Middletown Middle / Chapter Three – The Face Painter

Here’s the second chapter of my grade school anthology book –  Middletown Middle.  The school with more mysteries than students.  Read chapter two here.

June 9, 1999

Sure, lots of schools have a ‘Principal for a Day’ program, where students get their picture taken hanging out with the principal. But of course those students aren’t really a Principal for a Day. The kids chosen to do it at those schools can’t actually make important decisions or spend their school’s money. But Middletown Middle is different.

At Middletown Middle, the kid is the literally the Principal for a Day. The actual principal goes off-campus to some conference while the kid takes over. The student attends meetings, picks paint colors for the boys’ bathroom, and scolds parents not parked correctly in the pick-up line. The Principal for a Day at Middletown Middle isn’t allowed to fire teachers anymore, though. Not since ’75, when Joey Baggins fired the gym teacher and hired his dad. They also can’t grant snow days in June, since the blizzard that never came that summer day in ’83.

The teachers select the Principal for a Day. How they choose the Principal for a Day is somewhat of a mystery because nobody knows of any rules for the process. Usually, though, the student is the wise-beyond-their-years type and is considered good at making decisions. In other words, they generally pick the student most likely to not destroy the school.

In 1997, the Principal for a Day occasion fell on the same day as the Middletown Middle School Day (MMSD). MMSD always falls on the last Wednesday of the school year; it’s the day when teachers and students run out of patience and can let loose. 

The day kicks off with a run-a-thon, during which kids from kindergarten through eighth grade do as many laps around the school as they can for charity. The event goes on all day, and the temperature is usually warm, so after they chase each other, they enjoy popsicles while a DJ plays the hits. A thousand water balloons sit in coolers awaiting the final bell, when a melee between teaches and students breaks out, and no one goes home dry. Without exception, MMSD is the most fun day of the entire year.

Second-grader Rose Batty was selected as ‘Principal for the Day’ for the year 1997. Her qualification (according to her) was her ability to play two instruments: one was the piano at her home and the other was the piano in the music room. Rose was also a self-described expert at cursive writing; in her words, she could write curse words in fancy writing better than anyone. Also, not once did her teacher have to ask her to go to the peace corner for misbehaving. Did that mean she wouldn’t lead a student uprising? The teachers hoped so.

Before school, Rose met with the assistant principal, Ms. Thompson, to discuss the day’s schedule. It didn’t take long for Rose to flex her new authority.

“No face painter?” Rose asked, seeing what was lined up for MMSD. Rose had only a couple days left of being a second-grader, but she  small for her size and often mistaken for a kindergartener. “We had a face painter last year and the year before that.”

“The regular face painter wasn’t available this year,” Ms. Thompson explained. “But that’s okay, right? Middletown Middle School Day is all about sharing good times with friends in a loving environment.”

“That environment needs a face painter, Ms. Thompson,” Rose said. “It’s not Middletown Middle School Day without a face painter.”

“One of the art teachers can probably …” Ms. Thompson began, but Rose immediately cut her off.

“No way. We deserve a pro.” She looked at the clock. “I’m not sure how to read that clock right now, but I’ll give you three hours to find a face painter. Money is not an object.”

“Well, Rose … the budget   ” Ms. Thompson began timidly.

“I’m a second-grader; I don’t do budgets, Ms. Thompson. If we don’t have a face painter out there by 10 a.m., I’ll send the kids back inside.”

As soon as the meeting ended, Ms. Thompson went to her computer to track down a face painter. She quickly found a local newspaper article from the previous summer: “Leah LeFace, World-renowned Face Painter to the Stars, Retires.” The accompanying photo showed a thin woman dressed in layers of black despite the evident heat. In the photo, she is painting a zebra on a girl’s face. LeFace wears a wide-brimmed black hat that covers her eyes from the photographer.

When Ms. Thompson called LeFace to coax her out of retirement for the day, LeFace quickly refused.

“I no longer paint faces. Furthermore, I don’t even own a car,” the woman said over the phone in a heavy French accent. “I enjoy sitting under my apple tree and reading.”

“Well, that does sound lovely, but I’m afraid I cannot accept ‘no,’ Ms. LeFace,” the assistant principal, said, “We will provide transportation.”

LeFace was silent for a moment. Finally, she responded, “Even a champion face painter can use money. I’ll do it under three conditions.”

Ms. Thompson knew she’d need to agree or else face Rose Batty’s wrath. “What are they, may I ask?”

“You may. Number one: you must send a limo to pick me up.”

“How ’bout a bus? You’ll like Bus J.”

“Fine. Number two: you must set out a plate of cheeses to keep my energy up,” LeFace demanded.

“Of course. We will most certainly feed you.”

“But cheese. Cheese fuels me. Understand?”

“I do.”

“Good. Number three: I do not paint the same face twice on the same day. I do not want to paint multiple tigers or Wonder Women. Got it?”

“Sure thing. I will make it very clear to the students.”

“I’m an artist. I breathe life into the paint. An artist does not repeat her work.”

“Got it. No repeats,” Ms. Thompson agreed.

An hour later, the assistant principal waited for this so-called, world-renowned face painter. The party and run-a-thon had kicked off, and students who had finished their charity jog were now leaping in the bouncy house or enjoying celebratory popsicles. Other kids were still sprinting around the school. 

One of the kids, Principal for a Day Rose Batty, called over to Ms. Thompson after every lap to ask, “Is the face painter here yet?”

“Not yet,” Ms. Sosa answered impatiently.

Which was true, until it was not. Bus J emerged from the main road and entered the school’s parking lot. Ms. Thompson greeted Ms. LeFace, who looked younger than Ms. Thompson had thought she would. But the woman did wear a lot of makeup. LeFace was dressed all in black, just like in the newspaper photo. She brought with her an old-school leather satchel containing all of her paints and tools. LeFace was friendly with the children, but she walked by and talked briskly to adults.

She set up her table next to the pizza oven by the playground. A line formed quickly, with the Principal for a Day at the head of it.

“What would you like to be?” LeFace said warmly to Rose Batty.

“A lion,” Rose answered.

“I do a great lion,” LeFace said. “But can you be a great lion, fierce and brave?”

Rose nodded, and a few minutes into her transformation, she complained, “This paint tingles.”

“It’s paint from my homeland,” LeFace said. “It’s quite strong, but don’t fear, it comes off with water.”

What does ‘strong’ paint mean? Rose wondered to herself. LeFace worked quickly, but her work was exceptionally detailed, and Rose’s face soon looked lion-like. Even her eyes took on a new shape.

“It’s beautiful, dear.” LeFace announced to the kids in line, “I have drawn a lion, so no more lions.”

There was a murmur among the kids. When they realized she drew only one of everything, the line quickly grew even longer.

Rose roared and bounded off to show her friends.

The next girl, a fourth-grader, chose an owl. The work was so beautiful, even the kids who thought face painting was for toddlers joined the line. In the end, the artist painted nearly 300 faces, including forty different birds, a dozen superheroes, even some designs that were entirely made up. She painted ten breeds of dog, 29 reptiles, and over a hundred mammals. She made one child who couldn’t decide into a tennis ball, another into a pink-sprinkled donut, and one girl had painted hair covering her face.

Multiple children complained of tingling faces — most, in fact. Allergies were blamed, but teachers grew increasingly concerned when many of the children lost the ability to speak. Instead, they began communicating in the language of the animal painted on their faces. When teachers sought out Principal for a Day Rose Batty, the situation took a peculiar turn.

“She’s in the bounce house,” said her friend, Madds.

When Ms. Sosa and the teachers walked over to the castle-shaped bouncy house, a full-grown lion leaped out and attacked a cluster of balloons.

The teachers shrieked in surprise.

An owl swooped down and picked up an apple from the table. Batman shot a grappling hook on the basketball net and swung away. A shark beached itself atop the playground slide. A jaguar and a race car continued their charity laps. Teachers ran away screaming when they saw all the children with painted faces turn into the object painted on their faces.

It was like opening all of the animal cages at the zoo at once and jumbling in superheroes and giant tennis balls. A spider spun a web and collected the DJ into its silky prison. A grizzly bear pulled down the trees planted just last week and attacked the popsicle table. Soon, dozens of animals invaded the school building, including a monkey, a donkey, and a rhino. A comic book villain tossed a bus across the parking lot. Older kids watched in horror as the celebration mutated into pandemonium.

The teachers were unable to grasp the odd reality or know how to combat it. Although the face-painted kids didn’t seem violent toward humans or each other, seeing a 250-pound lion bounding toward you was quite frightening.

Ms. Thompson ran to LeFace’s table, but she and her paint were gone. She was startled to find a giant polar bear running in her direction, and she attempted to escape. She sprinted away, but quickly found herself trapped in the gazebo, which was filled with giant coolers packed with water balloons.

The polar bear was more aggressive. Whoever this kid was, he or she needed to go to the peace corner right away. For lack of any other ideas, the assistant principal threw a balloon at the attacking bear.

The balloon exploded on the polar bear’s head. The animal immediately stopped, and its face began to melt back into a confused fifth-grade boy.

“Grab the water balloons!” the assistant principal screamed to any adult within earshot. Teachers filled the gazebo. Some launched balloons from the protected spot, while others took a handful and ventured out. Ms. Thompson filled a plastic bag with balloons and hopped onto the back of a full-sized unicorn she found nibbling on the grass nearby. With balloons in hand, she ordered the unicorn to head to the school.

“Go to the gazebo and get water balloons,” she told teachers along the route. Outside, kids were starting to outnumber creatures, so getting inside and fixing things before the school was destroyed was the new priority. The unicorn leaped over an alligator resting in the middle of the sidewalk, and Ms. Thompson dropped a balloon on it. She hit it and any other animals she saw with a balloon as she went into the building, turning them instantly back to students.

In the school gym, Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman were playing dodgeball with other superheroes Ms. Sosa didn’t recognize.

“Sorry to interrupt you,” she called to them. “You need to go to the water fountain and splash water on your faces. Now.”

Superman flew to the fountain, put his head underwater, and went back to being sixth-grader Miles Martin. Wonder Woman did the same and became Paige Hinesburg again.

“Thank you!” Ms. Thompson called out as she galloped through the school on the back of the white unicorn.

“I wonder who you are,” Ms. Thompson said, petting the creature’s head. She was startled by the state of the school. In the cafeteria, she found a girl crying; the girl’s face and body were covered in long hair. Ms. Thompson lobbed a balloon at her, and the extra hair fell harmlessly to the ground.

“Grab some balloons at the gazebo and help,” she told MacKenzie Trang. Then she asked, “Have you seen the lion?”

MacKenzie shook her head.

Ms. Thompson looked out of the gym window at the vast lawn. She hopped off the unicorn and headed upstairs. Before she did, she thanked the unicorn and hit it in the hindquarters with a water balloon. The unicorn’s horn fell off and disappeared before hitting the ground.

“Hey, Libby,” Ms. Thompson said to the kindergartner standing where the unicorn had been. Libby wore a t-shirt with a sequined unicorn on it. “Got to live your dream today, huh?”

Libby nodded.

“Go outside and get a popsicle,” the assistant principal told the young girl.

Upstairs, Ms. Thompson found a giraffe poking its head in the bathroom window, eating toilet paper.

“Hey. Hey. No wasting school property,” she told the giraffe before hitting it with a balloon right between the eyes. She heard a loud roar and turned around to see a lion strutting down the hallway.

“Hi, Rose,” Ms. Thompson said, throwing her last balloon at the lion. She missed. The lion continued to walk toward her with a menacing stare and its sharp teeth exposed.

Just as Ms. Thompson was set to run, the lion leaped into the air and knocked her over. The animal’s breath, hot and smelly, enveloped the assistant principal. Its teeth were only inches from her face. The lion opened its mouth wide and attacked Ms. Thompson with its warm, sandpaper-like tongue.

“Eww, gross,” Ms. Thompson said. “C’mon Rose.”

Suddenly, water dripped down the lion’s face, and it transformed back to Rose Batty. Behind the Principal for the Day was the principle principal, Principal Sanders, holding an empty water bottle.

“You can have your job back, Principal Sanders,” Rose told him, bounding down the stairs. “It’s too hard.”

Principal Sanders helped Ms. Thompson up. They both looked out the window at the bus lying upside down where the school sign used to be.

“Did someone get Cyborg Superman?” Ms. Thompson asked.

“I believe so,” Principal Sanders answered as they headed outside. “I hear you were quite the hero.”

“Thank God for water balloons,” Ms. Thompson said fervently as they exited the building.

A first-grade boy walked over to them, “Can I go inside? I need to use the …”

Before the boy could finish his question, a giant pterodactyl swooped down and lifted him off the ground. The boy screamed.

“I forgot about the flying dinosaur,” Ms. Thompson said calmly, watching the large lizard flying away with the young boy.

Principal Sanders watched in horror.

“It’s okay, Principal Sanders. They’re friends,” Ms. Thompson assured her boss. “And isn’t that what Middletown Middle School Day is all about? Sharing good times with friends in a loving environment.”

Principal Sanders looked at Ms. Thompson, bewildered, and then passed out.

“Rose!” Ms. Thompson called out while attending to Principal Sanders. “You’re back in office!”

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