At Center Junior High School we played six-man football in the fall, and regular baseball in the spring. But we had no gym, so we didn’t have a basketball team until seventh grade, when my friend Russell and I decided to start one. Nick said he’d play. And Billy, and Manny. We wanted to call ourselves something kind of tough: the Tigers, or maybe the Wolverines. But when Russell and I went to New Bedford to buy the jerseys, all they had were yellow ones with a picture of an owl, so we became the Edenville Owls instead.
We hitchhiked to most games wearing our Owls uniforms under our clothes and taking turns carrying the basketball. Sometimes an adult would pick us up and give us a lecture about the dangers of hitchhiking, but no one paid any attention. It was the way we traveled. When we weren’t playing we hung out together. Play pinball at Spag’s Spa. Sit on the benches outside the Village Shop at the top of the wharf and listen to the jukebox through the screen door. Sometimes we fished for scup and blowfish off the dock. Blowfish weren’t good to eat, but if you rubbed their stomachs they’d blow up and you could skip them across the water. We hung around together so much that people just began to call us the Owls. My mother told me no good would come of hanging out with them. But most of the kids liked us. Except the jerks.
In the eighth grade our teacher was new. Last year’s teacher had been fired, everyone said, because she was a drunk. All the grown-ups told us that wasn’t the case, but grown-ups tell you a lot of junk. We hoped it was true, and after a while, we kind of remembered her being drunk. This year’s teacher was named Claudia Delaney. She wrote it on the blackboard the first day. Not just Miss Delaney, but the whole name, Claudia Delaney.
The Owls were sitting where we always sat, in the back seat of each of the five rows. I was in the middle between Russell and Nick. I had a copy of Black Mask Magazine in my lap and was reading it below the desk so Miss Delaney couldn’t see it. As she stretched to write, her skirt pulled tight.
“Ming!” Russell said beside me.
I looked up. Russell nodded toward Miss Delaney.
“Hubba, hubba,” I whispered.
Miss Delaney turned around.
“Do you five boys always sit back there?” she said.
“Yes,” Nick said.
“You would be the Owls,” Miss Delaney said.
“Hoot, hoot,” I said.
Everyone laughed, including Miss Delaney.
Billy was always scared of teachers. And Manny was a Cape Verdean colored guy and was very careful about everything. Mostly Russell and I and Nick were the ones that talked.
“I’ve heard about you,” Miss Delaney said.
“We’re not so bad,” I said.
“Oddly enough,” Miss Delaney said, “that’s what I heard.”
Some of the girls giggled. None of us liked that too much. We wanted people to think we were pretty bad. Miss Delaney went to the board and wrote: “The boy walked to school.”
“We’ll start this morning,” Miss Delaney said, “by reviewing some of the basic rules of grammar that you might have forgotten over the summer. What are the subject and the verb of this sentence?”
All of us groaned.
“I don’t like it either,” Miss Delaney said, “but we have to be able to speak the language.”
I put up my hand. She nodded at me.
“We can already speak the language,” I said. “How come we got to speak it a certain way?”
“Manners, mostly,” she said. “Like table manners, and appearance. It’s mostly about other people’s impression of you.”
“What if you don’t care about impressing other people?” I said.
“It’s sort of a matter of freedom,” she said. “As long as you know how to speak the language, you can choose the way you want to speak it,” she said. “But if you don’t know correct English, you can only speak what you know.”
She was different. Most teachers got annoyed with me when I asked questions like that. Sometimes I was really trying to figure it out. Sometimes I did it to annoy them. Miss Delaney didn’t get annoyed. She gave me a serious answer. And she was very pretty too.