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Meena’s life is full of color. She wears vibrant clothes, eats every shade of the rainbow, and plucks eye-catching trash from the neighborhood recycling bins.
But when Meena’s best friend, Sofía, stops playing with her at recess and she experiences an unexpected and scary incident at breakfast, nothing can fight off the gray.
That’s when Meena comes up with a plan to create the BEST and most COLORFUL Valentine’s Day Box in the class. With the help of her cousin, Eli, and her stuffed zebra, Raymond, Meena discovers that the best way to break through the blah is to let her true colors shine.
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Meena Meets Her Match
I circle my arm around my President Portrait so nobody can see it.
In the picture, I’m wearing a fancy suit that’s red, white, and blue. I’m holding a great big cake with squiggly frosting. Here’s what it says at the bottom:
If I were president, I’d hire a whole team of chefs to bake cakes for me to decorate. They’d make all different flavors of frosting, except for cream cheese, and they’d never try to sneak bananas into the batter to cut back on added sugar, because these people are professionals.
I peek at the other pictures in our pod. Last time Mrs. D rearranged the room, she put our desks in groups of four, facing one another. My cousin Eli sits on my left. He’s been into nature since we were little, so I’m not surprised to see that if he were president, he’d go around planting trees. Our friend Pedro sits on my right. It turns out if he were president, he’d hang a basketball hoop on the Washington Monument so all the tourists could play.
Huh. I forgot the president is supposed to do things for other people.
I glance at Sofía’s picture on the desk across from mine. When Mrs. D picked our new spots, she didn’t know we don’t sit together anymore—not if we can help it. Even though Sofía’s picture looks upside down from here, I can still see stars shining through a night sky on her paper. She’s drawn a bunch of people stretched out on blankets in the grass with roses all around them. Here’s what hers says at the bottom:
If I were president, I would invite all the fighting countries to the White House for a sleepover. We’d camp out in the Rose Garden, only instead of sleeping, we’d stay up all night talking. In the morning everyone would be friends and there would be peace on earth.
Okay, I can’t actually read upside down. I just happened to see it when Sofía went to sharpen her pencil and I turned her paper around.
“Mrs. D?” I ask, waving my hand in the air. “What’s the prize if you win?”
“It’s not a contest, Meena.”
“But let’s just say your portrait turns out to be the best one in the class,” I say. “What do you get?”
“You don’t get anything. I just want you to do your best work.” Mrs. D looks around the classroom. “Does everybody understand that?”
When Sofía nods, her poufy flower headband bobs up and down. It’s red today and makes her look like a birthday present.
I tap my pencil against the paper. I don’t care that it isn’t a contest. I want my portrait to be the best one in the class. Mrs. D is hanging these up in the hallway for Presidents’ Day in a couple of weeks, and everybody will see them!
Maybe I’d better squeeze “peace on earth” in there somewhere.
I add a couple of more lines at the bottom:
Also, I’d have the chefs bake enough cupcakes to share with the whole world. I’d add rainbow sprinkles to every single one, because there can never be peace on earth until we stop fighting over who gets the sprinkles.
There! My portrait is almost perfect now. I just need to color in President Meena’s face and hair.
I wish I were made up of better colors in real life. When I used to draw pictures of Sofía, I could use the brown crayon for her skin, but I have to use that peachy-blah one for mine. I got to color practically anything I wanted for Sofía’s eyes, too, because they’re this greenish, brownish gold. Every time she wears a different headband, her eyes change—like those rings we got at the carnival that turned different colors when we breathed on them.
I sigh and start coloring the eyes in my portrait. I make a few dots of light blue, a few dots of tan, and then cover it all up with gray—the worst color in the world.
Finally, I start on my hair. They don’t even make a crayon boring enough for that. My real hair is this don’t-bother-looking-at-me color that people call “dirty blond,” even when I use an extra pump of shampoo.
Maybe I’ll cheat a little and use the crayon that reminds me of caramels.
But before I can even pick a color, Mrs. D says, “Okay, time’s up. Please turn in your portraits.”
What? I’m not finished!
Mrs. D starts moving around the room, picking up pictures. I can’t leave my hair white! Across the pod, President Sofía’s hair is gleaming black. She must have rubbed the crayon really hard to get it so dark. And just look at those roses she drew—pink and yellow and red!
That does it. Forget boring, no-color hair. If I were president, I’d get rainbow highlights!
I pick up my red crayon and draw a few streaks. I do the same with orange and yellow. While Mrs. D picks up the papers from the rest of the class, I make a couple of quick slashes of green. When she comes over to our pod, I add blue.
She’s standing right by my desk now. Eli and Pedro and Sofía hand her their pictures. I just have one more color to go! I grab the purple crayon.
But all of a sudden my paper looks blurry.
“Why didn’t you just do what she said?” Eli says.
I blink a few times, trying to focus.
I try to turn to Eli, but everything seems slow and weird, like I’m underwater. I have to blink again before I can see him clearly. His eyes are big for some reason. “What?” I say. My mouth tastes like I’ve been chewing on tinfoil, and I have to wipe off the bottom of my lip because it feels wet.
“She asked for your paper three times,” he says. “Why did you keep coloring?”
I whip my head around. Mrs. D was standing by my desk. She was right here. But she’s way in the front of the room now, like she just transported there somehow. She’s standing right by our behavior chart, moving someone’s clip.
Hang on. That’s my clip!
“What did I do?” I say.
She turns back around. “You didn’t follow directions, Meena.”
“But I’m finished!”
I grab for my drawing, but it’s different now. There’s purple crayon all over it. It’s not just a few streaks in President Meena’s hair. It’s all over her face, like a little kid scribbled on her!
How did that happen?
Everyone watches Mrs. D come back over and pick up my paper. I feel the front of my neck get hot. Even Sofía has a worried crinkle between her eyebrows, as if she cared—as if she’s even talked to me in weeks. Mrs. D squats down next to me and uses her quietest voice. “I like that you get so absorbed in your work, Meena,” she says, “but sometimes your daydreaming gets in the way of being a good listener.”
I grip the crayon in my hand. “I just didn’t hear you,” I say.
She makes her disappointed face.
I put my forehead down on my arms. Mrs. D stays there a few seconds longer before she stands up and walks away.
It’s not fair. I didn’t do anything! I sneak a look over my arms at the behavior chart. At the start of the day, all our clothespins started out in the middle, at Ready for Anything. But I clipped down to Think About Your Choices for giving myself a Magic Marker manicure during social studies. Now my clothespin is all the way down to Last Chance!
But one clip is sitting way up at the top of the chart, next to At My Best.
Sofía clipped up three times today. First, she held the door for the Milk Crate Carriers without being asked. Second, she waited to be excused for recess instead of running to the door when the bell rang. Third, she used her markers responsibly in social studies by coloring her map extra neatly instead of her fingernails.
Our clips have been going in different directions all year.
Sofía and I used to be a team. She made sure I remembered my homework, and I made sure she didn’t get caught walking across the top rungs of the monkey bars. She reminded me to give other kids a turn on the swing, and I reminded her that she could use glitter crayons to fill in her pie charts. She made me practice my spelling words, and I made her laugh hard enough to snort strawberry milk through her nose.
But ever since we got back from winter break, she’s been avoiding me. It’s not like we used to spend every minute together before. She usually played four square at morning recess while I played kickball. She and Nora pranced their horse figurines around during afternoon recess while Pedro and I ran races.
Middle recess was ours, though. Every day, for three years, Sofía and I jumped rope or played freeze tag or just sat in the tube slide and talked.
Lately she stays in for Catch Up Club instead of coming out for recess with me. I don’t know why. It’s just for kids who have makeup work to do, and Sofía’s so smart, she could probably leave for college tomorrow. Every time she stays in to work, my stomach feels hot and bubbly, like one of those volcanoes that’s just been sitting there for ages but maybe, someday, could blow.
Now even her portrait is better than mine. I bury my face back in my arms.
“I have an exciting new project for you to think about over the weekend,” I hear Mrs. D say. “This one is for Valentine’s Day.”
About half the class cheers when she says that. The other half groans. I’m in the groany half. Most of our exciting new projects are really just homework in disguise. We probably have to write a poem about L-O-V-E or do fractions with candy hearts.
But Mrs. D’s very next words make my head spring back up. “You’re all going to decorate your own valentine box.”
Decorating is my best subject!
Sofía whips her head around and looks at me with bright eyes, and for just a second my stomach does a swoop. I almost smile at her.
Then my brain catches up.
We don’t do projects together anymore.
I scowl. The light in Sofía’s eyes fizzles out. She turns back around in her desk.
“I want you to use your imagination,” Mrs. D says. “Be as creative as you want. Come up with something to wow me. The sky’s the limit.”
My hand shoots in the air. “What’s the prize if you win?” I say.
Mrs. D does an extra-long blink. “It’s not a contest, Meena.”
“Yeah, but if yours just happens to be the best, what do you get?”
“You get a box full of valentines, like everyone else. And the satisfaction of a job well done.” Mrs. D checks the clock. “You can bring your boxes to school as soon as they’re finished. Just make sure they’re here in time for our Valentine’s Day party next Friday.”
I sneak another peek at Sofía’s clothespin. Prize or no prize, somebody’s going to make the best valentine box in the class. Sofía might have perfect handwriting. She might have eyes that stay on her paper and feet that stay under her desk. She might want to be alone at the top of the clip chart more than she wants to be my friend.
But my valentine box will be better than hers.
It’s my turn to be At My Best.