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Part I: Collision Course
It was Thursday morning right before first period, and Phil was on a mission. Hurrying through the fourth- and fifth-grade hall, he waded through groups of younger kids. His little brother, Jimmy, had left the house early so he could ride to school with a friend, and he had left his lunch money on the kitchen counter.
Phil was tall for a sixth grader, so most of the younger kids got out of his way. Which was good, because he had no time to mess around. If he got one more tardy during December, he would have to serve two detentions. The pressure made Phil's imagination run at full throttle. Like, if I'm late for math today, then I might not be allowed to take the test -- and then I could flunk math! I might even flunk sixth grade and get left back! And when Mom and Dad yell at me, I'm gonna get so mad, 'cause, like, it's not even my fault! I'll say, "Hey, know what? Forget about school, that's what!" And I'll just drop out and turn into a bum -- or maybe even a criminal. My whole life's gonna be a mess, and it's all on account of my stupid little brother! Where is that punk?
Phil was about to stick his head into a classroom to look around. Then up at the corner of the hallway he thought he saw the back of his brother's jacket. It had to be Jimmy. No one else in the whole city had a jacket like that one.
He called, "Hey, Jimmy!" but his brother didn't stop, and Phil pushed his way forward and rushed around the corner. "Hey, idiot, you forgot..."
But it wasn't Jimmy. It was someone Phil had never seen before, a black kid. Wearing Jimmy's jacket.
Phil grabbed the collar and said, "Hey! This is my brother's jacket! Where is he? How'd you get this from him?"
The other boy struggled, trying to pull away. "What're you talkin' about? Let go of me! This is my jacket! I don't even know your brother!"
The kid twisted and turned to break free, but Phil was a lot bigger and stronger. "You tell me where my brother's at, or I'm gonna -- "
"Boys! You stop it, right now!" Mrs. Atkin came striding through the crowd that had gathered, pushing kids out of her way with her left hand and pointing at Phil with the other one. "You let go of him, and I mean it!"
Drawn by Mrs. Atkin's voice, three or four other teachers stepped out into the hallway.
Phil let go of the jacket, and the younger boy jerked around to face him, his fists up, his eyes narrowed.
Mrs. Atkin stepped between them and said to the younger boy, "Daniel, you put your hands down. And all the rest of you kids, go on about your business. Get your things put away and get to your rooms. Go on, there's nothing happening here." Then, glaring at Phil and the smaller boy, she said, "You two, come with me."
The other teachers were moving around in the hallway now, talking to kids, quieting everyone down.
Phil and Daniel followed Mrs. Atkin along the hall. And Phil knew where they were headed -- straight to the office. He thought, Now I'm gonna flunk out for sure.
At the office door Mrs. Atkin stopped and herded the boys in ahead of her. "Mrs. Cormier? Sorry to start your day like this, but I found these two going at it down in the fourth-grade hall. I've got to get back to my room before something else breaks loose."
The principal still had her coat on from being out at the curb with the buses. She frowned at the boys and pointed toward her office. "Walk in and sit down. And I don't want you two to even look at each other, is that clear?"
Both of them nodded and walked into her office.
A minute later Mrs. Cormier came in and sat down behind her desk. She motioned to Phil, who had taken a chair against the wall. "Come over here and sit in front of me. I want to be able to look each of you in the eye."
Daniel kept looking straight ahead at Mrs. Cormier. When Phil was seated, she said, "Phil, you've got no business being in the four-five hall in the morning. Why were you there?"
"My brother, Jimmy, forgot his lunch money. And I still have to give it to him."
Mrs. Cormier nodded. "All right, that makes sense. Here," she said, putting out her hand, "give me his money, and I'll make sure he gets it."
Phil dug in his pocket and gave the coins to the principal. She put them on her desk and then turned to the other boy. "Okay, Daniel, you first: What happened?"
"What happened is, I'm talking with my friends, and this kid comes and grabs me and starts yelling at me. I've never seen him before. I didn't do a thing!"
Mrs. Cormier turned to Phil. "Did you grab him, Phil?"
"Yeah, 'cause he stole my brother's jacket! That's my old jacket, and now it's my brother's, and this kid stole it, so I grabbed him."
"Liar!" Daniel jumped to his feet and faced Phil, his fists clenched. "I never stole a thing! My gramma gave me this jacket for my birthday, and that's the truth, so you stop saying that!"
"Daniel," said Mrs. Cormier sharply, "you sit down and stay put!" Mrs. Cormier swept her eyes between the boys. "I think this is a simple misunderstanding. Phil, isn't it possible that Daniel happens to have a jacket just like your brother's?"
Phil shook his head forcefully. "No way. My mom bought that jacket when she went to Italy, and she brought it back for me. Go ahead, look at the label inside the neck. It's gonna say 'Ricci di Roma.' That's because she got it in Rome. Go ahead and look. That's my jacket."
Mrs. Cormier stood up and walked around to the front of her desk. "May I look at the label, Daniel?"
He shrugged and stuck his lower lip out. "I don't care. 'Cause this isn't his jacket."
The principal gently pulled the collar of the jacket back, and then twisted her neck and adjusted her glasses. Her eyebrows shot up. "It says 'Ricci di Roma.'"
"See? I told you so," said Phil triumphantly. "He stole it!"
"Did not, you big liar!" And if Mrs. Cormier hadn't been on her feet to catch him, Daniel would have been on top of Phil, fists swinging. She pushed him back into his chair and shouted, "Silence! Not another word, either of you!" Calling to the secretary through the open door, she said, "Mrs. Donne? Get me the emergency cards for Philip Morelli and Daniel Taylor, would you -- right away."
Thirty seconds later Mrs. Cormier was dialing her phone, then smiling and speaking. "Mrs. Taylor? This is Mrs. Cormier, the principal at Daniel's school....No, he's fine, but there's been a disagreement this morning, and he's in the middle of it. It's about a jacket, the one Daniel says he got for his birthday. Another boy is here, and he says the jacket belongs to him. Can you tell me anything else that might help?...Yes....Oh. I see....So it was a gift....Yes, I see. Well, that's it, then. I'm awfully sorry to have bothered you....Yes, you too. Good-bye."
Daniel turned to Phil. "See? I told you so. It was a gift -- for me."
Mrs. Cormier said, "It turns out you're both right, boys. Someone gave that jacket to your grandmother, Daniel, and then she gave it to you."
Phil made a face. "Gave it to his grandmother? How come?"
Mrs. Cormier started to say something, then stopped, smiled awkwardly, and said, "Well, really, I...I think it was just...to be kind. That's all."
Something registered in Phil's mind, and his mouth dropped open. Turning to Daniel, he asked, "Who's your grandma? What's her name?"
Daniel curled his lip. "None of your business. But her name's Lucy. Lucy Taylor."
Phil's face reddened. "Hey, look. I'm sorry I grabbed you, okay? You're right. It's your jacket."
"What?" Daniel looked sideways at Phil, cocking his head as if he hadn't heard clearly. "You come and almost pull this thing off my back, and now you say just keep it? What's that about?"
Phil looked at the floor. "It's just that...like, I think I know your grandma -- that's all. So the jacket's yours."
Daniel frowned and narrowed his eyes. "You? Know my gramma? Right!" He smiled, taunting Phil. "Yeah, like, how you gonna know my gramma? Maybe you see her when you go to the same beauty parlor she does, huh? That it?"
Mrs. Cormier stood up and said, "Boys, that's enough. This is all settled. Daniel, Phil said he's sorry, and we know the jacket is yours. So both of you run along to class now. Mrs. Donne will give you notes for your teachers."
Daniel stood up. He stuck his chin out and said, "Fine with me. Because this boy just keeps telling lies and lies. Like how he knows my gramma."
"I do too know her!" Phil almost shouted. "I'm not a liar! I see her all the time because...because she's my mom's cleaning lady!"
The words seemed to echo off the walls.
Daniel looked like he'd been punched in the stomach. He backed toward the office door, his face working angrily. He yanked the jacket open, pulled himself free of it, and threw it on the floor at Phil's feet. "There's your jacket! You take it and you tell yo' momma that my gramma and me don't need nobody being kind to us!" And looking at Mrs. Cormier, he snarled, "Nobody!"
Text copyright © 2002 by Andrew Clements
Part II: Friends with Everybody
The rest of Phil's Thursday wasn't so good. Compared with the thoughts swirling through his mind, decimals and adjectives and Ancient Egypt didn't seem very important.
Phil knew that all he had done was tell the truth. About the lunch money, about the jacket, about Daniel's grandmother. It was all true. But he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd done something bad.
He kept thinking about the early morning scene in the principal's office, replaying it again and again. He kept seeing the look on Daniel's face, the anger in his eyes as he threw the jacket to the floor. And instinctively Phil knew that his being white and Daniel's being black was part of this. Maybe a big part.
Phil had known a lot of African American kids at school, ever since his first day as a kindergartner. And he thought, I don't care what color anybody is. I never pay attention to that. I'm friends with everybody.
But being friends with everyone and being someone's friend, those were two different things. And as he thought about it, Phil knew he had never had a black kid for a friend, not really. The kids on the school basketball team were good guys, but not really friends. Black kids went to his school, but did they live in his neighborhood? Not in his part of the city. That's just how things were. Every morning Daniel and the other African American kids arrived at school by bus, or sometimes their parents dropped them off. A lot of Hispanic kids too. Phil didn't know exactly where they came from. It didn't really matter to him, and he'd never thought about it much. Until today.
Phil kept arguing with himself. He thought, Yeah, but during school, everyone gets along fine -- white kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids, black kids. No problems.
Most of the African American kids sat together at lunch, and they tended to hang around together in the halls and at recess. But that didn't seem weird to Phil. When you eat lunch, or if you have a little free time, you want to be with your friends, that's all. Besides, everyone played sports together during gym, and sometimes at recess, too. Everyone, together. No problems. And all the black guys on my basketball team? I get along great with them.
Still, after school every day almost all the black kids got onto buses or climbed into cars and drove away. Those kids just disappeared as Phil went to basketball practice or walked home with his friends.
Sitting in math class, Phil thought about Daniel's grandmother. I've known her longer than Daniel has! And it was true. He was two years older than Daniel, and Phil had known Lucy all his life.
Lucy. That's what he'd always called her. Just Lucy. She came every other Saturday and helped his mom clean the house. Phil had never even wondered about her last name. It had never mattered. She was just Lucy. Until today.
When he was little, Phil had loved helping on cleaning day. He would take hold of the bucket with all the supplies in it and heave it up the front stairs, one at a time. Lucy would smile and say, "Why, Philip, look at you! You sure are big and strong!"
And now that he was almost twelve, sometimes as he ran through the house to get a baseball glove or grab a quick bite of lunch before going out to shoot baskets with his friends, Lucy would look up from her work and narrow her eyes at him. She'd put her hands on her hips and say, "Isn't that just the way -- now you're big enough to really help your mama, and do you? No, 'cause you've got too much goin' on to be bothered with that!"
But that was just to tease him. Because it wasn't like Phil didn't do chores. He did plenty around the house. He took out the trash, raked the yard, mowed the grass, shoveled snow in the winter -- stuff like that.
And he didn't mind doing housework, either. But Mom always said he and Jimmy didn't do it right. She said, "You guys pick up the big pieces, things like shoes and dirty clothes. Leave the little stuff for me and Lucy to worry about." Which was fine with him.
Phil kept trying to reason away his feelings. Can I help it if we have a cleaning lady, and she's black and we're white? And can I help it if she's Daniel's grandmother? I mean, it's not like we're rich or something. It's not like we force Lucy to work for us, is it?
Which was true, especially about not being rich. His mom and dad each had a full-time job. And back when Phil was born, his mom had decided to give herself a treat once every two weeks -- that's what she called it, a treat. And that was having Lucy come to help her do the deep cleaning.
Phil thought about his own grandmothers. He had two, one here in the city and one in Florida. His mother's mom was the one who lived close. Grandma Morcone was sort of rich. She and Grandpa lived in a condominium on Herndon Street, not too far from the big museum. Her place was way up on the fourteenth floor. You could see the city parks from her windows, and the view looked like this beautiful painting. On the Fourth of July and sometimes on New Year's Eve, Phil and Jimmy and their big sister, Juliana, would sit with their grandparents on the balcony and watch the fireworks.
Grandma Morcone had long arms, thin and white. She wore silver bracelets on both wrists, and on one of her hands there was a ring with a big green stone in it. Phil could picture her fine clothes, her small diamond earrings, her silver blue hair, always neatly styled. His grandma didn't clean houses for other families. She probably never put a bandanna over her hair and pulled on yellow rubber gloves. Like Lucy did.
At lunchtime Phil edged into the cafeteria. He scanned the big room, looking for Daniel. He wasn't there, and Phil was glad. He got in line and started loading food onto his tray -- grilled cheese, red Jell-O, carrot sticks, chocolate milk, and an ice-cream sandwich.
The lady at the end of the counter took his money, looked at his tray, and then shook her head. "You need another quarter, honey. Or else put the ice cream back."
Phil dug deep into his pockets, but he didn't have another quarter. And he knew why. This morning when he gave the principal Jimmy's lunch money, he had given away too much.
Phil had picked up the ice cream from his tray when a voice behind him said, "That's okay. Here's another quarter." Phil smiled and turned to say "Thanks," but he stopped before the word came out.
It was Daniel. He was three kids back in the lunch line, and he was holding up a quarter, and he was smiling. But it wasn't a real smile. Phil could see that. It was a smile that said "Gotcha."
Phil shook his head and felt himself starting to blush. "No, that's okay. I don't want the ice cream anyway."
"You sure?" asked Daniel, his smile getting bigger. "What's the matter? It's a gift -- I'm just being kind."
Phil put the ice-cream sandwich back in the freezer. He took his tray and walked stiffly to a table where some of his friends were sitting. He took a seat facing the wall and began to eat, tearing off big mouthfuls of soft grilled cheese, chewing without tasting. He didn't talk and he didn't look around. When he was done, he dumped his trash, dropped off the tray, and went straight out the side door to the playground.
The cold wind felt good on his burning cheeks. The thing was, Phil saw exactly what Daniel had been doing when he offered him that quarter. Daniel was trying to get back at him, to embarrass him with a gift. And it had worked.
Walking beside the fence, kicking a stone ahead of him, Phil kept on thinking. But Mom giving something to Lucy, that was different, right? Because it's not like Lucy was begging, and it isn't like Mom was trying to make herself feel all rich and grand or make Lucy feel small and poor. Because Mom was just trying to be nice, right? And there's nothing wrong with that. There can't be anything wrong with being kind, can there?
A burst of laughter came from the other side of the playground, and Phil turned to look. Six black kids, all fourth and fifth graders, all boys. No one was looking his way, but Phil still had the feeling they had been laughing at him. But was it true, or was it just his imagination?
A gust of wind made his eyes water, and he zipped his coat up under his chin. And still looking at the black kids, Phil recognized one of them, the one with his hands jammed into his pockets and his shoulders hunched up against the cold.
He recognized the kid who wasn't wearing a jacket.
Text copyright © 2002 by Andrew Clements