"Mrs. Slovak?" Arnold asked.
She looked up at him and smiled. "Hello Arnold. What can I help you with?"
"Why do you always pair me with Helga?" he blurted out.
She put down her pen. "Ah. Why don't you sit down, Arnold?"
He slid into a desk and looked at her, waiting.
"Arnold, Helga works best with you."
"No way!" He protested. "She's always so... difficult."
"Arnold," Mrs. Slovak said gently. "Promise me you won't tell anyone what I'm going to tell you. It might hurt Helga very much to know you know these things."
Arnold doubted anything could hurt Helga, but he sighed, "Okay."
"I believe Helga's behavior is a defense mechanism. That means she acts that way—"
"To protect herself?" Arnold finished, confused. "How so?"
"Arnold, you're only 9. You probably have never noticed Helga's family."
"What about them?"
"Her parents have never come to a parent-teacher conference," Mrs. Slovak said quietly. "When I've met them, they've seemed very disinterested in Helga. I'd bet my entire pension that woman is an—" she stopped, not wanting to enlighten Arnold to an adult's way of distraction. "It's very different from how they used to act about Olga, her sister." She took a tissue and wiped her glasses clean, her expression both sad and angry.
Arnold didn't know what to say.
"My point, Arnold, is that Helga probably does not receive very much love and attention at home. So she acts out to get some— because negative attention is better than being ignored. I think Helga is very sensitive to rejection. She feels that she makes herself vulnerable by being herself, and she won't take a risk and be kind because she could get hurt. She talks a big game, but Helga is a very different girl than you think."
Arnold looked at her, confused.
"She's a very bright girl," Mrs. Slovak continued. "She does just as well in school as Olga did. Better, in language. I've never seen a fourth grader with such eloquence in writing. If her parents would talk to me, I could tell them that." She frowned. "But that's enough of psychology, Arnold. That's not what you asked me."
"Yeah," Arnold said, unsure.
"I pair you with her because Helga needs someone to be gentle with her, no matter what she does or says."
"Why don't you put her with Phoebe then?"
"Helga knows she can boss Phoebe around. You don't let her take advantage of you. It always works out in the end, doesn't it?"
"Yes," he admitted.
"Arnold," Mrs. Slovak said, standing up and looking at him imploringly. "You have a hold over Helga no one else does. Please keeping working with her. I need you."
Arnold nodded, reluctantly.
"Thank you, Arnold. Now go enjoy your recess."
He got up and wandered outside. Immediately, a ball hit him.
"Football head! Toss it back!" Helga yelled, her hand out.
He took the ball and instead of throwing it, pressed it into her hand before walking away. That's enough for now. Out of everyone he's helped, Helga needs it the most. He'll try his best, if she'll let him. Just for Mrs. Slovak.