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THE END OF SUMMER
"Hut! Hut! Go long, Tiki!"
Ronde Barber gripped the football with both hands. He dropped back three steps -- just like Joe Theismann of the Redskins, his favorite pro quarterback. Ronde's fingers found the ball's laces, and he cocked his arm back to make the pass.
His identical twin, Tiki, sprinted down the sideline. Fast as lightning, Tiki blew right by the defender -- their best friend, Paco, who was big and strong, but not fast. No one was as fast as Tiki, it seemed.
Ronde threw the ball -- a perfect spiral!
But it landed ten feet short.
"Oh, man!" Their teammate Jason threw both hands up in frustration. "Why can't I be the quarterback, like always? Your hands are too small to get a good grip on the ball."
"They are not!" Ronde grabbed the football from Paco, who'd brought it back to the line of scrimmage -- right in the middle of Mews Hill Drive -- and spread his fingers over the laces. "See?"
"Whatever," Jason said, frowning. "I'm still a better quarterback than you."
Ronde had to admit it was true. Last spring their team, the Vikings, had won the Peewee League championship. And even though everyone on the team had a chance to play lots of different positions, Jason had done most of the quarterbacking.
All three boys were still proud of that championship -- in fact, they were all wearing their bright purple Vikings jerseys today.
Jason had had his growth spurt when he was twelve. Now, at thirteen, he was tall and skinny, with big hands that could grip a football like it was nothing. He could throw a perfect spiral thirty, even forty yards.
Ronde and Tiki were still small for twelve. But they'd get bigger sooner or later -- at least, Ronde sure hoped so. They were identical twins, but their friends could tell them apart. Tiki was quieter and liked history. Ronde's favorite subject was math. But one thing was for sure -- they both loved football. They lived for it.
"Car!" Adam yelled, and they all retreated to the curb until it passed by.
They didn't have to dodge cars too often. This block of Mews Hill Drive was an unpaved dead end, petering out into the driveway of a large empty lot. Once there had been an old mill there, but now it was just a crumbling chimney, surrounded by acres of weeds. Lately, though, there had been more traffic. People in suits came by every day to look at the empty lot.
Whenever a car did come along, Adam was always the first to spot it. A tall kid with bad posture and thick glasses, he wasn't strong, or fast, or much of an athlete. His one claim to fame was that he could kick the ball a mile.
"Okay, third down," Paco said, panting. "Let's get this over with."
"Why? You tired?" Tiki teased.
"Yeah, I'm tired -- I'm tired of chasing after you. How come you're not out of breath?"
Tiki shrugged. "Beats me. I like running."
"Oh, man," Paco said. "Give it a rest."
"What's the matter?" Tiki asked, laughing. "You not having fun?"
"Forty-nine to seven is not fun," Paco said.
"Not when you're the seven."
"He's right," Adam said. "It's no fair when you and Ronde are on the same team."
"Hey, man," Ronde said, "We're all gonna be on the same team from now on. Starting next week, we'll be part of the Hidden Valley Eagles. Next thing you know, it'll be high school, then college, and right on up to the Redskins, and the Super Bowl. Right, Tiki?"
"No, man, not the Redskins -- the Bears!" Tiki corrected him. "Walter Payton's the man!"
Tiki, Ronde, and Jason huddled up, while Chris, Paco, and Adam waited at the line of scrimmage.
"Okay," Ronde whispered to his teammates. "I'll fake a handoff to Jason. Tiki, fake a screen, then go long again."
"I just went long," Tiki said. "And you couldn't reach me!"
"Let me be quarterback this play, Ronde," Jason pleaded.
"Give it up, dude," Ronde said. "I'm the quarterback today. We drew for it, remember?"
"Just don't go long again, okay?" Jason begged.
"All right, all right," Ronde said, frowning. "Fake to you, then handoff to Tiki."
They lined up at scrimmage. And right on cue, Chris started doing his sportscasting routine. True, they were only playing three-on-three touch football on an unpaved dead-end street -- but Chris made it sound much bigger and more important.
"And the Bears line up. The quarterback takes the snap, hands off to -- no, wait, it's a fake! And now he gives it to Payton! Payton cuts through the line! Uh-oh, Lawrence Taylor's after him -- but Payton somehow gets away! He's at the twenty, the ten -- touchdown! Touchdown, Bears! Walter Payton does it again! Yaaaay!"
The way he got excited, you'd have thought Chris was on Tiki's team instead of Paco's. "And it's fifty-six to seven, Bears!"
"Oh, man, can we call this game on the mercy rule?" Paco begged. "Let's choose up new teams."
"Nah, it's almost dinnertime," Chris said. "My mom wants me home early to eat, because we're going out shopping tonight for school supplies."
"Ugh. Now you're really depressing me," Paco said. "Don't remind me about school -- it's still summer."
"You mean it's still summer till tomorrow," Tiki said. "Hey, Paco, how come you hate school so much?"
"I don't hate it. I just like summer better...."
Ronde could tell there was more to it than that. Paco looked...well, almost scared to go to junior high.
"Well, hey," Ronde said, "we're all gonna be on the Hidden Valley Eagles. That'll be cool, right?"
"That'll be awesome," Tiki agreed, and the kids all slapped one another five.
As they headed back to their houses for dinner, Ronde put his arm around his brother's shoulders. "You and me, Tiki -- we're gonna be the stars of the team."
Tiki grinned. "I can't wait, can you?"
"Nope. I wonder how soon tryouts are gonna be...."
The sun was setting. The giant neon star at the top of Mill Mountain flickered on. Soon it would light up the night over Roanoke, Virginia.
Ronde wondered if he and Tiki would someday be stars, too...stars in the NFL.
"Hey, you guys -- wait up!" It was Paco, jogging after them, breathing hard, his face red and sweaty.
"So what was that about before, Paco?" Ronde asked.
"What was what about?"
"You're so down on going back to school, man." Tiki said. "Even if you want it to, summer can't last forever. And, hey, you get As and Bs in everything, like we do."
"Everything except math," Paco corrected him. "Besides, my brother James says the work in junior high is mad hard."
Tiki laughed. "Dude, you like homework, remember? You always do it right after school, before you play football or anything."
"I just do it that way to get it over with," Paco said. "Besides, you guys do it right after school too."
"We have to," Ronde said. "Our mom makes us."
"Yeah, it's not 'cause we want to." Tiki shook his head. "I could never think like you, Paco. You are truly bizarre."
Ronde gave Paco a playful shove. "Come on, dude, what are you scared of, anyway? It's gonna be fun."
"That's what you think," Paco said.
Tiki said, "I think going from class to class is gonna be awesome. Just think, if you don't like your teacher, just wait an hour and you're with a different one! And anyhow, after seven years I'm ready for a new school."
"It's not that," Paco said, stopping and looking down at the ground. "It's...oh, never mind."
"Tell us, dude," Tiki said, putting an arm around him. "Hey, we're best buds, right? You can tell us anything."
Paco sighed heavily. "All right. But don't go freaking out when I tell you."
He looked first at Tiki, then at Ronde. "My brother James? You know, he's starting high school, but he went to Hidden Valley till last year. And he told me they have this day...it's supposed to be the second day of school -- that's this Thursday. It's called 'Beat the Seventh Graders Day.' And on that day, guess what happens? All the ninth graders hunt down the new kids and pound them."
"WHAT?" both Barber boys said at once.
"That's just crazy talk," Tiki said, snorting.
"Yeah. James is just goofing on you," Ronde agreed.
He and Tiki nodded at one another, but Ronde could tell that Tiki was just a little scared.
In fact Ronde had to admit he was a little worried himself -- even though it was probably all just a load of baloney.
"James said, the year he was a seventh grader, two kids wound up in the hospital, and three got black eyes and bloody noses."
"Did he get one?" Tiki asked.
"James? No, man!" Paco said. "You know my brother -- he's like six foot three, two-twenty. He was big back then, too -- and they don't pick on the big kids."
"Then what are you worried about?" Ronde asked.
"Man, I'm not that big," Paco said. "You should see some of those kids in junior high. The guys on the football team? If they ever tackle you, it'll break your bones!"
They'd reached Paco's corner. "I'll see you dudes at school tomorrow, huh?" he said. "But maybe you'd better both play hooky on Thursday -- you know why."
The Barber boys ran the whole rest of the way up Mews Hill Drive to their home, tossing the football back and forth between them. They pretended they were on the field, dodging invisible defenders.
It kept them from thinking about "Beat the Seventh Graders Day."
Ronde could smell his mom's cooking as soon as they reached their corner.
"Mmmm...macaroni and cheese!" Tiki said, grinning.
Tiki and Ronde's mom was a great cook. She was lots of fun, too -- even though she had to work long hours at the local Girl Scout council office, where she was a secretary. On top of it all, she could throw a mean football. But most important, Ronde and Tiki knew they could always count on her to be there for them.
Smelling their favorite dish, they stopped tossing the ball and flat-out raced the rest of the way home. They banged the screen door open so hard it sounded like an explosion.
"Whoa!" their mother yelled, so surprised that she dropped her spatula. "You boys need to slow down! You could scare somebody to death."
"Sorry, Ma," Tiki said.
"Sorry," said Ronde, retrieving the spatula for her.
"Now please take off those muddy shoes and get cleaned up for dinner," she said. "We're having mac and cheese."
"Yes, ma'am!" said the boys, and raced each other to the bathroom sink, bumping, blocking, and laughing all the way.
* * *
After dinner, the boys cleared the table and helped their mom do the dishes. Only when everything was cleaned up did she hand each of them an envelope. "It's your program cards from school," she said.
Ronde and Tiki had been waiting for this moment for weeks. They couldn't wait to see which classes they had -- and most important, who was in each class with them.
"I've got math first period," Tiki moaned. "At seven thirty in the morning!"
"What's wrong with that?" their mom asked.
"I'm not even awake that early, and everyone says that math in junior high is hard!"
"Well, you were bound to have some class first period," their mom said, patting him on the shoulder. "It might as well be math."
"Hey," Ronde said, comparing his own program card to his brother's. "We don't have any classes together!"
"What?" Tiki gasped, looking for himself. "Not one single class? Hey, Ma, can we get these changed?"
"Yeah, we've gotta get things switched around!" Ronde agreed. "They must have made a mistake!"
Their mom folded her arms in front of her and frowned. "There's no mistake. You boys have got to learn how to get by on your own. All your lives you've been a pair, and that's a beautiful thing. But you're starting to grow up now, and you've got to learn what it's going to be like when you're grown-ups."
"Ma," Ronde said, a choking feeling in his throat, "did you ask for it to be this way?"
Their mom's face softened. "I won't lie to you boys. Yes, I did ask that you be in separate classes. I want you to be close all your lives, but I think it's better if you start spending time on your own with other kids. Stand up for yourselves, and make new friends to go with the old."
"Aw, Ma," Ronde complained, "we've already got plenty of friends!"
"I know it -- but I don't want them to think of you boys as half of something. Once you're out on your own a little, you'll see what I mean."
"Can't we have just one class together?" Tiki begged.
"You can see each other every day at lunch," she pointed out. "And of course, there are your after-school activities, like the football team...."
That was true, Ronde thought. But it didn't make up for all the hours and hours he'd be sitting in school alone, without his brother.
He looked over at Tiki, and Tiki stared back at him.
True identical twins, at certain moments, they thought exactly the same things. This was one of those moments.
Only an hour ago, they'd been totally excited about to going to Hidden Valley Junior High. Now, they both wished the day would never come.
Copyright © 2007 by Tiki Barber and Ronde Barber
As she did every year on the first morning of school, the twins' mom fixed each boy a special breakfast, including some of their all-time favorites. For Ronde, it was bacon and eggs with one pancake and OJ. For Tiki, three pancakes, ham, and a glass of milk. Their mom also made sure their book bags held everything the twins needed -- pens, pencils, rulers, calculators, notebooks, and lunch money.
One thing was different this year, though -- Ronde and Tiki could choose their own clothes. Mrs. Barber wanted to make sure that they were as different as could be, so the other kids -- the ones they'd be meeting for the first time -- could tell them apart. So they made sure they never matched.
When she hugged and kissed them on the cheek and sent them off to the bus, the hugs were extra tight, and there was an extra kiss or two for each boy, as if to say, This is a big day for you both. Good luck.
As the boys rode off to school, they were unusually silent. Neither Tiki nor Ronde were big talkers anyway, but today they were even quieter than usual. Instead of talking, each boy was deep in his own thoughts.
Tiki wondered what it would be like, being in class without his twin. He was used to new kids staring at them because they looked so alike. Would they still stare at him, now that he was alone?
And what would it be like having so many different teachers? Would they each give a ton of homework, not realizing that all the other teachers were doing the same thing?
Why did their mom have to insist that they not have even one single class together? Tiki was so upset about it, he felt like crying -- but he couldn't let himself -- no way. He didn't want anyone -- least of all Ronde -- knowing how he was feeling right then. Afraid.
Hidden Valley Junior High School was a boxy, gigantic building -- much bigger than their elementary school. Tiki knew that was because kids from other elementaries went there, too. He wondered if he'd know anybody in his classes.
"Well, I guess this is it," he said as they climbed the front steps and the early bell sounded. "See you at lunch?"
"I guess," Ronde said. His voice sounded strange to Tiki -- thicker than usual, somehow. Tiki wondered if Ronde was trying to hide his feelings too.
Probably, he figured. After all, they were identical twins, and that meant they often thought -- and felt -- the same way about things.
It was scary to think that maybe that would soon be ending too, now that they weren't going to be together all the time.
"Okay. Bye," he said, giving Ronde a quick nod and going inside.
Tiki fished out his program card and checked it one more time. "Math -- room 208," he read. He found a staircase and started up to the second floor, lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces.
Wait -- there was that kid Kevin, who was in his class way back in second grade! Tiki wondered whether he should wave, or say hello. He decided not to risk it -- Kevin might not even remember him after all this time. He might think Tiki was weird for saying hi, considering they barely knew each other.
The rest of the way up the stairs, Tiki concentrated
on the floor. So many feet! All those different kinds of shoes...Were his cool enough? He'd figured he couldn't go wrong with sneakers, but then, you never knew.
He bumped into the girl in front of him when she stopped at the door to the second floor. "Sorry," he said, glancing up at her.
She clicked her tongue, rolled her eyes, and said, "Watch where you're going, stupid."
Tiki felt like a complete idiot! Why did he have to bump into that girl? And why did she have to be so mean about it? Was everybody in this school going to be as mean as her?
He felt like running right back down the stairs and outside, back into the beautiful September morning. But he knew he couldn't.
He found room 208, and headed straight for the back of the classroom, where he zoned in on the last available empty seat. Tiki was determined to sit in the back of the class, where he could hide from the teacher's gaze whenever he didn't know the answer to a question. He usually knew -- but just hated to be wrong.
But before he could reach the seat, another boy bumped him out of the way and plunked himself down in it!
Tiki turned around and checked out the rest of the seats. He quickly grabbed one in the third row -- as far from the teacher's desk as he could get. Tiki promised himself that when this class was over, he'd run like the wind to get to his next classroom, so he'd have plenty of time to find a seat in the back row.
His math teacher, Mr. Vaughn, was incredibly boring. He spoke in a monotone, and never smiled.
And the math was hard! Whenever Mr. Vaughn talked about algebra, Tiki got so confused it felt like his eyes were crossing.
Pretty soon, Tiki found himself feeling sleepy. He wasn't used to getting up so early in the morning -- he and Ronde had set their alarm for six thirty to get to school by seven thirty -- and he hadn't slept well besides, what with all those nightmares about school. Tiki had to keep stopping himself from nodding off, to avoid making a fool of himself.
Maybe it was the big breakfast Mom made us, he thought. Big meals always had a way of making him sleepy. Or maybe it was just that Mr. Vaughn was so boring!
Tiki couldn't wait for the bell to ring. When it finally did, he took off at full speed, running down the hallway and dodging the other kids in his way. He held his book bag like a football, and pretended he was the great Walter Payton, dodging defenders as he raced for the end zone.
"Hey! Watch it!" yelled one kid after Tiki passed him by, nearly knocking him into the wall.
"Slow down there!" called a teacher who was acting as hall monitor. Tiki did, but only for a minute.
He got to history class just in time to grab a seat in the back row, all the way in the corner. Then he took a minute to catch his breath as the other seats began to fill up.
The front rows were taken up by the brainy kids -- most of them girls -- who always raised their hands for every question. Tiki didn't care. It seemed to him that they were less interested in learning new things than they were in showing off what they already knew.
Tiki usually knew the right answers, no matter what the class. But he almost never raised his hand. He didn't want to risk being wrong. If you were wrong, everybody thought you were stupid. Even if they didn't laugh in class, they would behind your back.
History class wound up being not too bad -- it was his favorite subject, after all, and the teacher was a nice lady, Ms. Walker, who didn't give them any homework because it was the first day of school. But Tiki could tell that once things got going, she'd be giving out plenty of work.
As soon as the bell rang, he did another magnificent job of open-field running to get to science class, and grabbed another prized seat in the back row. The class slowly filled with kids -- hey, there was Adam! Tiki's mood started to brighten. He'd always liked science -- and whoever the teacher was, he or she had to be better than Mr. Vaughn!
The late bell rang, and a second later, the teacher walked in. He had a beard that was starting to go gray, and a shock of dark hair on top of his head that went in all directions. "Hello, everyone," he said. "My name is Sam Wheeler, but you can call me...Mr. Wheeler."
The kids laughed, and Tiki started to relax. Mr. Wheeler had a sense of humor, and that could only be good.
"First, I want everyone to stand up," Mr. Wheeler said. When the kids were all standing, he continued, "Okay, everyone in the two back rows, switch seats with the two front rows."
A loud groan went up from all the kids in the rows he'd mentioned. "I've found that it's best to get the slackers up front right away," said Mr. Wheeler. "That way, they can't get away with sleeping through class! And you kids in the front, take a break, will you? I already know you know the answers."
Whoa, thought Tiki, as he shuffled miserably up to the front row. This guy must be some kind of mind reader.
Mr. Wheeler started talking about the topics they'd be covering that year in Science. But the whole time he was talking, he kept scanning the class. He had the face of a hawk, or an eagle -- yeah, that was it, Tiki thought. An eagle -- that nose, those eyes...Mr. Wheeler could have been the school mascot!
His eyes drilled right into you. Tiki was terrified of those eyes -- especially after Mr. Wheeler spotted Adam whispering to the kid next to him. Mr. Wheeler crumpled a piece of paper into a hard little ball, raised his right hand, and fired!
The paper ball hit Adam right between the shoulders. "Hey! Pay attention!" Mr. Wheeler said.
Adam turned around, his face beet red. The whole class laughed their heads off. It wasn't like anyone thought it was so funny, Tiki figured -- they were just relieved it wasn't them.
"I'm not here for my health," said Mr. Wheeler, scanning the class again with those eagle eyes. "I'm here for you -- so don't disrespect me." Then he went back to teaching.
The day's lesson was about the planets of the solar system. Tiki had always dreamed of being an astronaut, and normally, he would have been very interested. But for some reason -- and in spite of his fear of Mr. Wheeler -- Tiki soon found himself fighting the urge to sleep.
He checked his watch -- it was only ten thirty, but he'd already been in school for three whole hours! More important, he'd been up since six thirty in the morning.
Waves of exhaustion washed over him, and he had to keep willing himself to keep his eyes open. He wondered if Ronde was going through the same thing. He wondered what football tryouts would be like that afternoon. He wondered...
Suddenly he felt something hard hit him on the head!
Tiki sprang to attention. The whole class was looking at him, laughing! He reached up and felt the top of his head, then looked on top of his desk. There was a crumpled-up ball of paper on it.
"Did I say to pay attention, or didn't I?" Mr. Wheeler asked Tiki.
"Yes," Tiki murmured.
"What? I can't hear you!"
"Yes, sir!" More nervous laughter from the class, glad it wasn't them.
"I won't tolerate disrespect. Get it through your heads right now, people. All right; let's get on with -- "
Mercifully, the bell rang, and it was time for lunch. Not a moment too soon, either. Tiki rushed out of the room and ran for the cafeteria as if his life depended on it.
This was turning out to be the worst day of his whole entire life.
Ronde was in a panic. Here he was in his last class before lunch, math -- always his best subject -- and he had no idea what the teacher was talking about!
He thought back to sixth grade, when Miss Johnson had first introduced them to algebra. He hadn't really understood it. Why hadn't he raised his hand back then to ask her to explain?
Ronde knew why he hadn't -- because everyone would have laughed at him. But if only he'd taken that chance in sixth grade, he wouldn't have been so lost now!
If only somebody else would raise their hand and ask Ms. Black to go over it again! But nobody did. And no way was Ronde going to raise his hand and admit he had no clue!
He was sure all the other kids already knew about algebra. He could tell, by the questions the brainy kids in the front row asked. He was sitting up front too -- right in the middle of them -- but keeping his hand firmly down.
The first day of school hadn't been so bad until now. He'd gotten through almost the whole morning without any awful stuff happening, and lunch was coming up. If he could just get through the next ten minutes without messing up, he could relax for almost a whole hour. He'd see Tiki; they'd sit together and compare notes, and everything would feel normal again.
And then, after a few more classes...football tryouts!
Ronde couldn't wait. He was so excited about it, he'd almost forgotten about Beat the Seventh Graders Day.
"Hello? Earth to Ronde?"
It was Ms. Black, calling his name!
Ronde came to instant attention. "Um, could you repeat the question?"
"What? For the fourth time?"
The whole class exploded into laughter. Ronde felt like sliding down under his desk, and staying there forever.
Why hadn't he been paying attention? Why hadn't he raised his hand once, just to show her he was listening? Sure, he might have given the wrong answer, but any answer would have been better than none at all!
Now he looked like a complete idiot.
"Very well -- what is the square root of one hundred forty-four?" Ms. Black asked.
"Um..." Ronde tried to remember how to do square roots. He used to know. But it had been a long summer, and now he couldn't recall. "Three?" he guessed.
The teacher made a "tsk" sound with her tongue. "Somebody else. Yes, Norman?"
Norman had been holding his hand up the whole time, going "Ooo! Ooo!" Now he smirked at Ronde and said, "Twelve."
"That's right," Ms. Black said. "Very good, Norman. Now, Ronde, I want you to review pages 133 to 135 in your math book tonight. In fact, all of you had better review it -- there'll be a quiz on it later this week."
A groan went up from the class. "Thanks a lot, Ronde," said the kid next to him. "Thanks a billion jillion."
Ronde headed to lunch feeling totally bummed. But before he entered the cafeteria, he took a deep breath, and tried to act like everything was normal. Just in case Tiki'd had a great morning, Ronde didn't want to look like a loser by telling his brother how badly things had gone.
He spotted Tiki, standing in the lunch line. "Hey, what's up?" Ronde greeted him.
"Hey," Tiki said. "How's it going?"
"Great. Great," Ronde said. "You?"
"Yeah. Me too."
By this time, a bunch of other kids had gathered around the brothers. "Hey, check this out!" said a boy Ronde recognized from English class -- a real pain by the name of Kelvin. "I'm seein' double!"
"Me too!" said another boy, obviously a friend of Kelvin's. "It's the attack of the clones!"
"Yaaaa!!" The two boys started pretending to freak out. Everyone around them laughed, while Tiki and Ronde just stood there, taking it.
"Help! They're multiplying! Aaaahh!!"
Tiki and Ronde picked out their food, paid for it, and headed for a table over in the corner -- as far away from Kelvin and his obnoxious buddies as they could get.
"This food looks like crud," Tiki said, checking out his plate. "What'd you get?"
"Welsh Rarebit -- whatever that is. You?"
"Macaroni Surprise -- whatever that is."
"What is a 'rarebit,' anyway? Some kind of rabbit?"
Ronde smelled his food and made a face. "Man. We should've asked Mom to make us sandwiches."
"Yeah. She makes the best ones."
They picked slowly at their food, making faces. Tiki wished their mom hadn't made them be in different classes. He was sure that none of that bad stuff would have happened if Ronde'd been there with him.
Taking another bite of this "mystery meat," Ronde looked up and spotted Norman coming toward them.
Ronde spat the meat back out into his dish. "Oh, no," he said under his breath.
"What?" Tiki asked.
"Hey, Ronde!" Norman greeted him. "Wait, hold on. Which one of you is -- don't tell me. You're identical twins!"
"Bingo," said Ronde. He hated it when people did this. They weren't identical in everything after all -- Tiki was more serious and Ronde liked to joke around more. And they argued about who was the better athlete.
"Wait, but which one's Ronde?"
"I'm Tiki. Nice to meet you."
"Man, this is so cool," said Norman, not even seeing Tiki's outstretched hand. "Hey, do you guys ever pretend to, like, be each other? You know, like, take each other's tests and stuff?"
"Not really," Tiki said.
"'Cause you could cheat really easy and get away with it."
"You gonna sit down?" Ronde asked, ignoring his suggestion.
"No, thanks -- I'm sitting with my friends. You know, from last year."
"Okay -- check you out later, then."
"Yeah. Hey, if you're not gonna cheat, you really ought to do some serious studying, Ronde. Otherwise, we're all gonna be in trouble."
"I don't cheat," Ronde said.
"Me neither," said Tiki.
Norman shrugged. "Hey, it was just a suggestion. I cheat all the time, and no one ever knows. How do you think I knew the answer today?"
Ronde was stunned. "You really -- ?"
"Nah, I knew the answer. I was just messing with you. I mean, square roots? Honestly, that is so sixth grade. You embarrassed yourself today. No, wait, let me correct that -- you embarrassed all of us. Hit the books, will ya?"
"Yeah, I'll...I'll do that," Ronde said, wishing he could punch Norman right in his big, loud mouth.
"Hey, man -- don't talk to my brother like that!" Tiki said. "Ronde, what's he talking about?"
"Nothing," Ronde said. "Don't listen to -- "
But he was too late. Norman was already telling Tiki the whole story of Ronde's terrible moment.
Tiki nodded, his face serious. "Wow," he said. "Mmm, that's rough."
After Norman had gone, Tiki looked at Ronde and said, "Hey, man, things were tough for me, too."
"They were?" Ronde felt badly for Tiki, but he was also relieved in a way. It was good to know he wasn't the only one who was having a hard time.
"Yeah, man," Tiki said. "I got hit in the head by a ball of crumpled-up paper."
"I totally did. Even worse, my teacher was the one who threw it!"
"I'm telling you! He's got a good arm, too. It came fast!" He rubbed the top of his head, frowning.
"That's pretty bad," Ronde said. "But it's not as bad as the whole class laughing at you."
"You think they didn't laugh at me?"
Ronde sighed. "Man, I'll tell you -- junior high is hard."
"Any time you raise your hand, you can get in big trouble."
"I didn't even raise mine, and I still got creamed!" said Tiki.
"I'm never gonna raise my hand," said Ronde.
"Me neither. Man, I sure hope it gets better from here on out."
"I hear that."
Tiki touched fists with him. "I can't wait for football tryouts."
Ronde nodded, smiling for the first time in hours. "Me neither -- it's gonna rock, baby!"
Copyright © 2007 by Tiki Barber and Ronde Barber