Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2021 finalist Caroline Gao! Caroline finished 4th grade this past school year. Her story is called “Just Average.” Enjoy!
by Caroline Gao
Ding! Goes the cash register. Thirty-seven dollars and fifty-eight cents. I dig through my bag to find the crumpled ten-dollar bills on the bottom and hand them to the cashier. As I leave, I see my friend in a t-shirt and jeans. She is the gossip queen of the school. If anyone needs to catch up on the latest news, she is there to do all the telling.
“Hello!” I exclaim.
“How are you Kazi?” she gushes.
“I’m great,” I reply. “Want to catch me up on the latest news?”
“Sure! Cameron told me that the eighth grade is the last grade to find our call! Oh, you probably don’t know what a call is.”
I frown. Surely she doesn’t think that I, her best friend (and also the one who has to endure her talk, talk, talk about her favorite subjects), is that stupid? Does she think I don’t know what will be going on next year because I don’t like to read, or something?
“Basically, it’s like your career,” she plows on. “So you see in the future what you’re gonna be when you grow up. I think mine is writing, I mean, I do the school’s newspaper, don’t I?” She didn’t stop for an answer. “But, it could be math. I always get better than ninety percent on my tests. Wait…ninety-five. Oh! How about science? I’m good at that, too. I know how the human body works, the basic definition of plants, and all the different types of waves. Anyway, gotta run. Bye!”
I don’t care about Gonzelia’s call. All I care about is mine. For most of my life, I’ve just been this average kid. Not too bad, not too good. Now, for no reason at all, the school is demanding us to find our future careers! How can they just order us to do that? This is so unprecedented because I only think that the tests will be a little harder and that I will have to study for a longer amount of time.
The shadows grow longer as the day passes on. Unlucky people are still lining the streets, barging into shops for the desperate last attempts of finding school accessories outside. That’s not me. I sit quietly on a moss-covered log deep in the woods. The shadows stretch even longer than before. I’m nervous, as usual, for the first day of school, but something is different. I know that the elders will request for me to go higher than average, exceeding all the limits that I have.
My footsteps echo through the hallway of the school I have known for two years. No door swings open, not a shout from a student as I tiptoe down the hallways. An eerie silence lays like a blanket of fog throughout the whole school grounds. If a water droplet drips onto the floor, it will still be loud. I am the earliest one in class, even though I haven’t intended so. Even the teacher is supposed to arrive seven minutes later. I examine the classroom, checking for details that might interest me:
One chair behind each,
Pencil and paper,
Four cabinets on the back wall,
One blackboard with a piece of compact chalk,
Confetti and streamers scattered all over the floor,
One glass box on the teacher’s desk.
I walk toward the glass box. What is inside? As I get closer I see a lizard, tiny and brown, like the tree limb it was on.
“Hello, there,” I say.
The lizard tiptoes closer, as if it understands. I take out a piece of apple and place it inside the box.
“Enjoy!” I say.
“Speaking of enjoy, how are you enjoying talking to a dumb lizard?” a voice says. “If I were you, I’d go back to my seat and wait until the teacher arrives.”
I turn around, wondering who it is. I see a girl with barrettes in her lopsided dyed indigo hair, a tight-waisted dress to her knees, and black boots with bells of all colors and sizes sprinkled with glitter.
“Whoa,” I say, already recognizing the person. “Gon-ze-lia?”
“Yes,” she replies. “Gonzelia. Now go back to your desk.”
I nod, my body trembling as if a person had just knocked me out. Why was Gonzelia dressed this way? Why did she have the authority to boss me around?
We start the day by introducing ourselves. Our teacher starts us off, just to give an example.
“My name is Miss Javal. And, I love to teach children,” she offers with a big grin.
I go next. “Um…My name is Kazi and I like to read historical fiction novels.”
Gonzelia goes after me. “My name is Gonzelia,” she announces, her head up high in the air. “I love to finish my homework on time. Did you know that the brain grows bigger when you learn something new?”
I raise my eyebrow. Although it isn’t her turn, Gonzelia’s hand is waving around in the air.
“Yes, Gonzelia?” Miss Javal says.
“Well,” Gonzelia replies, “I have this saying that shows how not studying will make you less smart. If you don’t learn new things all the time, then your brain will grow to the size of a lemon or lime.”
“Excellent. Now we will move on.”
My eyebrow is raised so high now, that it has disappeared beneath my scruffy black bangs. I know that Gonzelia really just copied crazy Sarah Whaley from ninth grade. She’s too dignified to invent a silly sentence like that.
This week at school, one section of the Student Newspaper is not there! It also happens to be one of the students’ favorites—the comic strip, also run by Gonzelia. The other favorite section is one on environmental protection. Everyone goes wild when the comic strip is missing. They are angry and hurt by this new change. Although they might have not agreed on the best section, everyone wants the person who did this suspended. Many already have an opinion about this topic with around the same idea, consisting of Boy, the editor for the environmental section. Some believe that Boy deleted Gonzelia’s work so he could have his own section published before hers. There is further evidence for this argument as the many security guards scour the computers for any sign of deletion. The final outcome is that Boy has the blame and will be suspended for at least 3 months.
As usual, Gonzelia acts like a drama queen. Personally, I think that she overdoes it a little. The day after it happened, she struts around the classroom, expecting a word of apology from everyone. Miss Javal is one of the supporters of this idea. She even went as far as scolding the children who didn’t apologize because she said that Gonzelia had something really horrid happen to her.
“Sorry,” I say grudgingly, looking down at my feet.
Gonzelia gives me a scorning look as if she expects me to always feel sorry for her.
I don’t look up. Something is wrong with this picture. I saw Gonzelia smirk at the whole class when the teacher said that everyone needed to apologize to her. Also, she mouths the words Yea! Everyone pay your respects! like a queen, when the teacher isn’t looking. Why is she doing that?
I know Boy, but not very well. He has only been in my class once. I don’t remember talking to him much. But, I remember him telling me about an argument last night when we were in the reference aisle at the library.
It all started when I left the study hall to find a dictionary book in the library. I rushed through the aisles until I found the reference aisle, also known as the aisle-for-nerdy-students (according to Gonzelia). I leafed my way through the books backward. Z, Y, X, W, V, U, T, S, R… That’s when I got the biggest scare of my life.
“Argh!!!” I screamed as I got to the letter E in the alphabet.
There, underneath the rows of books, was Boy, looking pale and forlorn, startled as well, from my scream.
“Erm, what’s up?” he said feebly.
By then, I’d recovered from my shock. “What do you mean ‘What’s up?’?!” I demanded. “Why did you scare me? Why are you even here in the first place?”
He started to talk really fast. “Well, I had an argument with G, you know, about the editor section order. I wanted mine first and, obviously, she wanted hers first. So we argued about it for a long time. Then it became like a fight. She punched me, okay, and I kicked her. We heard someone at the door and we knew we were going to get caught. I think that the Chief Editor was there to see what the ruckus was. So, you see, I took off because I was scared about being caught. G didn’t leave quite yet. And you found me here in the library.”
“Soooo…Who’s G?” I asked, although I already had a pretty good guess on who she was.
“Oh, Gon-Gonzelia. Right. Well, I hope you and G settle the argument and become friends again. Umm…I have to leave now? See you!” I grabbed a heavy dictionary and started toward the door, staggering from the weight.
“I wasn’t friends with her anyway,” I heard him add under his breath as I walked out of the aisle, the dictionary book clamped under my arm.
It doesn’t make sense. I’ve known Gonzelia all my life. She never lied to anyone before. At least that’s what I think. After I listen to Boy, it makes more sense to me. I start to think that Gonzelia has lied. I know her as a person who loves to get revenge. She can easily be the culprit to the deleted section. She could’ve embarrassed Boy on purpose. She could’ve deleted the section. Or even worse. The alarm was fake! She made the false alarm!
“What an absurd theory!” I mutter to myself. “How could she possibly do this? The whole school is convinced that it’s Boy’s fault, why ain’t I?
Even though I am still doubting my logic, I decide that I’ve got to do something about it, proving that Boy is innocent. But how am I ever going to convince the teacher? The day after tomorrow, Boy will be suspended. My day is packed with class and homework, meaning that I don’t have any time to brainstorm. At night, I feel drowsy. But, I can’t fall asleep. I’ve got to think of a way. I shuffle to my window, where the moonbeams throw bright lines across my bedroom floor. No inspiration. I sit in the flower-patterned chair, the same one I threw up on three years ago, and put my chin on my hand. No inspiration. I even step into my bedroom closet, where I used to keep a secret stash of Halloween candy before my mom confiscated it, to find ideas. Still no inspiration. Tired and discouraged, I crawl up onto my bed. When I am almost asleep, I think about it again. Nothing. I’ll have to wait until tomorrow.
All of a sudden, I wake up at night. There is just one more hope to make Miss Javal believe me. Writing. Writing is complicated and confusing, and has way too many concepts and ideas packed together. All I need to do is to write an essay. I don’t think that it would be so hard, given that Miss Javal already explained the basics to us.
“Intro, Body 1, Body 2, Body 3, Conclusion,” she had said.
I nibble on the end of my pencil. Hmmm, what to write? What to write? I ask myself over and over again. Well, first I have to brainstorm, I think logically. I can only use the quick bits of information that Boy had given me the night before. I ran into Boy around five in the evening and the news about Gonzelia’s deleted section was found out at nine in the night.
I eyeball the few brainstormed words lining the border of the first line and sigh. This essay is going to be way more difficult than I had imagined. Gonzelia could not have been in the school at nine in the evening so there must be another way to prove it. I needed to be able to access the computers to know the time of the deletion. Luckily, I shouldn’t forget about Boy. He can access the documents on his laptop.
“Funny how I never thought of that before,” Boy says when I mentioned to him about the subject.
“Well, now you have,” I reply. “So, is it a yes, or a no?”
“Yes, but I highly doubt that it will work. Thanks for helping me anyway,” he says.
“Okay, let’s rock and roll,” I reply.
Boy turns on his computer. He loads the pages until it shows the documents. He scrolls down to the line that says that there is no more comic section.
“What does it say?” I asked.
“This is where it reads that G’s section is missing,” he replies.
“So press ‘last edit’,” I instructed him.
He does it. “Now what?” he asks.
“So this event happened yesterday, right?”
“Okay, so then you click the ‘yesterday’ selection.”
He presses it.
“Now scroll down until you find the time that is closest to six. Then you click on it and scroll until you find the part of the online newspaper about the comic.”
“But how will it be there? Remember? It was deleted!”
“Geez! Do you think I don’t know that? Of course, I remember that!”
“Well, you don’t have to yell!”
Then, curiosity takes over anger and Boy has to ask: “Why’d you say it in the first place?”
“If my theory is correct, you will be able to see that Gonzelia deleted the section.”
He does what I ask. Little do we know that we are in for an unpleasant surprise. When he starts to scroll, I feel almost certain that I am right, but toward the end, I am as nervous and as scared as a person thrown into a crocodile pit. Turns out I was half right. The comic part is deleted, but…
It shows that Boy deleted it!
“What the-!” Boy yells.
“Did you delete this?” I rage, furious at myself for trying to help a possible culprit of the scheme.
“Of course not!”
“Fine. I’ll believe you, but only because you never, ever done something bad in school before.”
“Thank you,” he said primly. “Now how are we going to find who accessed my account?”
“We could do that, but we need to remember something first. You said that you left around five. The doc says that the section was deleted at five twenty-one. That means Gonzelia could’ve deleted the document when you were gone.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll take careful note. Now, could we move on to the account part?”
“Click on your profile picture and choose ‘Unfamiliar digitals that have accessed your account’. Then look at the one at the top.”
As I had thought, it shows that a strange laptop called “FD37sS2J” had accessed the account. It signed in at five eighteen. FD37sS2J sounds familiar to me. I remember someone telling me about this laptop. Gonzelia! That was it! She had told me to look for a computer called FD37sS2J when she wanted to connect the WiFi with her laptop. It must be hers because no sooner had I connected it, she started to watch a bio about George Washington on the laptop. I am about to lean over and tell Boy when his phone starts to ring.
After a long, long talk with a man who evidently had terrible English, he tells me: “Gotta go” and rushes out the door.
I have to do something. There is no one anywhere that can help me now. Boy doesn’t even want to spend more time on research. I think and sit and stare at the cheap, white-washed, peeling wall by my bed. All of a sudden, an inspiration strikes. I lower my pencil until the tip of it strikes the paper. Then, like a nuclear bomb, my hand explodes forward, progressing in circular-like movements, racing against time, frantically trying to finish before I forget everything that I want to write.
I finish my work and hold the papers under the lamp, reading them over and over again.
“That’ll have to do,” I whisper to myself.
I take out my pencil, jot down a few notes on the paper, then start to write my final draft.
The school grounds stand before me. As nervous as I am, I step forward, ready to face the challenge. Courage and grit have to overcome anxiety, failure, and dread. Two against three. My hands tremble, my shabby, blue backpack slung over my shoulder, my essay in my hands. I was ready. I trudge along the already-packed hallway. As usual, the violinist guy from Oakland is playing his violin in the corner, getting a dollar or two from everyone. As usual, Gonzelia and the other editors are going around, passing out flyers to everyone about such-and-such festival or so-and-so’s birthday party. As usual, the students are all chattering with each other and catching up on gossip (mainly from Gonzelia). But, some things are different. The people are whispering to one another, with an occasional shout. They are talking about the suspension. I can hear them as I skid on by.
“Did you hear…Boy…suspension…might not be back…”
“Boy’s last…at school…leave…for 3 months…”
“School…make fun…Boy…embarrassed…maybe cry…”
So let me get this straight. The school will taunt Boy at school and send him back home for 3 months, with him not even knowing if he will be allowed to come back? Who does that?
“Well, apparently, the school,” I tell myself.
I never expected to be forced to find my call, even more so that I had to watch someone be abused in public. I pass Boy in the hallway, he looks down at his shoes, pretending to not notice me.
“Hey,” I whisper, “I’ve worked it all out. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”
He looks up at me, hopefully.
“Thank you,” he says, then looks away again.
I am at the doorway of my classroom. I gather up all the courage I have and march straight toward Miss Javal’s desk. She looks up, angry to be disrupted from her work.
“Please,” I say, “Will you read my essay? It’s about the suspension…and I have something to say against it.”
“No time…busy, you know,” I hear her mutter.
“Please, it’s my last chance, I’ve been trying since Gonzelia announced it in class.”
“Well then, maybe at lunch.”
“Thank you so much, Miss Javal.”
As I walk toward my desk, Gonzelia comes up to me and raps my shoulder in a careless fashion.
“Hello Kazi!” she announces.
I stare at the scab on my elbow. I pick at it.
“I said, hello!” Gonzelia tries again.
“Hello yourself,” I mutter.
She looks bewildered and enraged at the same time, making me regret saying that. “What did you say?! Kazi,” she said, her voice quiet, but nearly exploding with rage, “first you ignore me, then you call me a bad name. Oh! My reputation is completely damaged!” she ends with a feign cry.
Everyone hears. Everyone feels sorry. Everyone scolds me. Everyone except Miss Javal. I notice that she just put down my essay on the table. I screw up my eyes with concentration. Didn’t she just say that she would read it at lunchtime?
“Everyone! To your desks!” she hollers. “I have an important announcement to make. I have a comment to make about the suspension to be held later this afternoon.”
Upon hearing this, Boy sinks lower in his chair. I wilt. Has the effect of the essay made Miss Javal just want to suspend Boy more?
“Furthermore,” she continues, “I have decided to make a few changes. Because of this.” She holds my essay up in the light.
“First off, I would like to say that Boy is not the real culprit,” she says, “I would also like to have a conference with Gonzelia and Kazi.”
Upon hearing this, Gonzelia mouths You’re gonna get in trouble. She thinks you’re the culprit.
“We’ll see about that,” I whisper. “Culprit.”
Gonzelia steps out of the office. Her eyes are red, and her mouth is twisted into a furious frown.
“It’s all your fault,” she whispers, through gritted teeth, “You ruined my reputation. I thought you were my friend.”
“Well, apparently not,” I whisper back. Then, I stalk into the office before she can whisper back another word.
“Hello Kazi,” Miss Javal says.
I nod, not trusting my mouth at the moment. I feel as dumbfounded as a ninja being spotted by their enemy and then invited for a cup of tea.
“I think that your essay was great. It really made my mind believe things that were obviously true, not just what I wanted to believe. I’m sorry for liking Gonzelia the best,” she says, hanging her head a little bit. “I really think that you should be one of the editors, Kazi. You are good at convincing your readers because your writing has some solid reasoning and evidence. I also enjoyed reading it. You may leave now.”
“Thank you,” I say, before slowly backing out of the room. I try to act calm in the still thickly-packed hall, but I’m tingling from head to toe.
Ding! Goes a noise that sounds suspiciously like a cash register. I realize that my feet must’ve carried me to the bookstore again. I turn around to face a plaited-haired, gaunt-faced, wide-eyed girl in the mirror. This is me. The type of girl that you don’t find in a fairy tale, but one that you could meet about a thousand times, and still not remember that you saw her at all. The same girl smiles at me in the mirror, exposing brilliant, blue braces, and I realize that something has changed.
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