The Janitor's Boy

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2000-05-01
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
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Ordinarily, no one would have imagined that Jack Rankin would vandalize a desk. But this was not an ordinary school year for Jack....When Jack Rankin learns that he is going to spend the fifth grade in the old high school -- the building where his father works as a janitor -- he dreads the start of school. Jack manages to get through the first month without the kids catching on. Then comes the disastrous day when one of his classmates loses his lunch all over the floor. John the janitor is called in to clean up, and he does the unthinkable -- he turns to Jack with a big smile and says, "Hi, son."Jack performs an act of revenge and gets himself into a sticky situation. His punishment is to assist the janitor after school for three weeks. The work is tedious, not to mention humiliating. But there is one perk?janitors have access to keys, keys to secret places....In this new novel by the author ofFrindle,a boy's explorations lead to surprising new discoveries about himself and his father.

Author Biography

Andrew Clements is the multifaceted author of picture books, including Big Al, and two other novels about school life, Frindle and The Landry News. Frindle won the Christopher Award and has appeared on more than thirty-five state award lists. Mr. Clements taught in the public schools near Chicago for seven years before moving east to begin a career in publishing. Now a full-time writer, he lives in central Massachusetts with his wife and their four children.


Chapter 1: The Perfect Crime

Jack Rankin had a particularly sensitive nose. As he walked into school in the morning, sometimes he would pause in the entryway and pull in a snootload of air from the flow rushing out the door. Instantly he could tell what the cafeteria lunch would be, right down to whether the Jell-O was strawberry or orange. He could tell if the school secretary was wearing perfume, and whether there was an open box of doughnuts on the table in the teachers room on the second floor.

On this particular Monday morning Jack's nose was on high alert. He was working on a special project -- a bubble gum project. Today's activity was the result of about a week's worth of research and planning.

Days ago, Jack had begun the project by secretly examining the bottoms of desks and tables all over the school, trying to decide exactly which kind of discarded gum was the most unpleasant. After he conducted his first few sniff tests, he didn't even have to look underneath a table or a chair to tell if there was gum. The scent of the stuff followed him from class to class. He had gum on the brain. He smelled gum everywhere -- on the bus, in the halls, passing a locker, walking into a classroom.

Jack finally chose watermelon Bubblicious. It had to be the smelliest gum in the universe. Even weeks after being stuck under a chair or table, that sickly sweet smell and distinctive crimson color were unmistakable. And Bubblicious, any flavor of it, was definitely the stickiest gum available. By Jack's calculations, it was more than three times stickier than Bazooka.

The final stage of Jack's gum caper began in today's third-period gym class. Mr. Sargent had them outside in the cool October air, running wind sprints to prepare for a timed mile next week. By the end of the period Jack had four pieces of gum in his mouth, chewed to maximum stickiness. The smell of it almost overpowered him.

Carefully steering a wide path around Mr. Sargent, he went to his locker before the next class. He spat the chewed gum into a sandwich bag he had brought from home. The bag had two or three tablespoons of water in it to keep the gum from sticking to the plastic.

Jack sealed the bag, stuffed it into his pocket, and immediately jammed another two pieces of gum into his mouth and started to chew.

He processed those two pieces plus two more during science, managed to chew up another four pieces during lunch period, and even finished one piece during math -- quite an accomplishment in Mrs. Lambert's classroom.

By the time he got to music, he had thirteen chewed pieces of gum in a plastic bag in the pocket of his jeans -- all warm and soft and sticky.

Monday-afternoon music class was the ideal crime scene. The room had four levels, stair-stepping down toward the front. The seats were never assigned, and Mr. Pike always made kids fill the class from the front of the room backward. By walking in the door just as the echo of the bell was fading, Jack was guaranteed a seat in the back row. He sat directly behind Jed Ellis, also known as Giant Jed. With no effort at all he was completely hidden from Mr. Pike.

The only other person in the back row was Kerry Loomis, sitting six seats away. She was hiding too, hunched over a notebook, trying to finish some homework. Jack had half a crush on Kerry. On a normal day he would have tried to get her attention, make her laugh, show off a little. But today was anything but normal.

Mr. Pike was at the front of the room. Standing behind the upright piano, he pounded out a melody with one hand and flailed the air with his other one, trying to get fidgety fifth graders to sing their hearts out.

Jack Rankin was supposed to be singing along with the rest of the chorus. He was supposed to be learning a new song for the fall concert. The song was something about eagles soaring and being free and happy -- not how Jack was feeling at this moment.

Bending down, Jack brought the baggie up to his mouth and stuffed in all thirteen pieces of gum for a last softening chew. The lump was bigger than a golf ball, and he nearly gagged as he worked it into final readiness, keeping one eye on the clock.

With one minute of class left, Mr. Pike was singing along now, his head bobbing like a madman, urging the kids to open their mouths wider. As the class hit a high note singing the word "sky," Jack leaned over and let the huge wad of gum drop from his mouth into his moistened hand. Then he began applying the gum to the underside of the folding desktop, just as he'd planned.

He stuck it first to the front outside edge and then pulled a heavy smear toward the opposite corner. Then he stretched the mass to the other corner and repeated the action, making a big, sticky X. Round and round Jack dragged the gum, working inward toward the center like a spider spinning a gooey, scented web.

As the bell rang Jack stood up and pulled the last gob of gum downward, pasting it onto the middle of the metal seat. A strand of sagging goo led upward, still attached to the underside of the desk.

It was the perfect crime.

The whole back of the music room reeked of artificial watermelon. And that gob on the seat? Sheer genius. Jack allowed himself a grim little smile as he shouldered his way into the hall.

There were two more class periods, so a kid wouldhaveto notice the mess today -- this very afternoon. Mr. Pike would have to pull the desk aside so no one would get tangled in the gunk. Mr. Pike would need to getsomeoneto clean it up before tomorrow.

So aftersomeonehad swept the rooms and emptied the trash cans and washed the chalkboards and dusted the stairs and mopped the halls and cleaned the entryway rugs, someone would also have to find a putty knife and a can of solvent and try to get a very sticky, very smelly desk ready for Tuesday morning. It would be a messy job, butsomeonewould have to do it.

And Jack knew exactly who that someone would be. It would be the man almost everyone called John -- John the janitor.

Of all the kids in the school, Jack was the only one who didn't call him John. Jack called him a different name.

Jack called him Dad.

Copyright © 2000 by Andrew Clements

Chapter 2: What Do You Want to Be?

Ordinarily, no one would have imagined that Jack Rankin would vandalize a desk. But this was not an ordinary school year for Jack -- or for any of his classmates, either.

The town of Huntington was growing, and more families with kids were moving in all the time. The town seemed to be playing a game of musical chairs -- too many kids and not enough schoolrooms.

The kids in grades nine through twelve were all set. They had already made the move to a brand-new high school out on the west edge of town. The elementary school was still in good shape, but it was only big enough now for the kids in kindergarten through grade three.

It was Jack and the other kids caught in the middle grades who had the problem. The old junior high would work fine for grades four and five -- that is, after about ten months of repair work. And the kids in grades six, seven, and eight would have a shiny, new junior high school -- in about another year.

So where do you park Jack and about seven hundred other kids and all their teachers and textbooks and computers and printers and copiers and TVs and VCRs and art supplies, plus their library, for a whole school year?

Simple. You put them in the old high school.

Not simple. Not simple at all.

The old high school was...well, it was old.

The four-story brick building had been part of Huntington's town center for more than seventy-five years. The broad front lawn was split by a wide sidewalk leading up to the front steps. High above the front steps, a square bell tower rose another thirty feet beyond the roofline. The bell tower was capped by a green copper dome with a weather vane on top -- made in the shape of an open book.

The old high school had been built back when fewer kids went on to college. It was Huntington's monument to higher education. For generations graduation from Huntington High had been the goal line.

But not for Jack and the other middle graders. For them it was going to be an educational stopover -- sort of like a long field trip. It would be nothing more than a strange world they would pass through on their way to somewhere else.

And from the second Jack heard about the move, he wished he could make the whole place just disappear.

The news of the school changes had been mailed to every home in Huntington just before spring break during Jack's fourth-grade year. His mom had read the letter aloud at supper one night.

Someone at the school superintendent's office thought it would be fun to give the transition process a cute name. The letter began like this:

Dear Student:

Are you and your friends and family ready for Huntington's newest adventure in learning? Next year will be the year of


Jack was not amused.

After she finished the letter, his mom said, "Don't you think it's exciting, Jack? Those special tours in June should be fun. They want all the kids to feel comfortable, especially the fourth- and fifth-grade kids...Of course, that's not a problem for you, I mean with your dad working there and all."

Jack looked quickly at his dad across the dinner table. "Won't you be going to work at the new high school, Dad? I mean, you're the high school janitor, right?"

Wiping his mouth, John Rankin smiled and said, "Nope. It doesn't work that way. What I am is the janitor for abuilding. The high school and all the high school kids are moving, but the building stays -- so I stay too. No one knows that building like I do. Unless the town decides to tear it down, that'll be where I work."

Jack's mom said, "I loved going to school in that old place. It's got character, you know? And Jackie, if you don't want to take the bus some mornings, you could ride to school in the pickup with your dad."

Looking down at the pile of peas on his plate, Jack thought,Yeah, right. Like I'm going to ride to school with the janitor.

Jack knew he'd be on that bus every day, no matter what.

Jack remembered the first time he had been asked about his future. It was second grade, and Miss Patton had a let's-get-acquainted session on the first day of school. Jack liked Miss Patton. She wore the same kind of perfume that his grandmother wore, only a lot less. She was conducting a little public interview with each student. She asked questions like, Do you have any brothers or sisters? Do you have any pets? What's your favorite food? Do you like sports? If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?The last question she asked was always, And what do you want to be when you grow up?

The answers to that question had been all over the place.

"I'm going to be a policeman."

"I want to be a doctor."

"I want to own a ranch and raise cows and chickens."

"I want to be a lawyer when I grow up."

"I'm going to be an astronaut and fly to Jupiter."

"I'm going to make computers."

Then it was Jack's turn.

Favorite color? Blue.

Brothers or sisters? One little sister.

Favorite food? Pizza.

"And what do you want to be when you grow up, Jack?"

There was no hesitation. Jack smiled with perfect second-grade certainty and he said, "I want to be a janitor, like my dad."

Before Miss Patton could say something like, "That's great, Jack," some kids in the class began to giggle. Raymond Hollis blurted out, "A janitor? That's a job for dum-dums! Hey, Jack wants to grow up to be a dum-dum like his dum-dum daddy!"

That got the whole class laughing. Miss Patton shushed them and said, "Raymond, that was not nice, and you owe Jack an apology. Being a janitor is a perfectly good job, and I'm sure Jack is very proud of his dad."

Jack was proud of his dad, and he loved him very much. But laughter from kids is more powerful than words from teachers. Raymond had to stand up and say, "I'm sorry, Jack," but Jack could tell he didn't mean it.

Ever since that day in second grade, whenever the conversation turned toward parents and jobs, Jack clammed up.

But as fifth grade approached, the topic was going to be unavoidable. All summer long, whenever Jack thought about school, he felt like he was trapped in a bad dream.

Copyright © 2000 by Andrew Clements

Excerpted from The Janitor's Boy by Andrew Clements
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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