"You're all good little machines," Mr. Fizer told us. He sat there this afternoon in his tweed jacket and his white shirt and plaid bow tie and glared at us over the top of his half-glasses. Which was a seriously scary sight.
"You know how to take tests," he said. "You know how to memorize facts and mimic everything your teachers have taught you--but do any of you really know how to think? We're about to find out."
I know I should have been concentrating. I should have kept my eyes locked on Mr. Fizer, practically reading his lips to make sure I caught every word. His class is going to be the hardest thing I've ever taken in my life.
But sometimes my body parts have a mind of their own. And there my eyes were, straying off to the right, seeking out that one particular face in the crowd the way they always do, no matter how many times I've told them to stop. And since this was a crowd of only nine, he was way too easy to find.
Unfortunately, right at that moment Matt McKinney was looking back at me, and our eyes met for just that one split second, and even though I instantly looked away, it was too late. I had to see that subtle little smirk of his, and it made me wish more than anything I had something sharp and heavy to throw at his head.
"Here are the rules," Mr. Fizer said.
As if he needed to tell us. Every one of us understood the deal long before today--Fizer's Special Topics in Research Science class is legendary, not the least because every few years someone has to run out of there on the first day and vomit because of the stress.
I had a light lunch.
"When I call your name," Mr. Fizer said, "you will come up, close your eyes, and choose a picture. You will then have one hour in which to devise your topic. You may not use the Internet or any other resources. You may not discuss it with your classmates. You will have only your own creativity to rely upon.
"We do it this way," he continued, "because true scientific progress comes through innovative thinking, not merely reciting what other scientists have taught us. Albert Einstein believed that imagination is more important than knowledge, and I agree. We must always push ourselves to discover more. Understood?"
No one bothered answering. We were all too busy staring at the folder he'd just opened on his desk, revealing this year's Stack.
The Stack. It's your whole future resting on a pick of the cards. Only in Mr. Fizer's case, the deck of cards is actually a stack of pictures he's gathered throughout the year--pages torn out of magazines like National Geographic and Nature and Science.
If you luck out, you can end up with a picture that applies to a field you're already interested in--like for me, insects and their co-evolution with plants. It's what I spent the whole summer helping -research in one of the biology labs at the university. I figured if I ended up with a picture even remotely dealing with either plants or bugs, I'd be able to use everything I just learned about fig wasps.
On the other hand, you can also end up with something completely outside your subject field, which is why people like George Garmine had to flee the room last year to puke.
Because if you bomb, you might as well plan a career as a drone in some laboratory at some obscure college in a town nobody's heard of, because you're never going to get the premium offers. But if you do well--I mean really well--you can not only get Mr. Fizer's recommendation for college applications, but you might also win your category at the science fair and then go on to internationals. Some of Mr. Fizer's students have done just that. And then you have a great shot at winning scholarships and impressing college recruiters, so that even people like me can end up at places like MIT or Duke or Harvard or wherever. So yeah, it's a big deal.
We all just wanted to get on with it already, but Mr. Fizer still had one more rule to tell us about.
"This is not a time for teamwork," he said. "This is a competition. This is your chance to show bold thinking and a true commitment to your science. For the next seven months you will work independently and in secret. I am the only person you will share any details with until it is time to reveal your project at the science fair in March. Is that clear? Good. Miss Chang, we will begin with you."
Lindsay wiped her palms against her pants and walked so slowly to the front of the room it was like she'd just been told to come up there and drink poison. She stood in front of Mr. Fizer's desk, did the palm swipe one more time, then reached into the Stack.
You could tell Mr. Fizer was watching to make sure she kept her eyes closed. Lindsay pulled out a picture, pressed it against her chest, and went back to her seat without even looking at what she'd chosen. That seemed like a good strategy--no point in freaking out in front of everyone if it turned out to be really bad.
Next he called up Farah, Alexandra, Margo, and Nick. Then me.
I eased between the lab tables and walked to the front, and that's when I started to think about my butt. And about how Matt McKinney was no doubt looking at it right at that moment and noticing how much larger it was than the last time he saw it. Seven more pounds over the summer, thank you very much. When you're working in a lab as intense as the one where I was, all you really have time for every day is the vending machines and the Dairy Queen on the corner. Everyone at that lab was a pudgeball.
So I stood in front of Mr. Fizer's desk, my hand shaking, thinking about my future and how it was about to change, but really thinking more about my thighs and gigabutt and trying to pull my shirt down a little lower to cover them, and finally I closed my eyes and reached into the Stack. That's when I heard Matt clear his throat, which sounded like he was suppressing a laugh, and my hand jerked from where it was, and I suppose that makes it fate that I chose the picture I did.
I couldn't look. I clutched the paper against my chest and went back to my seat and did my best to control my breathing.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Fat Cat by Robin Brande. Copyright © 2009 by Robin Brande. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.