What Happens Next?
A bright red plastic chair sat in the hallway outside the door of the principal’s office. This chair was known as the Hot Seat, and at nine-fifteen on a Tuesday morning, Alec Spencer was in it.
During his years at Bald Ridge Elementary School, Alec had visited the Hot Seat a lot--he had lost count somewhere in the middle of fifth grade. This morning’s visit was the very first time he’d been sent to the principal’s office during sixth grade . . . except this was also the very first day of school, so Alec had been a sixth grader for less than forty-five minutes.
A kid could end up in the Hot Seat at least a hundred different ways, most of them pretty standard: talking back to a teacher, bullying or shoving or punching, throwing food in the cafeteria--stuff like that.
But Alec was a special case. Every time he had landed in the Hot Seat, he had been caught doing something that teachers usually liked: reading. It wasn’t about what he was reading or how he was reading--it was always because of where and when he was reading.
Maybe his mom and dad were to blame for spending all those hours reading to him when he was little. Or maybe The Sailor Dog was to blame, or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or possibly The Cat in the Hat. But there was no doubt that Alec had loved books from the get-go. Once he found a beginning, he had to get to the middle, because the middle always led to the end of the story. And no matter what, Alec had to know what happened next.
Today’s situation was a perfect example. Just twenty minutes earlier, Alec had been in first-period art class, and Ms. Boden had passed out paper and pencils to everyone. Then she said, “I want each of you to make a quick sketch of this bowl of apples, and don’t put your name on your paper. In five minutes I’m going to collect the sketches and tape them up on the wall, and then we’re going to talk about what we see. All right? Please begin.”
From across the art room, Alec had looked like he was hunched over his paper, hard at work. But when Ms. Boden got closer, she had discovered that Alec was hunched over a book, reading--something that had happened many, many times in past years. So Ms. Boden instantly sent him off to see the principal.
The second-period bell rang, and the hallway outside the principal’s office filled up with kids--which was one of the worst parts of being in the Hot Seat. If you got sent to see Mrs. Vance, the whole school knew about it.
However, Alec wasn’t just sitting there on the Hot Seat. He was also reading. It was a book called The High King, and in his mind, Alec held a sword in his hand as he ran along beside the main character, battling to save a kingdom. The bell, the kids, the laughing, and the talking--to Alec, all that seemed like sounds coming from some TV show in another room.
But a loud voice suddenly demanded his attention.
“Hey, can you guys smell something?”
Without looking up from his book, Alec knew the voice. It belonged to Kent Blair, a kid who lived on his street, a kid who used to be a friend. These days, Kent was very popular and very annoying, and he always laughed when Alec got in trouble. Kent was also in Alec’s first-period art class, so him showing up like this? It wasn’t a coincidence.
Alec forced his eyes to stay on the page, but he could tell Kent was about five feet away, standing with two other guys. He was talking extra loudly, making a big show of sniffing the air.
“Phew! Seriously, can’t you smell that?”
One of the other guys said, “I think it’s the spaghetti. From the cafeteria.”
Kent turned slowly toward Alec and then pretended to see him for the first time. “Ohhh! Look! ” He pointed. “That’s Alec Spencer on the Hot Seat! So the smell? It’s fried bookworm! Get it? Ha-ha!”
The other guys joined right in. “Oh--yeah! Fried bookworm! ”
Alec looked up from his book and scowled. He was about to toss out some insults of his own, when all three guys stopped laughing and walked away--fast.
Something on his left moved, and Alec turned. It was Mrs. Vance, holding her office door open.
“You may come in now, Alec.”
The chair in front of Mrs. Vance’s desk was identical to the Hot Seat out in the hallway: hard red plastic with black metal legs. Alec remembered how big the chair had seemed back in first grade, and how scared he had been on those early visits. Today, the chair was a perfect fit, and he felt right at home.
Mrs. Vance looked the same: brownish-gray hair almost to her shoulders, a jacket over a blouse--sometimes it was a sweater over a blouse. And she always wore a necklace of small pearls. She didn’t have what Alec would call a pretty face, but she wasn’t anywhere near ugly either.
She was doing that thing where she rested her elbows on her desk and pressed the palms of both hands together. He thought it made her look like she was praying--maybe she was. Her glasses didn’t have rims, and the lenses were sort of thick, so her brown eyes seemed larger than life. When she looked at him the way she was doing right then, Alec felt like a bug under a magnifying glass.
He knew better than to smile, and he knew better than to talk first. So he waited.
The wait was only five or ten seconds, but it felt much longer. Then Mrs. Vance pulled her hands apart and folded them in front of her on the desk. She spoke slowly and very softly, lips barely moving, her eyes narrowed.
“Alec, Alec, Alec--what are we going to do?” And as she said the word do, her dark eyebrows shot upward.
Alec sat perfectly still. Mrs. Vance had yelled at him before, she had shaken a finger in his face, and once she had slammed both hands down on her desk, hard. But this? This was new.
She opened a file folder on her desk. “I reviewed your academic results and test scores from last year. They weren’t great, but they weren’t as bad as I thought they might be.” She paused and locked her large eyes onto his. “But in terms of your attitude reports, your study skills reports, and your class participation marks? Fifth grade was a disaster!” She paused, then asked, “Do you know how many times you were sent to my office last year for reading instead of listening and participating in class?”
Alec was about to guess eleven--but then decided he’d better keep his mouth shut. He shook his head.
Mrs. Vance leaned forward. “Fourteen times!”
Another long pause. “Your teachers and I know how bright you are, Alec. All of us admire how much you love to read--I don’t think I have ever known anyone who enjoys books more than you do. But when reading gets in the way of your other schoolwork every single day? That is a problem, and it’s gotten worse every year. Starting today, you have to make some definite changes--and you already know what they are. And if you choose not to change your classroom behavior? Then I will require that you attend a special study skills program. This program begins one week after school lets out next June, and the class meets for three hours each morning. The program lasts for six weeks, and unless your attitude and your actions change, that is how you will be spending most of next summer. Do you understand?”
Alec gulped, his mind spinning. A whole summer with no trip to New Hampshire, no time at his grandparents’ cabin, no swimming in the lake--and no water-skiing!
The principal repeated her question. “Do you understand?”
“Good. I have told all your teachers to watch you closely, and if they see you reading in class or not paying attention, they are to send you directly to me. I’m also sending a registered letter to your parents, explaining how serious this has become. And after we see your behavior report and your grades for the first term, we’ll take any further steps that are needed.”
She filled out a yellow hall pass, ripped it from the pad, and slid it across the desk.
“Now get to your second-period class, and I don’t want to see you in here again all year long.”
Alec stood up, took the pass, and left her office without a word.
Six weeks of summer school ? To learn study skills? It was a terrible thing to hear from the principal on the first day of sixth grade. But . . . as much as Alec hated that idea, Mrs. Vance had also said that he was smart and that he already knew what changes he had to make. It seemed pretty simple, really: All he had to do was stop reading during his classes and pay more attention.
So as Alec walked away from Mrs. Vance’s office, he felt a little less worried with each step he took. Then he thought, Did she really tell my teachers to keep a special lookout for me . . . or is that just something she says to all the kids who get in trouble?
It was a fair question, and he got his answer quickly. Because when he arrived late for his second-period math class, Alec discovered that Mrs. Seward had saved him a seat in the very front row, smack in the center.
And when he got to Mr. Brock’s third-period language arts class, again there was a front-row seat with his name on it. Alec was impressed with the principal’s power to reach out and make him sit wherever she wanted him to.
However, this seating plan wasn’t completely the principal’s doing. Long before Mrs. Vance had spoken with them, his new teachers had already decided that Alec Spencer was going to sit front and center in each class--every single day of his sixth-grade life. And there was a reason for that.
Behind the closed door of the teachers’ workroom, Alec was famous. At least once a week for the past four years, one of his teachers had blurted out something like, “You know how that Alec Spencer always has his nose in a book? The kid is an amazing reader, but it drives me crazy!” And two years earlier, Mrs. Vance had added a special notice to the Parent and Student Handbook--and all the teachers called this paragraph the Alec Rule:
reading library books or other literature during class time is allowed only when a teacher gives permission. every student is expected to pay careful attention and fully participate in all classroom activities.
However, the Alec Rule had been a total flop. It had failed to change the behavior of the one kid it had been written for.
But on this particular first day of school, the front-row treatment was working for Alec--especially after what Mrs. Vance had said to him at their meeting. He did not want to spend next summer stuck in a classroom, and from second period on, he didn’t even think about trying to read during class.
In math, Mrs. Seward had given a speech about “the Future”--about how mathematics was the foundation for so many different careers. Alec had listened to every word she said.
During language arts, Mr. Brock had talked about the different kinds of essays they would have to write during middle school and high school, and how every student needed to get ready for all the hard work to come. And again Alec paid close attention, and he took careful notes about how to organize a five-paragraph essay. Sitting up front actually helped.
Then in fourth-period science, Mrs. Lowden started out with a slide-show speech that was a lot like the one in math class, except this talk was about how physics and chemistry and biology were going to be the keys to all the best careers in “the Future.” The room was darkened so everyone could see the screen, and about two minutes into her talk, Alec switched off his ears and started thinking about The High King, about how the whole Chronicles of Prydain led up to this book . . . and how Taran had become a true warrior . . . and what it would feel like to swing a real sword, and how each battle was . . .
“Alec--don’t you agree?”
Mrs. Lowden was staring into his face.
Alec blinked and said, “Oh--yeah . . . sure, I agree.”
She said, “Good. Because I’d like you to be the one who keeps the list of the key concepts we’ll need to review before our state tests in March and April. I’ll make some space on a bulletin board for you.”
There was a flutter of laughter from the class, which Mrs. Lowden silenced with one look. Alec sat up straight. He felt his face get warm, and he promised himself that he wouldn’t daydream again. Tracking the key concepts in science class was going to be a miserable job . . . but Mrs. Lowden could have just yanked him out of his seat and sent him to Mrs. Vance. Which would have been worse--much worse.
The textbooks seemed thicker than ever, and class by class, Alec’s book bag got heavier. This was the first year he had to change classes, and dashing to a different room every fifty-seven minutes made him feel like he was running a relay race. And, of course, each academic teacher assigned homework.
Alec had been looking forward to lunch--there was always some time to read in the cafeteria or out on the playground. Not today. The food lines seemed longer and slower, and he barely had time to gobble a plate of spaghetti and guzzle some milk before the bell rang. Then he had to check his schedule and rush to the far end of the building for social studies--he’d heard that Mrs. Henley was super strict about tardiness.
Changing classes made everything seem new today, and even though he felt stressed, the newness was also kind of exciting. But by the time he got back to his homeroom at the end of the day, all the excitement had drained away. Alec felt frazzled and dazed, and he knew what he needed. He needed to dive into a story and stay there, all alone inside a great book.
When the last bell rang at 2:53, he was off at a gallop. Operating on full autopilot, Alec heaved his book bag onto one shoulder and lurched along through the halls and out the front doors, all the way to his regular spot in the bus lines.