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Buddy, my mama’s boyfriend, was waiting for me after school. Waiting in his old rusty blue pickup truck. Almost didn’t see him. Almost walked right by, on account of nobody ever picking me up at school before. "Hey, Gemma . . ." he called, and tooted his horn a bit. Boop . . . boop . . . Like that.
"Hey, Gemma . . ." And I’m looking around, trying to figure out who’s calling my name. Doesn’t sound like no kid from school. So I’m looking around, can’t see him because the sun’s reflecting on his dirty windshield and, yeah, I know his truck. I mean, if somebody said, "I want you to pick out Buddy’s truck," if they had a car lineup or something, I’d be able to pick it out fine. Bam. No problem. "That’s his truck right there," I’d say.
The thing is, I wasn’t expecting him. It was out of context. That’s why I didn’t recognize it.
Pretty good, huh? The way I slipped that in. Context. And I think I used it right. I try to work my spelling words into my regular conversation.
That’s what my teacher, Mrs. Watson, says we got to do. "Make friends with the words," she says. "Use them, feel them on your tongue, taste them. Let these new words I give you enhance your way of speaking."
Some of the kids laugh at her behind her back. They think she’s weird, but I like listening to her talk so passionate and earnest, her cheeks and the sides of her neck getting all flushed and red. "Language will set you free," she says, in ringing tones, like she’s a minister standing at the front of the church, preaching hell and redemption. "Language will set you free." She says it ferocious, like it’s real important, a life-and-death matter to her that we understand. Like it’ll save us from gangs, and no money, and no food in the house because our moms are out boozing again.
It’s one of Mrs. Watson’s favorite sayings. "Language will set you free." Says it maybe five times a day. Arm out, gesturing, hand all smudgy from the chalkboard. Or sometimes she pounds the desk when she says it, or a book she’s holding in her hand. And she really seems to believe it, so I don’t know. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but just in case she’s right, I work on my language, my spelling words, my vocabulary. I work on them hard, because I wouldn’t mind being free.
And that’s another thing. She gives us real weird writing assignments. Take today, for instance. She comes waltzing into the room. "Good morning, class." Nobody answers, never does, not even me. I would, because I like her. Like and feel sorry for her all at the same time, because to be honest, we aren’t that great of a class. But even I didn’t answer her, because I’m kind of cool. Not real cool, like "lots of friends cool." I’m more like "loner cool." People don’t mess with me too much, because if they did, they’d get a face full of fist. I’m a wild card, so people leave me alone, let me fly under the radar screen, like a stealth bomber, and I don’t want to mess with that, so I don’t say hi, or good morning. I didn’t want to look like a goody two-shoes, and just shuffled my feet with the rest of the kids, like I was real bored or something. Even though I was actually kind of interested to see what she was going to come up with today.
Didn’t let on though, just mumbled a little bit of a good morning, that’s about all I could get away with, and to be honest, it’s pretty respectful, considering what some of the other kids do. I mean, at least I was sitting in my seat, not screwing around in the back of the class, throwing things, swaggering around, pants half falling off my ass, pretending not to see the teacher come in. At least I wasn’t doing that.
Now maybe I don’t say it loud and clear, in a TV sitcom voice, but at least I say something. At least I mumble "good morning," because it’s more than most people do.
Besides, it’s not honest to say "good morning," when for most of us, most of the time, it isn’t a very good morning at all. I’m not complaining, mornings are generally better than evenings. That’s usually when the shit hits the fan. In the morning, I’ve got the whole day stretching out before me, shimmering like a promise, like maybe today something fun’s going to happen, something good, something exciting. I like morning—the way it smells, the way it looks, like it just woke up and maybe today things are going to be okay.
But this custom of saying "good morning" every morning, well it’s just not truthful.
"The . . . Topic . . . is . . ." Mrs. Watson read each word out loud as she wrote it, "Love. . . ." When she’d finished writing the words out on the blackboard, she underlined them so emphatically that a little bit of powder fell, like a puff of smoke, from her stick of chalk.
Then she turned around and faced the class, and the expression on her face was almost like a dare. I like this about her, that she’s so into what she does. I look forward to it, because most teachers, they’re too tired to care anymore, too beaten down. I can see it in their faces sometimes, when all the kids are acting out, screwing around. I can see the weariness, see them wondering why the hell they took this job. Tired out, pissed off, going through the motions like they’re underwater swimming.
Sometimes, I get worried that Mrs. Watson’s going to get like that too, all tired out, sharp edged, and bitter. I try to be nice to her on the sly, so she won’t give up, lose hope, and think we’re all lost causes.
"The topic is love," she said again, just in case we didn’t hear her the first time, hear the whole thing properly.
"We’re going to try something new today: Free association. I want you to pick up your pen and write. Don’t worry about punctuation, or spelling, or telling a story. I want you to write what ever comes into your mind, what ever pops into your head, write it down. The topic is love. You have twenty minutes, start writing."
She turned to her desk, like that was all that needed to be said, but nobody was writing, we were all staring at her like she was a freak show. Because she’s come up with some weird assignments, but this one’s a doozy. And to be honest, I’m trying to encourage her and all, but even I had no idea what to do.
"Love . . . ," Billy Robinson mimicked in a mamsey-pamsey voice. He started gagging, and his cronies were snickering, and then it’s like his face all of a sudden gets mad, like Mrs. Watson assigned this exercise for the sole purpose of pissing him off. "What the hell kind of shit is that?"
"Exactly," Mrs. Watson said. She’s not scared of him, like some of the other teachers. She just beamed at him and nodded her head, like he’d been real insightful, like he wasn’t being a smart ass. Smiled at him like he was joining in for once, and she was taking his question seriously. "Exactly." Then she looked at the rest of the class, acting as if we were having a philosophical discussion. "What is love? What does it mean to you? How does love, or the lack thereof, manifest itself in your life?" She nodded encouragingly. "Just pick up your pen and write. There is no right or wrong in this exercise. As long as you have written something on your paper, you’ll get a good mark."
So I picked up my pen. She’s the teacher after all.
The topic is love, I wrote. I underlined it. And then, that was it. I just sat there, staring at those words at the top of my page, stuck, couldn’t think of anything to write.
"The topic is love," I said under my breath, testing the wor