It all started one morning at school. I was out in the yard with my friends Jenny Friendly, Jack Japes, Gretel Armstrong, and Newton Hooton. We were with the rest of our class, picking up trash.
Thief, the dog that always hangs around the school, was also there. But Thief wasn't trying to pick up trash. He was trying to eat it.
"Eeeuuww, yuck!" said Jenny, as Thief chomped into an old, dried-up sandwich covered in dirt.
"Look on the bright side," said Jack. "It's one less piece of rubbish that we have to pick up."
"I wish he would eat paper and plastic containers as well," said Gretel, bending over to pick up an empty bottle. "I'm so tired of picking up trash."
"I don't see why we have to pick up trash anyway," said Jack.
"We have to pick up trash," explained Jenny, "because if we don't, Northwest Southeast Central School won't win the Northwest Tidiest School Award."
"Who cares?" said Jack.
"I do," replied Jenny, "because Principal Greenbeard cares, and if we don't win, he's going to be really upset. And I don't like to see anybody upset."
"What about me?" said Jack. "I'm upset about having to pick up trash. I came to school to learn how to be a cartoonist, not a garbage collector!"
"And what about the germs?" said Newton, trembling. "Garbage has lots of germs, and I'm scared of them!"
This was not surprising. Newton was scared of pretty much everything.
"I've told you before, Newton," said Jenny, patting him on the arm. "You don't have to be scared of germs. Just wash your hands with warm water and soap when we're finished and you'll be fine."
"No, he won't!" said Jack. "It doesn't work."
"Yes, he will," said Jenny. "My mother says warm water and soap kills all germs."
"Maybe," said Jack, "but think about it! You turn the tap on with your germy hands and afterward you turn the tap off with your clean hands, but the germs that you left on the tap when you turned it on with your germy hands get back on your clean hands and make them all germy again, and then when you're least expecting it—probably when you're asleep—the germs creep up your arms . . . and onto your neck…and then they ooze up your chin . . . into your mouth . . . and then down your throat and—"
"Jack!" Jenny and I both said at the same time.
"What?" he said.
"You're scaring Newton!"
Newton was shaking violently and gulping for air. I put my arm around his shoulders until he got his breathing back under control.
"It's not my fault," said Jack. "I didn't invent germs."
"No one's saying you did," said Jenny. "But you are going on and on about them."
"Sorry, Newton," said Jack. "I just hate picking up trash. It makes me crazy. And all because Principal Greenbeard wants to win a stupid award . . . I'd like to tell him exactly what I think of him and his stupid old award!"
"Looks like you're about to get your chance," said Gretel, "because here he comes!"
We turned to look.
Principal Greenbeard was striding across the playground.
He was wearing a white naval-style uniform, like the captain of a ship might wear.
And there was a good reason for this.
As far as Prinicpal Greenbeard is concerned, he is the captain of a ship, and the staff and students of Northwest Southeast Central School are his crew. I know it sounds crazy, but he's not actually crazy. He's just crazy about ships and sailing.