In this excerpt from the novel Project June Bug, we meet second-year English teacher Jenna Bianchi who is forced to make a choice: Give up on the defiant tenth grader with ADHD who is threatening to ruin her career, or help him harness his creativity and find a better path. Here, Jenna faces off with the rebellious student — just one of many challenges she will have to overcome.
Excerpt from Chapter 4
By Jackie Minniti
Age Level: Teen/Adult
Reading Level: Independent Reader
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Life is good for Jenna Bianchi. She’s just started her second year of teaching English at Morrison High School, a job she loves. She has a pet parrot with attitude. And there’s a handsome math teacher who wants to be more than just friends. But everything changes when a defiant, disruptive tenth grader walks into her classroom.
With a smart mouth and a swagger to match, Michael Tayler is a problem for Jenna from the very first day. His school record screams troublemaker, and Jenna wonders if the new year is already doomed. But when she reads Michael’s first poetry assignment, she recognizes it for what it truly is: a cry for help.
Michael’s presence sets into motion a chain of events that turns Jenna’s perfect life upside-down and threatens to destroy her career. Faced with a challenge unlike anything she’s ever known, Jenna commits to doing what no one has done for Michael Tayler before.
Nancy took out a disciplinary referral form and wrote Michael Tayler at the top. “Now tell me exactly what happened.”
Everything was fine in homeroom. Michael was jittery, but at least he wasn’t acting out. Maybe Anna was right, and he was just stressed about being in a new school without a peer group. Since I had lunch duty, I checked to see if anybody was sitting at his table. There’s nothing that spells “Loser” like sitting alone in the cafeteria. At first, Michael was the only occupant at a six-seater in the back corner. Then Jessica Corcoran came in with her friend, Chelsea Hopkins, and they sat on either side of him. Jessica is one of those kindhearted types who would probably take in a stray skunk. It must have bothered her to see Michael sitting by himself. All that female attention perked him up, and soon the three of them were chatting and laughing like old friends.
About five minutes before the end of the period, I was making a final clean-up check when I passed Michael’s table. The girls had cleared their places, but the area in front of Michael was littered with crumpled food wrappers, a half-filled bottle of Snapple, an empty potato chip bag, and a pile of used paper napkins.
“Michael, the bell’s going to ring soon. You need to throw away that trash.”
I’d never seen someone look down their nose while looking up, but somehow Michael managed to do just that. “I think you’ve got me mixed up with the help,” he said.
Help? If you don’t lose the attitude, you’ll need help picking your teeth up off the floor. I decided to count to three before I responded.
Jessica and Chelsea turned to him with identical, appalled expressions, but his eyes were fixed on me.
I glared back at him. “Unfortunately,” I said, “in this school you’re expected to clean up after yourself.”
“Why?” he asked. “Isn’t that what janitors are for?”
My fingers itched to slap his insolent face. Before I could respond, Jessica came to the rescue.
“C’mon, Michael. Chelsea and I will help you.” She started gathering the paper napkins, and Michael’s eyes broke away from mine just as the bell rang. He wadded the rest of the trash together, picked up the Snapple bottle, and followed Jessica to the trash can.
I didn’t see him again until the kids were at their lockers. He was talking to Jessica when Bryan Grant and Alex Benitez came down the hall. They were horsing around like they always do, shoving each other as they walked. Alex pushed Bryan into Michael, and Michael dropped his binder. Papers went flying.
Bryan looked surprised. “Yo, dude. My bad.” he said.
Michael spun around. “You stupid asswipe!” He punched Bryan in the chest, knocking him into the bank of lockers across the hall. Bryan didn’t even have time to react. Alex dropped his books, ready to jump to his friend’s defense.
I grabbed Michael by the shirt. “Michael, calm down.”
“Let go of me, you bitch!” he shouted, trying to twist out of my grasp.
Wanna see a bitch? I’ll show you a bitch. I tightened my grip on his shirt and yanked as hard as I could. Luckily, Charlie Donner was nearby. He helped me separate the boys before a full-scale fight broke out. Then we marched them to the office and turned the matter over to Don Clayton.
Don is the vice-principal in charge of discipline. He’s an intense, quiet man, built like an NFL linebacker, with skin the color of mahogany. The students call him “The Enforcer.” They’d be surprised to learn that he spends Saturday afternoons mentoring homeless kids. Don has one of the toughest jobs in the school. He spends half his time dealing with problem students and the other half trying to reason with irate parents who insist that their little darlings couldn’t possibly be to blame. Talk about the job from hell. Whatever he gets paid isn’t nearly enough.
Charlie and I left the boys with Don, and I went to the guidance office to file a discipline report.
Nancy finished writing. Then she pushed her glasses up onto her head and looked me in the eye. “So it’s your opinion that Michael overreacted, and the other boy was not at fault.”
“Seemed that way to me.”
“You realize this could mean an out-of-school suspension for him.”
Boo-freaking-hoo. Suspension was one of the most serious penalties in Morrison’s discipline code, the result of a new “zero tolerance” policy enacted to eliminate school violence.
“I know,” I said. “But as much as I’d love a few Michael-free days, I wouldn’t let that color my judgment. Michael just lost it. Bryan and Alex may be itches, but they’re relatively harmless. I’ve never known them to harass anybody. They’re too busy annoying each other.”
Nancy pinched the bridge of her nose. “Please don’t think I’m questioning your judgment. I just want you to be certain of your facts. This could become a little — volatile.”
“Do you recognize the name Bennett Tayler?”
My gurgling stomach was interfering with my brain’s capacity for higher-level thought, so I popped another animal cracker to clear my head. “Sounds vaguely familiar. What’s the connection?”
“Bennett Tayler is the president and CEO of TechTron Industries. He also happens to be Michael Tayler’s father.”
Bad news flash. The synapses in my brain started firing on all cylinders. TechTron was one of the biggest employers in Morrisonville. Bennett Tayler was one of our town’s major VIP’s.
“Bennett Tayler has friends in high places — including our school board,” Nancy continued. “And judging from the info I’ve squeezed out of Elgin’s guidance department, he takes a dim view of anyone who criticizes his son.”
Just what we need around here. Another screwy parent. Suddenly I wasn’t hungry anymore. “Now I see where this is going. But it doesn’t change what happened. Michael was definitely the instigator. Bryan didn’t even throw a punch.”
“I’m not saying we should give Michael special consideration. You know me better than that. I just want to make sure you’re protected in case this gets nasty.” Nancy set her pen down. “It seems Mr. Tayler caused some massive headaches for the Elgin staff. One of Michael’s teachers was even forced to resign. I couldn’t get Michael’s counselor to give me any of the details, but he hinted that it had something to do with a dispute between the teacher and Bennett Tayler. So I want you to go into this with both eyes wide open.”
The animal cracker I was chewing had turned to sawdust in my mouth. I swallowed hard as I considered my response.
“Well, I saw what I saw. If Bennett Tayler wants to dispute that, let him try. I was there. He wasn’t. And the day I bend over to some pushy parent is the day I hand in my chalk.” With any luck, I sounded braver than I felt.
Nancy shook her head. “I knew you’d say something like that. But sometimes being right isn’t enough. Can I give you some friendly advice?”
“I’ve never been able to stop you before.”
“Start documenting every encounter with Michael. Get a notebook, and write down dates, times, places, and everything that was said and done. Start with homeroom yesterday, and try to remember every detail up to and including today.” She shrugged. “Who knows? We may be lucky, and this whole thing will blow over. If that’s the case, your notes might still be useful. Maybe we can find some pattern in Michael’s behavior that will help us figure him out.”
I took another handful of animal crackers and gave Nancy a hug. “You’re the best. What would I do without you?”
“One thing for sure — you’d have to find another source for your animal cracker fix. Now get going or you’ll be late for seventh period. We’ll have to reschedule our lunch date, unless all those crackers you ate count as lunch.”
I popped a lion into my mouth. Then I went back to my room and searched through my desk until I found a notebook I’d bought in Disney World. It had a big, grinning picture of Goofy on the cover. I opened to the first page and started writing.