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About the Author
Jim Murphy's nonfiction books have received numerous awards, among them two Newbery Honors, the Sibert Medal, three Orbis Pictus awards, the Margaret A. Edwards award, the James Madison Book Award, and a National Book Award nomination. Born and raised in New Jersey, Jim lives in Maplewood, NJ, with his family.
Read an Excerpt
Where to Start?
Where to start a story is the hardest part of starting it. I could write about the first day of every year I went to St. Stephen’s, because each one was strange and awful. Awful in a different way every time, of course. For instance, I was probably the only kid ever who was suspended on his first day in kindergarten even before I actually stepped foot inside the school! No kidding.
How did I manage that? I was on line with all the other kindergartners, marching into school for the very first time. Before I got to the door, I spotted a bunch of kids down the sidewalk a ways, pushing my older brother, Jerry, around and bullying him. So I charged out of line and tackled one of the kids hard enough to knock him to the ground. A second later a very big nun yanked me to my feet and called for the principal, Sister Rose Mary. This was not, as you might imagine, the very best first impression.
Oh, and on the first day of second grade I organized a contest to see who could spit the farthest. I launched a spectacular gob just as Sister Benedicta approached to demand what I was up to. The gob landed on some kid’s shoe, and I landed in Sister Rose Mary’s office.
And then there was this other time . . .
Okay, I need to stop before I use up too much space without actually, you know, starting my story. I decided to begin with the first day of sixth grade.
My class was marched into a classroom on the second floor of the old building, all sixty-two of us. You heard me right. Sixty-two in one classroom. St. Stephen’s was a private school and didn’t have to follow the state rules about class size. We walked in, girls in front, boys behind them, in a long line according to height. Which meant I was toward the back of the line, but not quite at the end, since Iggy and Tom-Tom and Squints were taller than me. Well, Iggy’s hair was taller than mine, so he was always just behind me.
Normally, I scurried to the back of the room and found a seat near the corner. That’s the best place to hide from an annoying nun’s radar. Today I went to the fifth row and found a seat near the teacher’s desk and not far from Kathy Gathers’s. I put my new pencil box on the desk and sat up tall, back straight, eyes forward.
“Murph. Murph. We’re back here.” That was Vero, trying to get me to grab the seat next to him in the back. Way far away from the teacher. “Come on, before—”
“Master Vero,” said a voice as brittle as ice. A very tall nun swept into the room, her black robe billowing and flapping behind her. Most nuns have a slow, floating walk, but this one seemed to fly from the door to her desk.
She didn’t look at Vero until she came to an abrupt, almost angry stop. Then she turned with a no-nonsense scowl on her face and stared at him hard. Her stare looked extra severe and annoyed because her face was crammed into the starched white rectangular frame her veil was attached to. My dad had told me the cardboard frame was called a coif, and he knew that because one of his cousins from the Old Country had been a nun. Whatever, the frame was so tight, her face seemed to be desperately trying to escape.
She was new to the school, and I wondered how she knew who Vero was. She added, “I could hear your voice out in the hall.”
“Yes, Sister,” Vero said, scrambling to his feet. You never answered a nun in class without scrambling to your feet and snapping to attention. “I mean, no, Sister. I mean, I’m sorry, Sister. I just wanted to tell—”
“Tell him at lunch. But in a lower voice.” She paused for a long moment, enough time for me to notice the age lines around her eyes. The room was so quiet I thought I could hear Vero sweating. “Have I made myself clear, Master Vero?”
“Ah, yes, Sister,” Vero said in a fading voice.
There was another long silence as the nun looked at Vero as if he were a smelly bottom-feeding fish caught in her net. “You may sit down now.”
“Thank you, Sister.” Vero sat down so hard that his metal desk-chair scraped along the floor. I could imagine him sliding down in his seat, trying to disappear.
“All right, class.” The nun turned and wrote the date on the blackboard in large, neat letters: September 8, 1958. Then below that, in much fancier letters, she wrote her name: Sister Angelica Rose. “Now you know my name. And I know some of your names.” She glanced quickly in Vero’s direction, but didn’t explain how she came to know his name. Some sort of nun magic, I supposed. “But there are a number of faces I don’t know, so we might as well learn everyone’s name together.”
“Yes, Sister Angelica,” the class said as one.
“We’ll start to my left.” Sister Angelica pointed a long, thin finger at Erin O’Connor. “Please tell us your name and what you did this summer.”
“Yes, Sister.” Erin popped to her feet and snapped to attention so hard that her back curved in what must have been a painful arch, her head tilted so far back she was staring at the ceiling. “My name is Erin Margaret Patricia O’Connor—”
“Erin go Bragh,” Philip whispered from somewhere far behind me. Philip stuttered and had a lisp, so when he talked in English, he generally sprayed the audience. He’d discovered long ago that if he said short phrases in a foreign language, they somehow came out easily. And dry. (Oh, and if you want to know what he was really saying, go to page 213.)
“Erin go bra-less,” Vero replied. Both Philip and Vero thought Erin was the prettiest girl in the two sixth-grade classes, but they clearly had different ways of expressing their affection.
“. . . but I like the name Margaret better than Erin, so my friends call me Maggy,” Erin went on, “but my brother calls me Mags, but I don’t much like it, but he doesn’t listen to me—”
“Erin, dear.” Sister Angelica interrupted her gently. If a teacher was really annoyed at someone, she’d address that person as Miss or Master So-and-so. Using Erin’s first name meant that Erin was safe. “I mean Margaret. Your name will do for now.” Some kids giggled a little, but not many. Most kids liked Erin, no matter what they called her, and didn’t want to make her feel bad by laughing at her. “Remember, Margaret, brevity is the soul of wit.”
“Ah, yes, Sister.”
“And what did you do this summer?”
“Nothing, Sister.” There were more giggles. Our whole class had been together since kindergarten, and we knew that Erin always explained everything in endless detail. She could string together more words with one tiny breath than anyone. Only I guess she was thinking about the brevity-wit thing and worrying that if she said anything more, it would bother Sister Angelica.
“Nothing? Even if you didn’t go on a family vacation, you must have done something. Correct?”
“No, Sister. I mean, yes, Sister.” Erin inhaled deeply, and her eyes bulged just a little. She was like a balloon about to pop. Then in a whoosh she explained, “You see, Sister, my father lost his job at Gary Plastics in the spring, but it wasn’t his fault. But he couldn’t find another job, but then my mother found out she was, um, you know, going to have another baby, but—”
Erin was off to the races, and all Sister Angelica could do was look at her and blink several times. She had, after all, sort of pushed for an answer. And now she was getting it.
Erin was pretty. Long red hair, bright green eyes, and more freckles on her face than stars in the sky. But I thought Kathy Gathers was the absolute prettiest girl ever. Golden blond hair, amazing periwinkle blue eyes, and a killer smile. She was why I was sitting so dangerously close to the teacher’s desk this year, pencil box on my desk filled with neatly sharpened #2 pencils, ready for a new school year. And a new beginning.
On the last day of fifth grade, about one minute before dismissal, Sister Anita had made an announcement. Most of us groaned and started to squirm, since all nun announcements last at least a half-hour and we wanted to be out of there and officially on summer vacation. But I started to pay attention when she said that sixth grade would be the most important grade of all in our education. That it would determine where we would go to high school and college, where we would get jobs, where we would live with our future families. I hoped Kathy would be in my future family. “Think of sixth grade as a chance to change, a chance to make a new beginning,” she’d said.
She said more, but my brain was churning over the part about a new beginning. Starting fresh sounded great to me. A lifesaver, even. I was hands down the worst student in our grade, if not in the whole school. Definitely not one of the good-smart kids—you know, the ones who never got in trouble and always got good grades. Sixth grade might be a good time to actually force my brain to stop thinking about a thousand different things long enough to study a little and maybe get better grades. It would certainly make my parents happy, but what I really wanted was to make Kathy happy. Especially after what had happened in fifth grade.
Sometime that year, I decided I liked Kathy Gathers so much I had to get her attention. So I wrote a short story on yellow lined paper and showed it to the kid next to me, who showed it to the kid on the other side of him. They seemed to like it. My plan was that eventually it would get to Kathy, and she would really like it—and me, too. And Kathy did read it, because the next thing I knew, she and her mother were knocking on the front door of my house.
You see, the story was about a girl named, well, Kathy Gathers, who was so fat that she couldn’t fit through regular-size door openings. She tried to lose weight, but she just couldn’t stop stuffing her face with jelly doughnuts, potato chips, black and white cookies, and pistachio nuts. I added pistachio nuts because I thought they sounded exotic.
Turned out that saying a girl is fat is a great way to get her attention, but not a great way to get her to like you. You can take my word for that. The meeting between her mother and my mother went as well as you might expect. After my mother heard about what I’d written, she looked at me strangely. She wasn’t happy that I had said Kathy was so fat she got stuck in a doorway and had to have ten kids push her through. She scolded me—“How in heaven’s name could you even do such a thing and not know it would hurt Kathy’s feelings?” And she made me apologize right away. But there was more to that look Mom gave me—a surprised expression that seemed positive—maybe because I wasn’t noted for writing two-page book reports or short assignments or anything else, let alone an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end. After apologizing, I promised never to write another story about Kathy, though I really wanted to say But I love you and think you’re the prettiest girl in the class. In the world! And you’re really not fat, and—
But now I was in sixth grade, the land of new beginnings. And if I could improve my grades a little, maybe I could also improve things with Kathy. That was possible, I guessed. I mean, hope is a good thing, and . . .
“Next!” That icy, sharp voice seemed to shout. In a tone that made it clear this wasn’t the first time the command had been given.
Seems that while I was daydreaming about new beginnings, the name and vacation introduction thing was going from one kid to another, up one aisle and down the next. Until it reached me and stopped dead.
I sprang to my feet and said, “Yes, Sister,” though I had no idea why. I wanted to make sure she knew I agreed with her, no matter what she had been talking about. I paused, then said, “My name is James John Pa—”
“I know who you are, Master Murphy,” Sister Angelica said. The you felt like a poke in the chest with one of my #2 pencils. She opened the drawer of her desk and pulled out a red folder. The name MURPHY was written on the front in big, bold letters. A red folder with your name on it in big, bold letters is not a good sign, in case you hadn’t guessed. “All your previous teachers have told me about you and your”—she held up the folder and waved it around a little, and then she stood even taller, if that was possible—“your various antics. I want you to know from the start that I will not tolerate any such behavior here. None. Am I clear, Master Murphy?”
“Yes, Sister.” I did have questions, though. Like what exactly had these teachers said about me, and was it all really true? Even a murderer gets a trial with a lawyer who can ask questions and explain why his client did whatever he did. I knew that because my uncle Arthur was a lawyer. And did Sister Angelica really have to say all this so the whole class could hear? She could have called me aside at the end of class and . . .
“. . . take your desk to the back of the room, Master Murphy.”
Her eyes were wide open, boring into me, and not in a friendly way. “You need to pay better attention.” This time that long, bony finger pointed over my shoulder toward the back of the room. “Take your desk there, next to Master Vero. Everyone else in the row should move their desks forward to fill in the empty space.”
I picked up the desk and began making my way back toward Vero, who seemed both relieved that he wasn’t Sister Angelica’s target anymore and a little distressed at my fate. Some kids were laughing, of course. No surprise there. Everyone enjoys a show like this, especially when they aren’t the star.
Then I spotted Kathy Gathers in the fourth row. She had her fingers over her mouth, trying unsuccessfully to hold in her giggling. I felt my face flush with embarrassment, and I looked away so quickly that my new pencil box slid off my desk and hit Roger Sutternhopf right in the head. The entire class erupted in a roar of laughter.
“He hit me in the head, Sister Angelica,” Roger blurted out, grabbing his skull as if I’d hit him with a ball-peen hammer. This little act of Roger’s only made everyone laugh harder. “He did it on purpose, too!”
“Boys and girls, please settle down.” Sister Angelica clapped her hands. “And Master Murphy. Try to be more careful in the future.”
I didn’t even say “Yes, Sister.” I was too humiliated and angry. I mean, I hadn’t done anything at all, but I was being sent to the back of the room and being laughed at by all sixty-one of my classmates. Including Kathy Gathers.
There was lots of scraping noise as all the kids in my row scooted their desks forward while still sitting in them. I put my desk down next to Vero’s and sank into it. Ellen McDonald appeared a second later with my bruised pencil box and put it on my desk, whispering, “I’m sorry, Jimmy,” before hurrying back to her desk.
I might have mumbled “Thanks” to her, but I can’t remember. A numb feeling was creeping up the back of my neck and invading my brain, completely blocking out everything else. I wasn’t thinking anything in particular. It was like a giant electrical storm flashing and exploding in my brain.
Sister Angelica instructed us to take out our math books and open to page 14. I did as directed, but I wasn’t thinking about math or page 14 or anything else except that I hated Sister Angelica Rose. With a passion.
I shoved my pencil box into the space under the desk. So much for new beginnings, I thought. From my right, Philip whispered, “Hostis humani generis.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jimmy is in 6th grade at a Catholic school in the 1950s. He is trying to no longer be the trouble-maker and horrible student he was in previous years, mostly to impress a girl. When a new teacher arrives, he sees no way out from her picking on him, other than revenge. Jimmy is recruited to be the Green Banana in the second grade play. Him and his friends plot their revenge on Sister Angelica Rose. I never have attended Catholic school, but I was able to pick and choose teachers from my past that would have fit many of the teachers that we were given information on. I was also able to find classmates that reminded me of Jimmy and his friends. The beginning also reminded me a bit of Frindle by Andrew Clements. The revenge that Jimmy wanted seems to be very different from what his friends have planned, but he goes along with it anyway. Being a librarian and educator, I can also see from where the teacher, Sister Angelica Rose, is coming. Who wouldn't want to help a child, or student, do better? Isn't that what Jimmy wanted, to do better, be better! Students always think that a teacher is picking on them, because they usually only see their side. As this story is seen only from Jimmy's perspective, we don't really know what else is going on. Thank you Clarion Books and NetGalley for the digital ARC of this book, which made this honest review possible.