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just Call Me Stupid

Standing there in front of his first grade teacher and all of the kids, Patrick had heard his father’s words echoing in his mind. “STUPID! . . . STUPID . . . STUPID!” He had felt his father’s iron grip on his shoulders, the big hands shaking him so hard it seemed he would shatter and fall into a million pieces. “STUPID! . . . STUPID! . . . STUPID! Get it right! Don’t be STUPID!
Just Call Me Stupid

Patrick Lowe is in fifth grade and still can’t read. When he looks at the words on the page, they begin to blur, and he feels like he’s suffocating. Before Dad deserted the family, he expected Patrick to be perfect at everything. “Get it right! Don’t be stupid,” he would say. And now Patricks classmates think he’s stupid, too.

Patrick is able to run away from all the hurt and embarrassment by retreating to his own special world – a world in which he is the brilliant and brave White Knight. Nothing and no one bothers the White Knight – not memories of his abusive father; nor his frustrated reading teacher, Mrs. Nagle; and not even Andy, the class bully.

But then Celina moves into the house next door. She likes to read so much that her face glows whenever she picks up a book. She wants to be Patrick’s friend, and like both his mother and home-room teacher, she believes that he really is smart. Patrick isn’t so sure – until a crisis makes him realize that Celina’s faith in him is justified.

State children’s choice award nominations in New Mexico, Maine, Missouri, Iowa, Utah, Florida, Indiana, and Connecticut. Oregon Book Award nominee.

Book on tape.

Troll Book Club selection.

“Poignantly captured fears and frustrations . . . action in every word . . . just enough humor . . . a book to relate to”  -The Reading Teacher

“Lively and well plotted, with funny– as well as touching– scenes and a satisfying upbeat ending.”  -Kirkus

“A dramatic, insightful novel portraying a child’s reading problems”  -Publishers Weekly

“A popular choice for individual reading . . . may also spark classroom discussions about self-esteem, disabilities, and talents.”  -Booklist

To read an article I wrote for The New Advocate (Fall, 1996) that tells how JUST CALL ME STUPID came to be, click here.

Chapter 1 – The White Knight

Mrs. Nagle’s voice came across the table heavy with frustration. “No, Patrick. You’re not paying attention. Look at the letters. Listen to the sound. W and H together says wh. You’re a fifth grader, not a first grader. You know this. Cooperate for a change.” She pointed to her mouth. “Look at my lips. I blow the air out through rounded lips see, Patrick? Look at my lips.”

Patrick Lowe did as he was told and looked at Mrs. Nagle’s lips. They were bright red with lipstick and very small, even though she had them sticking out in an exaggerated O-shape.

Mrs. Nagle blew air at Patrick and said the W-H sound over and over. It came at him in strong puffs, mixed with the smell of coffee. “Wh, wh, wh, wh. Come on, Patrick. The letters are here on your worksheet. Read the sound.”

Patrick could feel the heat of Mrs. Nagle’s demands as plainly as he could feel the afternoon heat in the small, windowless Reading Resource Room of Dewey Elementary School. The desert air outside had reached over one hundred degrees again, he could tell, even though it was late September and Tucson should be cooling down.

Mrs. Nagle had put in a request to the maintenance department for the air conditioner to be fixed over two weeks ago. “We’ll be as cool as cucumbers in no time!” she had said with a smile. But the small fan that was only to fill in for a while still purred gently on her desk. It sounded like it was doing its job, but it wasn’t.

Patrick slid over in his chair, even though he knew it would irritate Mrs. Nagle. It wasn’t that he wanted to make her angry. He had to move away. It was that feeling again, as if a weight were pushing in on his chest and the walls were pressing in from all sides.

Mrs. Nagle scooted her chair closer to the table. “Read, Patrick,” she kept insisting. “Look at the letters and read.”

Patrick looked at the letters, but it was no use. The air in the Reading Resource Room seemed to be growing heavier, making it harder to breathe. He needed space and light. Mrs. Nagle leaned even closer, right up near Patrick’s face. Coffee breath. He had to get away.

This time Patrick didn’t slip farther across his chair, but across his mind. In an instant, he turned his thoughts in and fled. Mrs. Nagle faded. So did the Resource Room full of worksheets. And so did his old self. In his imagination he became the White Knight, just like when he played chess at home, riding off the board and across a sunlit meadow, lance held high, the light glinting off his shield — polished silver with a red dragon breathing fire — dazzling the cheering crowd that had gathered to see him joust.

“Pay attention, Patrick,” Mrs. Nagle’s voice cut in, each syllable as pointed as a knight’s lance.

She was losing her patience. From far away on the sunlit meadow, Patrick could tell. He forced himself to blink back the White Knight, and looked at Mrs. Nagle’s mouth again. Now it was a firm straight line across her face, an angry line that quivered slightly.

Patrick wished he could make Mrs. Nagle happy. He wanted her to see that he knew the letters W and H, that he knew they said wh. He wanted her to see that he really wanted to read.

Because he did want to read; he had always wanted to. He had loved books and the idea of reading before he started school. He used to sit with a book in his lap and pretend he was reading it, running his finger along the lines and making up the words he thought should go with the pictures.

He had been able to write his name when he entered kindergarten. By the end of the year he had learned all the letters of the alphabet. And he had been able to read words like “STOP” on the sign at the corner, and “CHEERIOS” on the cereal box. He had started first grade excited to learn more.

But then his new teacher had asked him to stand up and say the letter sounds in front of everybody. All of the kids had stared at him, and he had gotten mixed up. “That is a B, not a D,” his teacher had said. “If you want to read, you must keep the sounds straight. You mustn’t get them wrong.”

Patrick had panicked. Dad had always said not to be wrong. “Get it right! Don’t be stupid!” His father’s voice so clear in his mind. “You spilled your milk; I knew you would!” All those times he’d made mistakes. “Now look what you’ve done!” Dad’s face red with anger. “Wrecked your new bike? What are you, some kind of a klutz?” Liquor on hot breath. “N, Patrick! L-M-N-O-P! Any idiot can remember that!” Fierce eyes boring into him, driving sharp points straight at his heart. “Get it right, will you! Don’t be so STUPID!”

Standing there in front of his first grade teacher and all of the kids, Patrick had heard his father’s words echoing in his mind. “STUPID! . . . STUPID . . . STUPID!” He had felt his father’s iron grip on his shoulders, the big hands shaking him so hard it seemed he would shatter and fall into a million pieces. “STUPID! . . . STUPID! . . . STUPID! Get it right! Don’t be STUPID!”

Patrick had decided to say nothing rather than be wrong. He didn’t want to be stupid. His teacher had kept on asking. The kids had kept on staring. But he hadn’t answered.

Finally, after a month of asking, his teacher had called his parents. They went in for a conference while Patrick waited in the hall. He heard his dad get angry at the teacher. Then at home, after his mother went to work, his dad had gotten angry at Patrick, too. “Stupid!” he had yelled. He’d had a drink, then three, and gotten even angrier, so angry rage had overtaken him and he had locked Patrick in the hall closet, yelling, “Maybe this’ll teach you! DON’T BE STUPID!”

Patrick had been too afraid to tell his mother later — how terrified he had been in that dark, suffocating place. He hadn’t wanted his dad to get angry at her, too.

After that, reading had become the time to go down the hall to the Resource Room and Mrs. Nagle — for worksheets and drill after drill on the letter sounds. Every day he went. Every day Mrs. Nagle asked him to tell her what he knew. Patrick tried. But it all made him so nervous. He made mistakes. Mrs. Nagle asked again. Which made him more nervous, and led to even more mistakes. But Mrs. Nagle kept on asking anyway, until the weight of her questions bore down on his chest, and the walls of the Resource Room began to close in, cutting off the air and the light, just like when he had been locked in the hall closet. And Patrick had come to believe what his dad had said. He couldn’t get it right. He really was stupid.

By the end of first grade, Patrick wouldn’t pick up books any more.

The joy had gone out of them. Instead, he just drew the stories he thought might be between the covers — tales of knights and dragons and castles. Through drawing, he found he could escape into a world of his own making. It became his defense, his way out. And it still worked now, even after five years of Mrs. Nagle’s stubborn insistance otherwise.

Mrs. Nagle. She meant well. Patrick knew that. She worked hard at helping him. Still, she was always pushing, as though she had some calendar with his name on it, with the dates circled on which she hoped he’d accomplish certain things. Lately, she’d been pressing for him to come to the Resource Room more often, even though Mrs. Romero, his regular classroom teacher this year, disagreed.

Patrick had overheard the two of them, Mrs. Nagle and Mrs. Romero, talking about it just yesterday. He had gone back for his lunch box, and overheard from the doorway.

“I know it’s the policy of this school district to keep children with their age group,” Mrs. Nagle had said, “but I still think Patrick should have been retained in first grade. He’d be doing better now. He needs more work, not less.”

“Maybe if we took some of the pressure off,” Mrs. Romero had suggested, “and let him learn to enjoy books again. In the classroom with the other children he might show more interest in –“

“I think,” Mrs. Nagle had cut in. “I think I know what’s best for Patrick.”

The walls had begun to close in on Patrick as the women talked, the weight of their words pressing on his chest. He had slunk away without his lunch box, suddenly not hungry anymore. Behind the bike racks he had hidden in the bushes next to the school wall, drawing pictures in his mind of the White Knight charging off the chessboard into a real-life battle, charging off across the sunlit meadow.

He had gotten away then, but now . . .

“Read, Patrick,” Mrs. Nagle said again, and Patrick could tell that she was hot and tired, and today felt like Friday even though it was only Wednesday. “What sound does W and H make together?”

Patrick strained to say wh. But the sound got stuck somewhere between his brain and his tongue, and the air in the Resource Room seemed to grow even hotter. The weight pushed in on his chest until he couldn’t get a full breath of air. And the walls. They were closing in again. The taste of panic rose in Patrick’s throat. He had to get away! Now!

In desperation, Patrick grabbed his pencil and began to sketch on the W-H worksheet Mrs. Nagle had given him. A white knight — QUICKLY! — on horseback, riding into the meadow where he could breathe. Frantically, Patrick tried to draw his way out.

That’s when Mrs. Nagle lost her patience. In a flash of anger, she reached over and jerked the pencil from Patrick’s hand, then grabbed his chin and forced it up so that he had to look her in the eyes. “Read!” she barked like an army drill sergeant.

For Patrick, it was as if his father had grabbed him again. He could almost smell the liquor, hear the closet door slamming shut. “Don’t touch me!” he yelled, jerking out of Mrs. Nagle’s grasp.

Mrs. Nagle went from angry to livid. “How dare you talk to me like that?” And for an instant Patrick knew that more than anything she wanted to slap him right across the face.

But just then the door of the Reading Resource Room swung open, and Mrs. Hollins stuck her head in. “Excuse me, Grace, but did you see the message from Mr. Gordon in your mailbox?”

Mrs. Nagle blinked hard. The anger slid from her face. A very tired look replaced it. She let out a long sigh, then carefully put another worksheet on the table. “Excuse me,” she said to Patrick as if nothing had happened only seconds before. “Please work on this while I talk with Mrs. Hollins.” Then she got up and left the room, pulling the door shut behind her.

Still breathing hard, Patrick stared at the new worksheet. It seemed as if there was always one more where the last one had come from. Worksheets, worksheets, worksheets. The room was nothing but a long line of worksheets.

Outside the door, Patrick could hear Mrs. Nagle talking to Mrs. Hollins. Their voices were low, muffled sounds until Mrs. Nagle’s voice rose in frustration. “Another cut in the budget? How are we supposed to teach if we have no money for supplies? How am I supposed to do my job? It’s so hot in my room. Don’t they know how hard it is to teach kids like. . .”

Mrs. Nagle lowered her voice to a whisper, a mumble through the door. But Patrick knew good and well what she said. He’d heard it before — “How hard it is to teach kids like Patrick.”

Kids like Patrick. Kids like Patrick were what Mrs. Nagle was complaining about. Kids who lived across Verde Road in his neighborhood of small, frayed houses. Kids who were from families that were often only half families, fathers gone as his was now, or such a mess their fathers might as well be gone. Kids who had trouble in school. Kids who would never have what Mrs. Nagle thought nothing of: a shiny car with no dents, trips on an airplane, a big TV, things that smell new. Patrick knew exactly what it was like with kids like him. But Mrs. Nagle didn’t. All she knew was her stupid worksheets.

Anger swelled in Patrick. He tried to hold it back, push it into the spot where he pushed most of his emotions. But he couldn’t get hold. His face went red, his teeth clinched. In a sudden burst of motion, he swept Mrs. Nagle’s worksheets off the table. He jumped up and lifted his foot to stomp on them, to show Mrs. Nagle just exactly how much he hated W-H.

But his foot was stopped short by the sight of the clean white backs of the worksheets. They had landed facedown on the floor. Their blank space seemed to call to him. Such a perfect place to draw.

Patrick checked over his shoulder for Mrs. Nagle. Her voice was back under control again, droning on and on in the hall. She was in no hurry to return to him, he knew. Not today, anyway. He was back under control again, too. No anger. He didn’t care what she thought of “kids like Patrick.”

Leaning down, Patrick quickly retrieved the worksheets, careful not to turn the W-H side up. He returned to the table, picked up his pencil, and began to draw. His hand moved smoothly this time, not propelled by fear. It floated over the paper in assured strokes, full of pleasure, not panic. His breathing had returned to normal. The suffocating weight on his chest was gone. The room seemed much bigger, lighter, cooler. As Patrick drew, a smile worked its way onto his lips. He was where he wanted to be — in his own private world where no one, not even Mrs. Nagle, could reach him. “The White Knight is charging,” he whispered, “charging out to fight a huge dragon!”