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It’s the first day of sixth-grade math, and unlike his peers, Alexander can’t wait to get started

Alexander looked up at the clock. It was 8:35 a.m., and the teacher was still not present. He sighed, wondering if his sixth-grade teacher would ever come.

Alexander Gerald Louis was tall and thin and had curly black hair and blue eyes. Despite being tall for his age, Alexander was never considered a jock, due to his lack of burliness. Instead, he was constantly called a “nerd” at school. Alexander took an interest in science, and dreamed of building high-technology airplanes, which was why his room was full of posters of the Wright brothers. In his spare time, he drew airplane models, or played soldier with his buddies. He got straight A’s during his elementary school years because his mother drilled him with algebra, properties, and even trigonometry—yes, even at the age of eleven. Every single grade he was in, the teachers praised him for his intelligence, mainly in mathematics and science.

You could tell that he was desperate to learn, because he looked up at the clock and checked his watch every few seconds. A few other students were thinking the same, but most of them were glad that they had a few minutes of freedom. One of them suggested an airplane fight, to which everyone but Alexander agreed.

“No! I don’t think it’s appropriate to—” But it was too late. Everyone grabbed printed paper from their desks and started folding the way they were taught to in kindergarten, which was part of the reason why Alexander believed that there should not have been a thing called “kindergarten.” He was obedient and righteous, and he didn’t want to cause any trouble in the class. Unfortunately, that’s not what most of the kids in Room 105 thought.

Middle School

“AIRPLANE FIGHT!” one screamed. Everyone started throwing their paper airplanes up, down, left, and right. A lot of them hit students, but a few flew off.

“VROOOOOMM!” Another kid who sat near Alexander made what he thought of as airplane sounds. As much as Alexander loved to make airplanes, he absolutely despised aiming those airplanes at kids and landing them on who-knows-whose head, and just at that moment, someone’s paper airplane made a  perfect landing on Alexander’s head. Alexander was furious, so annoyed that he started to make an airplane himself. That’s what happens when an airplane hits someone as sensitive as Alexander. Just when he flew his airplane across the classroom, a voice came in.

“Pardon me for being late, but I was just showing Lena around.” It was the teacher. “She’s new to California, you see.”

The teacher, Mr. Joseph Navin, was a middle-aged man with black hair, a couple of hairs turning gray, and warm hazel eyes. He had a neat mustache, and his navy suit was just as organized. Alexander wanted to be like Mr. Navin, just by his appearance. In fact, Alexander observed that his own bedroom was tidy, like Mr. Navin’s outfit.

Alexander’s paper airplane missed the teacher by inches, and instead, it hit the new girl, Lena, who stumbled back. Once his airplane landed on the ground, Mr. Navin picked it up, looked at it, then, much to Alexander’s surprise, laughed out loud. He showed Lena her seat, which was at the back.

“Hello, sixth graders!” Mr. Navin walked up to the front of the classroom. “Welcome to Rosewood Middle School. I am Mr. Navin, and I will be your teacher for math and science. I have been teaching at Rosewood as a sixth-grade math and science teacher for eight years. I have been at Rosewood as a teacher for fourteen years, and I have been at Rosewood for seventeen years. I have to point that out because I myself attended Rosewood.” Mr. Navin chuckled at his own joke. Only Alexander, Lena, and a boy named Sandeep Agarwal chortled along.

Mr. Navin went over the homework assignment, which was just a form for the parents to fill out, but then added, “But, if you want extra credit, then I have a stack of multiplication problems for you to calculate, which is easy enough.”

Then he went on to discuss what topics to expect in math: distribution rules, probability, and negative numbers, just to name a few. Alexander heard a few groans and whispers in the class. A redhead girl who sat behind Alexander grumbled, “School sucks.” But Alexander thought that it wasn’t too bad. In fact, Alexander loved homework. It was like “knowledge pouring down and you must catch it before it crashes on the ground and never comes back,” as his mother always told him and his sister when they were younger.

There was an awkward silence after the commotion. Mr. Navin laughed heartily, and the ice was broken.

“Come on, students. It isn’t too bad!” Mr. Navin said while still laughing. “Back in my day, we had a quiz almost every single day, not to mention a test at the end of the week! Compared to that, I’m being nice to you!” The students still looked skeptical about it, so Mr. Navin changed the topic.

“Well, since my original plan turned into paper airplanes”—Mr. Navin looked down at all the airplanes strewn across the floor—“we will just have to think of a plan B.” The students looked up from the ground, because it meant that they didn’t have  to do the classic get-to-know-you game. “How about this: we’re going to play twenty questions, but with math.” The ruckus came back, as almost half of the students in Room 105 moaned.

“Do we have to?” one of the boys who sat near Alexander whined. Mr. Navin, who still kept his friendly smile on, winked at the student.

“Will this count for our grades?” a girl who wore her hair in pigtails asked.

“Ah, good question. No it won’t,” said Mr. Navin. “I just want to see where you guys are in math. This is me as a teacher trying to get to know about you.”

Finally, when everyone had finished their muttering of complaints, Mr. Navin continued.

“I have assigned partners for all of you in advance. You guys will work together to answer these questions.” Mr. Navin pulled out a sheet of folded paper from the pocket in his jacket. He unfolded the paper. “Here we go. So Lydia and Adam, Emilia and Rupert, Grace and Sebastian—” Grace and her best friend, who wanted to be partners, groaned. “Sophia and Jacob, Lena and Alexander—” Alexander looked over at the other side of the classroom, where Lena sat. Lena, who was fiddling with her hair, looked around to see who in the world Alexander was. “—Rainer, Marley, and Caleb, you three will be a trio, since there’s an odd number. Now, go find your partner. And you may sit wherever you like.”

Alexander got up from his seat and walked to Lena.

Lena stood up. She was a pretty but petite girl with soft black hair styled in a bob, and brown eyes that were as bright as heaven. Everything about her seemed friendly. She wore a pink T-shirt and gray pants. Unlike other girls Alexander knew very well, including his sister, Lena didn’t seem to mind about whether her outfits were stylish or not. They were simple and comfortable, and that’s how Alexander liked it.

“Hi. Are you Alexander?” Lena asked shyly.

“Yes, I am,” Alexander said boldly. “Let’s sit at your table.”

Lena sat back down in her seat, while Alexander plopped into the seat next to her. Then Mr. Navin said, “Okay students, before we start, I want you to talk to your partner. Get to know them. Bond. Starting now!” Alexander turned to Lena.

“I can start,” Alexander said. He waited for his partner to nod. “Hello, I’m Alexander Gerald Louis. I really like transportation-related things, especially airplanes—”

“Airplanes? Lena asked. “I bet they’re really fun to learn about!”

“Yes! Of course they are!” Alexander exclaimed. “I hope to build high-technology airplanes to improve the transportation industry! My parents recommended that MIT would be a good place to study about them more, which is why I’m hoping to pursue my dream to go there.” He then added so Lena wouldn’t think that he was a complete nerd, “Not that I think about my future all the time.” But surprisingly, Lena was nice about it. She patted Alexander on the shoulder and said, “That’s alright. I think about my future all the time. I really like animals, so maybe a zoologist. A biologist would be cool as well, or a marine biologist. Oh, yeah, marine biologist sounds fun, but I don’t think that I have the talent to snorkel.” Lena laughed nervously. “But for a second choice, I’d do something with computer science.” Alexander smiled. Finally there was someone besides his buddies who wasn’t afraid to talk about their dreams for the future. And it was a girl. And it wasn’t his mom! Before he could say any more to his partner, Mr. Navin closed all the conversations by clearing his throat.

“I believe that this has been a good enough time for you to get to know each other,” said Mr. Navin, as he paced around the classroom. He went to a shelf and got out a stack of whiteboards. He passed them around. Both Lena and Alexander said politely to Mr. Navin, “Thank you.” Mr. Navin smiled in response.

“I will be asking you twenty questions,” Mr. Navin said after he went around with the whiteboards. “For each question you get right, add a point to your scoreboard. In the end, I will check your scores. And the winner, or winners, will get a surprise reward! It may come in handy!” A few students looked up in interest at the reward. Alexander didn’t. He felt that understanding the questions was the reward, not a cute eraser or cheap pencils.

“First question.” The teacher cleared his throat. “An easy one. What is 31/3 • 22/3? You have a minute to solve this.”

A few students looked up in interest at the reward. Alexander didn’t. 

“I can do this one,” Lena whispered. She calculated the problem, Alexander believed, in five seconds. She swiftly multiplied and then simplified the fraction.

“Done.” Lena held up the whiteboard. She was the first one. After many more seconds of scribbling, the others held up their boards.

“Good . . . hm, calculate it again . . . nice answer, but make it a mixed number, will you please?” Mr. Navin went around the class, looking at the whiteboards. He stopped at Alexander and Lena’s table. “Very nice method. Good job.” He walked away. Alexander’s heart leapt. He high-fived Lena with all his might and then added a tally on their scoreboard.

“Question number two,” Mr. Navin said after the students did or didn’t add a tally. “Use the distribution rule to solve 2(10+15). You have a minute to solve this.” Alexander heard a few students, including a girl named Riley, who sat in front of him with Sandeep, mutter in dismay, “What’s the distribution rule?” But his team was not one of them. Alexander grabbed the board from Lena and solved the problem.

“2•10 . . . plus . . . DONE!” He held up his board high and proud. A lot of students shot him dirty looks. Even Mr. Navin looked surprised.

The minute passed. This time, not everyone’s boards were filled with calculations. And there were even fewer teams that got the answer correct.

“Hm, that was a tricky question,” Mr. Navin said after he went to the tables and saw everyone’s answers.  “But don’t worry. We’re going to go over it this year.” The next five questions were about mean, median, and mode. Some of the students were puzzled with the words, and wondered why the word “mean” was even related to math. But not that smart duo, Alexander and Lena.

“Correct . . . good . . . very nice . . .” Mr. Navin muttered as he passed by to look at Alexander and Lena’s answer for each of the questions. Then ten questions passed, with negative numbers, ratios, and inequalities being in the topic. The inequalities were a real struggle for most of the kids.

“What’s this line thingy on the bottom?”

“What’s the difference between a shaded dot and a non-shaded dot?”

“We haven’t even learned about this! So unfair!” Riley complained when she and her team got the results.

“Now kids, please do not take it too seriously. You will not be graded,” Mr. Navin cheerfully reminded the class after complaints went on and on, and after eighteen questions had been done.

Alexander and Lena looked at each other and smiled. They had been nailing every single question that Mr. Navin had asked them. It just felt great.

Finally, they were at the last question. The previous question had been about a triangle’s area. Everyone in the class knew about the rectangle or square’s area, but for the triangle, it was a different story. The question Alexander, Lena, and the others were now facing was about the surface area of a triangular prism. Mr. Navin had been nice enough to give them an extra four minutes to solve it, since it involved a long process of thinking and calculating. Alexander and Lena worked this together. The easiest way for them was to draw the surface area of the prism.

“So if there was no 3D for this triangular prism, then it would look like this,” Alexander explained, as he pointed to his surface area model with the whiteboard marker. Lena nodded in agreement. “Now, we can separately solve these areas for the rectangles. Lena, do you want to do it, since you’re really fast at calculating?” Alexander held out the marker. She took it, and next thing you knew, Lena was holding up the whiteboard. From below, Alexander looked up and checked the calculation over and over again with pride. A dream team, he thought.

“Well, it looks like we have a winner here,” Mr. Navin said as he went from table to table to look at the scoreboards. “The winner is . . . Alexander and Lena!”

The duo grinned and high-fived each other. Only a few cheered along.

“For your reward, you both get golden pencils!” Mr. Navin went to his desk drawer and took out two golden pencils. “And just to clarify, they’re not real gold.” Mr. Navin chuckled as he gave them to Lena and Alexander, who were grinning from ear to ear.

As Alexander was on his way to his seat, he heard Riley tell Sandeep in indignation, “I knew we should’ve done the distribution rule my way. It’s all your fault that we lost.”

“Hey! You didn’t even know how to do it!” Sandeep protested.

“Hmph. Smart for you to say, since all you can do is to blame it on other people,” Riley scoffed. “I thought you Indians were smart.”

“Whoa, whoa! That’s racist!” Sandeep put his hands up as if he were being investigated by the cops. Alexander slowly turned around. Even though Riley was only a few inches taller, she bent forward, trying to tower over Sandeep.

“I don’t care,” she sneered. “All I know is that you suck at math.” Alexander went in between Riley and Sandeep, whose faces were both red by now, Riley in anger and Sandeep in humiliation. He had to make this right.

“Whoa whoa whoa, okay. Please stop—both of you,” Alexander said in his calm voice. Then he thought, What would Mr. Navin say? “Let’s fix this. We need to be friends. Sandeep, you go first.” Sandeep was blinking in confusion. Riley glared at Alexander.

“You’re not my dad, nor my teacher, so act your age,” Riley said. Alexander was dumbstruck. He managed to sputter out, “What? I’m trying to help, can’t you see that?”

“Well, we don’t need help, so mind your business.”

“Ohoooo! You’re a teacher now? Last time I checked, you were just a teacher’s pet!” A boy from Alexander’s elementary school, Jacob, who just got back to his seat next to Lena, clapped his hands together and howled with laughter. Riley snickered at the remark. Alexander hoped that Lena didn’t hear that, because the roast burned him a lot. Luckily, Lena was merely minding her own business and sharpening her new golden pencil—or was she?

“Ohoooo! You’re a teacher now? Last time I checked, you were just a teacher’s pet!” 

Jacob Peterson was one of the troublemaking boys who were obsessed with basketball and the Lakers. Alexander didn’t like him. Jacob called him names, and treated the teachers terribly. One time, Jacob attempted to climb a fence out of the schoolyard! Alexander could never imagine himself doing that, even when he was furious.

Alexander knew he had to fire back, or the guys would just keep on roasting him, so he did what he could to make things right. “Hey, Jacob! Stop bullying me! You crossed the line!”

Jacob leaned against his chair and said, “What about that, Skinny Alex?” Skinny Alex was just one of the names Jacob called him to make him angry. It made sense to call him that, and Alexander knew that just as much as everyone else did, but he never admitted it. He hated that nickname so much that he completely lost his temper.

He gripped his golden pencil tighter.

“Will you STOP IT?” Alexander shouted and he stamped his foot. “I HATE IT WHEN YOU CALL ME SKINNY ALEX! I HAVE TOLD YOU SO MANY—”

“Excuse me, may I ask what’s going on?” said a voice that didn’t belong to Jacob, or Riley, or any of the students in the classroom. Alexander snapped back into reality, where Mr. Navin stood beside him. The students stared at Alexander in shock, and even Lena stopped sharpening her pencil to see who got mad. Riley looked worried when Mr. Navin’s eyes fell on her.

“May I ask what’s going on?” Mr. Navin repeated. Finally, the words came back to Alexander.

“Sir, Riley and Jacob were bullying Sandeep and me!” Alexander pointed his pencil at them.

Jacob, who couldn’t control himself, muttered, “Teacher’s pet.” Sandeep looked down at his sneakers.

Alexander nodded his head toward Jacob and said, “See?”

Mr. Navin looked around and said crisply, “Riley, Jacob, can you apologize?”

“Why should I apologize when Sandeep failed?” Riley complained.

Mr. Navin simply said, “Maybe you need some practice with apologies, Riley.” Riley grudgingly obeyed, and so did Jacob.

“Sorry,” Jacob said through his teeth.

Then it came to Alexander that no matter how calmly he tried to solve a problem in a fight, they just wouldn’t listen to him. How stupid, he thought, that he was good at math and yet not at this.

Once the bell rang, the students packed up to head to the next class, English with Ms. Ricci. Alexander zipped his pencil case, which was full of pencils, pens, highlighters, an eraser, a pencil sharpener, and his newest addition, the golden pencil from Mr. Navin. He slung the backpack across his shoulder and walked out. There, in the crowded hallway, Lena caught up with him.

“Hi, Alexander!” Lena said. “We meet again!”

“You did great in math!” Alexander complimented her through all the loud noises. Seventh and eighth graders pushed past the sixth graders, swearing in all letters and muttering, “Little sixth graders.” Alexander and Lena zigzagged through the crowd, trying not to bump into any of the big guys.

“Thanks! I practice for things like these,” Lena said as loud as she could, as she and Alexander parted ways to let a six-foot-tall eighth grader come through.

Once they reached the doorway of Ms. Ricci’s classroom, Lena turned and said, “You know, it was nice of you to defend Sandeep from the bullies.”

Alexander tried to be modest. “I failed anyway,” he said while stuffing his hands in his pockets.

Lena smiled warmly. Alexander’s heart started beating fast. He didn’t know what to say next. It was strange, because he was always a talkative person. He talked a lot, whether it was with his family, or his friends, or even with his foes. But with Lena, it was different.

“Not everyone has the courage to do that.” Lena slipped into the classroom with a satisfying smile on her face. Alexander stood there, dazed about what just happened.

His feelings about Lena felt different than before. Alexander had only met her today, but he knew that there was some chemistry going on between them. For the first time, his thoughts weren’t just about math and airplanes. It was exciting for Alexander to even think about girls, but at the same time he felt confused, and maybe even terrified.

Judy Chen, 13
Albany, CA

Anna Weinberg, 11
Washington, DC