The first Audrey Dunn knew of the “homework machine” was when Miss Arnold, Danny’s intelligent and forbearing science teacher, showed up on their doorstep.
For a minute, she thought Miss Arnold was crazy, accusing Danny of using a machine to do his homework for him. But it was all too true. Danny admitted to using Professor Bullfinch’s computer Miniac to do his homework, and he had a thousand excuses why this was entirely acceptable. As long as he remained respectful (and he did, mostly), Audrey saw no reason not to allow her son to disagree with his teacher, but as their discussion continued, she began to worry. She liked both Danny and Miss Arnold, and would prefer if both were happy, but neither seemed inclined to back down.
Then the solution came to her. It was rather like that time when two-year-old Danny had been boycotting all green food, so she’d included a quarter cup of spinach in their after-lunch brownies. Except better, because it was a much greater achievement to use that sort of parenting on an observant teenager than on a toddler. “Suppose you go get some coffee for Miss Arnold,” she told Danny. “I’m sure she’d like some now.”
As he left the room, she leaned forward to whisper. “As we were talking, an idea came to me. I think I know how to solve this problem…”
When they got to the house the next day, the children went straight to Professor Bullfinch's laboratory, where the computer was kept. Worried about how her suggestion to Miss Arnold had gone over with the children, Audrey listened anxiously while she cooked dinner. But the Professor’s laboratory was too far away for normal speaking voices to be audible, and she could hear neither cheerful laughter nor angry yelling.
The boys were still subdued when they came down for dinner. It was the first time she had ever seen Joe eat without making any comments on how much he liked food. In fact, he wasn’t saying anything at all.
“Where’s your new friend Irene?” Audrey asked. “Didn’t she want to stay for dinner?”
Danny shook his head. “She had to go home.” He swirled his fork through his mashed potatoes, looking at them like he’d never seen potatoes before. Next to him, Joe was staring at his own plate. Neither of them seemed in a hurry to eat.
“I have a meeting with the Citizen’s Environmental Committee this weekend,” Audrey said brightly. “Mrs. Anders had to step down as secretary, so Mr. Partridge asked me to take over at least temporarily.” With false cheer, she chattered on about what the committee was going to discuss at their meeting. Neither of the boys said anything except when she addressed them directly.
Finally, Danny glanced up from his plate, where he had been cutting his steak into smaller and smaller bits, and asked to be excused.
“Yes, you may,” Audrey said. “I can tell you’re both in a hurry to get back to whatever you’ve been up to in the Professor’s office, so I won’t keep you. Don’t worry about the dishes, I’ll take care of them.”
Both boys thanked her, and hurried out of the room.
Audrey didn’t think she’d ever seen Joe Pearson leave food on his plate before. And she knew she hadn’t seen Danny that mopey in a very long time. But what was worst was that she thought she knew why they were upset…and it was her fault.
Irene came back to the house while Audrey was washing the dishes, and slipped back to the laboratory with scarcely a word. Audrey sat in the kitchen and worried. Of course, since she was very good at multi-tasking, she also cleaned the kitchen, put some bread in to bake, and started her meal planning for the next week. After a while, she heard soft footsteps scuffing across the floor—Irene, probably—and then the bang of the front door being closed firmly. Two more sets of footsteps followed shortly afterward. She could hear Danny wish Joe goodnight at the door, and then he wandered in to the kitchen.
“What are you doing, Mom?” he asked as he got himself a glass of milk.
It wouldn’t do to ignore the elephant in the room (namely, one computer currently being programmed by three youngsters). “I’m programming tomorrow’s meals, dear,” Audrey said, and waited to see how he would respond.
“What do you do when your best friend has a fight with your other best friend?”
So he considered Irene one of his best friends already. That was good. That they were fighting, of course, wasn’t. But at least Danny’s question hadn’t been about the computer, or about the homework. This question she could answer without worrying about keeping secrets. “It seems to me, darling, that if the middle of a rope is strong, it won’t break no matter how much you pull on both ends.”
Danny didn’t stay to discuss it further. He wished her goodnight and headed up to bed. Audrey watched him go, wishing she had stayed out of the homework situation. She knew that this could teach him a valuable lesson about the usefulness of homework, but not one worth losing his best friends for.
But it was too late for her to be able to do anything to fix the situation. The only way out was through, and hopefully their friendships would be strong enough to withstand the pressure.
When Professor Bullfinch returned from his business trip, Danny managed to convince him to let him and Joe and Irene keep using the computer for their homework until end of term.
Audrey still detected a bit of awkwardness between Joe and Irene, but there was no longer the silent moping that had manifested in the first few days after Miss Arnold had given them the new assignment. When she stopped by the laboratory, supposedly to drop off cookies and milk but really to find out how they were doing, she usually found them cheerful enough…and working their way through the high school textbooks as they programmed the information into Miniac. She could have laughed as she saw how much extra work they were putting in and how much more they were learning—and yet they still thought they were beating the system, manipulating the rules for their benefit.
It was the last day of school before Danny found out how his homework machine scheme had backfired. Miss Arnold gave an award to him and Joe and Irene, commending them for how much extra homework they’d done. Danny was not thrilled at this. In fact, when he came home and reported what had happened, he seemed absolutely downcast to have learned that all the work he’d put in so as not to have to do homework had actually been homework all along. The adults found the news much more amusing than he did, and Audrey was finally able to admit that the high school homework assignment had been her idea. She thought Danny took it rather well, considering.
And then Joe and Irene came to the house together, and her last and biggest worry fell off her shoulders. She’d been certain their friendship could survive her meddling with their homework, but still it was good to see it happen. She turned to Danny and hugged him. “I don’t care whether it’s fair or not, but I’m very proud of you,” she told him. He probably thought she meant that she was proud of all the work he’d done on his homework—and she was proud of that, as she was of all her son’s achievements—but she was equally proud of Danny for being the middle of the rope and keeping his friendships through it all.
Professor Bullfinch came up behind her as she watched the children walk down the street. “Were you worried, Mrs. Dunn?” he asked.
She shook her head with a chuckle. “Worried? Why should I be?”
“I think giving them more difficult homework turned out to be a very good idea,” he said.
Audrey smiled and turned to go inside. “Yes,” she said, “I think it did.”