R. J. Meets The Shadow

IT was the scariest day of my life!

``Recess time, class!'' announced my teacher, Mrs. Bunch, at noontime one winter day. We were surprised to be let outside: Sleet mixed with snow was coming down at a windy slant. The flag in front of the school looked like cardboard. One look told you how cold it was.

Still, we were glad. It was the first snow of the year!

``Hurray!'' we all shouted and ran for our coats.

At the door, Mrs. Bunch had a warning.

``The snow's wet - very wet,'' she told us. ``Stay on your feet, and if you don't have boots on, stay under the overhang where it's dry. I don't want anyone coming back here a snowman.''

Set free, I was racing down the sidewalk, seeing how many snowflakes I could catch in my mouth, when - oooff! Someone bumped me from behind, or maybe pushed, I couldn't tell.

Down I went with a splat, somersaulting into a slurpy-wet pile of slush. Water ran up my pants and down my sleeves, soaking me from earmuff to toe-warmer. Even my boots were waterlogged.

Slush drizzled off my nose as I got up to much laughter.

``I'd give that a perfect 10, R.J.,'' said my friend Luke, with a big grin on his face. Was he the culprit? ``Wait'll Mrs. Bunch sees you.''

But she already had.

``R.J., get in here at once!''

Kids scattered, leaving me alone to face my teacher, who held the door open for me to come back inside. It was a good thing, too: I was cold and getting colder.

``Just look at you,'' Mrs. Bunch said impatiently. ``Go at once to the school nurse, where you can dry off and maybe come up with a change of clothes. What a mess.''

Gasp - what had she said! The nurse? Oh no!

``Please, Mrs. Bunch,'' I said shakily, ``anything but that.''

``R.J., what are you talking about? The nurse, and now.''

Mrs. Bunch wasn't to blame. No one but we kids knew who to stay away from at school, that is, unless you were looking for trouble. And near the top of the list was ``Crowfoot'' Crothers, the school nurse, as mean a lady as you'd ever have the misfortune to meet. Why, according to her, no one ever needed a helping hand or a Kleenex - not even a glass of water.

What would she say and do when she saw snowman me, dripping water all over her clean floor, asking for a change of clothes? Whatever, I guessed it wouldn't be good, and I was right.

``Stand over there on that rubber mat,'' she barked.

I wasn't her only customer. Two little first-grade girls - pixies - giggled in the corner. They were looking at me.

Crowfoot got up slowly from her desk and came over to me, her black shoes (which gave her her nickname) clacking on the tile floor. Yardstick-thin, she towered above me. I smelled - what was it - salad dressing?

``So, you went and played in the snow?''

``Not played, fell.''

``Well, that was clumsy, wasn't it?''

I didn't tell her it wasn't my fault.

``Here, boy,'' she said, handing me a brown Army blanket. ``Go in the bathroom, remove all those wet clothes, and put this on. I suppose you want me to call your mother and have her come bail you out?''

``She's not home.'' It was the truth.

``What then?''

``Er, Mrs. Bunch said you'd have some clothes.''

``Clothes! You mean a change? I don't. Huh!''

She pointed toward the bathroom.

I wondered out loud, ``All my clothes?''

Giggles came from the corner.

``Afraid so,'' Crowfoot said. ``They all look wet.'' Embarrassingly, she was right.

It took me a while to peel them off - coat, sweater, shirt, pants, undershirt and pants, boots, toe-warmers, socks - the works. I dried myself off with a towel, wrapped up in the blanket, and was feeling a lot better when there was a knock on the door. ``You about done?'' Crowfoot barked.

``Sure,'' I said through the door.

``Then get a move on. Come out of there.''

Come out? To go where? I was wrapped in nothing but a blanket.

``You can't stay here all afternoon 'till your clothes dry.'' Crowfoot said. ``You'll just have to wait in the ... principal's office.''

Big X, the principal! Gasp and double gasp. Things were going from bad to worse. First Crowfoot and now the principal, No. 2 on any kid's hit list. (Most dreaded of all was The Shadow, but more about him later.)

A door separated the nurse's office from the principal's, and in I went. If I thought Big X wouldn't be there, I was wrong.

``Well, what have we here? R.J., isn't it?''

What could I say?

He was sitting behind his desk with his feet up - they were at least a size 13 - and his arms behind his head, a smelly tuna-fish-and-tomato submarine sandwich, pickle, and potato chips spread out all over. He had the largest, roundest, baldest head of any human on earth. His voice was a rumble. Why my parents liked him, I'd never know.

``R.J., where are your clothes?''

``I ... er ....''

``Speak up. Don't slur your words.''

Big X had me flustered. ``My clothes?''

``Yes, are you aware you're not wearing any?''

``Oh, you mean my ... clothes.''

He eyed me suspiciously. ``You're not playing games with me, are you, R.J.?''

``Games? Oh no, sir. My clothes. Well, they're hanging up in the nurse's bathroom, wet because I went out for recess and someone....''

Big X put up a hand to stop me.

``I can guess,'' he said. ``Chip?''

Was the principal offering me food? He was, but when I went to reach in the bag the blanket I was wearing began to slip off my shoulders and ... well, I ended up knocking the potato chips onto the floor and stepping on them with my bare feet.

They made little crunchy noises.

I could hear giggling from the next room.

Without a word, the principal looked at the ruined chips and then at me, his face growing red, from pink to cherry.

``R.J.,'' he rumbled. ``You're in a fix. No dry clothes. Nowhere to go. Ms. Crothers threw you out. You can't go back to class, I understand that. Your mom and dad work, so they can't be of any help. You can't stay here, in my office. I have a meeting in a few minutes. Any ideas?''

He was leaving it up to me. Suddenly a great idea popped into my head. Ziiiinnng!

``Well?'' Big X was waiting.

``There are my gym clothes - in my gym locker.''

The principal beamed. ``Excellent. Here's a pass. Go downstairs to the gymnasium, get your change of clothes, and then hurry back to class. By day's end, you can change back into your regular clothes in time for the bus to take you home. Hurry....''

Like that, I was out the door, into the main hallway and, Army blanket flapping, down two flights of stairs before anyone could see me. Whew! In fact, I was going so fast I got all the way down there before I realized just where I was - dangerously close to the boiler room, home of The Shadow.

It was our name for the school's custodian (teachers called him Mr. Smith), mostly because you hardly ever saw him, in and out among the building's shadows - a phantom day and night. Rumor said that after everyone else had gone home for the day, The Shadow went around eating all the leftover pizza in the cafeteria. Chalking the erasers. Watching TV in his pajamas, warmed by the heat from the boiler. Playing rock music full volume. Even roller skating up and down the empty halls in the dark.

Best for a fifth-grader to avoid.

I was fumbling with my locker in the near dark when I heard a quiet little noise behind me.

``Wh-who's there?'' I stammered.

Not a sound.

``Mr. Smith? Is that you?''

All at once - like that - the lights went on.

``Thought you could use some help,'' said a small, elderly man with a friendly voice. He was about the size I'd be in a year or two. He had on work pants and a clean white shirt. His hair was combed, and he smelled like my dad did after he shaved. ``Yes, I'm Mr. Smith.''

He looked me up and down and smiled.

``You've lost your clothes. Tell me how.''

I liked him right away, so I did.

``Wait here,'' he said when I'd finished.

A minute or two later he was back with an armload of boy's clothes - pants, shirts, shoes, socks - enough for about five kids. He told me they were lost-and-found items that no one had claimed, that he had a large boxful of them he was about to take to the homeless shelter.

``Try these on in the locker room,'' he said. ``They'll be more comfortable than your gym clothes. Bring the ones you don't use to my office down at the end of the hall. OK?''

I told him it was more than OK.

His office was easy to find; it was next to the boiler room. It had a desk, chair, lockers, cleaning equipment, radio, and even a mini-refrigerator. Did he live there?

He laughed when I asked. ``No, but some days it seems so, when the work is hard. Day like today when everything's sloppy outside.''

``I'll return these clothes tomorrow,'' I said.

``Take your time,'' he said with a smile.

``Goodbye,'' I said, thinking that I wouldn't call him The Shadow anymore. Maybe I wouldn't use the names Crowfoot or Big X either.

On my way out, I noticed something - roller skates - hanging from a hook on the wall above Mr. Smith's desk.

``What're those for?'' I asked him.

A twinkle caught his eye. ``Guess,'' he said.

`Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.

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