Mrs. Roberts had taught sixth-grade English in my school for about eight hundred years. She was famous for cramming educational experiences into every spare minute. So on the last day of school, while the other classes had parties or played out on the field, Mrs. Roberts's English class was busy sweating the final hours away on a "surprise" end-of-year essay: "Three Wishes I'd Like to Fulfill over Summer Vacation."
Another thing about Mrs. Roberts. Not only was her end-of-school essay notorious, but she never even changed the topic. So though it was supposed to be a surprise assignment for the last day of school, really every sixth grader with a normal IQ knew the question beforehand. And most had written the essay out and memorized it, because the rule in Mrs. Roberts's class was that when you were done, you could leave.
I had plenty of wishes for the summer after sixth grade, none of which I planned to share with Mrs. Roberts. So I wrote a fake essay for that last day, listing my wishes as:
1. See all the movies headlined at the Ace Theatre.
2. Learn to swim.
3. Visit Beth at summer camp.
None of which I wanted to do. But I did have three real wishes.
In fact, I liked Mrs. Roberts's idea so much that I'd been writing my three wishes down each summer since the year I first heard of her assignmentin second grade. Here were my three real wishes:
1. Get tall.
2. Have an adventure.
3. Meet my father.
Of these three wishes, none had ever been fulfilled. And, being realistic, I realized they weren't going to be. First of all, I was short and, if Gran was any indication, likely to stay that way. Combine that with my short hair and flat chest, and I looked more like an eight-year-old boy than an eleven-year-old girl and usually had to tell people my name, Annie, to make them realize the truth. But Gran says that happens when you're eleven. And since I'm not pretty, but what people call plain, I didn't think just growing my hair long would help me.
Anyway, the point is, growing tall wasn't a wish that was likely to come true. My second wish didn't hold much more hope of being fulfilled. Adventures were scarce in Sunshine, a small town of what Mrs. Roberts called "some two thou-sand souls," as if it were populated by ghosts. Its biggest employer was Enderfield, the state prison several miles from town; its second biggest was the local department store, Ratchett's, which was two stories high and filled with what my friend Beth liked to call Ancient Style, since everything they showed there was at least ten years out of date.
During sixth grade, the only excitement I'd had was on the few nights I got to sleep over at Beth's house and watch The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage on ABC. We didn't have a TV at our house, or even a radio. The only reason we even had a telephone was because I paid our bills down at the post office, with cash Gran pulled out of various hiding places in the house. She didn't believe in dealing more than necessary with banks, which she said kept records on everybody and were nosy. So it was only by going to Beth's house that I knew those crazy Iranians had kept people hostage for 227 days by our second-to-last day of school, June 17. I'd kept count right along with Mr. Koppel, and Beth liked to marvel at the way those numbers stuck in my head. Privately, though, I thought it had more to do with only getting to watch the show three times. Things like that stay with you when you don't see them too much. Which is why my second wish wasn't exactly realistic, either. Since sitting on Beth's family-room couch and waiting for Ted Koppel to come on was the closest I had come to excitement all year, I had little hope that the summer, with Beth away at camp, would hold much adventure.
Excerpted from Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz. Copyright © 2013 by Adina Rishe Gewirtz. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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