Novel excerpt: “Clear-Cut Solutions to Middle School Problems”

Artist name: Heather E. Schwartz
Description: This is an excerpt from a middle grade novel.

My mom could have kept her own last name when she married my dad. But honestly, her maiden name had its own problems. It’s spelled like this: Wojtowski. And it’s pronounced like this: Voy-TOV-skee. So she was always having to correct people whenever they said or spelled it. Teachers got it wrong. Telemarketers got it wrong. You get the idea. I guess the last name Boring was kind of a relief after all that hassle.

I didn’t get a choice, of course. I was born a Boring, and having had it my whole life, I’m not sure Wojtowski is such a terrible option. People can’t call you a Wojtowski—if they did, it wouldn’t mean anything. They probably wouldn’t even say it right anyway.

My dad’s take on our family name is different from mine.

“Live up to it,” he advises, cheerfully. “There’s nothing wrong with being Boring!”

That’s actually a quote from his father. It’s burned into a wooden sign that my grandpa made when my dad was a kid. We keep it hanging over the doorway to our basement, which is partway finished and is where we watch TV.

The thing about my dad is, he’s not in danger of anyone thinking he’s uninteresting. First of all, if he’s asked what he does for a job, he can say he’s a scientist. It’s much more exciting-sounding than “manager in an office” or “state worker,” which is how most kids my age describe their dad. Tell people your dad is a scientist and you know they’re imagining a guy in a white lab coat with test tubes bubbling over like in a cartoon. That’s more accurate to an evil scientist, but still. At least it’s interesting.

Along with his job, my dad also happens to have a brain that’s entirely filled with science trivia. So conversations with him are never the usual small talk about the weather and what day of the week it is. People seem to appreciate that about him.

“I always wondered what makes permanent ink permanent!” I once heard our neighbor, Mrs. Fennster exclaim, after he’d helped her understand why the stain remover she’d bought wasn’t working to get the ink off her pants. (Permanent ink is a combination of alcohol and colored pigments. You can’t wash it off because the molecules in alcohol aren’t attracted to the molecules in water.)

“Well, it’s good to know it’s not just me!” another neighbor, Mr. Yates, said appreciatively, after his dog had been sprayed by a skunk and Dad explained why bad smells always seem to overpower good ones. (You can’t smell two odors at the exact same time, and it may be that people just notice bad smells more. After all, if something stinks—like a big bag of garbage—you kind of have to address it.)

Since my mom wasn’t born a Boring, she’s not under the same pressure as Dad and me to be interesting. But she’s interesting anyway, mainly because she has a lot of talent in artistic things like painting and drawing, and also because of her job. She and my dad work for the same company actually. Dad does lab work and Mom does PR, which means she makes sure the right messages get out to the community. Like one time a bunch of protesters showed up with signs demanding that the lab stop using animals in experiments. News reporters came with cameras, and my mom had to go tell everyone that they had their facts wrong. The lab doesn’t use animals at all—it never did. That night, she was on TV. She’s been on a couple times since then, too. Not everyone has a mom who’s on TV once in a while. A lot of kids I know have moms who don’t work at all or just work part-time in an office.

In some ways I guess you could say I’m a combination of the two of them. My mom majored in English in college, and I love reading and writing (though I didn’t get any of her artistic talent). Science is my second favorite subject, so that’s like my dad. Also, I’m short, like my mom, and wear glasses, like my dad. I have his nose, too, which is unfortunate. Both my parents say I’ll “grow into it.” So… I’ll eventually have an oversized head, too?

Nobody commented on my head size at the annual block party toward the end of October, so I guess it hasn’t happened yet.

“Ah, Lisa. Middle school already,” Mrs. Fennster said, looking at me and shaking her head. She tipped the styrofoam plate she was holding. Her potato salad slid dangerously close to the edge. “That makes you—what? Thirteen?”

“Twelve,” I answered, taking a breath to start a sentence that would save her potato salad. But she didn’t give me a chance.

“Huh. When I was a girl, middle school started at 13, seventh grade. They called it junior high back then… Well, I guess that was the difference. Middle school must start in sixth grade while junior high starts in—”

It was like she was talking and thinking at the same time, so nothing was filtered out. Maybe she never had a fourth grade teacher who advised students to, “Count to 10 and think before you speak.” Of course, that teacher was trying to get kids to stop telling each other they had cooties on the playground. It had started out as a game, but became a problem when some kids were sent home with real lice.

Mrs. Fennster wasn’t being mean, though. Just long-winded.

“Your potato salad!” I cried, interrupting her rambling as a mayonnaise-drenched chunk hit the grass.

“Oh! Thank you, dear!” she said, tipping up her plate to catch the rest just in time.

It seemed like a good time to move on. Plus, I felt a little like a hero for saving her potato salad. That called for a reward. I decided to head over to Dessert Central, aka, the Graysons’ garage. Their house is two doors down from ours.

Walking by a group of younger kids playing with chalk and some older adults talking politics, I wished—not for the first time—that there were some kids my age on my street. Most of the time I don’t mind being an only child, but this was one time a sibling might have come in handy. I usually invite Michelle to the block party, but she couldn’t come this year. She was at her first rehearsal for the school musical. Yup. She auditioned and got a part. I saw the schedule and she’s going to be pretty busy, so it’s a good thing I’m on crew. Otherwise, I’d probably never see her anymore.

Inside the Graysons’ garage, long white folding tables were covered with desserts.

Half-opened boxes revealed apple, strawberry-rhubarb, and blueberry pies. There were chocolate chip cookies piled on paper plates, peeping out from under tin foil tents. Sealed Tupperware containers held mystery delights, brownies and Rice Krispies Treats no doubt among them. I took a plate. I knew from previous years nothing was off limits; open or not it was all up for grabs. That was a lot to consider.

While I stood there considering, Mr. Yates and Mrs. Grayson started chatting at the other end of the table. Small talk. The usual. But then Mrs. Grayson said, “Oh, I know. It’s terrible,” and my ears perked up.

It sounds awful, but bad news can be interesting.

“I agree, I agree,” Mr. Yates was saying.

Two more adults I didn’t know came over. They looked like a couple.

“We can hear the chainsaws at our end of the neighborhood already,” said a tall woman with dark blond hair. She was wearing high-waisted brown corduroys that Michelle and I would have joked about, calling them “Mom pants” or “slacks.”

“Before you know it, those woods will be gone,” agreed the man in the blue sweater next to her, who I assumed was her husband. “They’re developing for sure. Houses, a subdivision, who knows? Maybe even commercial use.”

I stopped mid-brownie-load to pay closer attention. Were they talking about the woods I walked through every day to get to school and back? My woods? They had to be.

I heard a bunch of words that seemed to jumble together: “zoning” and “easement” and “grandfathering”—whatever that meant. Then Mr. Grayson came by and said, “Now, now. They wouldn’t. They’ve always said they intend to keep those woods forever wild.”

But the blond woman said, “Well, I wouldn’t trust them as far as I can throw this car,” and it was such a funny statement I giggled out loud before I could stop myself. I pictured her wrapping her arms around the Grayson’s massive green Buick, lifting it over her head, and tossing it across the street like the Hulk.

Luckily, nobody seemed to notice me over by the dessert table laughing all by myself. At least nobody said anything to me about eavesdropping or asked what was so funny. I guess I’m getting pretty good at blending into my surroundings, now that I don’t stand out as the smartest kid in school.

The thought brought my mood down abruptly. I decided to take my plate of cookies and brownies (and, I’ll admit, a piece of blueberry pie and a Rice Krispies Treat, too) into the woods. I’d eat in my treehouse. It had been neglected for far too long, and I suddenly felt the need to go up there and appreciate it. Maybe now was a good time to clean it up. Then it would be ready for me to use it for creative writing practice, like I’d decided.

Climbing the wood planks my dad had nailed into the thick trunk of my favorite oak wasn’t easy with a plate in my hand. But I was taller than I used to be, so halfway up, I was able to stretch my arm and set the plate on the floorboards at the opening of the treehouse. Then I grabbed onto the big branch that came out from the trunk in a “V” and hoisted myself up the rest of the way.

Webs. Everywhere.

I hurried back down to find a long stick I could use to clear out them out without touching them. Cobwebs, I reassured myself, though I knew they were probably made by creepily large spiders.

Once the space was web-free, I tucked myself in the corner by the window to overeat sweets and look out at the trees. Some were still bright with color, but many had bare branches already. The ground below was littered with crunchy, brown leaves. The air felt cool, and I wished I’d brought a blanket. Next time, I thought.

In the distance, I could hear a faint sound—a sort of angry rumbling. What was that?

Oh right. A chainsaw.

One thought on “Novel excerpt: “Clear-Cut Solutions to Middle School Problems”

  • Craig Petreikis says:

    Nice scene coloring, and pov from the protagonist. Great funny moments, too, especially the “Boring” theme:) Thanks, Heather!!

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