Mrs. Olinski is often asked how she chose the members of her sixth-grade Academic Team at Epiphany Middle School in upstate New York. She does not know the answer until Bowl Day is over and the work of the four children, who call themselves The Souls, is finished. The Souls accomplish the amazing feat of making it to the finals, even though they are in the youngest class competing. Noah Gershom is the first student chosen by Mrs. Olinski for the team.
Noah Writes a B & B Letter
During the summer before his sixth-grade year, while his parents are on a cruise, Noah is sent to stay with his paternal grandparents in Century Village, a retirement facility in Florida which is like "a theme park for old people." During Noah's visit, two of the facility's residents, Margaret Draper and Izzy Diamondstein, get married. Noah, by his own rather smug admission, is "a wonderful help" in making sure that the festivities go smoothly.
Noah learns calligraphy in order to help with the invitations. Things are going well in that particular aspect of the preparations until a cat belonging to Tillie Nachman, the woman in charge, walks through some spilled ink and leaves "cat's paws" on five of the cards. Tillie initially is upset because there are no extras, but Noah comes up with the brilliant idea of offering a surprise gift at the wedding to each of the recipients of the "cat's paw" invitations. He will figure out what the gifts will be later.
On the day of the wedding, Noah is "in great demand," delivering items to the venue in the new red wagon his Grandpa has bought for him. Unfortunately, during the transporting of the wedding cake, Allan Diamondstein, Izzy's son and best man, trips on the wagon handle, upsetting the cake and hurting his ankle. Allan, who is going through a divorce and is "the most nervous human being [Noah has] ever seen in [his] life," is taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Noah...
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Mrs. Olinski notices that Nadia Diamondstein barely speaks during the first weeks of the new academic year at Epiphany Middle School. The pretty, red-haired student is a watcher, "cautious about showing [her]self." Finally, one day in mid-October, Nadia comes into the classroom and gifts her teacher with a radiant smile. Nadia repeats this greeting "every morning thereafter." Mrs. Olinski recognizes that Nadia Diamondstein is "a star."
Nadia Tells of Turtle Love
During the summer before her sixth-grade year, Nadia's parents go through a divorce, and Nadia must move with her mother from Florida to upstate New York. As a part of the divorce settlement, Nadia is required to spend a month of her summer vacation with her father back in their old neighborhood. As she has been given no say about any of these arrangements, the young girl is understandably bitter when she arrives at her father's apartment with her dog, Ginger. Nadia's father, Allan Diamondstein, is an extremely nervous individual who tends to "hover," making the entire situation singularly uncomfortable.
Nadia's Grandpa, Izzy Diamondstein, who lives nearby in Florida's Century Village, has just gotten married to a woman named Margaret Draper. Nadia has received a "full report" about the wedding from Noah Gershom, whose father, Dr. Gershom, is Nadia's mother's employer in New York. During Nadia's stay, Grandpa Izzy calls every day after her father leaves for work. Her grandfather invites her to visit Century Village, but Nadia declines. Finally, after a very unsatisfactory attempt to connect with her old friends in the neighborhood, Nadia agrees to visit her grandpa, whose new wife's grandson, Ethan Potter, has also arrived to stay for a while.
The beaches of Florida are inhabited by sea turtles. "Turtle patrols" guard the area from May through October to make sure that the turtles' nests are protected from danger. Margaret Draper Diamondstein is an avid environmentalist, and...
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Margaret Draper was the principal for the school at which Mrs. Eva Marie Olinski first taught. During the summer after Margaret retired, Eva Marie was in an automobile accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Margaret Draper kept in touch with Mrs. Olinski during her recovery and afterward. When Mrs. Olinski finally returns to teaching ten years later, she discovers that Ethan Potter, Margaret's grandson, will be in her class. Mrs. Olinski finds that Ethan is intelligent, independent, and has a refreshingly positive attitude. When she chooses him for her Academic Team, she tells neither her friend Margaret nor anyone else.
Ethan Explains the B & B Inn
Ethan Potter lives in the shadow of his older brother, Luke, who is "always doing something wonderful and/or record setting." As a result, Ethan tends to keep to himself. The Potters, who are a well-established dynasty in Epiphany, plan for Ethan to inherit the family farm when he grows up because his brother is "scheduled for greater things." They do not know that Ethan has dreams of his own: he wants to go to New York City to design costumes and stage sets for the theater.
Ethan sits at the back of the school bus every year. By making himself inconspicuous, he usually manages to have the seat to himself. On the first day of sixth grade, however, he is joined by a new student, Julian Singh. Julian is of Indian descent, speaks with a British accent, and is impeccably polite. In addition, he wears shorts and knee socks, and carries a leather book bag. He is decidedly different and hopelessly uncool. Julian's father has bought the Sillington House, a local landmark which he plans to turn into a bed-and-breakfast inn. Despite himself, Ethan is curious about his new seatmate, but his desire to remain unnoticed by the general populace asserts itself. Although he is not exactly rude to Julian Singh, he makes it clear through his body language that he would prefer to be left alone.
In homeroom, Mrs. Olinski, who is confined to a wheelchair, introduces herself to her students. She explains that she is a "PARAPLEGIC," writing the word under her name on the board. As she speaks, Ethan surveys his classmates and sees Julian sitting in the row next to him. Nadia Diamondstein, whom Ethan had met during the summer, is in the same class too, as is Noah Gershom, the son of Ethan's family's dentist. Hamilton Knapp and Michael Froelich, two known troublemakers, are seated in the back of the room, and they immediately proceed to give Mrs. Olinski grief. At lunchtime, Ethan, Nadia, and Noah sit together, while Julian Singh sits alone. When he is finished eating, Julian leaves the cafeteria. Mrs. Olinski follows him, probably to acquaint him with the rules of...
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Mrs. Olinski's sixth-grade class is the first since her accident; it is the first class she has had in ten years. Although she approaches it with seeming confidence, she is unsure of herself and a little apprehensive. When she returns to her classroom at lunch on the first day of school to find the word "CRIPPLE" on the board, she knows that a lot has changed since her last teaching experience.
At Sillington House on the Saturday after they had dubbed themselves The Souls, Julian announces that the group must have a project. Using the metaphor of a small ivory monkey that can balance on any of its four limbs, he communicates to his friends that he thinks they ought to help Mrs. Olinski "stand on her own two feet," so to...
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The deadline for choosing the members of the year's Academic Teams is the Tuesday following the winter holiday. The other teachers have already announced their teams; only Mrs. Olinski has not made her decisions. What Mrs. Olinski has decided is that she will not hold tryouts for the positions, but will simply appoint the members instead.
Noah is the first student chosen by Mrs. Olinski to be on her team. She makes that determination while reading a paper he has written about the First Amendment. After choosing Noah, she immediately thinks of Nadia and Ethan. She observes the two closely over the next few weeks and becomes convinced that they are right for the job. It is the fourth member of the team that causes Mrs....
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Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian practice every day during activities hour, which is held at school between eleven-thirty and one o'clock. Mrs. Olinski drills them using stacks of note cards. She has three sets of questions, addressing all subjects and various levels of difficulty. The Souls beat the other sixth-grade teams soundly in their first face-off, and then go on to beat the seventh grade, almost doubling the older students' score. It is the first time that a sixth-grade team has ever defeated a seventh-grade team at Epiphany.
Excitement at the middle school grows as The Souls prepare to take on the eighth-grade team. In the students' eyes, the younger class metaphorically becomes David to the eighth grade's...
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As The Souls continue to prepare for the contest against Knightsbridge, Mrs. Olinski's pack of note cards grows. The children become so familiar with the questions that they can often provide the answers before she is finished reading them. As this will cost them a penalty if it happens during the actual match, The Souls must get out of that habit, which they do after only one warning from their teacher. Now that her team has experienced such success, Mrs. Olinski is asked frequently how she originally chose its members. Although she offers several good answers, pointing out their intelligence, their ability to work together, and their willingness to work, in truth, Mrs. Olinski still does not really understand the exact reasons...
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After defeating Knightsbridge for the district championship, The Souls begin to drill for the regionals. Epiphany is in the Finger Lakes Region, which has never won a state championship. In contrast, the Hudson River Region, which includes their opponent, Maxwell Middle School, has won three times in the past four years. The week before the final competition, Mrs. Olinski arranges for a Saturday-afternoon study session. To her surprise, The Souls decline because they already have an engagement that day at Sillington House to meet for tea. With their explanation, The Souls extend an unspoken invitation to their teacher. Remembering that she has promised to one day treat herself to "another cup of slow tea," Mrs. Olinski decides that...
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Because of The Souls' unprecedented achievement in making it to the regional championships as a sixth-grade team, Mrs. Olinski and the children are featured on the front page of the metro section of the local newspaper. In the rush of publicity which follows, Dr. Roy Clayton Rohmer, the district superintendent, arranges for a press conference with the famed anchorwoman Holly Blackwell and Channel Three Eyewitness News. While Ms. Blackwell is arranging The Souls onstage behind Dr. Rohmer, she makes an affected and condescending comment to Nadia about her red hair. Nadia snaps back with a cheeky but completely honest retort, causing the anchorwoman to turn her back on The Souls and direct the cameraman to focus almost exclusively on...
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On the ride home, Julian quickly falls asleep. Mrs. Olinski and Mr. Singh are quiet too. As she drives, Mrs. Olinski is surprised to find that she feels "a strange sense of loss." She expresses her feelings of inexplicable sadness to her passenger, and Mr. Singh affirms calmly that, in actuality, something really has been lost. He identifies it as the opportunity for "future victories." For months, Mrs. Olinski has been in a state of "perpetual preparation and excitement," with "each victory...a preparation for the next." Mr. Singh asks Mrs. Olinski if she has enjoyed the journey, and she realizes that she has. Now, she must appreciate the respite and prepare for what life will bring to her next.
After many long miles...
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