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 one here.

June 9, 1999

Sure, plenty of schools have a ‘Principal for a Day’ program, where students get their picture taken while hanging out with the principal. But, of course, those students aren’t truly a Principal for a Day. The kids chosen to participate at these schools can’t actually make important decisions or manage the school’s funds. Middletown Middle, however, is different.

At Middletown Middle, the selected student literally becomes the Principal for a Day. The actual principal steps off-campus to attend a conference while the student takes over. This stand-in principal attends meetings, chooses paint colors for the boys’ bathroom, and reprimands parents who are not parked correctly in the pick-up line. However, the Principal for a Day at Middletown Middle isn’t allowed to fire teachers anymore. That hasn’t happened since ’75 when Joey Baggins dismissed the gym teacher and appointed his dad. They also can’t declare snow days in June anymore, a rule implemented after the predicted blizzard failed to show up on a summer day in ’83.

The teachers select the Principal for a Day. The selection process is somewhat of a mystery, as nobody knows the specific criteria or rules. Usually, though, the chosen student tends to be wise beyond their years and is considered good at making decisions. In other words, they generally select the student most likely not to wreak havoc on the school.

In 1997, the Principal for a Day event coincided with Middletown Middle School Day (MMSD). MMSD always falls on the last Wednesday of the school year. It’s the day when teachers and students, having exhausted their patience, can finally let loose.

The day kicks off with a run-a-thon, during which students from kindergarten through eighth grade do as many laps around the school as they can for charity. The event lasts all day, and the temperature is usually warm. After tiring themselves out, the students enjoy popsicles while a DJ plays the latest hits. A thousand water balloons sit in coolers, awaiting the final bell, when a melee breaks out between teachers and students. No one goes home dry. Without exception, MMSD is the most anticipated and fun-filled day of the entire year.

Second-grader Rose Batty was selected as ‘Principal for a Day’ for the year 1997. According to her, her qualifications included her ability to play two instruments: the piano at her home and another in the music room. Rose was also a self-described expert in cursive writing; she could write, as she put it, curse words in fancy script better than anyone else. Moreover, her teacher never once had to send her to the peace corner for misbehaving. Did that guarantee she wouldn’t lead a student uprising? The teachers certainly 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 exert her newfound authority.

“No face painter?” Rose asked, reviewing the planned activities for MMSD. Although Rose was nearing the end of her second-grade year, she was small for her age 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 asserted. “It’s not Middletown Middle School Day without one.”

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

“No way. We deserve a professional.” She glanced 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 no 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 rushed 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 draped in layers of black despite the evident heat. In the photo, she is painting a zebra on a girl’s face. LeFace is sporting a wide-brimmed black hat that shields her eyes from the camera’s gaze.

When Ms. Thompson called LeFace to coax her out of retirement for the day, LeFace was quick to refuse.

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

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

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

Ms. Thompson knew she had to agree or else face the wrath of Rose Batty. “What are they, may I ask?”

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

“How about a bus? You’ll like Bus J.”

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

“Of course. We will most certainly cater to your needs.”Your writing is enjoyable to read and quite amusing. I’ve made some minor edits for clarity and consistency:

“But cheese. Cheese fuels me. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

“Good. Number three: I do not paint the same face twice on the same day. I don’t want to paint multiple tigers or Wonder Women. Do you get 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.”

“Understood. No repeats,” Ms. Thompson agreed.

An hour later, the assistant principal found herself waiting for the so-called world-renowned face painter. The party and run-a-thon had already kicked off, and students who had completed their charity jog were now bouncing in the bouncy house or savoring celebratory popsicles. Meanwhile, other kids were still sprinting around the school.

Which was true, until it wasn’t. Bus J pulled off the main road and into the school’s parking lot. Ms. Thompson greeted Ms. LeFace, who looked younger than she had anticipated, although the woman did wear a lot of makeup. LeFace was dressed entirely in black, just as in the newspaper photo, and she brought along an old-school leather satchel filled with her paints and tools. While LeFace was friendly with the children, she was brisk with the 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 front.

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

“A lion,” Rose responded.

“I paint a great lion,” LeFace assured her. “But can you be a great lion, fierce and brave?”

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

Every time she completed a lap, Principal for a Day Rose Batty called over to Ms. Thompson to ask, “Is the face painter here yet?”

“Not yet,” Ms. Thompson answered, growing increasingly impatient.

“It’s paint from my homeland,” LeFace said. “It’s quite potent, but don’t worry, throw water on it and it comes right off.it.”

What does ‘potent’ paint mean? Rose wondered to herself. LeFace worked swiftly, and her work was impressively detailed. Before long, Rose’s face bore a lion-like appearance. Even her eyes seemed to take on a new shape.

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

There was a murmur among the children. When they realized she would only paint each design once, the line quickly grew even longer.

Rose roared and bounded off to show her friends.

The next girl, a fourth-grader, opted for an owl. The result was so beautiful that even the children who thought face painting was for toddlers joined the line. By the end, the artist had painted nearly 300 faces, including forty different birds, a dozen superheroes, and even some designs that were entirely made up. She painted ten breeds of dogs, 29 reptiles, and over a hundred mammals. One indecisive child was turned into a tennis ball, another into a pink-sprinkled donut, and one girl even had hair painted onto her face.

Several children complained of tingling faces—most, in fact. Allergies were initially blamed, but teachers grew increasingly concerned when many of the children lost the ability to speak. Instead, they began communicating in the manner of the animals 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. Thompson and the other teachers walked over to the castle-shaped bouncy house, a full-grown lion bounded out and attacked a cluster of balloons.

The teachers shrieked in surprise.

An owl swooped down and picked up an apple from a table. Batman shot a grappling hook onto the basketball net and swung away. A shark found itself atop the playground slide. A jaguar and a race car continued their charity laps. The teachers screamed and ran when they saw all the children with painted faces transform into the objects or creatures painted on their faces.

It was akin to simultaneously opening all the animal cages at a zoo, with superheroes and giant tennis balls mixed in. A spider spun a web and ensnared the DJ in its silky trap. A grizzly bear uprooted trees planted just last week and attacked the popsicle table. Before long, dozens of animals invaded the school building, including a monkey, a donkey, and a rhino. A comic book villain flung a bus across the parking lot. The older kids watched in horror as the celebration morphed into pandemonium.

The teachers struggled to comprehend the surreal scene or know how to respond. Although the face-painted kids didn’t seem violent toward humans or each other, the sight of a 250-pound lion bounding toward you was indeed terrifying.

Ms. Thompson dashed to LeFace’s table, but the face painter and her paints were gone. Startled, she found a giant polar bear charging her way, forcing her to flee. She sprinted away, but quickly found herself cornered in the gazebo, which was filled with giant coolers packed with water balloons.

The polar bear was decidedly more aggressive. Whoever this kid was, they definitely needed a timeout in the peace corner. Lacking any other ideas, the assistant principal hurled a balloon at the approaching bear.

The balloon exploded on the polar bear’s head. The animal halted immediately, its face melting back into a bewildered fifth-grade boy.

“Grab the water balloons!” the assistant principal screamed to any adult within earshot. Teachers flocked to the gazebo. Some launched balloons from their 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. Balloons in hand, she commanded the unicorn to head toward the school.

“Go to the gazebo and get water balloons,” she instructed teachers along the route. Outside, children were starting to outnumber the creatures, so the new priority was to get inside and restore order before the school was destroyed. 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 creatures she saw with a balloon as she entered the building, transforming them instantly back into students.

Inside the school gym, Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman were engaged in a dodgeball game with other superheroes that Ms. Thompson didn’t recognize.

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

Superman soared to the fountain, submerged his head under the water, and reemerged as sixth-grader Miles Martin. Wonder Woman followed suit and reverted to Paige Hinesburg.

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

“I wonder who you are,” she mused, stroking the creature’s mane. She was taken aback by the chaotic state of the school. In the cafeteria, she found a girl sobbing, her face and body obscured by long hair. Ms. Thompson tossed a water balloon at her, and the extra hair fell harmlessly to the ground.

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

MacKenzie shook her head.

Ms. Thompson glanced out of the gym window at the expansive lawn. She dismounted from the unicorn and headed upstairs. Before leaving, she thanked the unicorn and struck it in the hindquarters with a water balloon. The unicorn’s horn detached and vanished before hitting the ground.

“Hey, Libby,” Ms. Thompson greeted the kindergartner standing where the unicorn had just been. Libby was wearing a t-shirt adorned with a sequined unicorn. “Got to live your dream today, huh?”

Libby nodded in agreement.

“Go outside and grab a popsicle,” the assistant principal directed the young girl.

Once upstairs, Ms. Thompson found a giraffe poking its head through a bathroom window, munching on toilet paper.

“Hey, stop wasting school property,” she admonished the giraffe before landing a balloon right between its eyes. She heard a loud roar and spun around to see a lion prowling down the hallway.

“Hi, Rose,” Ms. Thompson greeted, hurling her last balloon at the lion. She missed. The lion continued its approach, a menacing glare in its eyes and sharp teeth bared.

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

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

Suddenly, water trickled down the lion’s face, and it transformed back into Rose Batty. Standing behind the Principal for the Day was the actual principal, Principal Sanders, clutching an empty water bottle.

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

Principal Sanders helped Ms. Thompson to her feet. They both gazed out the window at the upside-down bus occupying the space where the school sign used to be.

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

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

“Thank God for water balloons,” Ms. Thompson declared fervently as they stepped outside.

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

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

“I forgot about the flying dinosaur,” Ms. Thompson remarked calmly, watching the colossal reptile carry away the young boy.

Principal Sanders looked on in horror.

“It’s okay, Principal Sanders. They’re friends,” Ms. Thompson reassured 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 glanced at Ms. Thompson, bewildered, then promptly fainted.

“Rose!” Ms. Thompson shouted, attending to Principal Sanders. “You’re back in office!”

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