Fair and Square
There is something strange going on. Something in the air. Deja feels it as soon as she enters Room Ten at Carver Elementary School. She looks over at her best friend, Nikki, to see if she’s feeling it, too, but Nikki is busy pulling her homework out of her folder to drop it in the basket on Ms. Shelby’s desk. Deja looks at the other kids. They’re doing their usual first-thing-in-the-morning stuff. Gavin, the new boy, is sitting in his chair with his hands folded. Carlos is taking tiny action figures out of his backpack and squirreling them away in his desk. Antonia and Casey are whispering back and forth—probably backbiting. Nikki says backbiting is her mom’s new word. It means something like gossip, which people shouldn’t do. So now Nikki is all the time reminding Deja that if you can’t say anything nice about someone, you shouldn’t say anything at all. Deja personally thinks she’d have to be some kind of perfect person to say only nice things all the time. How could someone be lunch monitor if he or she could report only on the good stuff the kids at their lunch table did? How could a monitor report on someone talking with a mouth full of food? She’d said that to Nikki, and Nikki had to agree.
Suddenly,Deja knows what it is that’s strange. It’s Ms. Shelby. She’s just standing there at the front of the class with a secret smile on her lips as she watches the kids go through their morning routines. She isn’t doing anything else. She isn’t doing any of her usual fussing. She isn’t marking things in her scary book—the one with all their scores and grades and stuff. She’s just standing there looking at the class with this funny smile on her face. Deja looks over at Nikki. She’s pulled out the entire contents of her desk, and now she’s going through a bunch of balled-up papers that had been crammed in at the back. Nikki is such a neatnik.
Deja hurries over to her and says, "You know Ms. Shelby doesn’t like it when we pull everything out of our desks without permission."
Nikki frowns. "It’s not going to take me long." She goes off to get the classroom trash can. She places it beside her desk so she can sweep out the pencil shavings that have accumulated inside it.
Deja glances over at Ms. Shelby. Now she has her hands clasped behind her back. She’s still smiling as she stands there gazing at her class as if her mind is someplace else.
It’s almost like the time when Ms. Shelby got her engagement ring and she waited until all her students had settled down before showing it off. Today, it seems that everyone has slowed their morning routine as if they have all the time in the world. Only Gavin, the new boy, and a few others are ready and waiting. Deja returns to her desk and looks at the whiteboard. There’s no journal topic posted.What’s going on? She takes out her morning journal, places it in the exact middle of her desk, and then folds her hands.
Finally, Ms. Shelby speaks. "I love the way Row Four is ready and waiting." She moves to the board and puts a tally mark beside Row Four’s space. Deja looks at her classmates two rows over. It’s true. They are all in their seats, ready and waiting. How did that happen? She doesn’t like when Ms. Shelby catches them off guard like that. Row Four has seven points from the day before. Row Two, where Deja sits, has three measly points. She glares at Carlos’s back. He’s the weak link. Ms. Shelby has told them about how a chain is only as strong as its weakest link—which doesn’t seem all that fair to Deja. Carlos with his outbursts and rule-breaking is the weak link of Row Two. It’s not fair.
Ms. Shelby turns back to the students. Her smile is even wider now. "Okay, class," she says. "I have a wonderful announcement." She looks around, as if measuring how her students are taking this bit of information. Everyone quiets. Those who were still milling about now take their seats. Deja hopes it’s not another school election. That was Ms. Shelby’s big news a few months before. Deja ran for student body president of Carver Elementary School and lost, and she’s still trying to get over it. She is pondering this when she hears Ms. Shelby say, "You know, I’m getting married in less than two weeks." All the girls look around at one another and smile. The boys look blank, as if they’re thinking, So? Deja bets they’re probably still hoping for a pizza party.
Deja glances at Nikki. She’s just sitting there with her mouth partially open, looking as if she’s listening very carefully.
Ms. Shelby continues, "I so wished all of you could come to my wedding, but that’s not possible. There just isn’t room." Now the girls look deflated. The boys don’t seem to be bothered. The new boy, Gavin, has a tiny frown on his face, as if he’s just trying to understand what’s going on. Deja wonders about him for a moment. So far he’s been quiet, but there’s something about him that doesn’t seem all that quiet. It’s like he’s trying super hard to be good because maybe he wasn’t so good at his old school.
Ms. Shelby goes on. "But it just wouldn’t feel right if I had no one from my class there." She pauses again. For effect, Deja thinks. Ms. Shelby loves to see who’s hanging on her every word. The girls are, of course. Nikki’s mouth has dropped open even further, in anticipation.
"But yesterday I discovered that four of my guests can’t come. That means I have room for four people. Two of you, plus a parent or guardian."
Now there are happy gasps from every girl.
"Since I can only invite two of you, I think the best way to be fair is to have a drawing."
Now some of the girls look around at each other suspiciously. Who’s going to pick the lucky "tickets"?
Ralph raises his hand. "Ms. Shelby," he says before he has waited to be recognized. "What if two girls win?"
"The tickets," he says.
Ms. Shelby, still in her good mood, laughs.
"No matter, Ralph. It will still be fair because everyone has an equal chance."
The word equal makes Deja think of math, which is not her best subject. She looks over at the star beside Nikki’s name on the Facts Quiz chart. Nikki is almost caught up to Erik. He’s on his eights and she just passed the sixes on the last multiplication facts quiz. Nikki told Deja she likes that Ms. Shelby uses big fat stars, so that they can be seen from everywhere in the room. Her star is red, the happiest color of all, Nikki says. Deja, unfortunately, seems to be stuck on her fives, which is almost as easy as the twos or ones. She wonders if she will ever master anything beyond that. When she turns her attention back to the front of the room, she sees that Ms. Shelby is holding a stack of index cards that have been cut in half.
"I want you to put your names on these cards.Then you’re going to drop them in this box." She holds up an old tissue box that has the top cut off. "I’m going to give it a big shake and draw out two names. And then . . ." Her voice trails off. "How many think that’s fair?"
All the students’ hands eventually go up. Some a little reluctantly, it seems.
"I wish I could have you all there, ...