Jesse sees Leslie again on the first day of school, when he finds that she is in his class. Leslie comes dressed in faded cut-off shorts, a blue shirt, and sneakers. Although she is clearly an object of curiosity to the other students, who are dressed in their Sunday best, their reaction does not seem to bother her. She sits quietly at her desk and looks back at them with a frank and unpretentious gaze. Jesse is assigned to pass out arithmetic books, and when he passes Leslie's desk, she gives him a discreet wave, to which he responds with a nod. Imagining how it must feel to not know anybody and to find herself dressed so differently besides, Jesse feels sorry for Leslie.
The fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Myers, drags out the textbook distribution process interminably. Jesse is bored and takes out a piece of paper and begins to draw. His domineering classmate, Gary Fulcher, tries to see what Jesse is doing. Jesse covers his paper and a brief scuffle takes place. Mrs. Myers reprimands both boys, threatening to send Jesse into the hall to copy the dictionary if he persists in being disruptive. Jesse puts his head down on his desk and wonders how he will survive the year.
The students eat lunch in the classroom because Lark Creek Elementary does not have a cafeteria. The meal is supposed to be eaten in silence, but Jesse hears some of the girls making fun of Leslie, who has brought yogurt for lunch. When the bell rings for recess, the boys rush out in anticipation of running the first races of the year. Gary Fulcher puts himself in charge, sending the little boys away and dividing the rest into four groups. Each group will run a separate heat, and the winners in each heat will run against each other in a final competition to determine the champion. Jesse is in the last group, which he doesn't mind; he likes the idea of watching to see how well the others do and then surprising them by showing how much he has improved over the summer.
When the second group is running its heat, Leslie comes over to join the boys. Jesse at first tries to ignore her, hoping she will go back to the upper field with the girls “where she belong(s),” but she stays by his side. An argument erupts between Gary and another boy, Jimmy Mitchell, and Jesse speaks up in defense of Jimmy. Gary is angry. He sees Leslie and scoffs at Jesse, asking him if he is going to suggest that they let “some girl” run next, and Jesse boldly counters, “Why not?” Jesse shames Gary into letting Leslie run; she will run in his group, the fours.
When the fourth race starts, Jesse shoots forward and feels himself “pumping good.” He knows he has gotten faster over the summer and can almost sense Gary Fulcher's surprise at his improvement, but to his dismay, he suddenly realizes that someone in his group is keeping up with him—and then pulling ahead. Jesse is stunned when Leslie Burke beats him by a full three feet. This was supposed to be the day that Jesse was going to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade, and he has not even won his heat.
Leslie runs in the championship race, beating the favorite, Gary Fulcher, and coming in first. The boys are all so angry they are speechless. When the bell rings, Leslie thanks Jesse for sticking up for her, telling him that he is “the only kid in this whole durned school who’s worth shooting.” She is close to tears but Jesse gives her no sympathy. On the bus ride home, he takes a seat with May Belle so that Leslie cannot sit with him. When she tries to talk to him, he refuses to reply. When they get off the bus, Leslie runs by herself back to the old Perkins place.