I'm Jefferson Stanhope and I'm short. Like, really short. As in bring-a-step-stool-to-drink-from-the-water-fountain short. It's not genetic or anything. My parents and tall and my older brother and sister are tall. But not me. I think God hates me. Caitlin says God doesn't hate anyone, but after what happened to her, I thought she would change her mind. She didn't.
This is a short (pun intended) story about how I tried to help a friend but got wrapped up in a harmless lie that ended up involving the entire school. I know that sounds mysterious, but I didn't tell the lie! I just didn't tell anyone that what Mike said was a lie. What's the difference, you ask? Well, now I know the difference. Believe me, I won't let that happen again!
A short Story
by Jessica Schaub
Stretching to New Heights
"Jeff!" my brother called from the hall. "Mom says to eat breakfast now. If we miss the bus again, she's going to make us walk."
I didn't answer because George would know where I was and what I was doing.
The door of my closet swung open and he laughed. "You seriously think that's going to help?"
I let go of the bar and dropped to the floor. "It might."
"Jeff, you're short. It's no big deal."
I tried to shove him out of the way with my shoulder as I walked by, but he towers over me and is twice as thick. Instead of shoving him I fell backwards into my laundry basket and he laughed again. "Is this why you've been eating so much spinach?"
"It's healthy. You should try it." I didn’t tell him that I had read a report that kids who ate more vegetables were taller and stronger. Since frozen spinach was buy one get two free, mom bought frozen spinach and was thrilled that I ate it when she cooked it.
George flexed his arm and his stupid bicep nearly shredded his t-shirt. He wears his shirts a size too small so he looks more muscular. "I don't think I need spinach. Just protein." He lowered his arms and reached a hand out to help me out of the basket. "Seriously, Jeff. Try protein. It tastes better and it works."
I batted his hand away, and he shrugged and left. "Don't be late. It's bad enough to have to ride the bus. I will not walk to school."
By the time I came downstairs, mom had washed the dishes and my cold spinach omelet was still in the pan.
"Change of plans," she said. "I can work a double shift today. Then I have a meeting tonight at church. We are organizing the food for the backpacks for Elmherst Elementary. I'll be home late."
"Again?" I asked.
“My mother worked too,” she said as she poured coffee into a travel mug. “I know the sacrifices you make because I’m gone at night. It's this family's mission to help those who can't help themselves."
My dad mumbled something about her minimum wage job and her volunteering hours that was more anger at himself than toward Mom. I know Mom heard him because her face grew a shade of reddish-purple that meant she agreed with him, but was trapped by the tradition her mother had started and the situation they found themselves in when the economy tanked and took Dad's business down with it. My grandmother, had been the president of every volunteer organization created and as a result established in her children a sense of duty to the less fortunate. The problem was that we were becoming one of the less fortunate.
 But even when it's cooked with onions and soy sauce, spinach still tastes like dirt.
 She is referring to the dishes I will have to do before I can finish my homework.
"Mr. Stanhope," Mrs. Spaglio called me to the front of the art studio. "I'm still waiting for your project proposal for the eighth grade ceiling time competion."
"I'm still working on it."
"The school year is going to come to an end before you know it. It would be sad indeed if you left this school without leaving a mark."
I knew she was talking about my ceiling tile project, but I couldn't help feeling that she was addressing my overall average-ness.
"I'll work on it more this weekend."
She smiled. "Good. You are a fine artist. I'm looking forward to seeing your tile unveiled."
At our school, each eighth grader paints a ceiling tile. It's the mark we leave for upcoming students to look up to; a statement of what we believe, what we like, who we are.
The art teacher, Mrs. Spaglio, had a crazy idea years ago that the eighth grade students would paint a ceiling tile as part of their final art contribution to the school. Mr. Retsim, the principal, loved it. The ceiling tiles were already paid for. The only expense would be the paint.
The custodian, Mr. Moppet, hates it. He spends hours each week climbing up the ladder to pull out a ceiling tile and carefully balance it as he climbs down. He dropped one once and the mess it made upset
Mr. Retsim, who knew that the budget would be off because of the cost to replace it. More than that, Mr. Retsim doesn't like the gaping holes in the ceiling while each tile is being painted, so Mr. Moppet needs to constantly change them out.
The ladder is his other nemesis.
"Can't leave the ladder out, Mr. Moppet," Mr. Retsim said. "It's a hazard for these young ones. Never know who might climb up into the ceiling to make a break for it."
That's why it used to be common to see Mr. Moppet carrying the ladder like some overgrown child. He would mutter to it, complaining about the tiles and the students.
This art project is my chance to succeed at something my brother and sister failed at. George and Amelia's ceiling tiles are tucked away in the corner over the emergency exit in the science hallway. If I can win the ceiling tile competition, my tile will be hung over the door to the main office, I will get an 'A' in art, and I will be guaranteed a place in the advanced art class in high school, a class reserved for sophomores and juniors.
I know what you're thinking. Do I have any artistic ability? Compared to my brother and sister, I'm a Picasso. No, Picasso's work was too abstract. I'm more like Van Gogh. But compared to Caitlin Amore, I draw as if I have two left hands and paint like I have a brush in my mouth. Caitlin Amore will be famous someday for her art work. She's my main competition for the main office tile prize.
She's also my next door neighbor and best friend.
 It's really just a classroom outfitted with large tables stained with paint and markers, but Mrs. Spaglio insists we call it a "studio." I wish every classroom had a different name. Science would be the Laboratory. English...the Library. I wonder how different the classrooms would seem if they just had a different name?
 We, of course, call her Mrs. Spaghetti due to the fact that her hair is long and blonde and twisted into thick dreadlocks that look like cooked noodles, but never to her face. Byron Homes did that once and is still cleaning toilets after school every Wednesday and Thursday.
 Mr. Moppet and the Unfortunate Ceiling Tile. This sounds like a bad title to a book.
 No one knows for sure, but its statements like these that have led all of us to believe that Mr. Retsim was formerly a prison warden...or a prisoner.
 Mr. Moppet is not allowed to carry the ladder in the halls between classes anymore. That's how Cecilia Bunkle got her dentures.
 I realize some people can paint with a paintbrush in their mouth. I can't.
Mrs. Swen had a headache today and assigned the following: "Write a list of how current events are affecting you personally."
My completed assignment:
How the Economy has Ruined My Life:
My dad's business has lost 85% of its income. He is now the only employee and doing the work of three people.
We sold our backyard play-set and put in a garden. Now our summer vacation consists of tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting and canning.
Having a garden means pulling weeds and eating vegetables. Corn on the cob – good. Okra – bad!
My mom went back to work, which means that we all take turns making dinner and washing dishes, both of which cut into my TV and homework time.
After a few months, the TV thing wasn't a problem anymore. My parents canceled cable. Now all we have are the movies we didn't sell in the yard sale.
We shop at grocery stores where you have to bag your own stuff.
We clip coupons.
My mom tried canning green beans. The pressure cooker exploded, leaving the pressure gauge stuck in the ceiling. My dad left it there as a reminder that everything will sooner or later reach a boiling point.
My brother, my sister and I are the only kids in the school who don't have cell phones. Well, there is one cell phone for the three of us, but it's a pre-paid phone and we can't text on it without risking losing our bathroom privileges. We use it for when one of us is away from home and might need the phone. And because my older brother drives and my older sister has so many after school activities, one of them are usually in possession of the phone.
Because I never have the phone and never text, I don't know the acronyms for texting. Kids in my school can't text in class, so they speak with texting words, like OMG! when something unbelievable happens, or WTH? which has a swear word in it but isn't as bad as the version that my brother uses.
 We are all too old for it, but it was still sad to see it go.
If Parents Were Once Our Age, Why Don't They Understand the Seriousness of the Issue?
"So what's the big deal?" dad asked. "It's just a ceiling tile. George and Amelia didn't stress out about it."
"Dad! It's not just a ceiling tile," I said, "it's the artistic representation of my legacy."
Dad looked at me over the rim of his bifocals. "A legacy on a ceiling tile. I think I need more information."
"Every eighth grader paints something on a ceiling tile and it's put up in the school for everyone to see. It has to be perfect."
"George and Amelia painted tiles. Are they still up?"
"Yeah. Over by the exit doors in the science wing." I didn't tell him that those doors were only used during fire drills or if someone mixed the wrong chemicals together and we needed to evacuate the school. That's how bad their tiles were. That's how the Stanhope name gained a bad reputation in art. I have a shot to change that; to win at something George and Amelia never had a chance to win.
"And how long does this ceiling tile stay up?" Dad asked.
"Forever!" I yelled. He just wasn't getting the importance of the ceiling tile dilemma.
Dad set down his newspaper and took an interest in the problem. "What can you paint well?"
I shrugged. "I'm pretty good at trees and stone walls. Animals are pretty easy."
"Sounds like your problem is solved. Paint a tree in front of a stone wall." Satisfied, dad picked up his newspaper again.
"No, Dad. That's stupid. Who's going to care about some old tree and a wall?"
"This wouldn't have anything to do with," dad asked, eyebrows raised, "a girl?"
"Not everything revolves around girls, dad."
"Really?" he asked, his smile was obvious even through the newspaper. "When I was your age, most things - important things - were either about girls or football."
"Caitlin likes teddy bears." I leaned forward. Even my dad, the king of practicality must understand this.
"There's no way I'm going to paint a teddy bear."
Dad leaned forward and took off his reading glasses. "That would take years to live down."
"What else does she like?" he asked.
"I don't know." I've known Caitlin all my life and I know she likes teddy bears and chocolate chip cookies and letters in the mail. I know she wears Red, White and Blue on Fridays as a message of support for our troops when we don't have to wear school uniforms. She loves to camp and fish and at times acts more like a boy than a girl. But none of those things would come together in my mind as a painting that would both impress Caitlin and win the contest.
"Then that's your first task," Dad said, pointing at me with his glasses.
"What is?" I asked.
"Finding out what Caitlin likes."
Dad shrugged and put his glasses back on. "That's up to you, buddy."
"Thanks, Dad." I left the room. I meant to say 'Thanks for nothing', but that would have gotten me grounded. Now I knew what I needed to do and had no idea how to do it. I hoped Caitlin likes trees. I can paint trees.