"And so," Mrs. Pidgeon said, reading the final page of the book she was holding, "because the ant had worked very hard, he and his friends had food all winter. But the grasshopper had none, and found itself dying of hunger."
"Oh, no!" Keiko wailed. "I hate stories where people die!"
Malcolm, who had been rolling paper into balls while he listened to the story, tossed a little paper pellet at Keiko. "It's not people," he pointed out. "It's a dumb grasshopper! It's only a grasshopper! Just a grasshopper!"
"Nobody cares if a grasshopper dies!" Tyrone said.
"I do," Keiko murmured sadly. She folded her arms on her desk and then laid her head down on her arms.
"It's only a fable," Mrs. Pidgeon said. She held up the book. "Aesop's Fables is the title. Aesop was a man who lived a very long time ago. He was the creator of all of these fables. Tomorrow I'll read you another."
"Not about anybody dying!" Keiko implored, raising her head.
"No," Mrs. Pidgeon agreed. She leafed through the book. "I won't read 'The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing,' then, because I believe that one ends with the wolf eating the lamb—"
"Oh, noooo!" Keiko put her head back down and groaned.
"But I could read 'The Fox and the Grapes.' I think you'll enjoy that one, Keiko. You had some nice grapes in your lunch last week. I remember that you passed them around. That was very generous."
Keiko looked up and nodded. "Red seedless," she reminded everyone, "from my parents' grocery store. But Malcolm started a squishing contest, so I'm not bringing grapes ever again."
It was true. And unfortunately some of Mrs. Pidgeon's second-graders had joined in Malcolm's grape-squishing contest enthusiastically Lester Furillo, the school custodian at the Watertower Elementary School, had had to come in during recess with his Shop-Vac to clean the floor of the multipurpose room where the children ate their lunch each day.
Mrs. Pidgeon placed the Aesop book upright, so the cover was visible, on top of the bookcase near the windows. "Time for social studies," she said. "But first, who would like to tell me what the moral is in 'The Ant and the Grasshopper'? Hands, please."
She looked around. "Barry Tuckerman?" As usual, Barry's hand was waving in the air.
"What's a moral?" Barry asked.
"My goodness," Mrs. Pidgeon said, "I should have explained that! Every fable has a moral. A moral is..." She hesitated.
Then she said, "Class, this is an opportunity to use our new dictionaries!"
She wrote the word on the board: MORAL.
The room was silent for a moment except for the sound of pages turning, as all the second-graders looked through the brand-new dictionaries that they had recently been given.
Gooney Bird Greene found it first and raised her hand. She was wearing fingerless gloves today, and a long flannel dress with a ruffle around the bottom; it looked suspiciously like a nightgown. Gooney Bird was known for her unusual outfits.
When Mrs. Pidgeon pointed to her, Gooney Bird stood and read aloud, "'A conclusion about how to behave, based on events in a story.'"
"Good dictionary work, Gooney Bird," said the teacher. "And so what was the moral of the fable about the ant and the grasshopper? What was the conclusion about how to behave?"
Gooney Bird rolled her eyes. "I could tell you," she said, "but I think it would be better if Malcolm did, because Malcolm is the one who needs advice on behavior!"
Mrs. Pidgeon chuckled. "Malcolm?" she said, pointing to him. He had the lid of his desk raised, and was shuffling the papers inside.
"What?" he asked, looking out from behind the raised lid.
"Could you tell us, please, what behavior we learned from the fable I just read?"
Mrs. Pidgeon jiggled her knee. She always did that when she felt impatient. "Malcolm," she said, "I just read the class a story, a fable, actually, about a grasshopper and an ant. Maybe you didn't listen well. The ant worked very hard collecting and storing food, while the grasshopper just played and chirped. Then when winter came, the ant and his fellow ants all had plenty to eat, but the grasshopper—"
"Starved!"Keiko wailed."And died!"
Tricia reached over and patted Keiko's back, to comfort her.
"So, Malcolm," Mrs. Pidgeon went on, "what do we learn from the story?"
Malcolm thought. "Don't step on ants," he said at last. "If ants are there, don't step on them. Never step on ants."
Mrs. Pidgeon sighed. She was silent for a long time. Everyone had noticed that Malcolm had recently begun saying everything three times. He couldn't seem to help it. They were all trying to ignore it, but sometimes it was difficult. The second-graders watched Mrs. Pidgeon. Finally she said, "Let's get out our social studies books, class. Turn to the chapter called 'Cities and Towns,' please."
"Wait!" called Malcolm. "I know! Clean up your crumbs after lunch or your kitchen will be full of ants! Don't leave your crumbs around! Wipe up any crumbs!"
"That's page thirty-two, class," Mrs. Pidgeon said. She held up the social studies book, open to a picture of a city filled with skyscrapers.
"Felicia Ann?" she said. "Did I see your hand up?"
Felicia Ann, looking at the floor, nodded. She was the shyest person in Mrs. Pidgeon's second grade. She never looked up. She rarely spoke above a whisper.
"Did you want to say something?" the teacher asked her.
"Yeth, pleathe," whispered Felicia Ann. She had recently lost her two front teeth.
"Listen, class," Mrs. Pidgeon said, and held her finger in front of her mouth so that the children would be quiet.
"Work hard and don't play all the time,"Felicia Ann said, blushing. "Plan ahead. Then you'll be ready for anything! A flood, or a blitherd—"
"What's a blitherd?" asked Beanie. "I never heard of a blitherd."
"She means blizzard," Gooney Bird explained.
"Yeth," Felicia Ann agreed. "Blitherd. And that'th the moral!" She looked up shyly and grinned.
"I liked the fable," she added, and looked at the floor again.
"Good," said Mrs. Pidgeon. "All right, class. Now we'll—"
"I don't get it!" Malcolm called out. "That story wasn't about floods or blizzards! It was insects! It was about insects! It was a story about insects! Ants! One time I was at my cousin's house and I sat on a whole hill of red ants, and—"
He was wiggling in his seat. Mrs. Pidgeon went to him and put her arm firmly across his shoulders. "Get a grip," she said. Sometimes she had to do that to calm Malcolm down. Sometimes Malcolm had to have a time-out. Malcolm had a hard time being calm at school, because at home his family had baby triplets and life was never calm. Their house, Malcolm said, was filled with the noise of babies crying, and their bathroom was filled with the smell of laundry, mostly in threes: three sets of baby clothes with spit-up on the front; and their kitchen was filled with groups of three bottles and three sippy cups and spilled milk and half-empty jars of strained peas, and sometimes Malcolm's mother announced, "I am going to scream three times!" and then she did, and after that she felt better for a while.
Now the class waited, as they were accustomed to doing, until Malcolm got a grip. Then they took out their social studies books and turned to page 32.
All but Gooney Bird Greene. Her social studies book was on her desk, but she hadn't opened it.
"Mrs. Pidgeon?" Gooney Bird raised her hand, and when the teacher nodded to her, she said, "I have a great idea!"
The second-graders, including Malcolm, all cheered. Whenever Gooney Bird had a great idea, something exciting was about to happen.
At lunchtime, in the multipurpose room, all of Mrs. Pidgeon's second-graders sat together and traded lunch parts, as they always did.
"Anyone want some of my sushi?" asked Gooney Bird Greene. "This one is called kappa maki. It's mostly cucumber." She held up a small glistening cylinder.
"What's that green stuff?" Barry asked, making a face."
Nori,"Goony Bird told him.
"That's seaweed," Keiko explained.
"Yuck," Barry replied.
"You shouldn't have told him it was seaweed, Keiko," Gooney Bird said. "He might have thought it was spinach. Oh, well. I like it. I'll eat it myself." She popped the kappa maki into her mouth.
"Anyone want half a cream cheese and jelly on raisin bread?" Beanie asked. She held up a triangle of her sandwich.
"I'll take it, if the jelly isn't mooshing out," Chelsea said. "Let me see." She examined the sandwich half carefully. "Okay. I'll give you five carrot slices and an oatmeal cookie for it."
All around the table the second-graders made their trades. "YESSS!" Malcolm said suddenly. He was looking down at his lunch. "YESSS! YESSS!"
"Malcolm has all dessert!" Beanie pointed out. "How did you do that, Malcolm?"
He grinned happily at his pile of three cookies and three plastic cups of chocolate pudding. "Traded away two halves of an egg salad sandwich and an apple," he explained, talking with his mouth full. "I traded—"
Gooney Bird interrupted him before he could describe it three times. "Where's your lunch, Nicholas?" Gooney Bird asked. Nicholas often brought KFC chicken pieces, and sometimes he let her trade for one.
"I gave it away," Nicholas said. He looked gloomy.
"I'm not hungry."
"Are you sick?" Gooney Bird asked sympathetically. "We could take you to the nurse's office."
"No, I'm okay," Nicholas said. But he put his head down in his arms, on the table.
Around them, the other classes were also eating and talking. It was December. Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa decorations were on the walls. Mr. Leroy, the principal, had been wearing holiday neckties now for several days; today he was wearing one with small menorahs on it. Yesterday's had been reindeer. The kindergarten children had pasted photographs of themselves onto circles of construction paper and made a long chain of the dangling pictures that hung across the tops of the multipurpose room windows. The kitchen workers were all wearing Santa hats. And the school dog, a Saint Bernard named Bruno who belonged to Lester Furillo, the custodian, didn't seem to mind wearing plastic antlers. The whole school had a feeling of excitement because the holidays were coming.
"We need to make a sign," Beanie said, chewing on a carrot stick, "announcing the you-know-what."
Nicholas looked up briefly, then put his head back down.
"Yes! Our you-know-what!" Ben agreed. With a swat of his hand he flattened his empty milk carton.
"Our fabulous you-know-what!" added Chelsea as she wadded up her napkin and threw it, unsuccessfully, toward the trash can.
The fabulous you-know-what was Gooney Bird's idea.
"We can write our own fables!" Gooney Bird had explained.
"We already know how to write good stories—"