Authors: Robert Newton Peck
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DOGS DON’T TELL JOKES,
THERE’S A BOY IN THE GIRLS’ BATHROOM,
THE FLUNKING OF JOSHUA T. BATES,
JOSHUA T. BATES TAKES CHARGE,
TROUT AND ME,
BELLE PRATER’S BOY,
Dear Mrs. Peck,
Your son Robert made a rude remark to Miss Boland, our school nurse. Perhaps it was not intended to be as coarse as it sounded. Miss Boland thinks that you (his mother) should be informed of this. I quite agree.
I stood stock-still in the kitchen while my mother read the note. Underneath my corduroy knickers, the underwear was starting to itch my legs. But I didn’t scratch. Instead I just stood there and masterminded various routes of escape.
“What does the note say, Mama?”
This was step one. Soup and I had, of course, both read the note over and over all the way home and could have recited it upside-down in a barrel of water. But by asking Mama what it said, she would have to believe in my innocence. And as I asked the question, I made sure my eyes were open as wide and pure as I could force them. It was also a good trick not to blink as long as possible, which made your eyes water.
“Let me see it,” said Aunt Carrie.
Aunt Carrie read the note, looked at Mama, and made her customary statement. It was what she always said, usually about ten times in just the forenoon.
“What he needs is a good, sound thrashing.”
“Yes,” said Mama, “he certainly does.”
“No, I don’t,” I said. “It was all a mistake. Honest. It was really Miss Kelly’s fault.”
“Miss Kelly’s fault?”
When either Mama or Aunt Carrie started asking instead
of telling, I knew that the cause was not lost. There was still a chance to miss the whip, if I could just keep talking. And so I made the explanation as long-winded as possible to let their ire cool. Soup always said it was important to keep talking.
But I must advance with caution, being careful not to demean the noble name of Miss Kelly, who for the past one hundred years had taught first, second, third, and fourth grade (I was in third) in the small red brick Vermont schoolhouse. Kids who were my fellow classmates often remarked that
mothers and fathers had learned many a stern lesson from no other than Miss Kelly herself. So there was no way that I could push all the blame on such a worthy soul. I must step with stealth.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t really mean it was
Miss Kelly’s fault. But the other day, she was teaching us on how to talk.”
“A lesson you don’t need,” said Aunt Carrie, who believed that little boys and little girls should be seen and not heard—a rule that applied until our ages caught up to hers, which would be never.
“Miss Kelly said that when you talk to somebody it’s like you’re playing ball. First the somebody asks you a
question, and that means they throw the ball to you. But you have to do more than just catch a question like you catch a ball. Here’s the important part. You
to throw the ball back. When somebody asks how you are, you just can’t say, ‘Fine.’ You say, ‘Fine, thank you, and how are you?’”
“What does all this have to do with …?”
“Everything,” I said. “Miss Kelly said you have to throw the ball back. So I threw it back, and by mistake the ball hit Miss Boland.”
Miss Boland, who was our school nurse, was about three times as big as Miss Kelly and about ten times as big as I was. You couldn’t throw a ball anywhere in the whole world and not hit Miss Boland. That’s when I got to thinking about it and almost giggled. Could have been a disaster, laughing when on trial.
“You hit Miss Boland?” said Mama. “I’m afraid, Robert, that I don’t see all of this. Miss Kelly’s note says you
something to Miss Boland. Did you?”
“Exactly,” said Aunt Carrie, adjusting her calico apron as if it were a judge’s robe, “what
“It’s Miss Boland’s job to be the school nurse,” I said. “She comes around once a week to look at our
teeth and see if we wash our hands. And she always looks in our hair to find cooties.” (Nothing ever made Miss Boland happier than to discover wildlife in the thickets of some kid’s hair.)
“Hmm,” said Mama, “there’s no lice in
hair.” From that you could tell already that she wasn’t too keen on Miss Boland.
Now was the time to start praising Miss Boland a bit to sound fair. I’d build up Miss Boland before I destroyed her, to heighten her fall. My one regret was that Soup wasn’t here to enjoy my performance.
“Come to the point,” said Aunt Carrie.
“She’s a good nurse,” I said. “She was just doing her job, that’s all. It really wasn’t Miss Boland’s fault. She’s supposed to ask me the question. She asks that awful question to every kid she sees.”
“Did your bowels move today? And so I said, ‘Yes, did yours?’ I did what Miss Kelly said to do,” I said, talking like a machine gun. “Miss Boland threw me the question ball, and I caught it and threw it back. That’s the important part. So you really can’t fault Miss Boland. She was only doing her job, like when she looks in my head for bugs. She’s a good nurse. I just can’t
blame Miss Boland for all of this. Honest, Mama, it’s not really her doing. If you’re going to blame anybody, you’ve got to blame Miss Kelly or me.”
That ought to do it, I thought. Mentioning
name and Miss Kelly’s in the same breath would certainly put me in the company of those who are beyond suspicion. To punish me now would be like laying a rod to Miss Kelly herself. No one in our town would dare think of performing such a profanity. How could a sane mind even entertain a yank down of Miss Kelly’s britches? They were probably made of iron.
“Did you apologize to Miss Boland?”
“Well, not right off. Because for a while I didn’t see how I’d said anything wrong. Honest. All I did was throw back the ball, and I guess Miss Boland didn’t catch it. What made it worse was when the other kids laughed.”
Aunt Carrie spoke in disbelief.
“Yes,” I said. “Not all the children laughed. Soup did and a few of the cut-ups. And that’s what made it worse.”
“What do you mean … worse?”
“Miss Boland thought they were laughing at
“No, they were laughing at me, I guess.”
“What did Miss Kelly say?”
“Miss Kelly asked the class what was so funny. Nobody answered. So then Miss Boland went over and whispered in Miss Kelly’s ear. All the while Miss Boland was whispering, Miss Kelly was looking right at me.”
“And she never made you apologize to Miss Boland?”
“I did that before she told me to. Honest. But the kids were laughing, and I don’t guess Miss Boland heard me say I was sorry. So you can’t say this fuss is all Miss Boland’s fault.”
“No one said it was,” said Aunt Carrie, “except you.”
“It’s not Miss Boland’s fault at all,” I said. “But I had to tell you the straight of it, so you’d understand why she does these things.”
“What things?” said Mama.
“Looks in your hair for lice. She found a cootie in