Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars

Connect the Stars 2

  That’s when I did what I should have done from the beginning—turned my back on Lyza and walked away. A minor crowd had formed around us, and as I walked through it, I looked for Janie’s face, but it wasn’t there. I remembered her saying something about maybe coming in late that day.

  As I made my way through the throng of onlookers, kids jumped back or turned sideways to let me pass, like actual contact with me might bring them bad luck, like friendlessness was contagious. I thought about striding straight past my classroom, out the door of the school, and into the woods. That’s what Henry David Thoreau would have done. But Henry David Thoreau probably never had a last-period math test that was worth one-eighth of his grade. I walked to my class. I stayed.

  And that turned out to be a big mistake.


  Aaron Archer

  Dolley Madison Middle School

  West Chester County, Pennsylvania

  I CAN REMEMBER ALMOST ANYTHING. When I run across a fact on Google, or in the pages of a history book, or pretty much anywhere else, it goes into a folder on my mental hard drive. If I need it later, I click the folder, and out pops the fact.

  And sometimes facts pop out whether I need them or not.

  If I hear a symphony, or overhear a conversation, I can play the whole thing back in my head, note for note, word for word, like it’s streaming over the internet from a giant data server in rural Oregon. Except it’s not in Oregon. It’s in my brain.

  Most people think it would be great to have an onboard computer like mine, and I can see how you might get that impression. Automatic hundreds on every test, and no pesky studying, right?

  If only things were that simple.

  Not that I’m complaining. My brain does come in handy. If you need to know all the vice presidents in chronological order, or the definition of onomatopoeia, or what the fourteenth element on the periodic table is, then I’m your man. In first grade, when Hardy Gillooly picked me to be on his football team at recess, I dropped six straight passes, and he got sort of mad, but after I recited every single Heisman Trophy winner since 1932 at lunch, he forgot all about it, and we’ve been best friends ever since.

  On the other hand, if you want to know something that’s not written down anywhere, like how a king feels about his kingdom, or the true meaning of a poem—well, I’m coming to that.

  When I got to seventh grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Dunaway, who was also the Quiz Masters coach, told me I should join the team. Which turned out to be a good idea. My teammates elected me captain, and we swept all our matches leading up to the state finals, where we were favored to win the Pennsylvania State Quiz Masters Championship. For six straight years, the Dolley Madison Destroyers of West Chester County (that’s us) had been runners-up to the Philbrick Philosophers of Pittsburgh, but this season, that was going to change.

  All the pieces were in place. The sixth grade had thrown a car wash to buy us uniforms with our names on the back. The student council had held a bake sale to raise money for a nutritious lunch at the Spaghetti Factory before the competition started. The volunteer fire department had made a donation so we could ride to Harrisburg in a limo, a yellow stretch Hummer.

  The West Chester Watchman did an article on us and put our picture on the front page: Hardy Gillooly, Jimmy Stell, Andrea Lark, and me. The reporter made it official. In letters two inches high, she declared DESTROYERS DOMINATE: THIS IS DOLLEY MADISON’S YEAR!

  On the ride to Harrisburg for state finals, Mrs. Dunaway ran the team through one last set of drills. To simulate actual game-time conditions, she sat us in a row on the backseat of the Hummer, set a bell on the little table bolted to the floor, and barked questions at us.

  “History,” she began. “The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was signed in what year?”

  Ding. “Nineteen thirty,” I said.

  “Geography. The nation bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea is—”

  Ding. “Djibouti,” I said.

  “Wild Card,” said Mrs. Dunaway.

  I liked Wild Card. It could get interesting.

  “Of the two most famous T.E.s in history, one is Thomas Ernest ‘T. E.’ Hulme, noted British poet, and the other is—”

  Ding. “Thomas Edward ‘T. E.’ Lawrence, 1888 to 1935, also known as Lawrence of Arabia,” I said. Of course, there was also T. E. Newell, who played one game at shortstop for the St. Louis Brownstockings in 1877, got zero hits in three at-bats, and disappeared before anybody could find out what his T. E. stood for, but no way was he up there with Lawrence of Arabia, so I kept him to myself.

  “Correct,” said Mrs. Dunaway. “Geology. The temperature at the Earth’s core is—” began Mrs. Dunaway.

  Ding. “Ten thousand eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit, or six thousand Celsius,” I said.

  “So,” said Mrs. Dunaway, setting down her notecards, “the team strategy is to depend on Aaron for all the answers?”

  “Exactly!” replied Hardy.

  “Yes, ma’am!” said Jimmy.

  “I guess,” sighed Andrea.

  “Andrea?” said Mrs. Dunaway.

  “It’s just that sometimes—” began Andrea.

  “Yes?” prodded Mrs. Dunaway.

  “I feel kind of awkward,” said Andrea. “I wish the rest of us had more to do. I mean, I know Aaron is just doing what he’s good at, and he’s the whole reason we’ve gotten this far, but he answers ninety-eight percent of the questions.”

  She was right. That number was pretty much smack on the money, based on our successful run through the city, county, and regional championships. Since everything is stored so conveniently in my brain, it usually comes out really fast. So ninety-eight percent of the time, I hit the buzzer before anybody, even my own teammates. Who were actually pretty good, when they got a chance to answer.

  “What should we do, team?” asked Mrs. Dunaway, sitting back in her seat with a thoughtful look on her face. She did this kind of thing in class too. She was one of those teachers who let students have a crack at problems before she weighs in. Which I always appreciated, even though it makes more work for us.

  Andrea just shook her head. Hardy scratched his ear. Jimmy shrugged.

  “Aaron?” said Mrs. Dunaway. “You’re the team captain.”

  See, this was the kind of question I was talking about before, when I said sometimes things are not so simple. Figuring out what to tell Andrea wasn’t like remembering nineteen digits of  or the capital of Kazakhstan. Which is Astana. I could see how she felt, but what should I say? I had no idea. Then a thought came to me. “Rafael Belliard of the Atlanta Braves,” I told Andrea, “had a batting average of .000 in the 1995 World Series, but the BRAVES STILL WON!”

  That didn’t sound quite like what I was after.

  Andrea got a funny look on her face.

  “Scott Pollard of the Boston Celtics won an NBA championship ring in 2008, even though he didn’t play a single minute of a single game,” I tried.

  That didn’t sound right either. What I was trying to get across was—I didn’t know what I was trying to get across!

  “Are you saying I’m Scott Pollard?” asked Andrea a little bit stiffly. “Is that supposed to make me—”

  “We’re a team, Andrea!” interrupted Jimmy. “We all worked hard this season. If we win, every one of us deserves the championship as much as the others, no matter how many questions we answer in the finals, or don’t.”

  Yep. That was it. Jimmy had hit the nail on the head. Andrea seemed to feel better. Why couldn’t I ever think of things like this?

  “Thank you, Jimmy,” said Mrs. Dunaway, shuffling her notecards. “And now. More geology. The pressure at the center of the Earth is—”

  Ding. “Three million six hundred thousand atmospheres,” I said.

  “While we’re on the topic of geology,” said Mrs. Dunaway, scanning through her cards, “what do you know about minerals? Just, I mean, a general overview, so we can go on to other topics?”

; “The aforementioned pressure extremes have created many of the minerals valued by people of today,” I began.

  “Aforementioned!” cried Hardy.

  “Examples include apatite, turquoise, gypsum, dolomite, quartz, talc, garnet, molybdenum, and moolooite,” I added.

  “Moolooite! Yeah!” hooted Jimmy giving me a high five.

  “Not to mention diamonds,” I concluded.

  “We’re gonna cream those guys!” added Andrea, perking up.

  “You probably are,” said Mrs. Dunaway quietly.

  “Awesome!” said Principal DuPlessy, who was riding up front with the driver. He turned around to address us. “That kid is smart. Two thousand eight hundred degrees!”

  “Ten thousand eight hundred degrees,” I corrected. “Fahrenheit.”

  “Whatever,” said the principal, digging out his cell phone. “I’m calling Knotts. And this time I’m betting him a—a—a head shave!” Mr. Knotts was the principal of Philbrick Middle School. Principal DuPlessy had bet Mr. Knotts something increasingly dire every year for the past six years, and lost, so he had to carry a teddy bear around school for a day, or wear pajamas, or dye his hair green or . . . now . . . possibly shave it all off—although there was no way that was going to happen.

  “Plus,” the principal went on, “when we win, the whole school gets a Tae-Kwon-Do-Gurt Fresh Yogurt and Toppings party! With all the toppings! Except peanut butter cups, of course, due to allergy concerns.”

  Hardy and Jimmy high-fived each other. “Tae-Kwon-Do-Gurt!” exclaimed Jimmy. “Aaron, you rock!”

  “Now get out there and win!” thundered Principal DuPlessy, suddenly sounding just like General George S. Patton sending his troops off to battle in Europe. “Or else!” He narrowed his eyes at us. “Just kidding.” He chuckled, and we all relaxed. “Not really,” he added, his smile disappearing. “’Cause if we win, I’ve got a shot at Principal of the Year. But if we lose, I have to cut off all my hair.” The limo pulled up to the Spaghetti Factory across the street from the convention center. The principal climbed out and stomped away across the parking lot.

  “I guess we better win,” observed Jimmy.

  “Principal DuPlessy does seem kind of worked up,” I said a little nervously.

  Hardy said, quietly and sincerely, “Aaron, you’ve got a superpower. A brain superpower. Maybe one day you’ll use it to do something great, like save a city, or the world. But today, we have some Philosophers to beat!” Hardy was something of a superpower aficionado. Sometimes he and I discussed how many strikeouts Superman might throw if he were drafted by the Phillies. Four million?

  “Do you really think I’ll do something great one day?” I mused.

  Mrs. Dunaway answered. “It’s certainly within reach,” she said. “For all of you.”

  “In the meantime, Aaron,” said Hardy, “I figured out we have a chance to break the state record. A hundred and four points. Set by the Philbrick Philosophers in 2011.”

  “Awesome!” said Jimmy. “Plus, get ready to win us a Tae-Kwon-Do-Gurt party!”

  Alec LeBec, the famous game-show host, who had grown up in Harrisburg, drew the first Quiz Masters question out of the fishbowl. “Category: History. Name the opening battle of the American Revolution.”

  Zzzz! I buzzed in.

  Hardy fist-bumped Jimmy, who fixed his tie and smiled for the photographer. Andrea watched me intently.

  “The Battle of Lexington and Concord!” I said.

  “Correct,” said Alec LeBec. “More history. The treaty ending the Civil War was signed in what town?”

  Zzzz! Me again.

  “The treaty to end the Civil War was signed in Appomattox Court House, Virginia,” I said.

  “Category: Technology and Exploration. The first man to walk on the moon was . . .”

  I could tell by the look on Andrea’s face. She knew this one. I let my finger hover over the buzzer so she’d have a chance.



  It wasn’t our buzzer that’d buzzed. It was Philbrick’s. During my moment of hesitation, Sheryce Norman of the Philosophers had beat us to the punch.

  “Neil Armstrong,” said Sheryce. She looked a little baffled. She’d heard about our team. She was probably surprised she’d even gotten a chance to answer. Andrea shook her head. She looked upset with herself.

  Alec LeBec checked his slip. “Correct,” he said, and drew another slip. “Science,” he intoned. “The boiling point of mer—”

  Zzzz. That was me.


  “—cury is six hundred seventy-four point one degrees Fahrenheit, three hundred fifty-six point seven degrees Celsius,” I answered.

  “Literature,” read Mr. LeBec from the next slip. “The author of—”


  “Dolley Madison Destroyers?”

  The name that appeared most often on the bookshelves of my brain was . . . “William Shakespeare.”

  Principal DuPlessy began to applaud from the front row. Before he was principal, he used to be the basketball coach, and he liked winning. The crowd joined in.

  I knew it was time to do my thing, and I did it, so the Destroyers went on a little bit of a roll after that. By the end of the preliminary round, we had fifty-six points and the Philosophers only had four.

  “Now,” said Mr. LeBec. “For the bonus round. Philosophers, how many points do you wager?”

  “Um, well,” mumbled Sheryce. “One, I guess. Since there’s no way we’ll win anyway.” The rest of her team nodded sadly.

  Turning to us, Mr. LeBec said, “Destroyers?”

  “Fifty-six!” called out Hardy.

  “Wait!” I said. “I mean,” I whispered to my team, “that’s all of our points. We’ll win even if we don’t bet a thing!”

  “Yeah,” said Hardy. “But we need to bet a bunch to get the record!”

  It was true. In the bonus round, if you answered your question right, you doubled your bet. On the other hand, if you got your question wrong, you lost your whole wager. The current high score was 104, achieved in 2011 by the Philbrick Philosophers. With Hardy’s bet, we had a shot at scoring 112.

  “Maybe we should just go with what we’ve got?” suggested Andrea.

  “Aaron won’t get our question wrong,” Hardy said. “And we’ve got to set that record so high it will stay on the books forever! Think about it! A hundred and twelve points! This is your day to shine, Aaron. Knock it out of the park! Fifty-six points, Mr. LeBec!”

  Alec LeBec said, “The Destroyers wager fifty-six points.”

  Sheryce and the rest of the Philbrick Philosophers sat very still. Mr. LeBec drew a slip of paper. “And the bonus question is—”


  Me again, making sure we got a jump on things.

  “Could you just wait till I finish?” asked Mr. LeBec.

  “Sorry,” I said.

  “Now,” he began, “please answer the following multiple-choice history question . . .”

  Piece of cake. Multiple choice. The answer is right there in the question!

  “How did the King of England feel in 1776 when his American subjects declared their independence? A, like a father who is disappointed in his children. B, like a judge who must mete out justice to miscreants. C, like a teacher who must teach his students a lesson. D, all of the above.”


  I had this.

  And then . . . I thought—wait. How did the king feel? Was this written down somewhere?

  I looked up to find Hardy, Jimmy, and Andrea gazing expectantly at me. Out in the audience, I could see Mrs. Dunaway’s eyes swimming strangely behind her glasses.

  I mean . . . I—I knew who the King of England was in 1776: George the Third. He imposed unpopular taxes and wore a powdered wig. For that matter, I knew who the King of England was in 802: King Egbert. In 839, King Ethelwulf ascended the throne. I felt myself shaking.

  “Hardy? Andrea? Jimmy?” I pleaded with my look. But they coul
dn’t help me. I’d buzzed in. I had to answer.

  After King Ethelwulf came King Ethelbald. My palms were clammy. Then King Ethelbert, King Ethelred, and King Alfred the Great. I felt very cold.

  How did he feel?

  Mrs. Dunaway gazed at me sharply from the sidelines. Her pupils were as small as pinpricks. She seemed curious. She seemed concerned. She seemed interested to see what I was going to do next.

  There was King Ethelstan and King Edmund the Magnificent. How did the King of England feel in 1776? King Edgar the Peaceable. The answer was hidden—underneath all the other answers. King Edward the Martyr and King Ethelred the Unready . . .

  Wait—did I say that out loud?

  “I’m sorry,” replied Mr. LeBec, looking at me strangely. “‘Unready’ was not one of the choices. Your score is now zero.” He turned to the other team. “Philosophers, would you like to attempt an answer?”

  “What—the—” stammered Sheryce, staring at me.

  “The correct answer is D,” said Mr. LeBec. “You lose one point. Final score: Philbrick Philosophers three, Dolley Madison Destroyers zero.” He leaned back from his microphone, far enough so he thought nobody would hear, and he said, “This has got to be the worst Quiz Masters in history.”


  Audrey Alcott

  Harriet Tubman Middle School

  Greenwood, Delaware

  AS SOON AS I HEARD Lyza’s panicked shrieks in the gym locker room, even before they’d gone from high-pitched animal sounds—think giant, terrified guinea pig—to actual words, I knew I was doomed. I knew not because of any borderline supernatural ability, but just because that was the kind of day I was having. Someone might think that a day that begins with the most popular girl in the seventh grade screeching at you in the hallway in front of everyone about how you have no friends can’t possibly get any worse, but I knew it could. I’d spent the day bracing myself for the next hit. Even so, when it came, it was worse than I ever thought it would be.

  Somebody stole Lyza’s bracelet.

  And since, in the middle of gym class, my hair band had broken and I’d had to run back to the locker room for another one, and since half the gym locker doors were so beat-up and bent that they didn’t shut properly so that no one even bothered to lock them, and since by that point in the day, the story of my dustup with Lyza the Lyar had bounced around the school long enough to have been embellished and twisted into something way more dramatic and awful than it was (and it was pretty dramatic and awful to begin with), everyone thought I’d taken it. As soon as the girls in the locker room figured out what exactly Lyza was screeching about, every head swiveled, meerkat style, in my direction.