Miss Fee pointed to the enormous paper tree hanging on the back wall of the fifth grade classroom. “What’s missing?” she asked.
“Leaves,” our class chanted together.
“You’re going to help it grow leaves,” she said as she held up a green paper maple leaf. “Each leaf has a place on it to write the name of a book, its author, and what it is about.”
Some of the kids started groaning, but Miss Fee kept smiling. “It’s going to be a contest,” she said.
“Whoever reads the most books this week and collects the most leaves will win first prize.”
Now she had our attention. Everyone likes contests, especially when there’s a prize.
“First prize is a gift certificate for a large pizza,” the teacher said, and the class started cheering.
“Quiet down, please,” Miss Fee instructed. She gave us the rules on how long the books had to be, and what kinds would be included.
I walked home after school with Susan. We each had checked out a couple of books to read.
“You’ll probably win,” Susan said. “No one reads books as fast as you do.”
“I love reading,” I said. “Once I get started, I can’t stop. In fact, Mom usually has to tell me to shut off the light and go to sleep at night.”
“Look!” Susan whispered to me. “Look at Robert.”
Up ahead, Robert carried a stack of six books. He didn’t have many friends. His shirts were a little too big and worn, and his pants had patches on them. He sat by himself at lunchtime and didn’t ever talk to anyone. Robert ignored all the kids, even when they teased him.
“Do you think you’re going to win?” Susan asked him, laughing.
Robert glanced up at us, then looked down again and hurried past us.
“Let’s go,” I said. I didn’t feel right provoking him, but I didn’t want to admit it.
The next night I stayed after school and headed for the library. I wanted to get a couple of books on fishing, which is the thing I love best, next to reading. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Standing in front of the fishing books was Robert, holding one about trout.
“That’s a good book,” I whispered. “I read it last week.”
Robert nodded and didn’t say anything. I think he was almost afraid of me.
“I want to get a book about making flies,” I added. “Dad said he’d help me learn how to tie one.”
Robert hesitated a second, then bent over and pulled a slim volume out from the bottom shelf. “This is the best book about that,” he said softly. “It helped me a lot.”
“Do you know how to tie flies?” I asked, surprised.
“My grandpa is teaching me. We both like fishing.”
“Me too,” I said. It was a good feeling to find someone else who liked the exact same thing. Susan didn’t like fishing.
“Getting lots of reading done?” I asked as I took the book he offered.
“I’m trying to,” Robert said. He paused for a second. “I want to win the contest so that I can take my mom out for a pizza and surprise her. It’s her birthday this Saturday.”
“That’s a neat idea,” I agreed. “Good luck.”
The next morning, I found a wadded up piece of paper in my desk. I almost tossed it out, when I saw the note:
My Grandpa tied this for you.
I opened up the crumpled paper, and inside was an artificial fly. I picked it up and examined how it had been expertly put together. After math class, I stopped Robert in the hallway. “Thanks,” I told him. “I can’t wait to try it out.”
Robert smiled. “My grandpa’s taking me fishing along Silver Creek Saturday morning. You’re welcome to come with us.”
Before I could say yes or no, Susan walked up. “Come on,” she said. “I want to show you the book I found about dinosaurs.”
I know I should have said something to Robert, but I didn’t want Susan to start teasing me, so I walked away. My stomach felt funny for the rest of the day whenever I thought about it.
On Friday afternoon, Miss Fee declared the contest over. She asked everyone to get out their completed leaves.
“Who has more than five?” she asked. Eleven hands went up in the air.
“How about more than ten?” Only four hands stayed up.
“More than twelve?” Just Robert and I still had our hands up.
“How many leaves do you have?” Miss Fee asked Robert.
“Fourteen,” Robert said proudly. I could see that everyone in the class was surprised.
At that moment, I decided what I wanted to do. I slipped one leaf back into my desk, and when Miss Fee asked me, I said I had thirteen. I guess I wanted Robert to win more than I wanted myself to. I could imagine him telling his mom about the pizza and how happy they’d both be.
When Miss Fee gave Robert the gift certificate, everyone started clapping. I clapped the loudest. After school, I waited by the front door for him.
“Dad said I could go fishing with you tomorrow if you still want company,” I told him.
Right then Susan came walking up. “We’re going fishing tomorrow,” I told her before I chickened out.
“Don’t you want to come over and play basketball?” she asked.
“Tomorrow afternoon, if I get my chores done after I get home,” I said. “I have to try out this new fly.” I took it out of my pocket to show her.
“Did you make that?” Susan asked.
“Robert’s grandpa made it. I’m going to ask him to show me how.”
“Think he’d show me?” she asked.
“Of course,” Robert said. Then he smiled and waved at us. “I have to get home and tell my mom about our pizza date.”
I waved and smiled too. Robert had the gift certificate, but I still felt like I had won first prize.