CHAPTER 1 Liza
Whoever invented school lunch must have really hated kids. Or at least not wanted us to eat. The sad-looking, blah-colored lunchroom walls alone are enough to make you lose your appetite. Then there’s the smell—greasy tater tots, sour milk, and that bucket full of moldy, cloudy water the custodian keeps in the corner with the mop. And don’t get me started on the food. I mean, what could be more depressing than a soggy taco? A limp burrito is one
thing—at least they’re supposed to be sort of mushy. But tacos are supposed to be crunchy, right?
I’m pondering this and trying to figure out how to take a bite of my leaky lunch, while across the table my best friend, Frankie, is digging into some tasty-looking pasta she brought from home. Frankie’s dad makes these amazing family dinners, and she always brings the leftovers for lunch. Meanwhile, I’m stuck with the school lunch plan since my mom’s too busy these days to go grocery shopping, let alone cook. Last year we did a unit on the justice system in social studies, and looking at Frankie’s lunch next to mine, one thing is clear: There is no justice in the school cafeteria.
“You’re not seriously going to eat that, are you?” Frankie asks, practically hollering over the dull roar of yelling kids, screeching chairs, and the random CD mixes our music teacher, Mr. Jackson, puts on every day at lunch (today’s is Broadway/hip-hop/Latin jazz, I think). “It looks like they scooped the
leftovers out of Rocco’s bowl and wrapped them in a used tortilla.”
Rocco is Frankie’s pug, and I bet even he’d turn up his pushed-in little nose at the contents of my taco. Thankfully, Frankie starts spooning half of her penne into the empty rectangle on my lunch tray.
“Thanks, Franks. I would starve without you,” I say, grateful that my best friend is generous and well fed.
“I know,” Frankie says with a grin. “It’s exhausting to be so kind and generous all the time, but it’s just my way.”
I gently kick her under the table and eagerly dive into my pasta. Even cold, it’s tastier than anything the Clinton Middle School lunch ladies have to offer. Not that it’s their fault—they don’t make the slop, they just heat it up and plop it down on our trays. They probably bring their own lunch from home, just like Frankie and every other sane person at Clinton.
Out of nowhere, Frankie throws her fork down on the table and starts bouncing up and down like she just sat on a hairbrush. She looks so ridiculous, I almost spit out my last bite of pasta because I’m laughing so hard.
“What’s up?” I manage to ask, holding my hand over my mouth and trying to swallow.
Frankie leans over and grabs my arm, dramatically. “Today is Tuesday!”
“Um, okay,” I say. “And tomorrow is Wednesday. Then comes Thursday. . . .”
Frankie rolls her eyes. “Liza,” she sighs, “we have a double period of social studies on Tuesdays.” She’s bouncing again.
Our social studies teacher, Mr. McEnroe, is tall and green-eyed with long, sandy hair that he wears in a ponytail. He’s really young (you know, for a teacher) and looks sort of like a brainy surfer. Frankie has a major “secret” crush on him that’s completely obvious to everyone who knows her. I’m
not boy crazy like she is, but even I have to admit he’s pretty cute.
“You’re insane,” I tell Frankie, who is packing up her lunch so fast, you’d think there was a clean-table competition or something. On Tuesdays we have social studies right after lunch, and Frankie says she likes to get there early because it’s her favorite class, but I know she just wants to spy on Mr. McEnroe through the door while he gets ready. I usually go along with her, even though I think she’s nuts. Someday I’ll do something she thinks is crazy too, and I’ll want her to stick by me, won’t I?
“C’mon!” Frankie calls out to me. She’s already halfway up the stairs to the second floor, and I’m still jogging down the empty main hallway past the library and the eighth-grade gym. I can hear my own shoes squeak because we’re the only ones here. I finally catch up to her by the water fountain that is just down the hall from Mr. Mac’s room. I take a much-needed gulp of water while Frankie
sneaks closer to the door. When I look up from the fountain, I see that for the first time ever, the door to Mr. McEnroe’s room is already open. Frankie nearly faints when he pokes his head out and smiles as if he were expecting us.
“Hello, girls,” he says. “Right on time as usual.”
Actually, we’re thirteen minutes early, but I appreciate Mr. McEnroe not making us feel like total geeks. He’s not clueless, so I’m sure by now he’s figured out why we’re always so “on time” for class.
“I’ve got something pretty exciting for you guys to get started on today,” he tells us as we settle into our desks in the totally empty classroom and take out our notebooks.
“What is it?” Frankie asks with a little too much enthusiasm. “Another field trip?” It’s only the first week of October, and we’ve already gone on two social studies field trips.
“Not this time, Francesca,” Mr. McEnroe says. Frankie blushes a little whenever he calls her by her
full name like that. “Today I’m going to assign the class your first project.”
Another good thing about Mr. McEnroe is that he’s really big on us working together—“collaboratively,” he calls it—so we’re never just sitting silently at our desks while he drones on and on. I’m a pretty good student, but I don’t know how some teachers can expect us to pay attention for a full forty-five minutes while they just blab about something even they don’t seem to care about. I love working on projects, though, especially with Frankie, because when it comes to the creative stuff, like brainstorming ideas and making posters or dioramas, it’s as if the two of us are somehow sharing a single brain.
Mr. McEnroe watches as Frankie and I turn and give each other a silent fist bump. Okay, maybe we are a little geeky about class projects. “Liza and I are partners, right?” Frankie asks.
The two of us are partners for pretty much
everything. In P.E., I count to twenty while Frankie does crunches, and she holds the rope while I huff and puff my way to the top (okay, more like the middle). In Spanish we quiz each other on verb tenses, and once we even made up a little skit called “Las Señoritas Bonitas” and put on wigs, makeup, and these really poofy dresses that looked completely ridiculous and not at all bonita. My mom still shows her friends the video of us demonstrating how to make a banana smoothie back in third grade—we were so nervous, we forgot to peel the banana.
“Well,” Mr. McEnroe says, turning a chair around and straddling it backward like boys always do, “that depends.”
Frankie and I freeze mid–fist bump and exchange another look, only this time we’re more confused than excited. “What do you mean?” I ask. “Depends on what?”
“I know you two like to work together, but I’ve decided the class will be working in groups of three
for this project. So, you girls can collaborate, but you’re going to have to find a third partner, too. You may be the Dynamic Duo, but being part of a team is a great skill to learn.”
Frankie and I look pleadingly at Mr. McEnroe. “But—,” we both say at exactly the same time, but Mr. Mac just smiles at us and shakes his head.
“Cheer up, girls,” he says, still grinning and getting up from his chair. “Sometimes you have to stir things up.”
Just then the bell rings and the rest of the class starts filing in.