"Maybe hair is enough to warm the brain? What do you think, class?"
But all the second-graders, even those who had not put on brain-warming hats, shook their heads. Even Barry shook his head. "I think I could have done my poem faster and better if my brain had been warmer," he said. "Tomorrow I'm bringing a hat."
Mrs. Pidgeon laughed. "Well," she said, "all right. And maybe tomorrow we can work on a poem for different voices. That's a poem that we recite together, taking different parts."
"Like a play?" asked Beanie.
"A little like a play, I suppose."
"I want a big part," said Chelsea. "I want to be a star!"
"A superstar!" Malcolm said. He stood up and bowed deeply. "Thank you to all my many fans," he said.
A substitute! Mrs. Pidgeon's second grade class had a substitute teacher for the very first time. It was a little scary.
Mr. Leroy entered the classroom with a tall, thin woman and introduced her. "Class," he said, "this is Miss Overgaard. We're fortunate that she was able to substitute at the very last minute. Mrs. Pidgeon has a serious emergency, and she isn't able to come to school today. But she says that she left lesson plans, and I'm sure Miss Overgaard will be able to handle everything just fine.
"You'll let me know if you have any problems?" he said to the tall, thin lady. She wasn't paying any attention to Mr. Leroy. She had carefully taken off her coat, revealing a dark dress with heavy brass buttons, rather like a military uniform, and a pair of glasses dangling from a cord around her neck. Next she reached up to remove the hat she was wearing over her thin straight hair. Ignoring the principal, she hung her coat on the hook behind the door and then placed her hat on the shelf where the dictionaries were stacked. Then, lifting her glasses to sit atop her long nose, she began looking through the drawers of Mrs. Pidgeon's desk.
"Well," he said. "I guess I'll head to my office. This is a fine class," he told Miss Overgaard as he turned to leave the room. "Very creative. Class?" He looked at the children. "See you later—"
"Alligator!" they all responded.
Miss Overgaard jumped. Mr. Leroy smiled at the second-graders, and the door closed behind him.
All of the children, even Gooney Bird Greene, were silent. They watched as the substitute wrote her name on the board in large letters.
"Two a's together?" Barry Tuckerman said aloud. "I never saw two a's together before!"
The substitute teacher clapped her hands. "I'll have no calling out!" she said in a firm, loud voice. "Please raise your hand and ask permission if you wish to speak."
The room became silent.
"Good. Now I will read your names from this list, and I expect you to say 'present' when you hear your name called." She began reading from the list, and each child replied.
"Present," said Nicholas nervously.
"Present," Beanie said, looking at the floor.
"Present," Malcolm said loudly, wiggling at his desk.
"Prethent," said Felicia Ann in a whisper.
"Louder, please. More distinctly."
Felicia Ann's face turned pink. "Prethent," she said again.
The substitute teacher looked up from her list. "Repeat that, please."
"Prethent," Felicia Ann repeated miserably.
"Are you receiving speech therapy for your impediment?"
"Excuthe me?" Felicia Ann replied.
"You have a severe lisp. Is the speech therapist seeing you?" the substitute asked.
Felicia Ann looked at the floor.
Gooney Bird's hand shot up. "Permission to speak, Miss Overgaard," she said in a loud voice.
The substitute nodded to her.
Gooney Bird said, "Felicia Ann is missing her two front teeth. When they grow in, she'll speak just fine. In the meantime, we all think it's rather sweet, the way she talks. And also," Gooney Bird added, "I think it's rude to criticize something that she can't help."
The substitute glared at her. "And you are—?"
"I'm Gooney Bird Greene."
"What kind of ridiculous name is that? And what on earth are you wearing?"
Gooney Bird stood beside her desk and looked down at herself. "I'm wearing gray fleece sweatpants from the Gap, and a white ruffled blouse from the Goodwill store—I paid only eighty-nine cents for it and I think it was quite a bargain. I am also wearing bunny slippers, and under the bunny slippers I am wearing one red sock and one yellow sock, because I like a variety of colors; it amuses my feet. And I am wearing a leopard-print vest over my ruffled blouse, and I am wearing a paper Hawaiian lei that my parents brought home from a Polynesian restaurant.
"I am also wearing fake pearl earrings, and in a minute I am going to put on my special brain-warming hat, which is pale green.
"And my name is Gooney Bird, which is a kind of albatross, and my parents named me that because they thought it was unusual and they hoped I would be an unusual person.
"Which I am," Gooney Bird concluded, sitting down. She looked up at Miss Overgaard and added, "Present."
Miss Overgaard glared at her for a moment and then checked off her name in the book.
The day did not go well.
First, the substitute announced that she was allergic to all rodents and so the gerbil cage and the hamster cage both had to be removed from the room. Mr. Furillo, the custodian, came to get the cages and promised that he would care for all the class pets in his office; but still, the children could tell that all the gerbils and Harvey, the hamster, were confused and distressed as they were carried out of Mrs. Pidgeon's classroom, the only home they had ever known.
Next, Miss Overgaard looked at Keiko, who was sitting quietly with her hands folded, and asked, "How good is your English?"
Keiko looked up in surprise. "Well, I always get an A in spelling," she said in her soft voice.
"I asked because you appear to be—well, I don't know which, Chinese or Japanese," said the substitute. "I thought you were probably an ESL student. English as a second language."
"Permission to speak," said Gooney Bird again in her firm voice, with her hand raised.
The teacher nodded at her in an irritated way.
Gooney Bird stood, again, beside her desk, a "Keiko's American, same as me, and probably you too, Miss Overgaard, even though I bet your parents or grandparents came from some other country, because if you ask me, two a's in a row is very strange—"
"Not in Denmark," Miss Overgaard said with a sniff. "My parents came from Copenhagen."
"Cool. Well, Keiko's grandparents came from Japan. Keiko can even speak Japanese, which is not easy, let me tell you. She tried to teach us some Japanese words for things and I can't remember a single word. Japanese is hard."
"Are you finished, miss?" the substitute asked.
"Yes, I am," said Gooney Bird firmly. She sat down. "And don't call me miss."
Suddenly Tyrone burst into one of his raps. Sometimes he couldn't help himself. It was the way Tyrone let off steam, Mrs. Pidgeon had once said.
"Day goin' by and people start to cry, 'cuz our teacher be gone and the new one make us yawn—"
"New one make us yawn," the class chanted, repeating part of Tyrone's rap, as they always did. Malcolm got up from his desk and began to dance.
"Rub a dub dub, we doan wanna have a sub—" Tyrone continued.
"Rub a dub dub," chanted the second-graders.
"Silence!" shouted Miss Overgaard. The class obeyed at once.
"Who told you that you could leave your desk?" she said to Malcolm, grabbing his arm. Malcolm began to cry.
"Permission to speak!" said Gooney Bird loudly and then began to speak before Miss Overgaard replied. "Malcolm is hyperactive and dancing is a good way for him to get it out of his system! Mrs. Pidgeon understands that!"
"And she underthtandth my thpeech!" Felicia Ann added.
"And she likes my rap, she doan think I be a sap," chanted Tyrone.
"I want Mrs. Pidgeon back!" Chelsea groaned.
"We all want Mrs. Pidgeon back!" the class wailed.
Mr. Leroy appeared, suddenly, at the door. "What's the problem here?" he asked. "Mr. Furillo tells me things are not going well in this classroom. Are you giving the substitute teacher a hard time?"
"Make that former substitute teacher," Miss Overgaard said. She was putting on her coat. "If you think I'm going to stay one more minute in a classroom that puts up with rodents and rappers and people named for albatrosses..."
She stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind her.
The children were wide-eyed at their desks.
"Mr. Leroy," Gooney Bird said, "she was very rude."
"And we didn't even get to do poetry," Beanie added.
"We were going to try poems for different voices today," Tricia explained.
Mr. Leroy looked at his watch. "I think we can manage without an official teacher for a little while. Mr. Furillo and I will be your substitutes today.
"But, class: I have very sad news for you. Mrs. Pidgeon called. Her mother died late this morning."
Keiko gasped, put her head in her arms, and began to cry. All of the children looked shocked and sad.
"Mrs. X!" said Malcolm. "Our room mother!"
"Mrs. Pidgeon wanted all of you to know, before you saw it in tomorrow's paper." Mr. Leroy went to Keiko's desk and rubbed her head gently while she wept.
"She was very, very old," Chelsea said.
"Yes, everybody dies when they get to be very, very old. My dog died when he was thirteen. That's very, very old for a dog," Ben said with a sigh.
"But thtill it maketh you thad," Felicia Ann pointed out, and Ben nodded.
"Someone bein' dead gives you sadness in your head," Tyrone chanted in a mournful way.
"Mrs. Pidgeon was going to tell us the surprise about her mother's name! But she didn't get a chance to!" Barry Tuckerman reminded them.
"Oh." Mr. Leroy chuckled. "I think I know the surprise. Mrs. Pidgeon had already told me, and I'll tell it to you." He told the class about their room mother's name and spelled it for them.
"Xenia? What kind of name is that?" Chelsea put her hands on her hips. Mr. Leroy smiled.
"It's Greek," he told the class. "Mrs. Pidgeon's grandparents came from Greece, and her mother had a Greek name. I think the name Xenia actually means 'welcoming.'"
"So when we called her Mrs. X, she really was a Mrs. X!" Barry said.
Mr. Leroy nodded. "She thought it was funny, actually. And she was planning to tell you that she really had an AT name. But then she became ill and she never had the chance."
The children became silent again. It made them sad, thinking about never having the chance.
"Permission to speak?" asked Gooney Bird.
Mr. Leroy smiled. "You don't need to ask formal permission," he said gently. "We always love to hear what you have to say, Gooney Bird."