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THE PEANUT BUTTER POET
by Catherine May Webb

Nobody breathed. All eyes were on our teacher, Ms. Miller. She was pacing the floor of the classroom, clutching a stack of papers.

"Class, can anyone tell me what plagiarism is?"

Tiffany's hand shot up like a rocket. "Plagiarism is taking someone else's words and saying they are yours." She batted her eyelashes and flashed the teacher her sweetest smile. Blech! Could she be a bigger fake?

"That's correct," Ms. Miller said. "It's the same as stealing." She adjusted her glasses and looked at me. "Casey Malone, do you have anything to say for yourself?"

Her words struck me like lightning. "Me?" I stammered. My classmates, mouths agape, stared at me like I had just sprouted sixteen pairs of eyes.

My face turned as hot and red as a pimple. This can't be happening, I thought. My best friend Megan cast me a sympathetic look. Did she think I was guilty too? Ms. Miller handed me the poem I'd turned in. Only, it wasn't my poem.

"This isn't mine," I blurted loudly. "Honest!"

Ms. Miller put up her hand. "I'm afraid I have to disqualify you from the contest."

My heart sank like a stone.

For the past month, every sixth grader at Raven Ridge Middle School had been talking about this contest. First prize for best poem was $1,000 dollars. My mom had already said she couldn't afford to send me to camp this year. And it was the one thing I looked forward to every summer. The contest was my only chance of coming up with the money.

I glanced over at Tiffany, seated smugly at her desk. Next to me, Tiffany was the best poet in class. It would be just like her to sabotage my chances.

"Please, just give me till tomorrow," I begged. "I'm innocent."

Just then, the echoing clang of the bell drowned out my voice.

"OK," Ms. Miller agreed. "But I expect a real assignment. Understand?"

I nodded.

Tiffany rose from her seat and whisked past me. "Good luck," she mumbled with a sneer. There was no doubt about it. Tiffany had done this. I just had to figure out a way to prove it.

"Count me in, Case," Megan said later when I shared my suspicions. "You can't miss out on camp."

"Thanks." I smiled. Megan was the coolest friend in the world. She wanted to help me, even though she'd be taking oboe lessons all summer with Mr. Ginglestinker. (The name fits; he smells like sweaty gym socks.)

"Let's head to the cafeteria," I said. "Tiffany must've swapped the poems when we went up for desert. Maybe the cafeteria lady saw something."

We dashed to the lunchroom. Smells of leftover pizza and Tuesday's Tuna Surprise filled the air.

"Great," I grumbled. Our regular lunch lady was gone, and a skinny woman with a wide-toothed grin was in her place. Now what was I going to do?

"I've got it," I cried. "There's another copy on my computer."

But when I got home, there was even more bad news.

"Sorry, honey," my mom said. "The computer's being repaired."

I groaned.

"I don't get it," mused Megan the next day during lunch break. "If Tiffany slipped you the stolen poem, does that mean she handed yours in?"

"Final assignments aren't due till today," I answered. "Which means…"

"Tiffany still has your poem!"

I scrambled out of the cafeteria and through the deserted school corridor. I had to hurry. There were only four minutes before the bell rang, and Tiffany and her snotty cronies would be here any second to pick up their books. I skidded to a halt beside Tiffany's locker. When she got here, I'd be waiting. I'd look her straight in the eye and demand my poem. Suddenly I heard footsteps.

"Hey!"

I jumped, startled. It was Megan.

"I thought you were Tiffany," I said, a bit relieved.

"Tiffany wouldn't be eating one of these," mumbled Megan, holding up the last bite of her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

"Megan, that's it! You're a genius!" I grabbed her arm and we raced to class. Tiffany was already inside, passing a piece of paper to Ms. Miller.

"Stop!" I shrieked, bursting through the door. "That's my poem!"

Whispers buzzed around the room like a swarm of bees.

"Is this gonna take long?" Tiffany asked, looking annoyed. "I have an appointment with my allergist."

"Speaking of allergies," I said, "some of my peanut butter sandwich oozed out onto my poem yesterday. The glob of evidence proves this poem is mine because - I turned to the class - Tiffany is allergic to peanuts!"

Somebody gasped. Ms. Miller held up the poem. Sure enough, there was a small splotch of a peanut butter-like substance smeared on the last page.

"Care to come clean, Tiffany?" I asked. "The science lab should have no trouble identifying the stain."

The truth spread across Tiffany's face like raspberry jam.

"Tiffany, I think you know what this means," Ms. Miller said sternly. "You can wait at the principal's office until your parents get here."

"Don't worry, Tiff," Megan chimed in, her eyes twinkling with mischief. "Turns out, Mr. Ginglestinker doesn't think I'm good enough to go on with my oboe lessons. I hear he's looking for a new protege. Maybe you can apply."

Tiffany rolled her eyes and stormed out of class.

"Congratulations, Casey," Ms. Miller said. "I misjudged you. Your poem was the best I've read so far. Looks like you're the one to beat in the contest." She paused. "But I have to take points off for the peanut butter."

Everyone laughed.

"Isn't this great?!" exclaimed Megan. "You'll get to go to camp after all."

"I haven"t won yet," I said. But I felt like a winner. I proved I didn"t cheat, and I had a friend who believed I was innocent all along.

What could be better than that?

 

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