“Watch out! Here comes a roll!” I duck my head and clutch my tray close to my body to avoid getting hit by the hard piece of bread, and then wrinkle my nose at the strong smell of bleach, canned vegetables and mystery meat that fills the cafeteria. The smaller boys, who threw the food at me, crack up laughing, scattering to various tables around the room. “Sheesh, are those fifth graders immature,” I frown and shake a crumb out of my thick ebony braids. My friends and I were definitely not so silly last year. Lunchtime at Xavier Academy can be a zoo. The teachers sit at tables in the back of the lunchroom, and the kids sit in front near the food line. Since it’s a private school, the price of our lunches is included in the money our parents pay. We can go through the line as many times as we want during the thirty minute lunch period, and that sometimes leads to food fights when the teachers aren’t looking.
“Let’s sit at that table over there.” My best friend Chloe points to some seats near our other classmates, Nathan Jones, Toby Johnson and Carlton Gibson. Chloe and I usually sit with the other members of our cheerleading squad, Valentina Martinez and Mariama Asante, but I don’t see them. “Hey, guys, what’s up?” Chloe asks, then flashes her too-white-to-be-true smile and shakes her glossy, black curls. She’s one of the prettiest girls in our sixth grade class, and also one of the most popular. Chloe gets all the attention from the boys, especially Toby, who has followed her around like my dog Bertram chasing a tennis ball, since he transferred to our school last year. Chloe won’t admit it, but she kind of likes him, too. Kids in our class call them ToChlo behind their backs. “Hey, ladies,” Toby grins back and shows his dimple. I remember when his smile made my day go from gray to rainbow bright. I had a major crush on Toby when he came to Xavier and went through all kinds of changes to get his attention. I’m embarrassed thinking about how I acted like I love basketball, which I can’t stand, because he is a star player on our school’s team, and how I even swiped a cell phone from one of my little brother’s friends so I could call Toby. I found out he didn’t really care about any of that stuff and liked me for myself. We aren’t a couple or anything, but I’m glad we’re friends.
“Whatcha reading?” I point at pieces of paper on the table that the boys are staring at like they’re Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. “An invitation for teams to sign up for the new computer coding club,” answers Nathan, pushing his dark-rimmed glasses up on his nose. “Xavier is having a coding competition to see who can make the best computer app.” “What’s coding?” I ask. “A special language that computer programmers use to tell the computer what to do,” Nathan explains. “like show a video, or start a game.” “We’re thinking about making an app that’s similar to the video game, Fortify,” says Toby. “The grand prize is two hundred dollars, and it’s split between all the team members. I want some new basketball shoes, and my dad says I have to come up with half the money myself, so this will be a quick way to get it.” “Count us in!” enthuses Chloe. “We could always use some extra cash for trips to the mall.” “Yeah, that sounds like fun,” I add. “Wait a minute, ladies,” says Nathan. “Coding isn’t as easy as turning a cartwheel. We really want to win.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” asks Chloe, putting her hands on her hips. “You don’t think you could win with us on the team?” “I-I didn’t say that,” he stammers. “It’s just with your…umm…disability and all…and all the time you have to practice for cheerleading, I wonder if you could really help us.”
Now he’s done it. I can almost see the steam coming out of Chloe’s curls. My best friend has dyslexia, a condition that makes her see numbers and letters differently. Because of it, she takes longer to read and do math than other kids and is in some special classes. She gets very angry when people make fun of her about it, or act like she’s not smart. “If you’re so worried about us being in cheer why would you pick Toby for the team?” Chloe counters. “He practices his basketball just as much as we practice for cheerleading, and we’re all at the same games.” “Toby is a level one Fortify player,” Nathan says. “He knows everything about the game, so he can help us write a plan for how the app should work.” “Oooo, I guess we should bow down to the expert,” says Chloe. “My eight-year-old brother Cole plays Fortify,” I pipe in. “I’m sure it’s not too hard to figure out.” “Yeah, you guys just don’t want us,” Chloe frowns. “Nobody’s trying to keep you girls from being on the team.” Carlton holds his palms up to keep the peace. “It’s just that we’ve asked a couple other guys to be on our team already, so we don’t have room for anyone else.”
“Exactly. We’d love to have the extra ‘brain power,’ but our group is full,” Nathan agrees. “In fact, I wish I could make an app to clone myself. Then I’d have another person to do my school assignments while I’m working on this.” “Why’d we want to have two of you?” says Chloe. “There are enough jerks running around this school. Come on, Sophie! Since their group is so ‘crowded,’ let’s find a table where there is enough space for us.” She turns on her heels and moves toward another table, and I follow. “Chloe, hold up! Don’t be like that!” Toby calls. She doesn’t look back. “Let her go, man,” says Nathan, “It’s not worth it.” They turn back to the flyers. “The nerve of those boys!” Chloe huffs as we sit down at a table in a corner of the room. “I can’t believe they think we’re not smart enough to help them win the competition.” I shake my head and smooth my uniform skirt. I am especially surprised at Nathan, since I beat him in both the school and regional spelling bees last year. “They think we’re dumb just because we are cheerleaders and because we’re girls.” “Well, we’ll show them!” Chloe yanks a coding club flyer off the cafeteria wall. “Let’s sign up for the competition and beat the pants off them!” “Yeah, they’ll wish that they begged us to be on their team!” I agree.
We high five, and then start reviewing the contest rules as we eat our sandwiches. The coding club meeting is tomorrow afternoon in the school computer lab. I can’t wait to see Nathan’s and Toby’s faces when we show up with our own winning team. It's game on!