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Noggin(16)
John Corey Whaley

Before I could do that, though, Principal Carson ran in and put an arm around my shoulders. She smelled exactly the same as always, like Irish Spring soap.

“Travis Coates! What an outstanding kid!”

“Hi.”

“Travis, what you’ve done. Your story, it’s just . . . it’s so inspiring for us all.”

Then Principal Carson was crying these little tears and wiping them away with the back of her left hand. Her fingernails were shiny red, and she was wearing a ring that looked to me like she didn’t even need this job. Maybe she’s for real, I thought. Maybe she loves kids that much.

“We should get a picture, no?” She perked up, still wiping tears and snorting as she breathed in.

“Really?” I asked. But I knew Principal Carson was for real when the secretary stood up and pointed her cell phone toward us.

Then Principal Carson waved her arms out to invite everyone standing around in the office—the staff, a few random students, and a PE teacher—to join us. Maybe they’d planned the whole thing because it didn’t take long before I was sandwiched between them and forcing a smile for the camera.

“I’m probably late for class,” I said, attempting a move for the door.

“I’ll walk you, sweetie,” Principal Carson said.

There was clapping when we stepped into Mrs. Lasetter’s geometry class. Even that battle-ax was standing behind her desk and smiling as kids started getting up to pat me on the back, shake my hand, and hold their phones up in front of us to snap quick photos. I was sweating now, nervous with all the eyes on me and all the attention. This was harder than I’d thought, and it made High School Round One seem so easy. Back then I could hide away and talk to the handful of people I chose and then go home. This was just getting ridiculous. I managed to say “Thanks” over their collective noise, and I took a seat in the front corner of the room. As soon as I sat down, I felt like everyone was looking at me, staring at my head and wondering if it were at all possible for it to fly right off or roll down one of my arms. Principal Carson was still standing at the front of the room, and she held one hand up to signal for silence.

“Boys and girls, I hope you understand the privilege that has been bestowed upon you. You all get to witness one of the greatest miracles of modern science right here at Springside High. What an amazing day!”

And then more clapping and even a few cheers rang out from the students. I closed my eyes and clinched my fists while forcing a smile. I wasn’t prepared for this, and it was becoming pretty overwhelming. Then one kid from the back yelled, “NOGGIN!” like he was trying to start a group chant with it, but the whole room fell super quiet instead.

“Hatton!” Mrs. Lasetter barked. “Apologize! Now!”

“Sorry.”

I turned around to see a skinny kid with glasses and blond, almost white hair slumping down in his desk. He looked at me with this sincere regret on his face.

“No.” I stood up. “It’s fine. I like it.”

“You like what?” Lasetter asked. She’d always hated me, and I could already see it coming back. I thought about succumbing to that look she gave me, the one that had always made even the most defiant students lower their heads in shame. But I was back, and even though I just wanted to run away and hide, defying her was the best moment of my new life.

“Noggin. It has a nice ring to it.”

“He was being rude.”

“But I liked it. What’s your name again? Hatton?”

He perked up and nodded his head. He was smiling now but still looking over at Lasetter with a cautious expression, unsure if he’d be punished for going along with me.

“I always wanted a nickname. Thanks.”

“How do you like that, kids? What a fantastic attitude this young man has! And after all he’s been through!” Principal Carson clasped her hands together and sighed deeply.

“Speech!” one kid shouted from the back of the room.

I looked up at Mrs. Lasetter, and she was clenching her jaw so hard she’d have to take an aspirin later.

“SPEECH! SPEECH! SPEECH!” they all started shouting.

Then Principal Carson looked at me, looked right down at me and into my eyes, and I knew I had to do it. As much as I just wanted to be boring, like Mom said, I knew they weren’t going to let me. I mean, it couldn’t be that bad, right? So I stood up, waited for them all to settle down, wiped sweat from my forehead with the back of one arm, and spoke.

“It’s good to be back here,” I began. “It seems like just yesterday I was walking these halls, even though it was with a different set of legs and all.”

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