(Orson Buggy's Lessons for Losers)

Lesson 1: Don’t Overthink Things

Three hours, and I still can’t get to sleep.

I’m afraid if I close my eyes I’ll have that same nightmare again: the one where they figure out I’m too much of a loser to start seventh grade and toss me on my head in the lawn outside Hugh Morris Middle School to the jeers of nine hundred normal kids.

But that’s just a stupid dream, right? Something like that couldn’t happen in real life.

Could it?

Ok, to a normal person, probably not. But to me, Orson Buggy . . .

Yeah, that’s really my name. I know. My parents might as well have named me Kickme, or Imafreak. But it’s not all their fault. I mean, how much can you really do with a last name like Buggy? They’d already used up Dune Buggy on my brother, and I suppose it would have been worse to name me June Buggy, like they did my baby sister. Still, Orson Buggy? I mean, aside from sentencing me to a lifetime of horse-and-buggy insults, who names their kid Orson?

I’ll never forget what it was like when I started at Holmes Elementary six years ago. How could I? It’s etched pretty deep into my brain. Everybody made fun of me, and I mean everybody. Even the teachers. Oh, they never said anything, but I knew what they were thinking. I’ll bet I heard every horse-and-buggy insult known to man.

At least I would have if anyone would have talked to me. The only one who would was this weird kid with a neon green neck brace. His neck was fine. He just enjoyed wearing the thing. Even he used to shove a finger in front of my face and tell me to wait until his imaginary friends were done speaking.

Oh, yeah. This skeezy girl, Nancy Hines, used to try to talk to me, too, but I was no idiot. I became pretty skilled at avoiding her.

I thought things might get better when I started second grade and all the other kids were sort of used to my name, but by then I had so many losers hanging around me, I think everyone just figured I must be a loser, too. I was what you call an LBA.

Loser by Association.

Now that I think about it, not much has changed over the past six years. I have a few more friends, but not many, and they’re all idiots.

I suppose that’s not fair. Andrew Pincionne is really smart. Just not smart enough to know when he’s acting like an idiot, which is all the time.

Nancy Hines knows lots of stuff too. (Yeah, she’s still hanging around me like a lost puppy. What can I do?) But the kind of stuff Nancy knows nobody in their right mind would care about, like global warming and saving whales and what I call touchy-feely stuff.

I suppose my friend Donny isn’t stupid either. He’s on my soccer team. Not that that makes him smart or anything. I just thought it was interesting. Anyway, he’s into even stranger things than Nancy, like electronic gadgets and computers. Not fun computer stuff, like games and movies. Weird stuff, like distributed programming and neural net something or others.

Wait, Bobby Spizuto. Now there’s an idiot. He’s two years older than me (yeah, I know, it’s “than I,” but that sounds so stupid only someone like Andrew Pincionne would say it). Bobby would be at Holmes Elementary forever if they hadn’t kept pushing him up to the next grade. Ask him to add two plus two twice and you’ll get two different answers. Maybe three.

I guess what I’m trying to say is my friends are still all losers. Actually, Losers, with a capital L. The worst of the worst.

I’m not trying to put them down—they are my friends, after all—I’m just saying it’s hard to be taken seriously when Donny Kreger plops down next to you in the lunchroom and starts droning on about how excited he is to configure a new firewall on his router doohickey. Point is, stupid name or not, no one could be cool with friends like mine.

This year I start seventh grade, which I expected to be more of the same. After all, the building might be different, but the kids at McKinley will be the same ones who hated me at Holmes. But now Mom tells me, thanks to some sort of rezoning that took effect, I’ll be getting a fresh start. Beginning tomorrow, I’ll be headed to Hugh Morris Middle School, while everyone on the west side of Roberts Road will be stuck at McKinley. That means good-bye Andrew, good-bye Donny, good-bye Bobby.

Nancy Hines will be changing schools with me, but that’s okay. I mean, just because some skeezy girl has a crush on me doesn’t make it my fault. It just means she sees what all the other girls should see. Orson Buggy is a catch.

And there’s my problem. After six years together at Holmes, everyone knew who I was and pretty much ignored me, but now I’m starting over, with all new kids. Once everyone finds out my stupid name, there’s sure to be a whole new outbreak of horse-and-buggy insults.

I have just one hope. Mom says my piano teacher, Miss Pell, is assigned to be my homeroom teacher, too, so last week I asked her to spread the word for the other teachers to keep my last name to themselves and just call me Ori. With luck I can get in good with all the new kids before they find out my parents’ curse.

It’s all part of a plan I call Operation New Friends. Part of me feels like I’ve got every angle covered. I just need to 1) show up at the new school, 2) don’t let anyone know my name, and 3) never, ever mention my friends from Holmes. Easy peasy. I should be walking on top of the world, or at least on top of Elk Grove, Indiana.

Trouble is, a bigger part of me knows that just when I think I’ve got every angle covered, I’m probably about to find out how little I know about geometry. And that’s why I keep having the same stupid nightmare about getting tossed on my head onto the lawn at school.

Which is dumb, right? Because stuff like that doesn’t happen in real life. Period.

I’m pretty sure.


Lesson 2: Don’t Act Like an Idiot

Considering it’s Monday morning and I’m about to leave for my first day at a new school, I’m not feeling too bad. In fact, I’ve got just one worry. What if Nancy Hines embarrasses me in front of the new kids before I have a chance to show them I’m not a Loser?

Last night I figured I’d wake up early, maybe get to the bus stop and meet everybody before Nancy shows up and destroys my reputation, but getting up early and getting out of the house early are two freakishly different things. I don’t know why, but I always have at least five minutes more stuff to do than what I have time for.

This morning I got sidetracked fixing the new backpack Mom gave me. Oh, it’s kind of cool, I suppose—lots of flaps and pockets, and no embarrassing pictures of boy bands or anything—but, whoa, when Mom gave it to me was it clean. I mean, sure, yellow and black are our school colors and everything—Go Bumblebees!—but how cool would I look if I showed up at my new school wearing a pack that’s three times brighter than the sun? Talk about skirting disaster.

Anyway, nothing a few minutes of diligent dragging through the dirt didn’t fix. Now I won’t look like some pathetic loser whose mom buys him new stuff for the first day of school.

“My word, Orson, what happened to your backpack?”

Oops, Mom. “Nothing. Jinx must have got hold of it.”

Jinx is our cat. He’s big enough to drag the sofa through the dirt if he gets the urge, so the whole pack thing is certainly possible. Still, Mom’s giving me The Look.

“We’ll talk about this later. If you don’t get going, you’ll miss your bus.”

“Why can’t Dune drive me?”

“Because Dune hates you.”

No, Mom’s not that cruel. That was June. Fortunately, she’s only ten, so too young to embarrass me at Hugh Morris. I don’t give her the satisfaction of looking at her. “Yeah, kids always hate their younger siblings.” I’m not being mean. If I didn’t dish it up on a regular basis, she’d think I didn’t love her. Besides, she probably doesn’t even know what a sibling is.

“Go Orson. Now.”

Okay, that was Mom. Her forehead’s all crinkled up the way it gets whenever she’s close to losing it, so I scoop up my pack and bang out the door.

Looks like everyone’s already waiting at the top of the street. Kids from Hugh Morris. Three of them. Staring at me. At least I don’t see Nancy Hines. What a break. Operation New Friends still has a chance.

Roberts Road isn’t steep. It rises four, maybe five feet over the course of the whole block, but once my legs go numb it seems a lot steeper. I’m getting nowhere. It’s awful, like I’m a zombie out of a horror flick or something. Then it hits me. These people don’t even know me. This may be my one chance to pass myself off as normal.

Wait, how do normal people walk?

I try to picture people walking, but all I can think about is the kids from Hugh Morris watching me. Judging me.

Okay, on to Plan B. I may not know how to act normal, but I do know how to act. Not many people know this, but in the first grade I was in my school play. Sure, that was a long time ago, and I may have only played a rock, but everyone said I was the most grounded rock they’d ever seen. Even my brother said so. I have the proof on video. Of course, he did follow up with some lame joke about me being dense, but I think he really was impressed. As I walk the walk of the undead up Roberts Road, I’m hoping he wasn’t just messing with me.

Problem is, rocks don’t do a lot of walking.

Wait, I can do this. I kill the zombie, so to speak, and try strutting up the hill like I’m not just normal but way cool. It’s easy once I get started. Pretty soon I’m swinging my arms and bopping my head like I’m the most important kid who ever rode a bus to Hugh Morris Middle School. By the time I get close, I figure everyone must be impressed.

Sure enough, this one blond guy’s smiling at me. “What’s wrong with that kid?”

The cute girl next to him stares at me with these sad blue eyes. “I thought they had special buses for kids like that.”

Suddenly everyone busts out laughing. So much for a new reputation. Luckily I get an idea. It’s a long shot, but what choice do I have?

“Pretty funny, huh? The way you guys were all staring, I thought I better put on a show.” I put out my hand to shake. “Name’s Ors—I mean, Ori.” No one else is reaching out a hand. I guess it’s a little late now to notice what a lame gesture it is. “That’s Ori, as in Ori Buggeeee—er—just Ori.”

They stare at me. They stare at each other. They stare at me again. Please, oh please, don’t start laughing.

Cute Girl frowns. “So, you were just messing with us before? You’re not . . . special?”

I flex my fingers like I’m working out a cramp and let my hand drop. “Well, I don’t know about that.” I wanted my tone to come off light and airy, but all I can manage is tight and scary. I fight to control it, but with about the same success I had with my jerky legs. Wonder what a zombie would sound like if it could talk?

Cute Girl looks at me a while. Ten minutes, I’m thinking. Maybe longer. Finally she says, “Uh-huh” and turns away.

Nice. She didn’t even introduce herself. Neither did anyone else. At least they didn’t throw rocks at me. That’s what the kids at the bus stop did the first day last year. And quite a few days after that. Okay, most days.

I’m starting to feel lucky things are going this well. Especially now that I see this new girl up close. I mean, she’s seriously cute. Shiny black hair, huge blue eyes, lush kissable lips . . . where was I going with this? Oh yeah, she’s the kind of girl I would’ve never talked to at Holmes. I’m not sure this qualifies as talking to her now. I tear my eyes from her long enough to notice the other kids. Two guys. Wait, no, three. Well, sort of.

The two I spotted first are definitely all guy. One looks like his ancestors were probably actual giants. The other’s got this need-to-limit-myself-to-three-girlfriends thing going on. His teeth are so white and perfect, I have to stop myself from touching them to see if they’re real. But there’s a third kid too, kind of blending in with the grass. One that’s . . . well, let’s just say I want to make sure I don’t slip up and accidentally befriend him.

The kid’s hair is freakishly neat, and he’s wearing shiny black dress shoes and these huge honking glasses that magnify his eyes about ten times. Truth is, he looks like an oversized bug. And not all that oversized, now that I think about it. Even his mannerisms shout praying mantis. Did I mention the shiny backpack? Glad I dodged that bullet.

“Who’s the nerd?” I slap my palm over my mouth when I realize I said that out loud.

The others shrug. Cute Girl—now that I’ve seen her up close that seems weak. I should probably bump her up a notch to Seriously Cute Girl. Anyway, she’s looking at him with this expression of pity. Come to think of it, it’s the same one she used on me. Not good.

“His last name starts with an ‘A,’ I think.” Her voice is so melodic, I’m surprised songbirds aren’t circling her hair. “He’s been sitting in the front of my classes as long as I can remember.”

Idiot, quit staring.

I force myself to look at the nerd. He’s peering up at the sky as if expecting an apple to fall. When I look back at Seriously Cute Girl, she’s staring at me again, still with the same sad expression.

“What happened to your backpack?” she asks.

“Oh . . . I, er . . . my cat got hold of it.”

She studies the pack. “Seriously deranged cat.”

“Yeah.”

Okay, I need to step up my game, but how?

“Hey, Orson! How’s it going?”

Uh-oh. This isn’t it. Across the street, stupid Bobby Spizuto, waving at me. He’s supposed to be at McKinley. He keeps walking past us, and I realize he’s headed to my old bus stop, farther up the street. Oh, please, nobody know him.

Mr. Perfect Teeth snickers. “Orson?”

Was that my imagination, or did the nerd snicker too? “Uh, nobody calls me that. It’s Ori, like I told you.”

Seriously Cute Girl’s brow turns all crinkly, sort of like Mom’s this morning when she saw my tattered backpack. “Is that supposed to be better?”

This is bad. Now she’s shaking her head. I’ve seen that type of head shake plenty. “What’s wrong with Ori?”

Mr. Perfect Teeth’s teeth look even whiter when he smiles. “Sounds like a Winnie the Pooh character.”

What do I say to that? Pointing out the difference between Ori and Eor probably won’t help my case. Just then I notice Giant Guy smiling too. I don’t know how I missed it before. His jaw’s so big I could crawl inside.

He nods toward Bobby. “You know Spizuto?”

Aw, man. “No . . . er, I mean, not very well.”

Then something weird happens. Giant Guy frowns, like he’s disappointed. “Too bad. Bobby’s a good guy. We used to play pee-wee football together.”

I’m so relieved I actually laugh out loud. “You played pee-wee football? You’re kidding.”

The giant smile disappears. So does mine. Did it just sound like I was making fun of this guy? He doesn’t look like someone I should be making fun of. What am I saying? I shouldn’t be making fun of anybody on my first day at a new school, not even the non-giants. I better fix this.

“I never tried pee-wee football. It sounds fun.” Even I think it’s a lame recovery, but Giant Boy doesn’t seem to notice.

“It was,” he says. “Name’s Tony, by the way. Tony Roma.”

“Isn’t that a restaurant?” Oops, did it again.

He shrugs, like a mountain range suddenly shifting positions. “What can I say? Parents can be cruel.”

“Tell me about it.”

Suddenly his smile is back, only this time it’s more of a crooked grin. And just like that, everyone starts introducing themselves—well, the odd kid whose name might start with an ‘A’ is still watching the sky for apples, but everyone else, anyway. Amazingly, they’re smiling too. And not throwing rocks. It’s a new experience for me.

Only then does it hit me. Operation New Friends is pulling together. I did it. For once I’m in. I’m really in.


Lesson 3: Never Assault Your Classmates

Okay, I said I was cool about the whole going-to-a-new-school thing, but now that I’m actually in my new homeroom, I admit I’m feeling kind of queasy. Too bad Miss Pell isn’t here yet. I was counting on seeing at least one familiar face.

My brother told me that my first day at a new school I should choose the seat I plan to be in all year. For some reason, people think sitting in a chair once is as good as staking out a claim. I make sure not to sit in front—only Losers sit there—but not too far back either. Those rows are reserved for the sort of kids who stuff other kids into lockers. I’ve seen the lockers. I’m too big to fit without cramping and too small to do the stuffing.

Then I spot her. Seriously Cute Girl, only now I know her name is Kate. I move so fast it’s like I teleport over to her. Oops, forget the Star Trek reference. Not cool.

I manage to snag the empty seat next to Katie Cutie just ahead of some other kid who, from the look on his face, must have gotten some brotherly advice of his own. He scowls and takes a seat in the next aisle over while I hide a smile.

“Hey, Kate. What’s happening?”

What’s happening? Are you kidding me? When did I get so lame?

Luckily Miss Pell strolls in just then. She nearly catches my eye, but I look down just in time. Again with the skirting disaster. I mean, I’m glad she’s here and all, but I can’t have all the other kids thinking I know the teacher outside of class.

And if anyone found out about my piano lessons . . .

Clap!

I snap my head up. Miss Pell just threw a large notebook onto the teacher’s desk to capture our attention. Now she’s holding out some kind of chart for us to see.

“Okay, listen up everyone. I’m Miss Pell, your homeroom teacher. I’m going to arrange you alphabetically so I can take attendance easier. Remember where I put you, because these will be your assigned seats for the rest of the year.”

Excellent! The rest of the year next to Katie Cutie. Wait, alphabetically? Great. It looks like Orson Buggy will be up front with the Losers, after all.

But Miss Pell doesn’t call me right off. Instead she calls the nerdy boy from the bus stop. I hadn’t even noticed him in the room. I’m guessing that happens to him a lot. Turns out Katie Cutie was right. His name does start with an ‘A.’ In fact, both of them do. Albert Ashburger.

Kid’s probably lucky no one remembers his name.

Miss Pell doesn’t even call me second. That honor goes to Sara Beckner.

Then it’s my turn. Miss Pell simply nods at me and says, “Ori.”

Someone in back chuckles.

“Um, no, It’s Orson.”

She catches on right away. “My mistake. These glasses. It says Orson right here.” Miss Pell’s really cool, even if she does play the piano.

So, I’m third. Halfway between the front and back of the room, behind the losers and well beyond reach of the locker-stuffers. Not that any of that matters anymore, now that we’re sitting alphabetically. I sink into the chair behind Sara Beckner, and two kids take their places behind me. Miss Pell keeps calling out names, and the second column starts filling up.

The first spot goes to Karen Fuller. Howard Hinkleman, with his sweater vest, looks like a perfect fit for the first row, but he’s assigned to the second. And now the seat next to mine . . .

Katie Cutie, oh please, oh please . . .

No such luck. Some guy named Curtis Langley, a back row kid if ever I saw one, plops down next to me.

Soon the second column’s full and Miss Pell’s on to the third. I try not to dwell on how unfair life is when Katie Cutie slips into the chair next to Curtis. Oh, by the way, turns out her name isn’t Katie Cutie. It’s Kate Rootie—no, seriously—anyway, I’m thinking that’s close enough.

Curtis is not a particularly big guy—not sure what it is about him that shouts out locker-stuffer—but he is big enough to be annoying, mostly because he’s blocking my view of Kate. Enough of this. I lean forward as inconspicuously as possible.

Better.

Kate doesn’t know I’m watching. She pulls this sparkly neon pink pencil from behind her ear and sets it on her desk so she can tie her hair up in a ponytail . . . her long glossy black hair that looks so soft and probably smells so good . . . the kind of hair I just want to reach out and . . .

Oops, lost my train of thought.

Just then her pencil tips over and she stops messing with her hair to set it back up.

I know. How does a pencil tip over? That’s exactly what I’m thinking. I tear my eyes away from Kate’s hair, and there it is: the pencil, standing point up on the desk again, looking like a tiny light saber or something.

Oops. Star Wars reference. Ignore that.

Anyway, I can’t get a good look at it, what with Curtis shifting into my way so often—I think he’s actually doing it on purpose—but it looks like the pencil has some sort of heavy, flat-topped eraser that’s letting it stand up on end. I get a better look about five seconds later, when Curtis has the thing in his hand. Hard to believe it took him so long.

Kate drops her newly bound ribbon of hair, which, by the way, swooshes into place like corded silk—incredible. “Give it back!”

“Is there a problem?” Miss Pell is looking up from her role sheet.

Kate smiles and shakes her head, waits for Miss Pell to start talking again, and then hisses at Curtis through clenched teeth. “Give it back.”

He responds with the same astoundingly clever response used by bullies throughout time. “Make me.”

Then the most bizarre thing happens. Howard Hinkleman, the poor schmuck with the sweater vest who seconds ago had at least a shot of making it through his first hour of the day without his underwear in a wedgie, turns to Curtis and says, “Shh, I’m trying to hear.”

Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, but I don’t think that’s what Curtis hears at all. From his expression I’m sure he heard Howard say, “Slap me silly” or “Kill me slowly” and now Curtis is stuck trying to decide which option he’s going to take. He starts off by kicking the desk in front of him hard enough to knock Howard’s books to the floor.

“Mind your business, dweeb.”

Miss Pell looks up from her list again. The floor’s littered with overturned books and papers, yet in the way of all teachers everywhere, she completely fails to notice. “Quiet, please.”

Howard sighs. I recognize the meaning behind the sound, because it’s one I’ve used myself. It’s the kind of resigned sigh that a person uses when he knows his life has always been messed up and will never get any better. I don’t think he even realizes he just made it worse. Kid’s more clueless than Miss Pell. He leans out of his seat to gather his papers, and like lightning, Curtis’s hand shoots out and places something on his chair.

Kate’s pencil!

Now, I know I said I wasn’t going to come to any Loser’s rescue, especially not on my first and only day as a normal person, but it’s not like I have time to think about it. I mean, Howard’s butt’s off the seat for about two seconds, and while that may not seem like a long time, it’s plenty long enough for me to picture what will happen when he sits back again. I mean, this pencil’s about eight inches long. To be honest, right now it looks about eight feet long.

Before I can stop myself I lunge forward. I’m not thinking about Operation New Friends. I’m not thinking about the long year of humiliation I’m going to suffer, or whether my new reputation as a dweeb will follow me to high school. I’m not even thinking about how flat Curtis Langley will pound me for messing up his fun.

Okay, I guess I am thinking about those things. But they don’t stop me. I just know I have to snatch that pencil away before Howard’s weight shifts back. Get in and out quick, like a striking snake . . .

I make my move, crazy fast, but sadly Howard’s faster. I barely manage to knock the pencil to the floor, and then, squish, Howard’s butt pins my hand to the chair.

“Auuugh!”

I don’t know which one of us screams louder. I barely yank my hand free—Howard Hinkleman may look small, but believe me he’s not—before Curtis Langley breaks out laughing like a lunatic and Howard jumps to his feet. I can tell Howard’s even more embarrassed than I am. He looks first at me and then at the pencil skittering across the tiles, and then somehow—and I’m telling you this couldn’t happen again in a thousand years—the thing bounces off a chair leg and pops up onto its eraser, where it juts out menacingly like some sort of dagger gone wild.

It’s amazing. It should be impossible. It’s the kind of thing you can’t witness and not smile.

I wish you could.

“Jerk!”

“Yeah, jerk!”

The first, of course, came from Howard. The second came from Sara Beckner, who must have seen only as much as Howard saw.

“No . . . wait. I didn’t —”

“Way to go.” Pain explodes in my right arm. It takes a second for me to realize Curtis Langley just punched me. Great. I knew he’d be mad.

But he’s not. He’s smiling.

“Name’s Curtis.” He points at Howard and laughs. “What a dweeb.”

“Quiet,” insists Miss Pell.

Oh, now you notice. Where were you a second ago?