This Starts with a Spitball
I wish I could say it starts with a bouquet of daisies. Or a beautiful sunset. Or even a really nice letter.
It starts with a Jupiter-size spitball stuck to the cafeteria floor, the one that was flung at the back of Graham Parker’s head. He never saw it coming. But I did.
The school day is over. Almost all the students are gone. So it’s the perfect time to hide the evidence.
On my toes, I peek through the tall glass windows that line the cafeteria.
I pull the lever on the Mastercraft 300, and it glides across the floor like an Olympic ice skater.
“It’s got a one-point-two-horsepower motor,” Frances explains. She chews on sunflower seeds, carefully spitting the shells into a cup as she leans against the stage.
Custodian. Janitor. Whatever you want to call her, Frances is a floor-buffing wizard, close to retirement, and possibly my favorite human. She also has a deep fondness for sunflower seeds, which makes getting her a birthday gift each year pretty simple. And out of all of us kids who have to wait after school, I am the only one she lets behind the handlebars of this buffer.
To be honest, there is only one reason why Frances gives me the honor of waxing the floor with this fine machine.
I will not sugarcoat this. I will not pretend that it is fine. That never getting the chance to ride home on a bouncy school bus is fine. That staying after school until it gets dark is fine. That having virtually every kid at school scared of your mom is fine.
Because it isn’t.
It is the worst.
Mom’s fun side disappeared when she stopped teaching and was named principal, and now her serious side is her all-the-time side. But at least I get to use this floor buffer.
It’s good to have connections. Sometimes.
“Cross back and forth horizontally, like you’re mowing a lawn,” Frances calls out.
I nod like I know what she means.
“Overlap your lines!” she hollers. “And hover over the tougher spots!”
I overlap. I hover. I do whatever Frances asks me to do. Floor buffing day is my favorite. And now I have a purpose.
This cafeteria floor will be spitball free, and it will no longer be a reminder—?to Graham and to everyone—?that he is a kid who doesn’t belong.
Except, even with the spitballs, the mean words, the laughter—?Graham never flinches. It’s as if he’s covered with invisible armor and nothing can penetrate.
Confession: Even though he’s the number one nobody at school, Graham Parker is one fascinating boy.
Here Comes Graham
When Frances heads out to replenish her sunflower seeds, I run to my backpack and whip out a bookmark. A stiff bookmark is perfect for holding the spot in your book and scraping spitballs off the floor. Not many people know that.
Back behind the floor buffer, I channel my inner Frances. I overlap, I hover, I pretend to mow a lawn. “Take that, Joel Webber,” I whisper.
He’s the reason why I have to clean up this mess. What does he have against Graham anyway?
That guy should be knocked down a few pegs. He is friendly with all the girls, has a high-five relationship with the guys, makes everybody laugh, and is a favorite of some of the teachers. But not all. Joel has a mean streak mixed with a nice streak. The second is aimed at whoever his favorite person happens to be that day. The first, well, isn’t.
Sound complicated? It is.
I know this because two years ago, almost to the day, his nice streak was aimed directly at me. (Or maybe it was his mean streak. It can be hard to tell them apart.) A few of us were sitting on the grass next to the slide picking dandelions. Joel was plucking blades of grass and twisting them together into a loop, like a ring.
And then before I knew what was happening, Joel was kneeling by me, showing off his bright, perfect teeth. “Allie, you should marry me!”
Before I could answer, all the kids around us were pointing, giggling. My face turned hot. Joel Webber was making fun of me. I knew it. So I turned and ran away from him, and the laughter got even louder.
Joel Webber’s mean streak may have been aimed at me that day. But now that we’re in fifth grade, it’s usually aimed at Graham Parker.
Time for this mean streak to end.
As I turn the floor buffer around to make one final pass at the spitball, I glance out the cafeteria window.
Here comes Graham, sauntering down the hallway, headed toward the cafeteria—?acting as if he doesn’t have a care in the world. Acting as if the Joel Webber Spitball Ambush of 3.5 Hours Ago never happened.
He is not alone. At his side, reading from a list attached to her clipboard while waving her hands around, is Lexa Cruz. Fourth-grader. Daughter of the school counselor. Extremely organized. Super chatty.
Lexa is also known as the cruise director. She actually gave herself that nickname, since her last name is Cruz, and she’s great at making lists and schedules and having fun—?something she reminds us of on a daily basis.
I let go of the lever and stop the machine.
Don’t let them see you, Allie.
“Thanks, Frances. Gotta run!”
Frances has come back with a fresh supply of sunflower seeds. She winks at me. “No more help?” She gently pokes me on the shoulder. “You’re getting pretty good at it, Allie Kid.”
That’s what she calls me: Allie Kid.
I love it.
But here’s a confession: I don’t want Lexa and Graham to see me hanging out with Frances so much. True, they have to wait after school every day just like me. They have for years. But I’m the only one on a nickname basis with the janitor.
And here’s another confession: I’m also friends with the cafeteria manager. And the librarian. And all the teachers (minus the comput...