Sometimes it feels like the academic decathlon team consists of about fifty kids instead of just nine students. All the talking and laughing and accusing somebody of stealing their pencils. But still, Mr. Harrington digs down deep and tries to keep practice going. The academic decathlon competition in DC is coming up soon, and he thinks they have a good chance of winning.
Well, probably a good chance.
If they can stay focused.
“Roll call,” he calls out as he steps into the room where they’ve gathered to practice. He waits for them to settle down. He keeps waiting… and waiting… and waiting… until Liz finally clears her throat and asks them to pay attention.
“Okay,” Mr. Harrington begins, marking his list of names. “Captain Liz is present. I see Sally and Cindy are here as well.”
Sally Avril politely waves at him from her chair in the back, while Cindy Moon just nods.
“I’m here too,” Abraham Brown says, accompanied by the ding of the bell. About five dings of the bell, in fact.
“Please don’t misuse the bell,” Mr. Harrington repeats for the fifty-seventh time. Abraham just continues to grin.
Charlie Murphy dings the bell to let him know he’s here too, and then Flash Thompson takes the bell and does the same thing. Mr. Harrington merely sighs, marks them both present, and reminds himself how grateful he is that they replaced the old loud buzzers with bells last year.
“I see Ned’s here on time, and so is Michelle,” he continues with the roll call.
Ned nods, looking happy to be at decathlon practice. Michelle, however, sitting alone in the corner, croaks out a typical response.
“But am I here in spirit?” she says, raising one eyebrow to make herself look extra mysterious.
Mr. Harrington stares at her for a moment. “I’m, uh, going to mark you present anyway,” he replies.
“Peter Parker isn’t here,” Flash says loudly, relishing in being able to announce this. Again.
“He’s always late or missing. Can I have his spot?” Flash wiggles his eyebrows at him, looking more like some sort of sleazy car salesman than a high school student in the moment.
“He’s at the Stark internship,” Ned speaks up for his friend like usual. “It’s a very big opportunity, so that’s why he’s always busy.”
Mr. Harrington remembers doing an internship in his younger days and that it only consisted of buying coffee for everyone in the office every day. He supposed if Peter had to buy coffee for everyone who worked for Tony Stark, that probably would take forever.
“Hey,” Flash continues, turning to the rest of the students who only seem vaguely interested in what he’s going to say. “What does Peter Parker and cereal have in common?”
There’s a slightly awkward silence as no one is able to come up with an answer.
“They’re both flakey,” he says proudly. And then a moment later, he frowns as no one laughs, so he has to explain the joke. “Like corn flakes. And Peter never showing up.”
“Not all cereals are made of flakes, so that doesn’t really make much sense,” Cindy points out.
“Lucky Charms are made of marshmallows,” Abraham insists. “It says so right in the commercial.”
Mr. Harrington rubs his forehead as the whole discussion devolves into a conversation about cereals and Flash’s inability to think of intelligent insults. Just as the discussion gets to the point of why rabbits aren’t allowed to eat Trix cereal, Peter finally bursts into the room through the doors, stumbling a bit as if his legs are moving faster than his body can keep up with.
“Sorry I’m late,” he squeaks out, sounding a bit frazzled, as he slides ungracefully into the open seat beside Ned. “I got caught up with uh… string theory?”
The rest of the students give Peter a confused look.
“…studying string theory at the Stark internship,” he continues.
Mr. Harrington just shrugs. Internships really must have been different than they were back in his day.
Somewhere between answering the practice questions and talking about the travel plans for the trip to DC, decathlon practice devolved into a different topic entirely.
“Do you ever wonder how many Avengers it would take to change a light bulb?” Abraham asks, tapping his pencil against his temple like this is a vital question that needs an answer.
Mr. Harrington attempts to tell the group to get back on task, but they are determined to discuss the topic. Their notebooks are pushed aside and forgotten as they all lean in close to throw out their own answers.
“Iron Man would invent a suit dedicated solely to changing light bulbs,” Charlie says, while Ned nods intensely in agreement.
“I think they’d need at least three,” Flash says with a laugh, and making a lot of hand gestures to go along with what he was saying. “Hawkeye to hold the light bulb and Thor and Hulk to turn the ladder.”
Mr. Harrington opens his mouth to interrupt, but Sally jumps in with, “I bet Hulk isn’t allowed to change light bulbs because he gets angry and accidentally crushes them all.”
Over in the corner, Michelle scoffs and quietly adds, “Black Widow could probably do all of it by herself without the help of stupid boys.”
“Do you think there’s a ‘how to change a light bulb’ video featuring Captain America out there?” Cindy asks. “There are so many of those videos.”
Usually Mr. Harrington relies on Liz to get the group back on task, because as captain they listen to her, but even she’s enthralled in the conversation. “I bet Spiderman wouldn’t even need a ladder to change a light bulb. He could just crawl on the ceiling to reach it.”
“Or use his spiderweb stuff,” Ned adds, pretending to shoot webs from his hands. “Like in the youtube videos.”
“Spiderman’s not an Avenger,” Flash mumbles.
“How did we even get to this subject?” Mr. Harrington asks out loud even though no one but Michelle hears him.
“You asked us what the speed of light was and we started theorizing on the topic of lights. So technically, this is still practice. Good job, Mr. Harrington. We’re learning things.” She gives him a half-hearted thumbs up in what he guessed what supposed to be some kind of encouragement, and then goes back to doodling in her notebook and ignoring the conversation.
Mr. Harrington wonders if coaching academic decathlon is actually more stressful than a physical decathlon team.
A meeting with a few other teachers delays his arrival to decathlon practice in the library, but Mr. Harrington really hopes they’ll already be studying when he arrives.
He should have known better.
“Hey, Mr. Harrington, do you want some spaghetti?”
He rounds the corner of the bookshelf to see a whole spread of food on the table the team was gathered around, and Ned holding up a bowl of spaghetti for him.
“Do I… do I even want to know why you’re eating an entire meal in the library?” From the looks of it, they had ordered a mix of Italian, Indian, and Mexican food to eat. Why they couldn’t have ordered something more simple and less messy, he didn’t know.
Liz looks slightly embarrassed. “We were studying so hard we got hungry?”
“Oh, and Peter took a burrito to go,” Abraham adds in between bites of his taco. “He says he’s sorry he’s got to miss practice again.”
“Are you sure I can’t have his spot?” Flash asks once again. He pushes an uneaten calzone towards him as if it was a bribe.
Mr. Harrington doesn’t acknowledge it. “I don’t think we’re allowed to have food in the library.”
“It’s cool,” another voice cuts in, and he turns to see Coach Wilson sitting at the table with the rest of the team.
“We gave the librarian some spaghetti too,” the gym teacher explains.
“Why are you here?” Mr. Harrington asks. He wonders for a brief moment if he can convince Wilson to take over as decathlon coach. But then he’d lose his free trip to DC.
Coach Wilson shrugs in his usual unconcerned manner. “Can’t pass up free food. You want some chicken tikka masala?”
Mr. Harrington just takes a seat at the table and sighs, grabbing a couple napkins.
“Hi, I’m Captain America,” the cheerful voice on the video echoes in the classroom they’re all gathered in. “I’m here to talk to you about cheating.”
“Is this really necessary?” Sally asks loudly over the video.
Mr. Harrington clears his throat before he answers the inevitable question. “It’s required by tournament rules. Or something.”
“Since Peter’s not here to watch it, can he be disqualified?” Flash asks hopefully.
“Cheaters never win, and winners never cheat,” Captain America continues in his stilted I’m-trying-hard-not-to-sound-like-I’m-acting voice, pointing his finger at the camera for emphasis.
“Isn’t the super soldier serum kind of like the ultimate cheat?” Michelle muses out loud to no one in particular.
“I heard of a guy who cheated on his science test by wearing a t-shirt with the periodic table of elements on it,” Cindy says, and nobody hears what Cap continues to say as Abraham laughs loudly at the idea of that.
“Well, we’ll be wearing our school uniforms at the competition,” Liz says.
From the back of the room, Charlie snores loudly, having already fallen asleep within the first few minutes of the video. Ned looks like he’s tempted to wake him up by poking him with a tiny Lego figurine.
At least Mr. Harrington feels confident enough that the team probably can’t focus long enough to invest in any cheating strategies.
Despite the inevitable absence of Peter once again, Mr. Harrington thinks the day’s practice is going quite well. The team answers the practice questions quite well and doesn’t get distracted at all. In fact, he’s cautiously optimistic that they’d get through the whole practice without incident.
At least, that is until they’d decided to take a short break. He taken a quick trip to the bathroom, and when he returned, he found all his question cards had been replaced.
“Who let the dogs out?” he reads off one of the new cards which were definitely scribbled in Abraham’s handwriting. “Now you know that’s not going to be a question at the competition.”
He picks up the next one. “Can you believe it’s not butter?”
“I can’t,” Ned says seriously. “They really taste the same to me.”
Mr. Harrington shuffles through all the cards. “These are supposed to be science questions.”
Abraham grins as he hands him another card, this time written in Cindy’s neat scrawl. “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”
“African or European swallow?” Michelle replies, not even looking up from the book she was reading.
Mr. Harrington rubs his hands across his face and sighs for what feels like the four billionth time since he started coaching these kids. They’re good kids. Really good smart kids. And he loves them a lot.
But they really can be trifling sometimes.
Liz dings the bell for attention. “Okay, okay,” she says, “that was fun but let’s get back to studying. The trip to Washington is only a few days away.” She gestures for everyone to sit up and pay attention again, and surprisingly the rest of the team actually does it. They get back to practicing for the competition, and even though Abraham keeps insisting he answer everything in the form of a question “like on Jeopardy,” things go well.
It’d be nice if Peter had been there too, but Ned insisted that he was still studying string theory with Tony Stark. Mr. Harrington guessed he couldn’t fault him for that. It must be some really interesting research.
“Hey, if we win the decathlon in Washington DC, can we go tour all the monuments?” Sally asks hopefully in between a few questions.
“We’ll visit them all whether we win or not. It’s already on the itinerary,” he answers.
He has his fingers crossed that the field trip is going to be uneventful, but knowing these kids, anything can happen.