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Lester lies to me sometimes, only he says it's just teasing. Then I go and believe him.
We were talking about names once, and he said he'd let me in on a secret if I didn't tell Dad. He said that we weren't Scotch-Irish at all, that our grandparents had escaped from Russia, but we didn't want anyone to know it.
My real name, he said, wasn't Alice Kathleen McKinley; it was Alicia Katerina de Balencia Blunderbuss Makinoli.
"Honest?" I said.
"Cross my heart," said Lester.
"Write it down," I told him. So Lester wrote it down for me.
I whispered my real name over and over so I could remember it. That night at the dinner table I watched my dad eat his green beans and wondered what other secrets he was keeping from me.
"What's Dad's real name then?" I asked Lester later.
"Hmm," said Lester. "That's a hard one to remember. It's Ivan Ilvonovich Rostropovich."
"I thought you said our last name was Makinoli."
"Right! Ivan Ilvonovich Rostropovich Makinoli."
"Then what's your real name?" I asked.
"Dmitri Rachmaninoff Schvaglio Deuteronomy Makinoli," said Lester.
I studied my brother. "Honest?" I asked.
"Would I lie to you?" said Lester.
"Cross my heart," said Lester. "But it's a secret, and Dad's sort of touchy about it. He'll get around to telling you sometime."
The next day at school I couldn't help myself. Instead of writing Alice McKinley at the top of my fourth-grade spelling paper, I wrote Alicia Katerina de Balencia Blunderbuss Makinoli.
When we traded papers with the person beside us for checking, my friend Rosalind said, "What's this?" and pointed to the name at the top.
I thumped my chest. "Me," I said. "I just found out."
Rosalind looked at the name again. "Are you sure that last name isn't supposed to be Macaroni?"
"No," I said. "It's not."
Rosalind got up and went to the dictionary. When she came back, she said, "Do you know what a blunderbuss is?"
"No," I said.
"A person who goofs up," said Rosalind.
"Lester!" I yelled when I walked in the house that afternoon. My brother is about seven and a half years older than me, and he gets home from high school before grade school even lets out. "You just stuck 'Blunderbuss' in there. That's not part of my real name at all!"
"Imagine that!" said Lester.
"I'll bet you made that whole thing up," I said.
"How'd you guess?" said Lester.
I don't know why Lester couldn't have been a girl. Why couldn't I have had an older sister instead, one who would show me how to braid my hair and sew on a button and make fudge and cut my toenails?
My mother died when I was in kindergarten, and Lester and I live in Takoma Park, Maryland, with our dad, Ben McKinley. We moved here last year from Chicago. So instead of a big sister who could braid my hair, I've got a brother who plays the drums in a band called the Naked Nomads and tells me lies. I've got a cat, though, named Oatmeal, and that's our family -- me and Dad and Lester and Oatmeal.
The fact is -- and that's why Lester made me angry, I guess -- I really am a blunderbuss. Fourth grade is definitely the worst. I have already made more embarrassing mistakes in the fourth grade than in all the other grades put together.
Last Sunday, Dad took me to the mall and I had to go to the restroom. After I flushed, I tried to open the door of my stall, but I couldn't get it unlocked. I pushed and pulled, but the metal bar wouldn't slide. My father was waiting outside, but I would be stuck in there forever, I thought! They would have to feed me through the space under the door! I was too embarrassed to yell. Too embarrassed to pound on the door.
I could hear three women talking at the sink, and I decided I would wait until they had gone. Then I would crawl out under the door. I heard the women go out. I heard their voices fade away. Then I got down beside the toilet and crawled out underneath the door. There was still a woman left at the sink.
She gave a little gasp and turned around. I think she thought I was a dog.
"Hello," I said as I washed my hands.
She just stared.
On Monday, Sara, my second best friend, wanted to borrow a piece of paper at school. I handed her one. I had been eating a Hershey's candy bar the night before when I did my homework. There was chocolate on the paper.
"Euuuw!" said Sara, handing it back. "What's this? Poop?"
Everybody looked at me and laughed. I'll bet my face was as red as Sara's T-shirt.
On Tuesday we were eating beans and franks in the lunchroom. My mouth was full, and suddenly I sneezed. I sent beans and franks flying all over Megan's tray. "Euuuw!" said Megan, and she dumped her tray in the trash can.
Wednesday night it rained. I was in the bathtub when I heard raindrops pattering down on our roof. And right that minute I remembered that I had left my geography book on the front steps. It would be ruined!
I leaped out of the bathtub and pulled on my underpants. It was dark outside, so I ran to the front door, slipped out on the porch, and grabbed up the book. And there was Donald Sheavers from next door, taking trash to the garbage can. He saw. He says my name is Alice Kathleen Underpants McKinley.
Fourth grade stinks. Fourth grade is when everything you do embarrasses you. Fourth grade is when everyone knows you're a blunderbuss whether it's part of your name or not.
One morning at breakfast I said to my dad, "I'm going to try to go the rest of my life without doing any more embarrassing things. I won't do anything unless I think about it first."
"Good luck," said Lester.
"That doesn't sound like much of a life to me," said Dad.
"Why not?" I asked, my mouth full of scrambled egg.
"Because if you have to stop and think before you do anything, you'll never do anything spontaneous at all."
It seemed like more fun than being a blunderbuss.
Donald Sheavers came over to walk to school with me. He always stands with his nose pressed against the back screen until Dad invites him in. Then he sits and plays with Oatmeal till I finish my breakfast.
Oatmeal is a gray-and-white cat. The only things she does are eat and sleep and play and poop and pee. If you laugh at a cat because she does something funny, she'll just do it again. Cats don't get embarrassed, even when they throw up.
"I should have been born a cat," I told Donald Sheavers on the way to school.
"You might get worms," said Donald.
"Not if I lived inside," I said.
"You might get fleas," said Donald.
"Not if I never went out," I told him.
"You might get run over," said Donald.
"Not if I stayed in the house," I said.
"So who wants to live like that?" said Donald.
We have a man teacher in fourth grade. His name is Mr. Dooley. Out on the playground some of the kids call him "Mr. Dodo" or "Mr. Doo-bee" or "Mr. Doo-doo," but he just smiles. We've only been in his classroom for two weeks, but Mr. Dooley never seems to get angry. Donald says if you set fire to Mr. Dooley's pants, he still wouldn't get mad.
He's not a blunderbuss, either. He never seems to make mistakes. He doesn't spill food on his shirts or forget our names or lose his attendance book or squeak the chalk on the blackboard. I guess he's as perfect as a teacher can be.
I decided I wanted to be like Mr. Dooley. Even if kids made fun of me, I would just laugh.
Mr. Dooley thinks we are the weird ones. He says fourth grade is a zoo. Except for Donald Sheavers and me walking to school together every morning, the boys and girls in fourth grade keep away from each other.
Mr. Dooley says boys and girls our age are like salt and pepper. He says we are like north and south. He says we are like magnetic poles that repel each other. He says he likes teaching fourth grade.
But one day Mr. Dooley's car wouldn't start, and he was late getting to school. The principal had to come down to our room and take over until he got there. And I could tell that Mr. Dooley had a headache when he came in. His eyes were sort of squinting, and his eyebrows came together over the top of his nose.
"Donald, either sit on your chair the way it was intended or put it on your head," he snapped.
Donald put his chair on his head, and Mr. Dooley sent him to the back of the room.
There was a special guest in school that day who was going to talk about her books. We were going to be studying one of them in our class, and Mr. Dooley had been reading it aloud.
We were very lucky to have an author visit our school, Mr. Dooley said. When we joined the fifth graders in the all-purpose room, he wanted us to be on our best behavior. He wanted us to show them that we could be just as grown up as they were. I wondered if Mr. Dooley had ever taught fifth graders. Out on the playground they didn't seem very grown up to me.
We are never on our best behavior just before lunch because we're getting hungry. We were joking and laughing as we followed Mr. Dooley down the hall to where the author was waiting. As we giggled and pushed our way into the all-purpose room, the fifth graders looking at us, Mr. Dooley suddenly yelled, "If you don't settle down, I'm going to seat you boy-girl-boy-girl."
We were so quiet then that we could even hear Mr. Dooley's stomach growl as we passed him in the doorway. It was a loud gurgling rumble. We almost laughed, but didn't. We were so quiet, we could hear our own breathing.
The author smiled at us and thanked us for being quiet. She said she had written thirteen books and wanted to tell us about them. And then she did the most amazing thing. She accidentally burped, right into the microphone. Mr. Dooley may not have had any breakfast that morning because of his car, but I'll bet the author had eaten a very big breakfast because it was an awfully loud burp. Everybody laughed, even the fifth graders.
The author looked embarrassed. Mr. Dooley looked embarrassed for her. I felt horrible too. If teachers' stomachs growled in public and authors burped into microphones, this meant I would probably keep right on doing embarrassing things too for the rest of my life.
Copyright © 2003 by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor