My dentist is insane. I’m pretty sure all dentists are. If I had to spend all day with my hand in a stranger’s mouth, I’d probably lose my mind too. For one thing, he hums “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” all the time. Odd, yes, but the crazy part is that he’s been humming it ever since I was three. That means he’s had the same nursery rhyme worming through his brain for nine years. Nine years! That should tell you quite a lot about him.
There’s also his obsession with ducks.
His office is packed with ducks. Paintings and posters of ducks cover the walls, hundreds of duck figurines stand on every available surface – even his surgical mask has a duck’s bill. This means that while he’s scraping my teeth, what I experience is a duck-man mutant humming “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” – or worse, a duck-man lecturing me on proper oral hygiene.
In my dentist’s strange and frightening world, I should brush my teeth
times every day, and each one should last
minutes. Whenever I eat so much as a grain of rice, I’m supposed to dash to the loo and gargle mouthwash, brush my teeth front and back, brush my tongue top and bottom,
my tongue top and bottom, floss thoroughly, gargle a little more mouthwash, and then when I’ve finished all that, I should spend another ninety seconds closely inspecting my teeth in the mirror.
It goes without saying that my brushing technique doesn’t live up to his mad standards. I’d say I spend about four minutes a day on it, which isn’t bad, considering I have a life. Four minutes of teeth brushing is good enough for most days.
But it wasn’t good enough for that day three weeks ago.
That day I had to look perfect.
That morning, I dedicated twenty-one precious minutes to cleaning my teeth. I also spent thirty-seven minutes washing my face, applying moisturizers, cleaning my ears, combing my hair and, for twelve excruciating minutes, I tweezered the seven hairs from my unibrow. (My unibrow hairs are so faint, you need a microscope to see them, by the way.) And, oh yeah, I’d spent an hour the night before ironing my school clothes. And, double oh yeah, I’d slept all night in my bike helmet so my hair would be nice and flat.
What was special about that day?
Was I a contestant in a beauty contest?
Was the queen coming to my school, Westbrook Academy, to open the new maintenance closet?
Nope. Have another guess.
OK, I’ll tell you. They were taking our school photos.
Wait! Don’t leave.
I’m not really that superficial. I’ll prove it to you. Come with me to the bookcase in the living room and I’ll show you why I needed to look perfect for that school photo.
This is no ordinary bookcase. This is where my parents display my framed school photos for all the world to see.
Welcome to my shelf of shame.
Last year’s photo is probably my best, and that’s not saying much. I look very frightened, like I’ve just seen Miss Adolf dancing. I’ve seen Miss Adolf dancing, so I know what I’m talking about.
Excuse me while I shudder…
So here’s the story behind the first photo…
As I sat in the chair, waiting for my picture to be taken, a spider dropped down on a thread of silk from the ceiling, and stopped right in front of my nose. It was so close I could see its hairy spider legs. So close I could look into its beady spider eyes, where I saw its spidery soul. I froze in fear, my eyes crossed, and … FLASH.
Here’s my photo from two years ago. You’ll notice that not much of my actual face made it into this one. Apart from a bit of my forehead, it’s entirely of the top of my head. I’ve always wondered what the top of my head looks like. Now I know. You want to know what happened with this one?
Well, again, I was in the chair, waiting for my photo, when Frankie told me that my shoe was untied and I fell for a trick that was invented a week after they invented shoelaces. (My guess is they invented shoelaces in 1684.) Basically, I was stupid for a fraction of a second and … FLASH. I guess I should be grateful I’m not bald.
And this one here, from three years ago, is everyone’s favourite. It’s an oldie but a goodie. This one will never go out of style.
No, I’m not picking my nose. Really, I’m not. It just looks that way. I don’t pick my nose – at least not when anyone’s looking and certainly not when someone is taking my picture. This one was the photographer’s fault. He told me to “look smart”, so I struck a smart-guy pose.
I put my hand on my chin, like I was thinking about black holes or something, and I guess my index finger decided it would point towards my brain … by way of my right nostril. With this photo, you get the impression that I’m thinking really hard about bogeys.
I could take you through the rest of the shelf, but it’s pointless.
Year in, year out, I take a ridiculous photo. My parents then frame it and put on the shelf. My family laughs at me. Everyone who comes to our flat laughs at me. And every day, as I leave for school, the last thing I see is a shelf of reminders that I can’t do anything right.
In eight hundred years, when they’re studying what I was like as a kid – because I plan to be the first man to live on Mars and also to hold most major Martian sporting records – they’ll find these pictures and the future will laugh at me too.
Then they’ll find Emily’s perfect pictures, and they’ll think she was the really significant one in the Zipzer family. And then they’ll form a religion based on Emily and her teachings, and they’ll worship the lizard, and the future will be ruined for ever.
I didn’t want that happen this year. Do you hear that, ghosts of school photos past?
Three weeks earlier…
“Hank, stop ogling your photos and come for breakfast,” my mum yelled at me.
I took one final look at the top of my head, then flashed my camera-ready smile at the family as I headed over to the table.
“Who is this child?” my mum asked.
“No idea,” my dad said. “He must have broken in during the night.”
Emily also piped up. “Your photo’s not going to look anything like you.”
“Good,” I said, sitting down.
Mum had gone all out for breakfast: fried eggs, fried bread, beans, bangers and mushrooms. It looked very tasty … and very
. This breakfast was a full-body stain waiting to happen. I stared at the heaped plate of food, scanning for just one tasty morsel I could nibble safely.
“Aren’t you eating?” Mum asked.
I scooched my chair back about a metre from the table, leaned all the way forward and puckered out my lips, trying to reach just a tiny bite of the egg on my fork with my elastic lips. It was a very awkward position, and all my muscles were shaking, but I couldn’t risk dropping anything on my uniform. My lips could feel the heat of the eggs, and then—
Emily kicked my leg.
I dropped the fork, nearly falling backwards to avoid it hitting my leg.
“I was so close.” I sighed.
“Just try to eat like a human being and you’ll get some egg next time,” my dad said.
“I think he was trying out his new pose for this year’s photo,” Emily said.
“He looked like a monkey.” My mum laughed. “Like a baboon.”
“Baboons aren’t monkeys. They belong to the ape family, Mum,” Emily said. “Which reminds me. I’ve been shortlisted for a summer course at the Institute for Scientific Excellence. My final interview is today.”
“That’s brilliant,” my mum said. “I’ll test you on some science thingies. Hmmm.” She drummed her fingers. “OK, got a good one for you. What does H
0 stand for?”
Emily dabbed her lips with her napkin. “The covalent bond between hydrogen and oxygen.”
“Er … wrong answer.” My mum winked at me. “But here’s a hint: it comes out of a tap. This is
Emily just stared at my mum with her beady eyes.
“Emily knows it’s water,” my dad said. “She was explaining the molecular structure.”
“Of course she was,” my mum said. “I was … er … testing her. Well done, sweetie. Now for a real challenge. What’s that table called, you know, that table thingy with all the elements?”
“Oh, come on, Mum,” I blurted out, “even I know that one. It’s the table of—”
“Eat your breakfast, Hank,” Mum said. “And eat it properly, not like a baboon ape. And, Emily, don’t roll your eyes at me, young lady. Hank, why aren’t you eating? You need your vitamins and …
“You mean covalent bonds,” Emily said.
“Don’t correct your mother,” Mum said.
Emily sighed. “May I be excused?”
“Not until you can ask without rolling your eyes.”
As Mum and Emily were engaged in a stare-down that had the potential to last all day, I popped up, ran around the table, gave Mum a kiss, ducked my dad’s hand as he tried to ruffle my hair, and shouted, “Bye” as the door to our flat closed behind me.
I’d made it through breakfast still spotless, perfect, and with my gorgeous hair intact. I was flying high!
“How do I look?” I asked my best friends, Frankie and Ashley, as we rode down in the lift.
“Weird,” Ashley said. “Is that a toupée?”
“Hey, Hank, can I touch it?” Frankie asked.
“Bad idea,” Ashley told him. “We don’t know what that thing’s made of. It could be rat hair.”
“Nah,” Frankie said. “Looks more like goat hair.”
As they bleated and sniggered, I struck a pose. “You guys don’t think my hair looks amazing?”
“It looks fake,” Frankie said. “And ruggish.”
“Did you say rugged?” I asked.
,” Ashley said. “Like it belongs on the floor. Why is it all flat and helmety?”
“Because I slept in my bike helmet.”
“I’m no expert on hair,” Frankie said, “but I always thought having helmet-hair is, like, a bad thing.”
“It is,” Ashley said. “Hank, if you wanted to look like Clark Kent, you should have asked me for some hair products.”
“I think you should have left the helmet on for the picture,” Frankie said.
“Come on, guys,” I said as we got out of the lift. “I just need this photo to be perfect.”
“Hank, can I tell you something?” Frankie asked. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked at me like he wanted to have a best-mate moment. “You know you’re a good-looking guy – I’m not ashamed to say it:
are a good-looking guy –
and so you shouldn’t worry about how other people see you. Also, your shoelace is untied.”
I looked down, and they laughed.
I swung a best-mate punch at Frankie’s arm, missed by miles, lost balance, and would have stumbled hair-first into a rubbish bin had Frankie not caught me.
“Easy there, super-rug,” he said.
Ashley stopped us. “Hank, you will never make it to the photo without getting messed up. We should go back inside. It’s too risky out here.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “We’re up after first lesson. I can stay clean till then unless Frankie pulls any more dirty tricks on me.”
“Hank,” he said, “can I tell you something?”
“Dude, you know what we’ve got for first lesson, don’t you?”
I shrugged. “Frankie, I don’t know what I’ve got for any of my lessons. I just follow you guys around. What have we got?”
“A problem,” Ashley said.
“Because, Hank,” Frankie said, “the first class is art.”