“Marionette,” called out the teacher.
Lucia stood before the class, her dark eyes shining and her hands clasped before her in eager anticipation. Her only opponent, Susan Hanley, spelled quickly, “M-a-r-i-o-n … ” She hesitated a moment before finishing, “e-t.”
“I’m sorry,” said the teacher, “but that’s the wrong spelling.”
Lucia felt sorry for Susan, whose crushed expression and flushed face mirrored her disappointment. Should I misspell the word and end the contest in a tie? Lucia wondered.
Lucia didn’t want to begin her first week at a new school making an enemy. She wondered if Susan was like Donna at her former school. Donna and Lucia had battled constantly for first place in everything.
“Marionette,” the teacher repeated.
Lucia tore her gaze from Susan and began to spell the word: “M—” Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and began again, “M-a-r-i-o-n-e-t-t-e.”
“The winner is Lucia Martin!” declared the teacher.
Lucia smiled weakly and looked at Susan. Susan’s eyes were downcast, and her complexion was a dull brick red. Lucia’s stomach lurched. I did the wrong thing, she decided.
Just then the recess bell rang, and the fourth grade class spilled out onto the playground. Lucia trailed with heavy steps, her eyes following Susan. I don’t want to compete with her, she thought. I just want to be friends. But she knew how hard it was not to compete. She could never resist trying to beat Donna.
Lucia found herself standing near Susan and another girl.
“Too bad about the spelling bee,” Susan’s friend was saying. “Up until now you hadn’t lost any. Will your folks be upset?”
Susan picked nervously at the buttons on her coat. “I suppose so,” she muttered dully. “My parents get upset whenever they think I’m not doing as well as my sister Sylvia. The trouble is, my sister’s good at everything! I’m tired of trying to keep up with her.”
Poor Susan, Lucia thought. At least I don’t have those problems.
“Let’s play jump rope,” Susan’s friend suggested. “Everyone knows you’re the best rope jumper in the school!”
Immediately a game of jump rope was started, and Lucia asked to turn one end of the rope. Before long she forgot her troubles and was shouting the chants with the others.
Soon it was Susan’s turn to jump. The girls counted out the turns of the rope together. On and on they counted. Lucia found herself cheering for Susan with the rest. “Hit two hundred!” she called. “You can do it!”
The girls counted excitedly, “193, 194, 195, …”
Susan’s face was the color of a ripe tomato. Lucia could hear her gasping for breath as the girls called out, “198, 199, 200!”
As the girls cheered the exhausted jumper, Susan’s shoe caught the rope and she went down on one knee.
Lucia put out a hand to help Susan up. But Susan jerked away, looking triumphant. “Let’s see you beat that!” she whispered.
Lucia’s face burned. As she took her turn jumping the rope, a familiar anger tightened her stomach. It was happening all over again.
The only sound was the slap of the rope and the tap of her leather shoes on the cement as she easily jumped to fifty. The rope arched up and down, over and over again, making a whooshing sound as it cut through the air.
The girls began to count aloud now, “101, 102, …”
Lucia’s breath came in shallow pants. Her hands clenched and unclenched automatically. Her leather shoes beat out a pattern on the concrete. The perspiration on her forehead trickled down her nose. She wiped it away quickly.
Above the roar in her ears she heard, “189, 190, 191, …” Her legs felt heavy now, and there was a tingling numbness in the soles of her feet. She felt a strange elation. “… 195, 196, …”
Then Susan’s face loomed before her. She saw the crumpled features and brimming eyes of her defeated opponent in the spelling bee. Lucia knew what she must do. When “199” rang out, she dragged one foot just as the rope hit the ground. She fell to her hands and knees gasping for breath. The girls crowded around her expressing sympathy.
Lucia gazed into the gray eyes of her opponent, noting Susan’s look of satisfaction. Then Susan’s eyes widened as she recognized Lucia’s sacrifice to win her friendship. A flush crept slowly up Susan’s cheeks before she lowered her eyes.
Please understand, Lucia pleaded silently. People are more important than winning or losing.
When Susan looked up again, her eyes had softened and tiny twinkly lights glinted in their depths. She smiled warmly and held her hand out to Lucia to help her up.