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A division of Penguin Young Readers Group.
Published by The Penguin Group.
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Copyright © 2009 by Ellen Potter.
eISBN : 978-1-101-05081-1
For Will Rabinovich
I’m not nearly as smart as Owen Birnbaum, so I needed a lot of help to write this book. I am lucky enough, however, to know several
smart people. Special thanks to Will Rabinovich, who patiently explained electromagnetic radiation and dwarf stars and helped me work out a clever scenario for Owen’s Nemesis invention. Special thanks also to my husband, Adam, who has been dissecting electronic devices since he was a boy genius and understands how things work better than anyone I know.
While I was researching this book, I was lucky enough to connect with the wonderful Jim Sky, editor forRadio-Sky Journal,
. He generously gave me a crash course on radio telescopes as well as some unusually creative ideas as to how a twelve-year-old boy might be able to pick up signals from a star. I can’t thank you enough, Jim! For anybody who is interested in trying to build their own simple radio telescope and observe Jupiter, the sun, and the galactic background, Jim suggests peeking at the Radio Jove Project, from NASA,http://radiojove.gsfc.nasa.gov/
Many thanks to Urgyen Khetsatsang for all his help regarding Tibetan customs. Thanks to Jason and Tyler Ward, my kid informants, and to Adam, Valerie Akers, Stella and Koen Boyer, Jessica Dougherty, and Bill and Sharon Morrow for giving me the gift of time to write this book. Thanks to Ian, who has been patiently waiting for “his book” to be finished so that he can build a garage for his toy cars out of my author copies.
As always, a galaxyful of gratitude to two superstars, my agent, Alice Tasman, and my editor, Michael Green!
My name is Owen Birnbaum, and I’m probably fatter than you are. This isn’t my low self-esteem talking. This is pure statistics. I’m five foot two and I weigh 156 pounds. That’s 57 percent fatter than the national average for a twelve-year-old boy.
I’m also probably smarter than you. I don’t mean that as an insult. Again, statistics. They had my IQ tested in the second grade. I won’t tell you my score. Actually, I
tell you my score because I promised my mother I wouldn’t do that anymore. I used to tell everyone. My mother said that was obnoxious. I think she was also worried about giving my sister, Jeremy, a complex. Jeremy is a year younger than I am and not the brightest crayon in the box. She’s a good kid. Just very so-so in the cerebral cortex region.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that a lot of books start out with some kid’s first day at a new school. You can see why, of course. It makes for great suspense. The new kid is feeling very nervous. Everything seems slightly sinister. Half the kids in the class look like they want to smash his face in, and the other half look like they would love to see the first half of the class smash his face in.
The thing is, when you are fatter and smarter than the national average, practically every day is like the first day at a new school.
So, I’m starting this book on a Tuesday, and school has already been in session for a few weeks now. I go to Martha Doxie School in New York City. A three-story redbrick nightmare of educational progress. They have this thing called “The Deskless Classroom,” where everyone does what interests them. We have different workstations . . . science, writing, global studies. We choose what we want to study at any given time. No desks. Just workstations. Which are basically desks.
The school’s motto is Compassion, Not Competition.
The thing is, most kids don’t give a flea’s fart about compassion.
Exhibit A: My missing Oreo cookies.
Kids who bring their own lunches put them up on the top shelf of a hallway closet just outside their classrooms. Mom always puts my lunch in a cloth sack, which is made of recycled socks or something like that. My name is printed on it very clearly. She always puts three Oreos in an eco-container, which is made of recycled shower curtains (I’m not kidding, they really are made from shower curtains). Three Oreos at lunch. That’s our agreement, since I started this new diet. At first, she tried to give me some of the fake Oreos, with the organic ingredients and stuff like barley and cane juice, but I put my foot down there. The cookie part actually tasted pretty close to the original, but the cream inside was all wrong. When you opened the cookie and tried to scrape the cream off with your teeth, it all came off in one sticky disk and sort of dangled from the inside of your top teeth. If you didn’t catch it in time, it just plopped down into your lap. Completely unacceptable.
We argued about this for a long time, but I wouldn’t budge on the issue, so she finally gave in. I’ve had three bona fide Oreos in my lunch ever since. It’s a ritual for me. I look forward to them. I really do. It’s like a spiritual thing. No matter how lousy my morning was, those three Oreo cookies remind me that life also has its high points. Its moments of bliss.
If there was any day I needed a moment of bliss, it was that day.
The Martha Doxie School is progressive in everything except gym class. As far as gym goes, they are totally conventional. Bad uniforms. Ridiculous stretching exercises that make your bad uniform ride up into all the wrong nooks and crannies. Ropes to burn your inner thighs on, volley-balls to slam at each other’s heads, basketballs to pass only to your friends. In gym class the school’s motto reverses itself.
Competition, Not Compassion.
The gym teacher is Mr. Wooly. A nice, cozy, snuggly name. I really think that people should be named more appropriately. They used to do that back in the fourteenth century. If you were a potter in the fourteenth century, you were named Mr. Potter. If you father made beer, you were Mr. Brewer. No surprises.
Back in the fourteenth century, Mr. Wooly would have been named Mr. A Few Fries Short of a Happy Meal.
Mr. Walks like a Constipated Ape.
Mr. Hates Unathletic Kids and Enjoys Seeing Them Suffer.
In the locker room, I tinkered around with my combination lock for a while, waiting until most of the boys were changed and heading out to the gym. I always do that. When the locker room was pretty much empty, I quickly changed into the gym uniform of white T-shirt and blue shorts. I do it at lightning speed in order to make it out to the gym on time. It takes thirty-four seconds on a good day. Forty-six seconds if I have to undo any buttons. Then I rushed out onto the gym floor. Someone made a fart sound as I passed. That happens quite a bit, actually.
Mr. Wooly was up front, engrossed in moving odd-looking equipment out of the supply room. I took my assigned spot on the 12D grid—the numbers run along the front and back walls of the gym and the letters run along the side walls of the gym. I stood right next to Andre Bertoni. He was already stretching, even though he didn’t have to yet. He swung his adult-sized muscle-bound arms from side to side and bounced on his toes, as though he was preparing for the Olympic 400-meter dash.
“What’s up, Flapjack?” he asked, flashing me one of his movie star smiles. He’s called me Flapjack for the past two years. I don’t know why. It’s idiotic, but people have called me worse.
“What do you think all that stuff is for?” I asked him nervously, looking at the equipment that Mr. Wooly was arranging. There were stands with metal poles across them, beefy-looking, vinyl-covered gizmos, loads of floor mats.
“Looks like we’ll be doing some gymnastics,” Andre said breezily.
“Oh, crap.” I said it under my breath, but Andre heard.
“Hey, Flapjack,” Andre hissed, tipping his head in a gesture for me to come closer to him. I glanced over at Mr. Wooly. He was kneeling down, unrolling a long blue mat on the floor.
“Yeah?” I said, moving closer a little cagily. You never know with Andre.
“Why don’t you just get one of those fat exemptions?” Andre said quietly.
“What?” I felt my shoulders stiffen up.
“A fat exemption. You know. Your doctor writes it for you. It says you don’t have to do gym because you’re so fat that exercise could make your heart stop.” He thumped me on the back. He thumps me a lot.
I grunted and started to walk back to my spot, but Andre grabbed my arm. “No joke, Flapjack. Look at that stuff.” He nodded toward the apparatus. “You’ll cripple yourself! And Wooly will love it. It’s not worth the pain.”
That’s the thing about Andre Bertoni. I can never tell if he’s being nice or mean. I often think I should hate him, but somehow he makes it difficult.
“Whenever Mr. Birnbaum is finished flirting with Mr. Bertoni, we can get started on our stretches!” Mr. Wooly had finished unrolling the mat and was now glaring at me with his ape arms crossed over his ape chest. A chorus of snickers and catcalls rose up from the class.
trouble hating Mr. Wooly, incidentally.
Mr. Wooly led us through a bunch of ridiculous stretching exercises. He didn’t do them himself. He never does. He just barks out instructions. That day I didn’t mind doing the stretching, though. It delayed what was to come. My eyes kept drifting over to the apparatus next to Mr. Wooly. It looked evil. It looked like it was specially designed to humiliate me.
I actually started to consider the fat exemption. I wondered if that was a real possibility. Mom had taken me in for a checkup before school, and the doctor had clucked his tongue as he read the scale. Then he gave Mom what they call a “firm talking to.” I felt really bad for her. It’s not her fault, after all.
That doctor might give me a fat exemption.
But I couldn’t do that. I have too much pride.
There’s that saying, “Pride cometh before the fall.” Yeah, I thought as I looked at the gymnastic equipment, there was going to be a lot of falling involved.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen!” Mr. Wooly clapped so loudly that it echoed throughout the gym.
PS, this is an all-boy class. No ladies. Hardy har har.
“For the next three weeks we are going to try something different. We are going to challenge our bodies. We are going to test our fears.”
Andre Bertoni caught my eye and winked. I have no idea why. Maybe he was relishing the thought of having his fears tested. Or watching my fears being tested.