And converted to a mixed fraction is… 1 and 2/15ths. Braidy finished the last problem on his math quiz and put his pencil down. He hoped it was right; he excelled at math, but he always second-guessed himself and ended up changing answers, which ended up being wrong. Braidy disliked these tests less than he disliked the minute long math quizzes the teacher asked him to take on other days. If there was anything that Braidy hated the most, it was the time pressuring his decisions. He felt as though he was more concerned with how much time remained rather than whether he multiplied or divided correctly.
He glanced over all the answers one more time on his paper before raising his hand. Ms. Winsby came by and picked his paper up. Ms. Winsby was a nice teacher, whose curly, long hair enveloped her head like a cloud. She always wore button up shirts with cartoon characters or little animals on them. Braidy thought she was a friendly person though she was almost always incapable of preventing people from hurting him. Despite all this, she helped him when he had trouble reading his dense science textbook.
A few other children raised their hands as well, and she swept by to remove their quiz papers from their desks before returning to her own. Braidy glanced around himself and put his pencil down. Jesse Martinez and Neal Salter were not in class today.
Braidy, with moments to spare, looked around his classroom and sighed. He wanted to remember it all before his mother pulled him out so she could homeschool him. Ms. Winsby filled the classroom with many fun things, like a rainbow-colored attendance board, large, comfy bean bag chairs, and shelves filled with books. His least favorite decoration hung on the wall: the behavior bulletin board, which illustrated a paper decal of a gumball machine. Whenever the class displayed good behavior, Ms. Winsby added a gumball to the machine. When it filled up, she rewarded the class with an extra-long recess or some of Ms. Winsby’s puppy chow. Ms. Winsby rarely filled the gumball machine, unfortunately, due to Neal Salter, Jesse Martinez, and Rita Easley.
The three of them blamed Braidy most often for the lack of gumballs in the gumball machine. Neal Salter told Braidy once that Braidy looked so dumb he would do the class a disservice if he did not pick on him (which Braidy found offensive and wondered what made a person dumb-looking). Braidy and Blockhead scoured the Internet for a sassy comeback that Braidy could use against Neal the next day. Braidy had been too nervous to spit out such a vicious reply and also feared for the state of the gumball machine. Other students told Braidy that if he was not so weird, the bullies would not have reason to pick on him, and Braidy wondered if that was true. Today was the day he would test that theory.
After another five minutes of Braidy playing with the lint in his pocket, Ms. Winsby dinged a bell, and stated, “All right, class. Pencils down. Go ahead and pass your papers forward to me. Once I get all the papers collected we’ll go to the assembly.”
Braidy pulled the lint out of his jeans’ pocket and dropped it onto the floor after twirling it in his fingers a little. The QuarryCreate shirt he wore (one of his favorite computer games) was too small for him. He had gotten it on his eighth birthday and had refused to wear anything else for a month. Now, the graphic of the little spherical character with his science-fiction laser chisel faded and cracked. The jeans had been Blockhead’s when he was a young boy; small enough to fit. Mrs. von Althuis purchased running shoes for Braidy’s gym class and those he wore on his feet. He felt lackluster, at best, but it was necessary. He made that decision when he woke up that morning. So far, he avoided chaos and gumballs stayed on the behavior board, which Braidy counted as a small victory.
Ms. Winsby moved to the door and everyone stood out of their seats, readying for the journey between the classroom and the auditorium. When everyone lined up in order and when Rita Easley stopped pulling on Michelle Villani’s hair, the class moved out into the hallway. Other fifth grade classes collected outside as well and everyone moved in one unified stream into the auditorium. Ms. Winsby counted the class, making sure all students were accounted for, and then sat.
The auditorium was darkened and a musty smell filled the room. A white projector screen hung in the middle of the stage. The elementary and middle school shared the stage itself and all sorts of fun theatrical productions had taken place there. Braidy was not a thespian himself, but merely an appreciator of the theater. A thespian, Uncle Rolo taught him, was someone who did comedy and tragedy for a living. Braidy was certain that he was tragic enough to maybe one day be a thespian, but not funny enough.
After everyone settled and the students hushed, the principal, Mr. Keith, stepped up to the wooden podium. His head dodged the American flag near the podium, which had threatened to fall on him when he bumped it. Braidy prepared for any number of the terrible jokes that Mr. Keith used to liven up school assemblies. Mr. Keith was an overweight, balding man who wore baggy dress pants that went just a little too high. He had a goatee that wrapped itself around his chin like a caterpillar and beady eyes that always squinted. Braidy wondered if he always stared at something that was far away.
When he adjusted the microphone, a terrible hissing-crackling-popping noise burst through the speakers like a roar. Braidy jumped and covered his ears. “Sorry about that folks. Now, students, I wanted to introduce to you our guest speaker,” Mr. Keith muttered as he gestured to a speaker, “and his best friend, Mike.”
Mr. Keith tapped on the microphone and a few teachers let out awkward chuckles.
“So,” Mr. Keith coughed, “I’m sure you all are surprised you’re here. Unless, of course, your teachers told you that you were coming to an assembly after your morning math test. In which case, sorry you’re not surprised. You’re all fifth graders, so I wanted to congratulate you all for your great school achievements that have filled your young lives so far! That being said, you’re coming close to the end of your time in…”
Braidy lost interest and looked over toward the front of the auditorium at another student that was picking their nose. They didn’t quite finish picking their nose and were caught up in another one of Mr. Keith’s bad jokes. They started the motion, put their finger into their nostril and then just stopped, open mouthed, gaping at Mr. Keith. Braidy chuckled and Ms. Winsby shooshed him gently. “Pay attention,” she whispered.
“So what is Township Day?” Mr. Keith asked. Braidy was not sure if he should answer and was going to raise his hand when a presentation started on the projector above the stage. “Township Day,” Mr. Keith continued, “is a fun day where everyone in the fifth grade, that’s you, makes a town. There will be bankers, store owners, doctors, nurses, veterinarians, comedians…” Mr. Keith awkwardly paused. “Every profession you can think of. You can choose what you’d like to do with your homeroom teacher when you get back to class.”
Township Day? Braidy mulled over the idea in his mind as he dove into his own thoughts. What kind of thing would he like to do, if he had the choice to be anything he wanted to be? Would he be a nurse, like his dad? Or a teacher, like his mom? Or maybe even a tour guide like Aunt Liz? He wasn’t particularly interested in any of those things and he thought deeply about what he would really like to give a try, even if it was only for a day. What he was truly passionate about was his love for uniqueness, about the idea of expression and what it meant to truly be you. But how could he turn that into a career?
“Does anyone have any questions?” Mr. Keith asked, pausing for a moment to see if anyone’s hand went up. “Your homeroom teachers can answer any specific ones and can approve and note what you’re going to be doing for the day. I hope you all have a blast and I look forward to seeing what you create!”
The lights came on again in the auditorium, fading to avoid blinding the students. Braidy’s class stood with Ms. Winsby, departing back to their original room. When everyone sat again in their assigned spots and all had snacks to munch on, Ms. Winsby pulled up a sheet on her tablet and sat in her chair, cross-legged. “Okay, students,” she began. “Now, every day for the next two weeks, our thirty minutes of homeroom class time will be used to create anything you need for Township Day. Keep in mind; we are not going to have a mayor. Mr. Keith is going to be the mayor, but if there’s any other kind of position you’d like, let me know and we can see what is available. It’s first come, first serve, so when you’re ready please come up and—”
Within moments, almost every student had risen to their feet and dashed to the front of the room, scrambling to solidify their position. Braidy was one of the few that did not immediately run to his teacher and he munched on his baby carrots and ranch as he waited for the stampede to clear. He knew what he wanted to do, but did not want any other students around when he announced it. Finally, when Ms. Winsby was free and all other students sat down to go work on their individual projects, Braidy stepped forward to speak to her.
“I think I figured out what I want to do, Ms. Winsby,” Braidy started.
“And what kind of jobs were you considering?”
“I want to run a boutique.”
“Huh!” Ms. Winsby exclaimed as she typed it into her tablet. “That sounds excellent! That means that you will have to create between ten and fifteen items to sell at your store. We’ll give all the students play money when they come to participate and they can purchase your goods. What sorts of goods do you want to create?”
“Probably jewelry and other kinds of accessories.”
“That sounds really lovely. For the rest of the time to work in class today, I would maybe make a list of all the things you want to sell and how much it will cost to make. Upcharge a little and you have a business. At the end of work time, I’ll come check up on you and your progress.”
Braidy nodded, a bubble of excitement building inside him. He replied, “I’ll get right on it.”
When Braidy returned to his seat, he realized he was the only one sitting at his desk. All other students crowded together in the reading nook or huddled up in corners planning and plotting together. He wondered if they all had chosen similar professions, or if they were all doing what friends tended to do, which was enjoy each other’s company. In only a moment, Braidy was an island in a sea. He wished so wholeheartedly that he had a friend, just one friend, that he could share his ideas with and giggle with. He would have loved to ask someone over after school today to meet his family and play QuarryCreate.
Braidy huffed a sigh and began to write a list of products. He was determined to fill the hole in his heart with creativity and fun and not be torn down by any negativity. It was just like Gran always said, “If you try to be someone else to get a friend, they would have never liked you anyway.”
“What are you working on?”
Braidy looked up to meet the eyes of Rita Easley. Oh no, he thought. Here we go again. Rita Easley had always been trouble for Braidy. He made the mistake of thinking it a good idea to try and make friends with her on the first day of class. She seemed nice enough, with friendly, perfectly braided pigtails and sneaker wedges. She always seemed to have fun with the other kids and had invited Braidy to play with her and her friends on the playground at recess one day. Only afterward had Braidy realized it was a trap and a crippling mistake. Now he looked at her through her wire-rimmed glasses at her cold, cruel eyes and knew what he was getting into.
“My Township Day project,” he replied.
“I’m going to be a Dental Hygienist. My mom is a Dental Hygienist and she says that it’s the best job in the whole world.”
“That sounds interesting.”
“It is. Cynthia is going to be the Dentist.”
“What are you doing for your project?”
Braidy took a deep breath in and braced himself. “I’m going to make jewelry,” he said. “Rings and chokers and—”
What she blurted out sounded like a rubber chicken laughing. “A boy,” she chortled in between fits of giggling, “making jewelry?”
“What’s wrong with that? There are lots of designers who are men, like Alexander McQueen and Giorgio Armani and—”
“But no one will want to buy your weird stuff! You dress funny and even when you do wear regular clothes they’re a billion years old and don’t fit you anyway.”
“How’s everything going over here guys?” Ms. Winsby asked as she approached Braidy’s desk. She seemed as though she was ready to pull a gumball off of the behavior board.
“Apparently I just can’t catch a break,” Braidy said. “Either I’m too weird or not weird enough. Maybe if you want to be a Dental Hygienist, Rita, you should work on your own teeth first. No one will want you to work for them if you have stinky breath.”
Rita began to cry enormous, bubbling tears that fell over her eyelids onto her cheeks. Ms. Winsby looked at Braidy accusingly and crossed her arms, asking, “Now, what did you go and say a thing like that for?”
“She just decided to come over here, make fun of me and crush my dreams, is all. I’m not going to roll over and take it anymore, Ms. Winsby. If she wants to be mean she can go and do it somewhere else. Go ahead and take a gumball off the board. I deserved that one.”
“Can you apologize?”
“Only if she apologizes for the last three weeks.”
“You’re s-s-stupid and I h-hate you,” Rita blurted out.
“All right, little miss. Let’s take a trip down to the principal’s office and you can talk about it a little more with him. Braidy, this is a warning. No more of this behavior.”
“N-No… I don’t want to go,” Rita sobbed.
Ms. Winsby radioed for a hall monitor to come and escort Rita and Braidy felt a sense of triumph rise up in his heart. He remembered another thing that his Gran had said: If you can’t kill them with kindness, kill them with crippling embarrassment.