The Misfits

by James Howe

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The Misfits by James Howe begins as Bobby Goodspeed is working his very first shift as a tie salesman at the Awkworth & Ames Department Store. His new boss, Mr. Kellerman, is called Killer Man behind his back because he is so mean and grumpy. He is clearly annoyed at being assigned a twelve-year-old assistant, and he hopes to find a reason to fire Bobby. Bobby does his best to work hard because he and his dad need the extra income. As he finishes the shift, he idly wonders if life will get easier in adulthood. He reflects that it will probably get harder. After all, life is not easy for any of the adults he knows.

In seventh grade, life is already pretty hard for Bobby. He and his friends are constantly being called demeaning names. Skeezie is accused of being a hooligan because he wears leather and spikes his hair; Joe is ridiculed for being feminine and creative; and Addie, the only girl in the group, gets teased for being smart and tall. People make fun of Bobby because of his weight. He has been called “Pork Chop, Roly-Poly, Dough Boy, and Fluff.” The last of these names, which he earned in third grade for eating peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches every day, has always bothered him the most. When kids call him Fluff, Bobby thinks:

This is stupid, because there’s a lot more to me than half of what I put in a sandwich.

Together, Bobby, Skeezie, Addie, and Joe are the Gang of Five—even though there are only four of them. The name of their gang is a joke, but they also “figure that there’s one more kid out there who’s going to need a gang to be part of.” They certainly are not the only misfits at Paintbrush Falls Middle School. They are just the only misfits who have Addie as a leader. Addie is brave enough to say what she cares about and stubborn enough to stand by it, no matter what.

On the second Monday of seventh grade, Addie refuses to get up and say the Pledge of Allegiance in her homeroom class. When the teacher, Ms. Wyman, asks why, Addie stands to explain that she feels the Pledge is a lie. The United States is supposed to be the land of freedom, but liberty and justice are not truly available to everyone. When Addie sits back down, the class hears the sound of an enormous fart. DuShawn Carter, who sits next to her, placed a whoopee cushion on her seat.

That afternoon, the Gang of Five go to a local diner called the Candy Kitchen, where Addie brings up the subject of the Pledge of Allegiance. Skeezie and Joe keep changing the subject, but Addie keeps changing it back. Eventually Bobby points out that Addie cannot increase liberty in the United States by refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance in seventh grade homeroom. Besides, he tells her, no kid will ever be allowed to refuse to say the Pledge at school.

On Tuesday morning, Joe finds fagot written on his locker. “Don’t they teach spelling in this school?” he says. He trades insults with Kevin Hennessey, a popular kid who denies leaving the message—but has no problem calling Joe “faggot” to his face. Bobby reflects on the day he met Joe. Both boys were four at the time, and Joe was wearing a dress. Joe no longer wears dresses in seventh grade, but he still does not dress like a typical boy. He colors his hair and keeps one fingernail...

(This entire section contains 2211 words.)

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brightly painted.

In homeroom, Ms. Wyman makes an announcement that the student council elections will soon begin and that each student should be registered as a Democrat or a Republican if they want to run. Addie says that Independents should also be included, but Ms. Wyman says that the school has a two-party system. Addie refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance again, and Ms. Wyman sends her to the principal’s office. As Addie walks out the door, DuShawn sends a spitball flying after her.

Bobby continues to work as a tie salesman after school. Joe’s aunt, Pam, works at a beauty parlor in the same mall, and Bobby likes seeing her because she is beautiful and glamorous. During his break, he talks briefly with her about Mr. Kellerman, whom she calls a “sad character.” She says that he lives with his mother and seems lost in life. This makes Bobby think of Mr. Kellerman as less terrible and more human, which is inconvenient for him

because when you get down to it, thinking of somebody as 100% human seriously gets in the way of hating them.

At school, Addie continues to have a hard time with the teachers because of the stand she is taking on the Pledge of Allegiance. Rather than back down, she decides to take even more action. She asks permission to found a new political party, the Freedom Party, to represent minority issues in the school elections. She knows that popularity is very important in junior high elections, so she asks DuShawn Carter to run for president for her party. DuShawn is popular, smart, and Black. He says that he has never been mistreated because of his skin color, and he points out that the misfits at Paintbrush Falls Middle School face more discrimination than the Black kids do. Nevertheless, he agrees to run. Addie knows few other minority students, so she fills in the rest of the ticket with White kids.

At school, the Gang of Five begins hanging posters for the Freedom Party—only to learn that the school principal, Mr. Kiley, has decided that their group cannot run on a third-party ticket. The school charter only allows third-party groups to run if they address issues that other parties do not. The Democrats and Republicans already represent minorities, so there is little point in adding a third party to do that, too. Addie shouts about liberty and justice but Mr. Kiley does not budge. He says that she has no real point and is just trying to get attention. Afterward, Addie tells Bobby that she is determined to find a new, more original reason for the Freedom Party to run.

That day at lunch, Bobby overhears Kevin Hennessey calling a boy “dweeb” because he stutters. Without really thinking about it, Bobby says that this should be their party’s platform: trying to get kids to stop calling each other names. Each member of the Gang of Five makes a long list of names he or she has been called over the years. They grow excited as they hatch a plan to get everyone in the school talking about the name-calling issue. That afternoon the gang makes new signs, this time with nothing on them except insulting words crossed out in circles. The following morning, they put the signs up all over the school. Soon the whole school is talking about the mysterious signs, and a lot of kids make thoughtful comments about name-calling.

The next morning, Bobby and Addie come to school early to put up signs advertising their party, which is now called the No-Name Party. Ms. Wyman stops them and ends up taking them to Mr. Kiley to state their case. Addie spouts generalizations about freedom of speech, but Bobby interrupts her and explains clearly what their party platform is all about:

Making kids think about name-calling and, well, putting an end to it, if we can. We put up those signs yesterday to get everybody talking about it. And it worked.

He says that unlike the Freedom Party, the No-Name Party has a specific goal and could have a real effect. Mr. Kiley gives the kids permission to run as the No-Name Party.

Although the No-Name Party now has permission to exist, it is still on shaky ground. DuShawn Carter says he has never been called names and should not be president anymore. Addie is disappointed because she still believes that the group needs a popular member. However, she cannot deny that she and the rest of the Gang of Five are more knowledgeable about name-calling than DuShawn is. She agrees to run as president, while Joe, Bobby, and Skeezie run as vice president, treasurer, and secretary. Their new slogan is “Sticks and Stones May Break Our Bones, But Names Will Break Our Spirit.”

Mr. Kellerman disappears from Awkworth & Ames Department Store for a few days, and Bobby learns that the man’s mother has died. Bobby’s own mother died when he was young, so he understands Mr. Kellerman’s grief. After Mr. Kellerman returns to work, he tells Bobby the story of his life. He was a mama’s boy growing up, and he was always teased for it. However, he loved his mother and could hardly bring himself to leave her to go to college. He did so at his father’s urging, and eventually he got married and started a career. When his mother grew ill, he moved back to Paintbrush Falls to care for her. His wife ended up leaving him, and his mother became his whole life again. Now that she is dead, he does not know who he is anymore:

I have always listened to other voices telling me who I am and how I should live. I believed those voices telling me I was a sissy and a mama’s boy.... I believed my mother when she said I should come back.... Who is there left for me to listen to?

Bobby thinks this over and suggests that Mr. Kellerman listen to himself. On his way home after this conversation, he reflects that he does not dislike Mr. Kellerman anymore—but he does not want to grow up to be like him, either.

On Saturday morning, Addie calls Bobby to read him the speech she has written for the No-Name Party. It is all about the history of the Pledge of Allegiance and the First Amendment. Bobby says that she needs to be more specific, and Addie gets angry. A few days later Bobby writes down some thoughts and reads them to Addie. She tells him that he has written the perfect speech and that he should be the one to speak for the No-Name Party in front of the school.

Bobby agrees to give the speech, but he is nervous to do so. He tells his dad, who immediately decides to take off work to come hear it. Bobby and his dad are very close, but Bobby is worried. His dad promises not to embarrass him, but Bobby says, “It’s not you embarrassing me I’m worried about.... It’s me embarrassing you.” His dad assures him that this is impossible; he will love whatever Bobby does and says, no matter what.

This does only a little to reassure Bobby, who spends the morning of the speech in a haze of nerves. Then when the time comes to give the speech, he stands up and says what he wants to say. He explains that “names are a very small way of looking at a person.” To illustrate this point, he tells everyone how, in third grade, he earned the nickname Fluff by eating peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches every day. He ate these sandwiches because his mother had just died and this was her favorite food. It hurt him when people teased him about what he was eating because they did not bother to learn the important parts of his story. After explaining this, Bobby goes on to say that people tend to believe bad things about themselves when they are called by bad names. He proposes that the school hold a No-Name Day: everyone will stop calling each other names just for a day.

When Bobby finishes his speech, everyone claps and whistles for him. He is shocked at their positive reaction. All of the candidates, even from the other parties, congratulate him and tell him his speech was the best. Bobby’s dad says he is proud. Everything seems perfect—but the No-Name Party loses the election.

After the loss, Mr. Kiley calls Bobby and Addie to come speak with him. He tells them that they made him think, for the first time ever, that it might be possible to get kids to stop calling each other names. He invites them to lead a No-Name Day at the school, just as Bobby proposed to do in his speech. They agree, and the following year the No-Name Day becomes No-Name Week. Even after they leave Paintbrush Falls Middle School, students continue holding No-Name Week every year.

The Gang of Five does not become popular after their foray into middle-school politics, but they do okay. They remain friends, and most of them end up finding their first boyfriends and girlfriends that year. More importantly, they all survive seventh grade and grow up to live happy and successful lives. Bobby ends up becoming a United States Senator. All the kids who used to call him names actually brag to their friends about how they used to know him back in middle school.