Here’s the second chapter of my grade school anthology book – Middletown Middle. The school with more mysteries than students. Read chapter two here.
Chapter Three – The Face Painter
June 11, 1997
Sure, lots of schools have a Principal for a Day program. Students get their picture taken hanging out with the Principal, but of course, the student isn’t really a principal for the day. The kids chosen to be Principal for the Day can’t actually make important decisions or spend their school’s money, but Middletown Middle is different.
At Middletown Middle, the kid is the Principal for the Day. The actual Principal goes off-campus to some conference while the kid takes over. The student attends meetings, picks paint colors for the boy’s bathroom, scolds parents not parked in the right spot at the pick-up line. The Principal for a Day at Middletown Middle isn’t allowed to fire teachers anymore. Not since in ’75 when Joey Baggins fired the gym teacher and hired his dad. They also can’t grant snow days in June after the blizzard never came that summer day in ’83.
The Principal for a Day is selected by teachers. How the Principal for the Day is chosen is somewhat of a mystery because there are no rules. Usually, the student is the-wise-beyond-their-years type and is considered good at making decisions. In other words, the student most likely not to destroy the school.
In 1997 the Principal for the Day lined up on the same day as the Middletown Middle School Day (MMSD). MMSD always falls on the last Wednesday of the school year, the day when teachers and students run out of patience and can let loose. The day kicks off with a run-a-thon where kids from kindergarten through eighth grade do as many laps around the school as they can for charity. It goes 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 qualifications (according to her) were the ability to play two instruments; one was the piano at her home, and the other instrument 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. Not once was she asked to go to the peace corner by her teacher 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. Thomspson, to discuss the day’s schedule. It didn’t take long for Rose to flex her new authority.
“No face painter?” Rose asks seeing what was lined up for MMSD. Rose had only a couple days left of being a second grader but often was mistaken for a kindergartener. “There was a face painter last year and the year before that.”
“The regular face-painter wasn’t available this year,” Ms. Thompson explains. “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 says. “It’s not Middletown Middle School Day without a face painter.”
“One of the art teachers can probably-” Ms. Thompson begins but is immediately cut off.
“No way. We deserve a pro.” Rose interrupts. She looks 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 timidly begins.
“I’m a second-grader; I don’t do budgets, Ms. Thompson. If there is not a face-painter out there by 10am, I will 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 an article from a nearby newspaper from the previous summer – World-renowned Facepainter to the Stars Leah LeFace Retires. In the accompanying photo, she looks to be a thin woman dressed in layers of black despite it clearly being taken on a hot day. In the photo, she is painting a zebra on a girl’s face. LeFace wears a wide-brimmed black hat covering her eyes from the photographer.
When Ms. Thompson called LeFace to coax her out of retirement for the day, LeFace quickly told her no.
“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, says, “We will provide transportation.”
LeFace was silent for a moment. Finally, she responded,” Even a champion face painter could use money, I’ll do it under three conditions.”
Ms. Thompson responds, knowing 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 demands.
“Of course. We most certainly will feed you.”
“But cheese. Cheese fuels me. Understand?”
“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 their work.”
“Got it. No repeats,” Ms. Thompson agrees.
An hour later, the assistant principal waits for this so-called world-renowned face painter. The party and run-a-thon had kicked off, Students who finished their charity jog were now leaping in the bounce house or having celebratory popsicles. Other kids were still sprinting around the school. One of the kids, the Principal for the Day, Rose Batty, calls over to Ms. Thompson at every lap to ask.
“Is the face painter here yet?”
“Not yet,” Ms. Thompson answers impatiently.
Which was true until it was not. Bus J emerged from the main road and entered the school’s parking lot. Ms. Thompson greets LeFace. She looked younger than Ms. Thompson thought she would, but the woman wore a lot of make-up. LeFace was dressed in all 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 walked and talked briskly to adults.
She sets up her table next to the pizza oven by the playground. A line forms quickly with the Principal for the Day at the head of it.
“What would you like to be?” LeFace says warmly to Rose Batty.
“A lion,” Rose answers.
“I do a great lion,” LeFace says. “But can you be a great lion, fierce and brave?
Rose nods, and after a few minutes of her transformation, she complains, “This paint tingles,”
“It’s paint from my homeland,” LeFace says. “It’s quite strong, but don’t fear it comes off with water.”
What does strong paint mean? Rose wonders to herself. LeFace works quickly, but her work is exceptionally detailed, and Rose’s face soon looks lion-like. Even her eyes take a new shape.
“It’s beautiful, dear,” LeFace announces to the kids in line. “I have drawn a lion, so no more lions.”
There is a murmur among the kids. When they realize she draws only one of everything, the lines grow long quickly.
Rose roars and bounds off to show her friends.
The next girl, a fourth-grader, chooses an owl. Her 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 ones that were entirely made up. 10 breeds of dog, 29 reptiles, and over a hundred mammals. She made a 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 the Day, Rose Batty, the situation took a peculiar turn.
“She’s in the bounce house,” said her friend Madds.
When Ms. Thompson and the teachers walked over 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 sliding board. A jaguar and 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, with superheroes and giant tennis balls fighting for survival. 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 tosses 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 that was happening or 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.
The assistant principal, Ms. Thompson, ran to LeFace’s table, but she and her paint were gone. She is startled to find a giant polar bear running in her directions, and she attempts to escape. Ms. Thompson sprints away but quickly finds herself trapped in the gazebo filled with giant coolers packed with water balloons.
The polar bear is more aggressive. Whoever this kid is they need to go to the peace corner right away. Out of ideas and the assistant principal throws a balloon at the attacking bear.
The balloon explodes on the polar bear’s head, it immediately stops and its face begins to melt back into a confused fifth-grade boy.
“Grab the water balloons!” the assistant principal screams to any adult within earshot. Teachers fill the gazebo. Some launch balloons from the protected spot while others take a handful and venture out. Ms. Thomspon fills a plastic bag with balloons and hops on the back of a full-sized unicorn she found nibbling on the grass nearby. With balloons in hand, she orders the unicorn to head to the school.
“Go to the gazebo and get water balloons,” she tells teachers along the route Outside, there are more kids than creatures, but getting inside and fixing things before the school was destroyed was the new priority. The unicorn leaps over an alligator resting in the middle of the sidewalk, and Ms. Thompson drops a balloon on it. She hits it and any other animals she sees with balloons as she goes into the building turning them instantly back to students.
In the school gym, Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman play dodgeball with other superheroes, Ms. Thompson didn’t recognize.
“Sorry to interrupt you,” she calls to them. “You need to go to the water fountain and pour water on your faces. Now.”
Superman flies to the fountain and puts his head underwater, and he goes back to being sixth-grader Miles Martin. Wonder Woman does the same and is Paige Hinesburg again.
“Thank you!” she calls out, continuing through the school on the back of the white unicorn.
“I wonder who you are ?” Ms. Thompson says while petting the head of the creature. She’s startled by the state of the school. In the cafeteria, she finds a girl crying; the girl’s face and body are covered in long hair. Ms. Thompson tosses a balloon at her, and the extra hair falls harmlessly to the ground.
“Grab some balloons at the gazebo and help,” she tells MacKenzie Trang. “Have you seen the lion?”
MacKenzie shakes her head.
Ms. Thompson looks out the gym window at the vast lawn. She hops off the unicorn and heads upstairs. Before she does, Ms. Thompson thanks the unicorn and hits it in the hindquarters with a water balloon. The unicorn’s horn falls off and disappears before hitting the ground.
“Hey Libby,” Ms. Thompson says to the kindergartner standing where the unicorn was. Libby wore a t-shirt with a sequined unicorn on it. “Got to live your dream today, huh?”
“Go outside and get a popsicle,” she tells the young girl.
Upstairs, Ms. Thompson finds a giraffe poking its head in the bathroom window, eating toilet paper.
“Hey. Hey. No wasting school property,” She tells the giraffe before hitting it with a balloon right between the eyes. She hears a loud roar and turns around to see a lion strutting down the hallway.
“Hi Rose,” Ms. Thompson says, throwing her last balloon at the lion. She misses. The lion continues to walk toward her with a menacing stare and sharp teeth exposed.
Just as Ms. Thompson is set to run, the lion leaps into the air and knocks her over. The animal’s breath, hot and smelly, envelopes the assistant principal with its teeth only inches from her face. The lion quickly opens its mouth wide and attacks Ms. Thompson with its warm, sandpapered tongue.
“Eww, gross,” Ms. Thompson says. “C’mon Rose.”
Suddenly water drips down the lion’s face, and the lion is transformed back to Rose Batty. Behind the Principal for the Day is the principle Principal – Principal Sanders holding an empty water bottle.
“You can have your job back, Principal Sanders,” Rose tells him, bounding down the stairs. “It’s too hard.”
Principal Sanders helps Ms. Thompson up. They both look out the window at the bus laying upside down where the school sign used to be.
“Did someone get Cyborg Superman Ms. Thompson asks.
“I believe so,” Principal Sanders answers as they head outside. “I hear you were quite the hero.”
“Thank god for water balloons,” Ms. Thompson tells him when they exit the building
A first-grade boy walks over to them, “Can I go inside I need to use the-“
The boy can’t finish his question before a giant pterodactyl swoops down and lifts him off the ground. The boy screams.
“I forgot about the flying dinosaur,” Ms. Thompson says calmly, watching the large lizard fly away with the young boy.
Principal Sanders watches in horror.
“It’s okay, Principal Sanders. They’re friends.” Ms. Thompson assures 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 looks at Ms. Thompson with a bewildered look on his face and passes out.
“Rose!” Ms. Thompson calls out while attending to Principal Sanders. “You’re back in.”