The shrill loudness of the opening bell at Westside Middle School hurried Johnny’s steps all the more as he rushed into Mrs. Thompson’s 6th grade homeroom. Having made up a note from his mother excusing his absence yesterday was bad enough – he didn’t want to be reported tardy too.
Reaching his desk just as Mrs. Thompson began the roll call, Johnny told himself to be cool. He had never been in trouble at school before, so there would be no reason to suspect that he….
Before he could complete the thought, the classroom door opened and who should walk in but the principal, Mr. Matthews. Johnny slunk down in his seat as he watched Mr. Matthews beg Mrs. Thompson’s pardon for the interruption and say something to her in a low voice before leaving the room. Johnny did not have to wait long to learn what was said.
”As soon as I’ve finished calling the roll,” Mrs. Thompson announced, “Johnny Russell and Ronald Miller will report to Mr. Matthews out in the hall.”
The next few minutes were a blur of wild thoughts as Johnny frantically tried to think what might have gone wrong. It wasn’t as if he had STOLEN Mr. Matthews’ ticket to yesterday’s Reds opening day game. So what if he knew whose ticket he’d found – Mr. Matthews could never love baseball as much as Johnny did. Johnny was going to be a baseball player when he grew up and play for the Cincinnati Reds and be a star – and besides, finders keepers.
Now the roll call was over and Ronald Miller was already getting up from his desk and walking with his usual strut toward the door. Hesitantly, Johnny got up and followed. What had old man matthews been doing with a ticket to the game anyway? If the principal could get out of school to see the game, why couldn’t Johnny? It wasn’t fair that only important people get to do what they want.
Mr. Matthews was waiting for them outside the door, somehow seeming much bigger up close than Johnny had realized. Johnny hoped that Mr. Matthews would deal with Ronald first – maybe Ronald had done something really bad, and what Johnny did would seem minor in comparison.
Mr. Matthews came right to the point. “Friday, in Mrs. Pruitt’s last bell English class, I was sitting in the back of the room observing and taking notes. “I’d forgotten my notebook, so I was using the back of an envelope. In that envelope was a ticket to Monday’s opening game. After school, I realized that I’d left the envelope where I was sitting. I returned immediately to the room, but the envelope was gone and so was everyone but Mrs. Pruitt. She hadn’t noticed the envelope or who had found it, but she said no one else had entered the room after last bell, so it had to someone in that class.”
Johnny tried to keep his expression from giving him away as Mr. Matthews paused to eye them before resuming. “One of you is wondering why you’re here; the other one knows why. It wasn’t hard to narrow it down to you two, because out of that whole class, only two students were absent yesterday – the day of the game.”
Johnny froze as Mr. Matthews paused one last time before finishing: “”I’m going to give whichever one of you is guilty ONE MINUTE to think it over. Believe me, if whoever did it admits it, it will go a lot easier for you than if I have to find out myself.”
His heart pounding and his mind racing, Johnny desperately tried to think of a way out. Then, just as he was about to give up, he glanced at Ronald Miller and it came to him.
Suppose he told Mr. Matthews that he had seen Ronald find the ticket? Wasn’t Ronald one of the worst truants and troublemakers in sixth grade, while Johnny seemed like such a goody-goody that kids like Ronald made fun of him? It was obvious whom Mr. Matthews would believe. Not only would Johnny get away with it – he would also get back at Ronald for some of the dirty tricks Ronald had played on him.
Mr. Matthews was about to indicate that time was up. Johnny knew it was now or never, but he hesitated….then, mustering up his last ounce of resolve, he did what he had to do.
”And that story by Johnny Russell is the winner, students, of my contest to write a plot which best illustrates the meaning of the word dilemma,” Mrs. Pruirtt announced proudly to her 6th grade English class, as if she herself might have written what she had just read to them. Johnny just sat at his desk, trying not to look embarrassed, but Mrs. Pruitt continued, “I hadn’t planned to give the winner a prize, but since this IS, after all, Reds opening day, Mr. Matthews and I decided to award a kind of ‘sur-prize’. Johnny, you are excused from class for the rest of the afternoon to watch the game on TV in the teachers lounge.”
His classmates cheered and jeered as Johnny’s face reddened.
”Oh….one more thing, Johnny,” said Mrs. Pruitt. Mr. Matthews feels that it wouldn’t be much fun to watch the game by yourself, so you may pick one of your classmates – anyone you choose – to watch the game with you.”
Johnny could feel the eyes fo the whole class on him as he stood up and looked out over the sea of expectant faces. Finally, he zeroed in on Ben, one of his best friends, and was about to name his choice when he caught sight of another face in the crowd – a scowling face with glaring eyes and ominous expression which made him think twice.
It was the face of Ronald Miller.
”Mrs. Pruitt,” Johnny said, “I guess I don’t deserve a prize. I just realized I must have hurt Ronald’s feelings by making him the ‘bad guy’ in my story. But if I try to make it up to him by picking him to watch the game with me, he’ll think I’m afraid of him. So maybe the best thing to do is just say no – but thanks anyway for choosing me.”
The room was suddenly very quiet as Johnny sat back down, while Ronald pretended to be indifferent, shifting in his seat and looking away.
Mrs. Pruitt thought for a moment and then said, “Johnny, I know you mean well, but does that really solve the problem? You and Ronald need to put this behind you and, hopefully, learn something from it. So I want you to go ahead and enjoy the game and let ME choose who’ll watch it with you. And guess what – I choose Ronald Miller.”
Johnny and Ronald looked from Mrs. Pruitt to each other and back to her again.
”Class,” Mrs. Pruitt proclaimed, “let’s give them both a big hand!”
And with that, Johnny and Ronald got up and walked out of the room side by side as the sound of wild clapping and cheering followed them out the door. In fact, the clapping and cheering were so loud that no one heard the grunts and punches from the fighting that started as soon as they closed the door behind them.