There was a new student in the Watertower Elementary School. She arrived in October, after the first month of school had already passed. She opened the second grade classroom door at ten o'clock on a Wednesday morning and appeared there all alone, without even a mother to introduce her. She was wearing pajamas and cowboy boots and was holding a dictionary and a lunch box.
"Hello," Mrs. Pidgeon, the second grade teacher, said. "We're in the middle of our spelling lesson."
"Good," said the girl in pajamas. "I brought my dictionary. Where's my desk?"
"Who are you?" Mrs. Pidgeon asked politely.
"I'm your new student. My name is Gooney Bird Greene—that's Greene with a silent 'e' at the end—and I just moved here from China. I want a desk right smack in the middle of the room, because I like to be right smack in the middle of everything."
The class stared at the new girl with admiration. They had never met anyone like Gooney Bird Greene.
She was a good student. She sat down at the desk Mrs. Pidgeon provided, right smack in the middle of everything, and began doing second grade spelling. She did all her work neatly and quickly, and she followed instructions.
But soon it was clear that Gooney Bird was mysterious and interesting. Her clothes were unusual. Her hairstyles were unusual. Even her lunches were very unusual.
At lunchtime on Wednesday, her first day in the school, she opened her lunch box and brought out sushi and a pair of bright green chopsticks. On Thursday, her second day at Watertower Elementary School, Gooney Bird Greene was wearing a pink ballet tutu over green stretch pants, and she had three small red grapes, an avocado, and an oatmeal cookie for lunch.
On Thursday afternoon, after lunch, Mrs. Pidgeon stood in front of the class with a piece of chalk in her hand. "Today," she said, "we are going to continue talking about stories."
"Yay!" the second-graders said in very loud voices, all but Felicia Ann, who never spoke, and Malcolm, who wasn't paying attention. He was under his desk, as usual.
"Gooney Bird, you weren't here for the first month of school. But our class has been learning about what makes good stories, haven't we?" Mrs. Pidgeon said. Everyone nodded. All but Malcolm, who was under his desk doing something with scissors.
"Class? What does a story need most of all? Who remembers?" Mrs. Pidgeon had her chalk hand in the air, ready to write something on the board.
The children were silent for a minute. They were thinking. Finally Chelsea raised her hand.
"Chelsea? What does a story need?"
"A book," Chelsea said.
Mrs. Pidgeon put her chalk hand down. "There are many stories that don't need a book," she said pleasantly, "aren't there, class? If your grandma tells you a story about when she was a little girl, she doesn't have that story in a book, does she?"
The class stared at her. All but Malcolm, who was still under his desk, and Felicia Ann, who always looked at the floor, never raised her hand, and never spoke.
Beanie said, "My grandma lives in Boston!"
Keiko said, "My grandma lives in Honolulu!"
Ben said loudly, "My grandma lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania!"
Tricia shouted, "My grandma is very rich!"
"Class!" said Mrs. Pidgeon. "Shhh!" Then, in a quieter voice, she explained, "Another time, we will talk about our families. But right now—" She stopped talking and looked at Barry Tuckerman. Barry was up on his knees in his seat, and his hand was waving in the air as hard as he could make it wave.
"Barry?" Mrs. Pidgeon said. "Do you have something that you simply have to say? Something that cannot possibly wait?"
Barry nodded yes. His hand waved.
"And what is so important?"
Barry stood up beside his desk. Barry Tuckerman liked to make very important speeches, and they always required that he stand.
"My grandma," Barry Tuckerman said, "went to jail once. She was twenty years old and she went to jail for civil disobedience." Then Barry sat down.
"Thank you, Barry. Now look at what I'm writing on the board. Who can read this word?"
Everyone, all but Malcolm and Felicia Ann, watched as she wrote the long word. Then they shouted it out. "BEGINNING!"
"Good!" said Mrs. Pidgeon. "Now I'm sure you'll all know this one." She wrote again.
"MIDDLE!" the children shouted.
"Good. And can you guess what the last word will be?" She held up her chalk and waited.
"Correct!" Mrs. Pidgeon said. "Good for you, second-graders! Those are the parts that a story needs: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Now I'm gong to write another very long word on the board. Let's see what good readers you are." She wrote a C, then an H.
"Mrs. Pidgeon!" someone called.
She wrote an A, and then an R.
"MRS. PIDGEON!" Several children were calling now.
She turned to see what was so important. Malcolm was standing beside his desk. He was crying.
"Malcolm needs to go to the nurse, Mrs. Pidgeon!" Beanie said.
Mrs. Pidgeon went to Malcolm and knelt beside him. "What's the trouble, Malcolm?" she asked. But he couldn't stop crying.
"I know, I know!" Nicholas said. Nicholas always knew everything, and his desk was beside Malcolm's.
"Tell me, Nicholas."
"Remember Keiko showed us how to make origami stars?"
All of the second-graders reached into their desks and their pockets and their lunch boxes. There were tiny stars everywhere. Keiko had shown them how to make origami stars out of small strips of paper. The stars were very easy to make. The school janitor had complained just last Friday that he was sweeping up hundreds of origami stars.
"Malcolm put one in his nose," Nicholas said, "and now he can't get it out."
"Is that correct, Malcolm?" Mrs. Pidgeon asked. Malcolm nodded and wiped his eyes.
"Don't sniff, Malcolm. Do not sniff. That is an order." She took his hand and walked with him to the classroom door. She turned to the class. "Children," she said, "I am going to be gone for exactly one minute and thirty seconds while I walk with Malcolm to the nurse's office down the hall. Stay in your seats while I'm gone. Think about the word character.
"A character is what a story needs. When I come back from the nurse's office, we are going to create a story together. You must choose who the main character will be. Talk among yourselves quietly. Think about interesting characters like Abraham Lincoln, or perhaps Christopher Columbus, or—"
"Babe Ruth?" called Ben.
"Yes, Babe Ruth is a possibility. I'll be right back."
Mrs. Pidgeon left the classroom with Malcolm.
When she returned, one minute and thirty seconds later, without Malcolm, the class was waiting. They had been whispering, all but Felicia Ann, who never whispered.
"Have you chosen?" she asked. The class nodded. All of their heads went up and down, except Felicia Ann's, because she always looked at the floor.
"And your choice is—?"
All of the children, all but Felicia Ann, called out together. "Gooney Bird Greene!" they called.
Mrs. Pidgeon sighed. "Class," she said, "there are many different kinds of stories. There are stories about imaginary creatures, like—"
"Dumbo!" Tricia called out.
"Raise your hand if you want to speak, please," Mrs. Pidgeon said. "But yes, Tricia, you are correct. Dumbo is an imaginary character. There are also stories about real people from history, like Christopher Columbus, and—" She stopped. Barry Tuckerman was waving and waving his hand. "Yes, Barry? Do you have something very important to say?"
Barry Tuckerman stood up. He twisted the bottom of his shirt around and around in his fingers. "I forget," he said at last.
"Well, sit back down then, Barry. Now, I thought, class, that since Christopher Columbus's birthday is coming up soon—" She looked at Barry Tuckerman, whose hand was waving like a windmill once again. "Barry?" she said.
Barry Tuckerman stood up again. "We already know all the stories about Christopher Columbus," he said. "We want to hear a true story about Gooney Bird Greene."
"Yes! Gooney Bird Greene!" the class called.
Mrs. Pidgeon sighed again. "I'm afraid I don't know many facts abut Gooney Bird Greene," she said. "I know a lot of facts about Christopher Columbus, though. Christopher Columbus was born in—"
"We want Gooney Bird!" the class chanted.
"Gooney Bird?" Mrs. Pidgeon said, finally. "How do you feel about this?"
Gooney Bird Greene stood up beside her desk in the middle of the room. "Can I tell the story?" she asked. "Can I be right smack in the middle of everything? Can I be the hero?"
"Well, since you would be the main character," Mrs. Pidgeon said, "I guess that would put you in the middle of everything. I guess that would make you the hero."
"Good," Gooney Bird said. "I will tell you an absolutely true story about me."
Gooney Bird adjusted the pink ballet tutu she was wearing over a pair of green stretch pants. Her T-shirt was decorated with polka dots. Her red hair was pulled into two pigtails and held there with blue scrunchies.
She pulled carefully on one of her pigtails, rearranging it neatly, because the scrunchie was coming loose. She felt her earlobes, which were small and pink and empty.
"I should have worn the dangling diamond earrings that I got from the prince," she told the class. "Maybe I'll wear them next week."
"Diamond earrings? Prince?" Mrs. Pidgeon asked.
"Well, actually, the prince didn't give me the earrings. I got them at the palace," Gooney Bird explained.
"Why were you at the palace?"
"Well, first I was in jail, and then—" Gooney Bird interrupted herself. "It's a long story." She reached down and tidied her socks.
"May I come up to the front of the room to begin?" she asked the teacher after she had adjusted her clothes. "I like to be absolutely the center of attention."
Mrs. Pidgeon nodded and stepped aside so that there was room for Gooney Bird to stand in the front of the class.
"You might as well sit down, Mrs. Pidgeon," Gooney Bird said politely. "Take a load off your feet."
Mrs. Pidgeon sat down in the chair behind her cluttered desk. She looked at the clock on the wall. "We have fifteen minutes," she said, "before arithmetic."
"Class," Gooney Bird said, "you heard Mrs. Pidgeon. We have just fifteen minutes. There are many Gooney Bird stories I might tell you, but I have time for only one today. Who has a suggestion for a story?"
Ben's hand shot up. "Tell about how you came from China," he said.
Nicholas called, "Why are you named Gooney Bird?"
Chelsea was wiggling and wiggling in her seat. "The palace!" she said. "Tell about jail, and the palace, and the diamond earrings!"
Other hands were waving, but Gooney Bird motioned for those children to put their hands down. She looked around the room, thinking.