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Lunchtime was over, and Mrs. Canfield wasn’t happy.
Mike Weiss’s class had just streamed up from the cafeteria, dropped their lunchboxes in a bin, and headed back to the classroom. Some kids were still talking and laughing, but Mike felt a chill in the air. Usually, Mrs. Canfield greeted everyone when they came back. She asked what was on the menu, or gave the occasional high five. Today, she was standing at the door with her arms crossed.
Mrs. Canfield hadn’t been on lunch duty, but she knew what had happened. Mike didn’t need magic to figure that out.
Kids pulled their chairs back and settled into their desks. One by one, they noticed Mrs. Canfield, glaring. Suddenly, the classroom got really quiet.
On a normal day, Mrs. Canfield would be passing out papers to get ready for math.
On a normal day, she would clap her hands to settle everyone down.
Today, she watched and waited until they settled down on their own.
Mrs. Canfield’s voice was low when she finally spoke. “Guys, we need to talk about appropriate behavior in the cafeteria. And I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. Do we really need to go over the basics? You’re in fourth grade now. I thought you knew better.”
Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Not even Mike.
“Can anyone tell me what happened?” Mrs. Canfield asked in a weird voice.
Emily raised her hand. “There was a food fight,” she reported.
Other kids interrupted right away.
“It was not a food fight!” said Oscar.
“Yeah!” Lacey chimed in. “Someone threw food, and then there was a fight, but that’s not the same.…”
Now, everyone was talking at once. Mike drummed his fingers on his knees. He didn’t like to get in trouble, but he also didn’t like when it was about to happen to someone else. He always felt sorry for the kid on the spot. He knew what that was like.
Mrs. Canfield held up her hand. “Hang on,” she said. Her voice was still quiet, but it felt like she was yelling. “This isn’t going to work. Please take out a piece of paper and a pencil. I would like for each of you to write me a letter about what you just saw in the cafeteria.”
Silently, everyone got out their supplies.
What had Mike seen at lunch? The inside of his PB&J, which he opened up and ate one side at a time. The face of his new friend, Adam, sitting across the table. Then there was a scoop of tuna fish, hurled at the wall. And a shriek from the kid standing next to it.
Some people rushed over and blocked his view of whatever happened next.
Mike was not involved.
He bit the eraser off his pencil and rolled it around on his desk. A food fight? he thought. Seriously? Who would even do that? He picked up the eraser and chewed it like a piece of gum. Jackson Jacobs, maybe. Or those twins from Nora’s class, Tyler and Chase—they were bad news. He wasn’t sure he should name names, though.
Mike looked up from his paper, his eyes darted around the room. Could anyone else be responsible?
His eyes met several other pairs of eyes. They, too, were trying to figure out who’d started trouble.
Trouble was, they were looking at him. Everyone thought it was Mike.
He looked down and raced through his letter. What else could he do?
He slammed his pencil down. Now, more people were watching him. He scowled at them and said “It wasn’t me, okay?” with his eyes.
Then Mr. Malone was there, knocking on the window of the classroom door.
Math tutoring was not exactly the highlight of Mike’s day, but right now, he couldn’t get there fast enough. His face was bright red as he walked past Mrs. Canfield’s desk.
Mike was doing a little better in school these days. Learning magic helped him learn other things, too. If Mike practiced the same trick over and over, he’d get to the point where he could do it automatically. Who knew it was the same with spelling words?
He was even doing a little better about following school rules. Apparently, no one had noticed, though. The other kids just thought he was the same old Mike, always going to the principal. They thought he was bad news, too.
Today, Mr. Malone settled into his chair and rubbed his hands together like he was cold. “I thought we’d try something a little different this time,” he said.
Mike slumped in his chair. “Are we starting fractions?” he asked. The rest of his class was almost done with that chapter.
Mr. Malone swept his hand dramatically over the papers in front of him. “Let’s try some … mathematical magic,” he suggested.
Mike smiled at him, maybe for the first time ever. Balding, skinny old Mr. Malone, in his yellow shirt that looked like plastic … when did he get so nice?
It was like he knew Mike’s afternoon was off to a bad start. He was trying to cheer him up. He was trying to make a connection.
“Pick a number,” the math tutor said. “A three-digit number, with all the digits different, and no zeroes.”
“Um … okay,” said Mike. “216?”
“Great,” said Mr. Malone. “Next, reverse the number and subtract the smaller one from the bigger one.”
“612 minus 216…” Mike said. “Can I use a calculator?” Mr. Malone handed him a pad instead.
Mike wrote the number down, tried to remember regrouping, and got an answer. “612 minus 216 equals 396?” he said uncertainly.
“That’s right!” said Mr. Malone. “Now reverse that number, too.”
“693?” Mike asked. Where was the magic? he wondered.
Mr. Malone nodded. “Add it to the number you had before you reversed it.” He pushed the pad back to Mike.
“693 plus 396 is…” Mike said, writing it all out.
Mr. Malone cut him off. “Don’t tell me!” He closed his eyes, paused, and took a deep breath. “Is it 1089?”
“Yeah,” Mike said, surprised. Wasn’t he supposed to be the one doing the math?
Mr. Malone’s eyes popped open. “Let’s try it again,” he said.
So Mike picked another random number. “542,” he said.
“Reverse and subtract,” prompted Mr. Malone.
Mike scribbled it on the pad. “542 minus 245 is … 297.”
“Now reverse and add it to the number you had before you reversed.”
Mr. Malone closed his eyes again, and Mike said, “No, let me do it this time.”
He wrote it all out. 297 plus 792 was … 1089.
“Hey, it’s the same answer as last time!” Mike said.
Mr. Malone coughed. Or was he laughing? Oh, man … he was cracking himself up!
“It’s always 1089,” he told Mike. “Every. Single. Time.”
Mike didn’t think it was funny, exactly. But he did think it was pretty cool. He tried it with a bunch of other numbers, and it really worked.
“See?” the tutor said. “I knew you could do this math if I made it interesting.”
“Magic definitely makes it interesting,” Mike agreed. He even remembered to say thanks.
Mike didn’t always keep up with the rest of his class. And yeah, he got in trouble sometimes. He never did it on purpose, though. He just made a lot of mistakes. He was still a good kid, and he could even be a good student. If Mr. Malone could get it, why couldn’t other people get it, too?
Mike would never start a fight. Or throw tuna fish at a wall. No matter what anyone else thought.
If only he knew a magic trick for changing his reputation.
Text copyright © 2014 by Kate Egan and Mike Lane
Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Eric Wight