Perfectionist Elfie Oster learns the value of "unperfection," in this funny look at middle school life from the author of Annie's Life in Lists
Elfie Oster was sure that Hampshire Academy was going to be the perfect school for her. She was sure about it right up to the minute she got expelled. On her first day.
It was all a terrible misunderstanding, but until she can find a way to fix things, Elfie has to go back to Cottonwood Elementary for fifth grade. Where she's never really fit in. Or had friends. It is not a perfect situation. And then it gets worse. Her babysitter gets really sick. Her aunt and uncle aren't speaking. She's forced to do a group project involving an egg. . . .
But sometimes when everything goes spectacularly wrong, you figure out what truly matters--and what doesn't. So really, this terrible, horrible, surprisingly hilarious year may just be the best thing that's ever happened to Elfie.
An Excerpt fromElfie Unperfect
I don’t know why people think goodbyes are hard. I had to say a whole lot of goodbyes on my last day of fourth grade back in June, and it was easy.
The reason I had to say so many goodbyes was that I was not planning to return to Cottonwood Elementary for fifth grade. Instead, I would be at Hampshire Academy, a private school two towns away. Cottonwood Elementary is a regular, everyday, boring public school. Hampshire Academy is (as I learned on their website) “an Institution with a Tradition of Honor and Excellence.”
And the reason it was easy to say so many goodbyes at Cottonwood is that I was happy to leave. Even though I had been there since kindergarten, I had never exactly fit in. I tried to fit in. I raised my hand to help my classmates when they gave wrong answers. I offered to take the lead on all group projects and shared all my best ideas. And when I noticed that the cafeteria was particularly noisy at lunchtime, I tried to start a Student Lunch Monitor program.
But it turned out no one else wanted to be a student lunch monitor. It was just Assistant Principal Eastman and me, reminding kids to use their inside voices and throw away their food wrappers. Assistant Principal Eastman asked if I wanted to stop the program and let her handle it with the cafeteria staff, but I said no, I would soldier on. It was an important effort. (Besides, as long as I was working as a monitor, I could eat my lunch standing up, and I didn’t have to worry about finding a place to sit each day.)
So my life at Cottonwood Elementary School had been far from perfect. None of the other kids shared my priorities.
Even the one kid at Cottonwood who had known me the longest didn’t understand me at all. That would be my cousin, Jenna, who was seven weeks younger than me, lived one mile away, and was about as different from me as a person could be. Jenna was not very interested in schoolwork, or peaceful lunchtimes, or science. She was very interested in talking with her friends during school, talking about her friends after school, and planning what she was going to do with her friends on weekends. Jenna had a lot of friends.
Jenna’s dad, my uncle Rex, was my mom’s brother. Uncle Rex and Jenna came over to our house a lot, especially when Aunt Stephanie, Jenna’s mom, was traveling for work.
I guess I should say Jenna used to come over a lot. Now when Uncle Rex comes over, Jenna usually goes to Esme Carter’s house, or to the house of one of her other friends. That was fine with me.
Being forced to spend time with Jenna at home was bad enough, but she was also in my class at school last year, and that was even worse. Particularly when we had to do group projects together. Shudder.
But that was all going to change tomorrow. Tomorrow I was starting at Hampshire Academy, where I was sure the cafeteria would be peaceful, the other students would be focused on academic success, and the group projects would go just as I wanted them to. (Maybe there wouldn’t even be group projects at all! That would really be excellent.)
Life at Hampshire Academy was going to be perfect.
It had to be.
Mom and Dad got home from work at around the same time that night. It was our tradition on the last night of summer vacation to go for a special pancake dinner at my favorite restaurant, Mugsy’s.
I wanted Rhoda, my babysitter, to go with us. Rhoda has taken care of me since I was a few months old. She is truly one of the greatest people in the world.
But when I asked her to come along, she said she couldn’t because she had to study. Rhoda started nursing school this year, and it seemed to be taking a lot of her time. A year ago, she never would have turned down a Mugsy’s pancake dinner, but now she had other things on her mind.
Mom gave Rhoda a sympathetic nod when she explained that she had a biology exam the next day.
“I hope you can get some rest tonight,” Mom said. “You look exhausted. And pale.”
“Oh, I’m just a big ball of stress lately,” Rhoda said. “This bio class is kicking my butt.”
Mom told Rhoda she should go straight to bed when she got home. Rhoda laughed and said maybe she’d sleep when nursing school was over.
Once we were settled into a booth at Mugsy’s, I ordered my usual: chocolate chip pancakes. Mom and Dad got blueberry.
While we waited for our food, I asked Mom and Dad about something that had been bugging me. “Why does Rhoda have to go to nursing school? She already has a great job working for us.”
“Well, Elf, we won’t need a sitter for you forever,” Mom said. “Besides, this is something Rhoda has wanted for a long time.”
“How long?” I asked. I mean, Rhoda has been my babysitter for ages; she’s really like my third parent. Has she been secretly wanting another job this whole time?
“Well, she first mentioned it years ago, when you were in kindergarten,” Mom said. “That was when you were running to try to get a look at a meteor shower and banged your head on your telescope. Rhoda was so good at getting the bleeding to stop right away. When I complimented her on that, she said she’s always been good in emergencies, and she’d often thought of becoming a nurse.”
“I never knew that.”
“Sure you did,” Mom argued. “We talk about that telescope story all the time. We were surprised you didn’t get a scar.” She slid my bangs away from my face so she could touch the spot above my right eyebrow where the cut had been.
“No, I know that story,” I said, brushing her hand away. “I just never knew the part about Rhoda wanting to be a nurse.”
“I could have sworn you knew.” Mom was quiet for a second. “You know, even if Rhoda stops sitting for us, she can still visit. She won’t become a stranger.”
“Yeah, but that’s not the same. The setup we have now is perfect.”
“Well, Elf, as I’ve said many times before . . .”
“I know, I know.” I rolled my eyes. “Life can’t always be perfect.”
Dad tried to change the subject.
“So, first day of Hampshire Academy tomorrow! Are you all ready?”
This was a ridiculous question. Of course I was ready. I’d been ready for weeks.
“Totally ready,” I said. I held up my fingers one by one and ticked off all the things I’d done. “My pencils are sharpened; they’re in my backpack with my pens and my notebook and my calculator. I also packed seaweed crisps for a healthy snack. My uniform is hanging in the front of my closet.”
“Well, you definitely sound ready to get out the door,” Mom said. “But are you feeling nervous about meeting everyone once you’re there?”
“Not really.” I shrugged.
“Okay. I just know that making new friends isn’t always easy for you. I wondered if you wanted to talk about that part of it at all.”
“I don’t really care about that,” I explained. “Besides, making friends wasn’t easy at Cottonwood because no one there was like me. That’ll be different at Hampshire.”
I saw Mom and Dad exchange a look. I know they worry about me not having friends. But I knew I would meet other kids at Hampshire who were serious about learning. And Honor. And Excellence. I was counting on it.
I wanted to go to bed early that night. I needed things to be perfect for the next morning, so I set two alarms: my regular one on my bedside table and a backup clock in the hallway, just in case. I was not going to risk being late for my first day at Hampshire Academy.
But bedtime did not go according to plan. I was in bed by nine, but I could not fall asleep. This was due to the following factors:
• The appearance of a gigantic insect on the ceiling above my bed
• The surge of energy I experienced when I leapt out of bed and hollered for Dad to come get the bug
• The debate that ensued when Dad incorrectly identified the insect as a millipede
Dad insisted that it was a millipede because it looked like it had a million legs. I explained that the prefix milli- actually means “one thousand,” not “one million.” And how even that is a misnomer because millipedes really only have 750 legs, at most. But that didn’t matter because the insect on my ceiling was really a Scutigera coleoptrata, better known as a common house centipede. Also a misnomer, because they have only 30 legs, not 100, as the prefix centi- would suggest. I told Dad that since he was a librarian with easy access to many reference materials, I would think he would know these things.
Dad asked if I wanted him to kill the bug or take notes on my lecture. I told him I hoped he could catch the Scutigera coleoptrata in a cup and release it outside, where it might make itself useful eating cockroaches. Dad grabbed a sneaker, stood on my bed, and squashed it instead. “Sorry, Elf,” he said. “I’m just not up for a bug chase tonight.” I told him he really would be sorry when the next bug we saw was a cockroach.
After the Scutigera coleoptrata incident, I was wide awake, wondering how my first day at Hampshire Academy would go. I had toured the school, but I didn’t know a single student or teacher there. What would the other kids be like? Would they talk to me? Would there be assigned seats? Would the teachers be different from the teachers at Cottonwood? Would I get lost? (My sense of direction is not my strongest asset.) It was a weird feeling, having a long list of questions that would be answered in a very short time. I reviewed state capitals in a whisper to try to fall asleep.
Mom must have heard me, because she poked her head into my room right after I said “Kansas: Topeka.”
“Having a hard time falling asleep?” she asked.
“A little,” I admitted. “I’m doing the capitals.”
“I heard.” Mom smiled. “I hope you can nod off soon. And don’t worry, Elf. You’re going to have a great day.”
Mom turned out to be wrong. I did not have a great day. It was actually the worst day ever. In fact, my day was so terrible that as a result, I would not be attending Hampshire Academy the following year. Or ever. I was expelled the same day I started.
It all happened so fast.
Things got off to a good start. I managed to wake up early despite the Scutigera coleoptrata incident of the night before, and Dad and I got out the door on time.
When Dad pulled the car into the circular drive at Hampshire Academy, a peppy student with a clipboard and a name tag that said “Zach, Welcoming Committee” opened my car door.
“Welcome to Hampshire Academy!” he said, shutting the door behind me after I stepped out. It was clear that they didn’t want parents to wait around. Dad barely had time to get out a quick “Good luck, Elf!” before the door closed.
“Okay . . . name please?” Welcoming Zach asked, looking at his clipboard as I said, “Elfie Oster.”
He seemed excited when he found my name.
“Ah, a newbie!” he exclaimed, flipping to the last page on his clipboard, which was a sheet of what looked like baby bird stickers.
Zach peeled off a sticker and handed it to me.
“This is for all the new students,” he said. “Put it on your shirt so everyone will know.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted “everyone” to know at a glance that I was a new student. But I also didn’t want to start my first day at Hampshire by not following directions. I put the sticker on my shirt, glancing around to see if any other kids were wearing stickers. They weren’t.
Zach pointed toward the front doors of the building. “Okay, go through there and follow the crowds to the door on your left. That’ll be the auditorium. You can find a seat inside for the welcome assembly.”
The first thing that felt different about Hampshire Academy was the whoosh of cool air that hit my face as I opened the front door. (Cottonwood Elementary School just had ceiling fans, not air-conditioning.)
The second big difference was the auditorium. Cottonwood’s auditorium was plain and brightly lit. The only decorations were the felt banners made by second-grade art classes every fall, and by the end of the year, their letters were falling off, so they said things like “We ove Schoo” and “elcom to Cottonwoo.” The seats were lumpy, with uncomfortable springs that poked you if you sat the wrong way. Silver duct tape covered the tears in their scratchy blue fabric.
But the Hampshire auditorium felt like a theater. It reminded me of the symphony hall in Greenville where we went to see The Nutcracker last December. There were no bright lights or felt banners, but there was a large crystal chandelier, vines and flowers carved into the wooden trim on the walls, and smooth velvet seats (not a scrap of duct tape in sight).
Most kids were sitting toward the back, talking to their friends. I took an aisle seat in the second row; I figured I should sit near the front so I wouldn’t miss any important details. (I almost sat in the first row, then I thought maybe those seats should be saved for visiting dignitaries. Or at least for teachers.)
A tall, thin man with dark gray hair stepped up to the stage. I knew who he was: Headmaster Mulligan. His picture was on the school website, and I had caught a glimpse of him when I visited the admissions office in February for my interview.
Headmaster Mulligan started by saying he wasn’t going to give a big speech, but then he talked for a pretty long time, mostly about how Hampshire Academy is a place of Honor and Excellence. He talked a lot about the school honor code and how important it was, and how there was a zero-tolerance policy toward honor code violations, and anyone caught cheating or stealing would be expelled immediately.
It all sounded perfect to me. I even wondered if I might get some kind of Honor and Excellence award at the end of the year.