Tuesday is the first day of school. Leslie, it turns out, is in Jess’s fifth-grade class—she shows up wearing an undershirt and cutoffs. All the other students are in their Sunday best, but Leslie doesn’t notice the strange way they’re looking at her outfit. The flustered Mrs. Myers makes space for Leslie’s extra desk in the overcrowded basement classroom, then calls Jess up to help distribute books. As Jess approaches Leslie’s desk, she smiles and waves at him—but he gives her only a nod in return. As he passes the desk of his friend Gary Fulcher, the boy asks Jess if he’s running the race today. Overcome with excitement, Jess says he is. When Jess sits back down and begins drawing in his notebook, Gary demands to see it. Jess stomps on Gary’s foot to get him to quiet down, earning them both a reprimand from Mrs. Myers.
This passage shows that Jess’s classroom environment is, unfortunately, just as stifling as his home life. There is intense pressure to conform and play by the rules from both teachers and other students alike. Leslie sticks out like a sore thumb but doesn’t seem to care, while Jess does everything he can to mask the parts of himself that he knows mark him as different from his other friends and classmates.
Because there is no lunchroom at the Lark Creek school, everyone eats in silence at their desks, eagerly anticipating recess. As soon as the bell rings, Mrs. Myers dismisses the girls to the playground first, followed by the excited boys. Gary Fulcher organizes fourth and fifth graders into groups of four to run in heats. Jess watches the first few heats with anticipation, cheering when Gary wins one. Soon, Leslie comes over to the area where the boys are running and sits with Jess to watch. When Jess tries to help referee a close race, Gary Fulcher gets angry and suggests that Jess would even let a girl race. The defensive Jess suggests Leslie join after all. Gary assigns Leslie to Jess’s heat.
In this passage, Leslie—who is new to Lark Creek Elementary and doesn’t yet understand the place’s social norms—decides she wants to run with the boys at recess, causing insecurity and strife among her male classmates, including Jess. Running has long been Jess’s way of asserting his masculinity and fitting in—but now that Leslie is a part of the races, she threatens all of that.
When it’s time for Jess’s race, he enjoys the feeling of running alongside his classmates—he can tell that the others notice how much he’s improved over the summer. He is close to the finish line when he senses someone gaining on him—he turns to see that it is Leslie. Smiling at him, she overtakes him, then crosses the finish line nearly three feet ahead of him. None of the boys cheer for her—the playground is dead silent. Gary tells Leslie she’s not allowed to race in the finals. Jess, furious at having lost, accuses Gary of being scared to race a girl. Gary begrudgingly lets Leslie into the finals—which she wins with ease. After winning, Leslie thanks Jess for letting her participate, then trots off triumphantly to rejoin the girls’ area of the playground.
Jess is embarrassed to have lost to Leslie, especially after how hard he’s been working to improve all summer. Still, it makes him even angrier when Gary tries to exclude Leslie from the final heat, unwilling to withstand any kind of assault on his masculinity. Leslie seems oblivious to the disruption her presence in the races has caused—she simply wants to make new friends and do the things she loves with no concern for social norms.
That afternoon, on the bus, Jess sits down next to May Belle—something he rarely does. He doesn’t want to be seen sitting with Leslie, who has “no notion” of what’s socially acceptable. Leslie tries to speak to Jess on the bus and follows him off at their stop—even though she is calling his name, he ignores her, but he turns to watch as she flies off running toward the old Perkins place, natural and beautiful as a wild bird.