Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1482
Reggie McKnight, an eighth-grader at Brooklyn's Clarke Junior School, has a reputation to live down. Having thrown up onstage in front of the entire student body at the beginning of the year, Reggie, nicknamed "Pukey", just tries to stay under the radar to avoid the gibes of his unsympathetic peers. Fortunately, Ruthie Robertson, Reggie's best friend since kindergarten, is always around to defend him, as is Joe Castiglione, his collaborator on the superhero series Night Man.
It is election time at Clarke, and the principal stresses the need to foster a "spirit of community partnership and...leadership," in keeping with the school's "proud tradition of student involvement." Despite his admonition, front-runner Justin Walker puts together a campaign based on popularity. His opponent, the disagreeable and friendless Vicky Ross, shames Reggie into being her campaign manager; sadly, it quickly becomes evident that she is seeking the presidency only for her own benefit.
In contrast, Reggie is developing a sincere interest in the area of community service. At Clarke, eighth-graders are paired up as "Big Buddies" with kindergartners, and Reggie begins to foster a relationship with his Little Buddy, Charlie Calloway. Reggie's youth group at church is also doing a service project at the Olive Branch, a temporary housing facility for the homeless, interviewing residents to "give them a voice," and provide material for a documentary. When he visits the facility for the first time, Reggie is disturbed to find that, contrary to his expectations, the residents are just ordinary people who "could be (his) friend...family...(himself)," and, coincidentally, among the people residing there, are Charlie and his mother. Reggie is assigned to interview a crotchety, middle-aged man named George, who bitterly relates how he once had a good family and had even gone to college, but had succumbed to the pressures of life and turned to drinking and drugs. George reminds Reggie of his own father, who has been unemployed for some time, and he wonders why a loving, all-powerful God allows so much suffering in the world.
At school, Reggie is daily becoming more disillusioned with Vicky's campaign. In addition, he finds that he is growing apart from Joe C., who has less time for Night Man and is pursuing other interests. Sick of "how fake...school is," Reggie is drawn to the gritty reality of the Olive Branch, where he recognizes that the courage and tenacity shown by George and the other residents demonstrates "a kind of faith that (he's) never even thought about before." George has started a project with Charlie and the other kids at the shelter, working with them to create a huge, make-believe cardboard city, and he impresses upon Reggie that what he is doing is more important than their scheduled interview sessions, because the kids are not "okay," and they need him now. Reggie joins the group to help, and, caught up in the enthusiasm of Charlie and the others, almost forgets "the gray walls, the industrial-strength smell," and the brokenness of the people who surround them.
As Reggie and Ruthie pass the playground after school one day, they see Charlie being bullied by an eighth-grader, Donovan. Reggie leaps to Charlie's defense, verbally humiliating Donovan in front of an appreciative crowd. Later, in the cafeteria, Donovan instigates a spitball attack aimed at Vicky, and Reggie does nothing to defend her. Vicky subsequently fires Reggie as her campaign manager, and although Reggie is relieved, he is not proud that he did not stick up for her, and recognizes that while "she's all kinds of wrong," he himself is "not that right either." Reggie's doubts about himself are further complicated when he witnesses Charlie getting the best of a little girl who has been picking on him by talking mean, just like he saw Reggie do with Donovan. Reggie finds that he has "created a monster...in (his) own image," and, realizing that he must lead by example, for Charlie's benefit and his own, he announces his own candidacy for president, which will feature a platform based on fostering "civic responsibility (and) community service" at the Olive Branch.
When Reggie returns to the shelter, he finds that George has left without explanation. The children with whom he had been working on the cardboard city project are heartbroken; Charlie in particular is devastated and will not interact with his Big Buddy. Reggie resolves to find George and bring him back, and is shocked when the trusted adults in his own life tell him that not much can be done. Reggie at first rails against what he perceives as their lack of concern, but eventually accepts the fact that they are only being realistic. Reggie's confusion about a God who allows life to be so unfair is deepened when his father, in a moment of shared confidence, relates that he lost his job because he would not remain silent about discrimination in his former company. Though the consequences of his actions have not been easy, he says that, in the same situation, he would "stand up and speak out again." To Reggie's surprise, his father then offers to go out with him to search for George. They do not find him, but instead, father and son discover each other, engaging for the first time in "real conversation."
With Ruthie and Joe C. as his campaign managers, Reggie manages to overcome his reputation as "Pukey" and gain a measure of respect at school, as computer-geeks and drama kids alike discover that he listens to their concerns and takes them seriously. The candidates are scheduled to address the students at a special assembly which will be attended by the mayor, but on the morning of the assembly, Reggie stops by the Olive Branch on his way to school, and runs into Charlie, who has not spoken to him since George disappeared. Charlie is sullen and bitter, and, sensing that Charlie needs him now, Reggie chooses to stay with his Little Buddy, event though he knows he will miss the assembly. When Reggie finally arrives at school, Ruthie is furious at him, his detractors are gloating, and the principal tells him he has proven to be a poor leader and makes him apologize to the mayor. Charlie, however, calls Reggie on the phone that night and tells him how much it meant to him that Reggie stayed when he needed him, and when the little boy greets Reggie the next morning with a big hug, Ruthie, reconsidering, tells Reggie that he did the right thing.
Reggie continues to forge ahead with his candidacy, running a campaign based on substance. Through his experience with Charlie, Reggie has learned that actions do not have to be big to be significant, and as the election approaches, his message catches on with a surprising number of students. As more and more kids from Clarke begin to help out at the Olive Branch, doing what they can to make things a little easier for the residents, Justin, perceiving that Reggie is a force to be reckoned with, asks him if he would consider running together with him on one ticket, but Reggie respectfully declines. His population notwithstanding, Justin is a decent guy, and he and Reggie agree to share ideas when the election is over. On the day of the elections, Reggie gives a simple address, relating to the students the lessons he has learned during the past months. He tells them that "being true to yourself—even when sometimes you can't figure out who you are," is more important than being popular, and that by focusing on others instead of oneself, a person can make a difference. Reggie promises to bring to life the principles upon which Clarke Junior School has been founded if he is elected, and, having spoken plainly and from the heart, leaves the election in the hands of his peers.
Reggie does not win the election, but his future looks bright. By learning not to take himself too seriously, he has overcome his reputation as "Pukey" and earned the respect of his schoolmates. The spirit of community involvement he has tried to foster at Clarke has taken hold, and the Olive Branch is reaping the benefits. Reggie still does not understand why God allows suffering in the world, but he has faith that God is just, and that things will be all right in the end. In the meantime, Reggie will "go a step at a time, trust a little bit, and stumble a little bit too... (to) work on making (things) as right as (he) can, right now." Reggie maintains a valuable and supportive relationship with Charlie, and it looks like he might get the girl too, in the end. The story closes with Reggie in a very superhero-type pose with Ruthie, as he grabs her and bends her backward until they are both "almost horizontal," and gives her a kiss.
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