this latest one is the worst. He has to write a composition about a proverb that illustrates something that has happened in his life. See more details below
Richard gets frustrated by most of Mr. Best's assignments, but this latest one is the worst. He has to write a composition about a proverb that illustrates something that has happened in his life.
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By Jan Siebold
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 1998 Jan Siebold
All rights reserved.
ONE GOOD TURN DESERVES ANOTHER or How I Retrieved Something Valuable from a Deserted House
For the first eleven years of my life, I lived in a huge old house on the other side of town. The neighborhood was very quiet because a lot of the people who lived there were pretty old. Most of the houses were at least three stories high. Ours was charcoal gray with white shutters. It had a wide porch with a roof that was supported by big white columns. That porch was a great place to play.
Harry and Vi Marshall lived on one side of us. They were a retired couple whose kids had all grown up and moved away. Vi was really nice. Harry was grumpy most of the time. He was always sucking on a piece of hard candy that smelled like licorice. It's funny — Vi insisted that I call them by their first names, but I could never bring myself to call Harry anything but "Mr. Marshall." I don't think he ever forgave me for the time I rode my bike on his new driveway before the concrete had hardened. You can still see the tracks.
The Marshalls had a cottage on Spruce Lake, so they weren't around much in the summertime. Whenever they were at the lake, we would take in their mail and newspaper and water their plants.
When I got to be old enough, my mom would give me the key to the Marshalls' house and let me take care of things. I had a regular ritual that I performed each time. First, I would unlock the front door and walk into the hallway. Then I would say very loudly, "I guess I'll bring in the mail and paper now." This was to give any possible robbers a chance to run out the back door. That may sound silly, but the old house could be very spooky when nobody was there. Vi had always drawn the drapes before leaving, so the house was shadowy and dark.
Once, when I was there alone, the grandfather clock in the hallway decided to chime loudly just as I was walking past it. I almost had a heart attack.
Next, I would get the mail and paper and carry it all into the kitchen. I even sorted the letters, magazines, and newspapers into three neat piles on the kitchen table.
Once a week, I would get Vi's small green watering can from underneath the sink and water all of the plants in the kitchen and dining room. Vi always insisted that the plants looked healthier after she and Harry had been away. She said that I must have a magic touch.
Last of all, I would lock the front door, check about three times to make sure it was really locked, and go home.
One day, I was almost finished with my ritual. I was just about to leave when I heard a hissing and sputtering noise coming from the back bedroom. I froze.
I stood there for about five minutes, trying to figure out what the noise could be. It didn't sound like any human or animal I'd heard. Finally, I got up enough nerve to tiptoe to the bedroom doorway and peek inside.
What I saw was Vi's steam iron sitting upright on the ironing board, making those noises. I walked over and saw that the iron had been left on. I poked at the lever to push it over to the "off" position. It was very hot to touch. Then I unplugged the iron and left.
When I got home, I told my mom about the iron. She mentioned it to Vi and Harry when they got home. Harry didn't say much, but you would have thought I deserved a medal the way Vi carried on. She hugged me and said that I had probably saved their house from burning down. She even tried to give me some money, but Mom said I was just being a good neighbor, and wouldn't let me take it.
* * *
The iron incident happened during our last summer in that house. The next spring, my mom and dad split up, and we sold the house. My mom and I moved to a smaller house across town, and my dad took an apartment a few blocks from his business.
Mom and Dad kept trying to reassure me that things weren't going to change that much. They said that I'd still be spending as much time with each of them. How could they think that the change to a new house, a new neighborhood, a new school, and a whole new way of life wasn't that drastic? Even ONE of those things would have been hard for a kid to handle.
I must admit that the new house isn't so bad. It has a great front porch. My bedroom takes up practically the whole upstairs. It has a big open middle area, with ceilings that slope down on each side. Mom let me put baseball posters on the slanted ceilings. They'd never let me tack up posters in the old house.
* * *
About a month after Mom and I had moved into the new house, I was upstairs unpacking some boxes. Back then, I retreated to my room when Mom was talking on the phone to one of her friends. She was usually complaining about Dad, and I didn't really want to hear it.
Anyway, I was unpacking my desk stuff when I came across my book bank. It looked just like an old leather-bound book. It had a little gold key that you put into a keyhole on the "page" side of the bank. When you lifted the cover, there was an empty metal-lined space for storing valuables.
My dad had given it to me a few years before. He had gotten it when he opened up his first savings account as a little boy. The gold letters on the cover were wearing away, but they still looked beautiful against the red leather cover.
The bank held a new penny from the year I was born, a few of my all-time favorite baseball cards, and some stories and comics that I had written.
As I took my book bank out of the cardboard box, it occurred to me that I had left the key in its secret hiding place back at the old house. I kept my key on a ledge just inside my closet door.
I realized that if I ever wanted to see those things again, I'd either have to pry open the bank or get my key back. I hated the thought of ruining something special that my dad had given to me. I had to have that key.
Shortly after we moved, Mom discovered that she had forgotten to take a brass key holder off the kitchen wall of our old house. She figured that it legally belonged to the new owners now.
Well, they couldn't have MY key, I decided. I would take the crosstown bus back to my old neighborhood and ask the new owners for my key. I would tell them about my parents' split and say that the key was special because my dad had given it to me. How could they refuse?
I was used to taking the bus around town. Ever since Mom went back to work at her old office, I would take the bus downtown to meet Dad for lunch, or go to my favorite baseball card store.
By two o'clock the next day, I was standing in front of my old house. The house looked pretty much the same, except the new owners had nailed a wooden "Welcome" sign next to the front door. I hoped that they really meant it. The sign had a gold pineapple painted on it. I wondered what pineapples had to do with welcoming people.
I had been practicing what to say all the way there on the bus, so before I lost my nerve, I went up the steps and rang the doorbell.
No one answered. I couldn't believe it. I'd come all that way, and no one was home. I walked around to the backyard to make sure nobody was there. There were no cars in the garage or driveway, and the backyard was empty.
I was standing in the driveway trying to decide what to do, when suddenly a gruff voice startled me.
"Richard? Is that you?"
I whirled around. A cloud of licorice breath hit me in the face. "Oh, hi, Mr. Marshall," I stammered.
Harry stared at me. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Uh, I just stopped by to see the old place. Is Vi here?" Vi would understand my predicament and be able to help me, I was sure.
"No. She's at the hairdresser."
Harry continued to stare at me. He seemed smaller and thinner than I remembered, like he'd shrunk since we moved away. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
"No. Well, not exactly," I replied. We stood there, just looking at each other for a minute. Oh well, I thought, what do I have to lose?
"You see, I left something important inside the house, and I came to get it," I explained. I went on to tell Harry about the key.
He didn't laugh or snort like I thought he might. "I see," he said. "Well, actually they won't be back until next week. They're on vacation. They left us their key so that we can get their mail and feed their cat."
I looked down at the driveway and nudged a stone with the toe of my sneaker.
Harry paused and then went on slowly, "It wouldn't be right to let someone else into their house."
I must have looked pitiful, because Harry seemed to be really thinking over the situation. Finally he announced, "Well, I don't see the harm in letting you in for gust a minute to get your key. After all, you're not exactly a stranger to the house."
A few minutes later, Harry was unlocking the front door. "I'll wait here," he said. Then he added, "And don't touch anything, Richard."
I figured he said that last part to keep up his image of a grump.
I hurried through the house. It seemed really strange to see someone else's furniture in our old house. My mom and dad had worked very hard to refinish the wooden bannister, and the new owners had painted it white. Pictures of strangers lined the stairway. In one picture, a man, woman, and little girl sat in the crook of a large tree, smiling like the perfect little family that they probably were.
In my room, a double bed with a pink ruffled cover stood where my twin bed had stood. My clutter of books, baseball cards, games, and clothes had been replaced by someone else's stuffed animals, dolls, and toys.
I was suddenly angrier than I had ever been before. I just wanted to kick or hit something. I was so mad, I was shaking. Why should I have to act like a stranger in my own bedroom? Luckily, just then I heard Harry at the bottom of the stairs.
"Richard?" he called.
"Be right there," I answered. I went to the closet and felt up along the ledge. My key was still there. I put it in my pocket and went downstairs without even looking at anything else. I just wanted to get out of there.
Harry locked the front door, and we went down the steps.
"Goodbye, Harry," I said. "Thanks for letting me in. Say hi to Vi for me." I turned to leave.
Harry cleared his throat. "You know, Richard, I'll always remember the time you found that iron turned on. I just thought I'd return the favor today."
Harry held out his hand and I shook it. It felt cold and feeble.
I started to walk back to the bus stop. A few houses away, I turned around. Harry was still standing there watching me. We both waved, and I went home.CHAPTER 2
HE WHO HESITATES IS LOST or How I Met James
One of the worst things that can happen to a kid is having to move to a new school. You don't know where you're going, you don't know any of the teachers, and you don't have any friends. It's an open invitation for humiliation.
I figured that the best way to survive was to blend in like a chameleon. If you're new, the minute you stand out or call attention to yourself, you're dead. That first week of school, I was careful to wear the standard uniform of most kids my age: jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers. I have shaggy blond hair and brown eyes. I guess I'm pretty average-looking.
The first few days went by without any major problems. The routine was pretty much the same as in my old school. The teachers gave their beginning-of-the-year speeches about homework and expectations and stuff, and handed out books. The other kids were still getting used to the shock of being back in school, so they didn't even seem to notice me.
Things were going along well until Friday. That was the day I had my first gym class. Right away, the gym teacher, Mr. Reynolds, announced that we would be starting the year with a basic physical education test. He said that he wanted to see where we all stood. The test was to be made up of four stations: sit-ups, push-ups, laps, and rope-climbing.
When I heard him say "rope-climbing," I broke into a cold sweat. I had never been able to climb a rope at my old school. But at least there, it wasn't required. My old gym teacher used to let us rotate from station to station, but he never checked to see if we'd been to all of them.
The few times I had tried to climb the rope, I barely got off the ground. It's not like I have a huge hulk of a body to pull up. In fact, I'm actually kind of skinny. But my arm muscles would refuse to cooperate and I would just hang there. My body was like a lead sinker on a fishing line.
I avoided the rope as much as possible and spent more time on the tumbling mat and the balance beam. I have good balance from years of walking the porch rail at my old house.
Now, not only would I have to try to climb the rope, I would have to do it in front of a class full of strangers. Mr. Reynolds went on to talk about gym rules, but I wasn't paying much attention. I just kept staring up at the twist of rope that seemed to reach into outer space.
After Mr. Reynolds's announcements, we counted off by fours. I was a four. Rope-climbing started with the threes. Luckily, we only had enough time left for one station that day. That meant I probably wouldn't get to that station until my next gym class. Maybe I could be sick that day.
After gym, I went to my locker to get my lunch. As I was dialing my combination, I heard someone say, "You're not too crazy about rope-climbing, are you?"
I turned to see a dark-skinned boy looking at me through thick glasses.
"Actually, I hate rope-climbing," I admitted. "How did you guess?"
"You looked like you were going to pass out when Mr. Reynolds was talking about it," explained the boy. He was wearing black jeans and a bright yellow T-shirt with a picture of a lizard coming out of its pocket.
"Every time I looked at you after that, you were just staring up at that rope like you were in a trance."
I laughed and said, "We never had to climb ropes at my old school. I tried a few times, but I wasn't very good at it."
We started to walk toward the cafeteria.
"I'm James," said the boy.
"You live in the old Miller place on Pine Street, don't you?" asked James.
"How did you know?"
"I've seen you in the backyard. I live on the street behind you, one house away. When I'm up in my tree house, I can see right into your yard."
I wasn't too crazy about the idea of someone spying on me, but I let it pass. "That's your tree house?" I asked. I had seen the back of it from my yard. It sat high in the branches of a big oak tree.
"Yeah. My dad and I built it a few years ago. Do you want to come over after school today and see it?"
"Sure," I said. "Thanks."
By this time, we had reached the cafeteria. I paused at the door and looked around. Students could sit anywhere, but most had already staked out their regular tables. For the first few days, I had moved around, sitting on the fringes of groups that were caught up in their own conversations.
James must have noticed that I was hesitating because he said, "Want to come and eat at my table?" He pointed to a table where two boys were already sitting.
"Okay," I said, relieved. James introduced me to his friends Michael and Roland. At lunch, we compared schedules. It turned out that James was in two of my afternoon classes. He told me all about the good teachers and the bad ones, and about the subjects that he liked least and most. Roland teased him about being a "brain," but James just laughed.
"If I'm a brain, then you're a spleen," he told Roland.
After school, I grabbed a handful of chocolate chip cookies and cut across the backyard to James's tree house.
"Hi," called a voice from somewhere above me. James poked his head out of the doorway and looked down. "Come on up."
I studied the tree. As far as I could tell, the only way to get up to the tree house was by climbing a rope that was tied to a nearby branch.
"Thanks a lot," I said. "I suppose this is your idea of a joke?" I turned to walk back home.
"Wait a minute!" James shouted. "I just wanted to help you. I figured maybe I could teach you to climb it."
He sounded pretty sincere. I went back to the base of the tree. "Do you think you could?" I asked.
"We can try," said James. He caught hold of the rope and slid to the ground. "Let's see what you can do."
I wiped my hands on my pants. Then I reached up and grabbed the rope. I bent my knees and lifted my feet from the ground. As much as I strained, I could not pull myself up any farther. I just hung there while James studied me.
"I see your first mistake right away," he announced. I stood up and let go of the rope.
"First of all, you're expecting your arms to do all of the work," said James. "Didn't you ever watch anyone climb a rope? Their legs do a lot of the work. Watch."
He took hold of the rope with his hands and wrapped his legs around the bottom of it. The rope was clenched between his sneakers. James reached higher with his hands and pulled himself up. At the same time, his feet pushed downward. He repeated this movement over and over, like an inchworm, until he had reached the top of the rope. Then, hand over hand, he lowered himself to the ground.
"Your arms can rest a little while your feet are gripping the rope," explained James. "Try it. And don't put your hands so high this time."
I took the rope in my hands and wrapped my legs around it. I tried to clasp the bottom with my sneakers. The rope kept slipping through my feet. I let go.
Excerpted from Rope Burn by Jan Siebold. Copyright © 1998 Jan Siebold. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Richard likes his teacher but when Mr. Best assigns his students to write about their lives using proverbs, Richard just can't seem to come up with what is expected. He's got plenty going on to write about--the breakup of his family, the move to a new school, and the fact that he will probably be laughed at in his PE class--but Mr. Best says Richard's writing points toward what Richard thinks Mr. Best wants, not what is really coming from Richard himself. Valuable lessons are learned as he navigates the writing assignment, keeping secrets from his mom involving his dad's new girlfriend, and the usual social (mis)adventures that come from trying to fit in. A great read about believing in your own self. Although the protagonist is 11 years old, the subject matter is entirely appropriate for older readers, including those struggling with reading.
I happened to find a copy of Rope Burn in a box of books donated to our school by Scholastics. In Texas, this is the second year where tremendous emphasis has been placed on Reflective Writing. When I started reading Rope Burn I could not put it down because I could hear the boy's voice throughout. Voice being one of the traits that is essential in the writing composition made this story perfect to use as an example with our students at any grade level. Voice is Voice no matter what grade one is in.