Annika Riz, Math Whiz
By Claudia Mills
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2014 Claudia Mills
All rights reserved.
Annika Riz sharpened her already sharp pencil. She admired its soft pink eraser. She never made mistakes during math—well, hardly ever—but it was good to have a pencil with a fresh eraser just in case. In five minutes—no, four and a half minutes now—it would be her favorite time of the day, which happened to be the least favorite time of the day for her two best friends, Kelsey Green and Izzy Barr.
"All right, class, time for math!" Mrs. Molina told her third graders.
Sitting in front of Annika, Kelsey gave a deep sigh and tried to finish reading one more page of her library book. Sitting next to Kelsey, Izzy sighed, too. She had been staring out the window at the P.E. field, green on this first Monday morning of May.
Kelsey loved reading and Izzy loved running the same way that Annika loved math. But Annika didn't hate reading and running the same way that the others hated math. It was hard when your two best friends hated the thing that you loved the most in the world.
At his perfectly tidy desk, Simon Ellis sat with his math book open, ready to go. Simon was a math whiz, too. Simon was an everything whiz.
The only person without a math book on top of his desk was Cody Harmon. Cody hardly ever paid attention in class.
As Mrs. Molina prepared to launch into the day's math lesson, her gaze fell on Cody.
"Math time, Cody," she said.
Yes, Annika thought. Math time, everybody!
When Cody still didn't take out his book, Mrs. Molina asked, "What is it, Cody?"
She sounded impatient, as if she really wanted to ask, "What is it now?" Annika didn't blame her. Every day there was someone who was reading during math time (Kelsey), or stretching her leg muscles during math time (Izzy), or doing nothing at all during math time (Cody).
"I heard there's going to be a dunking tank at the carnival on Saturday," Cody said. "And that people can buy tickets to dunk Mr. Boone."
Now the classroom was abuzz. Everyone obviously thought a dunking tank at the upcoming Franklin School carnival was more exciting than learning about decimals. Especially if it was the jolly principal, Mr. Boone, who was volunteering to be dunked.
"That's nice, Cody," Mrs. Molina said, although it was plain from the expression on her face that she didn't think a dunking tank was nice at all.
"I heard that some of the teachers are signing up to be dunked, too," Cody continued.
Mrs. Molina adjusted her glasses, in the way she always did when she wasn't sure what to say. Annika knew that Mrs. Molina was the last teacher in the school—in the whole entire world—who would sign up to be dunked at a school carnival.
This time Mrs. Molina didn't say that was nice.
"The school carnival is always enjoyable, I'm sure," she said. "And it's the most important fund-raiser of the year for the PTA. But right now we're doing math. So, Cody, please get out your math book and open it to page 187."
Cody fumbled in his desk, dragged out his book, and opened it as instructed. Annika could tell that he was still thinking about the dunking tank, and probably also about cotton candy, and a fishpond where you could fish for prizes, and the raffle where the prize was an enormous stuffed elephant donated by a local toy store, already sitting in the front hall outside Mr. Boone's office.
Each class was going to have its own booth at the fair. Mrs. Molina's class booth, supervised by Kelsey's mom, who was their PTA room mother, was going to sell all different kinds of cookies. Annika, Kelsey, and Izzy had already decided that they would bake chocolate chip.
"Today we're going to learn how to turn fractions into decimals," Mrs. Molina said, obviously relieved to have diverted the conversation away from dunking tanks.
Annika listened eagerly as Mrs. Molina explained how decimals were another way of expressing fractions. She already loved fractions, and now she knew she'd love decimals, too.
As usual, Mrs. Molina called on people to give answers to the problems in the textbook. She probably did it so that people wouldn't tune out completely, knowing that there was some chance of being called on and having to give a wrong answer in front of the whole class.
Annika answered her question, easy-peasy, and Simon answered his, too. But then Mrs. Molina called on Kelsey.
"Kelsey Green"—Mrs. Molina used a person's full name if she was certain the person wasn't paying attention at all—"what decimal is one-third?"
Sitting directly behind Kelsey, Annika whispered the answer. Even though Kelsey should have been doing her own work, Annika couldn't bear to see her friends flounder. And she couldn't bear to leave a math question unanswered, any more than she could bear to leave a blank space in a sudoku puzzle.
"Point three three three."
"Point three three three," Kelsey parroted.
Mrs. Molina gave her a suspicious look, but Annika had gotten so good at whispering without moving her lips that they hadn't gotten caught once all year. Of course, the teacher had to notice that certain of her students who did well in class did vastly less well on their tests. But, then again, math tests made lots of people nervous.
When it came time for the class to do some problems quietly on their own, Annika finished hers in a few minutes. Then she tiptoed over to the pile of sudoku puzzles and word searches Mrs. Molina kept on her desk for kids who finished an assignment early. She took a sudoku puzzle from the top of the pile and returned to her seat.
Sudoku puzzles were tons of fun. You started with a nine-by-nine grid that had some numbers already filled in and others left blank. You had to fill in the blank spaces so that each row contained all the numbers from 1 to 9, and each column contained all the numbers from 1 to 9, and each little three-by-three box in the nine-by-nine grid had all the numbers from 1 to 9, too.
Right away, studying the puzzle in front of her, Annika saw where she could put a 9. And then where she could put a 5, and another 5. Her fingers flew over the page.
The other kids around her were still working on their decimal problems, but she could see that Simon was doing a sudoku puzzle, too.
"Annika, Simon, would you please come up here for a minute?" Mrs. Molina said.
Annika glanced toward Simon, but he seemed as bewildered as she was. It couldn't be that they were in trouble. Not during math! Not when they were the two math whizzes!
Mrs. Molina spoke in a low voice so as not to disturb the others.
"Because the two of you are our sudoku enthusiasts, I wanted to let you know that the public library is having a citywide sudoku contest this week. I received an e-mail about it this morning. Just go to the library any day, from today until the library's closing time on Saturday. Tell the librarian you want to enter the contest, and she'll sit you down with a sudoku puzzle. The person who completes the puzzle correctly in the shortest time wins. The winner for each grade will receive a subscription to a sudoku magazine."
Annika looked at Simon.
Simon looked at Annika.
Of course, third graders from all the elementary schools in town would be entering, too, and there might be another third grader at another elementary school who was even better at math than Annika and Simon.
Frankly, Annika found that hard to believe.
This was better than chocolate chip cookies, or cotton candy, or a fishpond with prizes, even better than a dunking tank with Mr. Boone poised to splash into the water beneath.
If Annika won a huge sudoku contest, Kelsey and Izzy would see that math was as cool as reading and running. Kelsey loved reading contests, and Izzy loved running races. Well, now Annika had a math contest and a math race of her own.
All she had to do was win it.
Kelsey and Izzy called Annika's house "the math house." Everyone in Annika's family was a math person. Her father was a high school math teacher who taught hard math classes like trigonometry and calculus. Her mother was a tax accountant who worked with numbers all day long. So Annika's house had all kinds of math things in it.
Bookcases filled with books about math.
Magnetic numerals arranged in equations on the refrigerator door.
Kitchen curtains with cheery blue and orange numerals printed all over them.
Even their salt and pepper shakers were shaped like numerals. Salt was shaped like a 3. Pepper was shaped like a 4. Annika sometimes wondered what was supposed to be especially salty about 3 and peppery about 4, but the two shakers did look cute side by side on the kitchen table.
Of course, once people knew you were a math family living in a math house, they started buying you math-themed holiday presents.
Ties with equations on them for her father.
Scarves with equations on them for her mother.
For Annika, a T-shirt with the most famous equation of all: E = mc2. Annika's parents had told her it meant that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. She didn't know exactly what all those things were, but she knew that Albert Einstein had discovered the equation, and that it was the most famous equation in the history of the world. She felt smart whenever she wore that T-shirt.
She'd wear the E = mc2 T-shirt when she did the sudoku contest.
* * *
Annika's father drove her home to their math house that afternoon from Kelsey's after he finished coaching the high school math team. Annika and Izzy usually went to Kelsey's house after school, because Kelsey's mom was a stay-at-home mom, and all the other parents were still at work.
As soon as they reached the front door, Annika's brown-and-white beagle came running to greet her. The next thing she knew, he was jumping on her and barking a welcome; when she stooped down to hug him, he gave her a welcoming face-washing as well.
"Down, Prime! Sit, Prime!" Annika commanded. Given that she was already hugging him, he didn't pay any more attention to her scolding than most of her classmates had paid to Mrs. Molina's lecture about decimals.
Prime was short for Prime Number. Those were the most intriguing numbers of all, numbers that couldn't be divided by anything except for themselves and 1. Annika had a place mat printed with a list of prime numbers, starting with 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, and 19, and going all the way up to 997.
Annika was trying to teach Prime to do math tricks. Though maybe she should have started with training him to sit, stay, and heel. He still jumped on everyone who came into the house, wagging his tail hard enough to raise a breeze.
While her father started to prepare supper, Annika gave Prime a math training session.
She wanted to teach him to count: to give one bark if he got one dog biscuit, two barks if he got two dog biscuits, three barks for three dog biscuits, and so on. For now, it would be enough if he could learn to count to three, even though she had seen a video of a dog on the Internet who could give the correct number of barks for questions like "What is two times three?" and "What is one plus four?"
In any case, right now Prime couldn't count at all.
Annika held up one dog biscuit.
He barked four times.
She held up two dog biscuits.
He barked three times.
How did you teach a dog to count?
"Prime," she said, trying to make her voice stern like Mrs. Molina's. "You are never going to learn any math if you don't pay attention. All right, Prime. This is one dog biscuit."
As she said the number loudly and clearly, she held the biscuit low enough for him to see, but high enough that he couldn't reach it. He jumped up to try to snatch it away.
"No, Prime. Sit! Listen, Prime. When you get one dog biscuit, you give one bark like this."
Annika gave her best imitation of a bark. Over at the stove, sautéing chopped onions and mushrooms for spaghetti sauce, Annika's father chuckled.
Prime barked twice. Well, two was only one number away from the correct answer. Two barks were closer to one bark than four barks had been. Maybe they were making progress.
She knew she shouldn't reward Prime unless he got the answer right, but it seemed mean to make him wait any longer. So she let him grab the dog biscuit from her fingers.
"Good dog, Prime," she said. It was important to sound encouraging, or else her first and only pupil might give up on math entirely.
Annika waited to tell her father about the sudoku contest until her mother was home, too, and they were all sitting at the dinner table together.
First she told them what Cody had said about the carnival.
"Cody Harmon said there's going to be a dunking tank at the carnival and Mr. Boone is going to be dunked," she reported.
"That's another reason I'd never want to be a principal," her father said. "You'd always be getting dunked, or kissing a pig, or sitting on top of a flagpole."
Mr. Boone had never sat on top of a flagpole. But he had kissed a pig once.
"Besides," her father added, "if I were a principal, I couldn't be in the classroom doing what I love best, which is teaching math."
"Some of the teachers are getting dunked, too."
"Not Mrs. Molina, I bet," her father said.
"Do you blame her?" her mother asked. "That's one thing I don't have to worry about as a tax accountant. We're completely safe from dunking tanks, thank goodness."
"Would you let your students dunk you?" Annika asked her father.
"It wouldn't be my first choice as a way to spend an evening," he said. "But if everyone else was doing it, I'd try to be a good sport, I suppose."
Annika was sure that her father was a lot more fun as a teacher than Mrs. Molina. She didn't think he'd call on people who weren't paying attention in class and risk embarrassing them when they couldn't give the correct answer.
Still, she was grateful to Mrs. Molina for sharing news of the library sudoku contest with her and Simon.
"Guess what?" she asked both her parents then, laying down her fork.
Before they could offer any guesses, she went on. "Mrs. Molina told Simon and me about a contest the library is having. It's not a reading contest, it's a sudoku contest! And guess when it is? This week! There's going to be a winner for every grade."
"That's pretty exciting," her mother said.
Her father grinned and raised two thumbs up.
"I'm always doing sudoku puzzles anyway," Annika said, "but I want to do them faster. Can you teach me any tricks?"
Both her parents were great with math tricks. They should be the ones to work on teaching Prime to count, though so far they hadn't shown any interest in that project.
"After dinner we can do a few puzzles together from one of your sudoku books," her mother suggested.
"We'll see what we can come up with," her father agreed.
Maybe it was unfair to the other contestants that Annika got to live in a math house with math parents and a mathematically minded dog, or at least a dog with a mathematical name. Of course, she didn't know what kind of house Simon lived in. But he was awfully good at math anyway.
For luck, Annika sprinkled a little bit of salt on the rest of her spaghetti from the shaker shaped like a 3 and a little bit of pepper from the shaker shaped like a 4. If she was going to beat Simon Ellis at the sudoku contest, she might as well take advantage of all the help she could get.
During math time on Tuesday, it wasn't Cody who interrupted Mrs. Molina to talk about the carnival. It was Mr. Boone.
He came bounding into the room—principals didn't need to knock—just as Mrs. Molina was about to call on the boy who sat behind Cody and who paid almost as little attention as Cody did.
Mr. Boone was a big round jolly man who had once had a big full jolly beard that he shaved off to reward the Franklin School students for completing a school-wide reading contest earlier that spring. Now Kelsey called him Mr. Moon; he looked like the picture a kindergartner would draw of a beaming moon lighting up the night sky.
Mrs. Molina gave him a small chilly smile in return. Annika knew she thought it was bad enough when kids in the class wasted time during math, but at least then she could make them open their math books to page 187 or page 192 or whatever page she wanted. She couldn't do anything about Mr. Boone.
Today he was whistling circus-style music, as if he were heralding a parade of costumed elephants entering the big top.
That would be all Mrs. Molina would need: elephants in her room during math time! Annika suppressed a giggle, but the rest of the class was already laughing in relief at Mr. Boone's comic entrance. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Annika Riz, Math Whiz by Claudia Mills. Copyright © 2014 Claudia Mills. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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