Ninth grade was a black hole. I trudged up and down bleak concrete halls, a prisoner on a cellblock, haunted by memories of life on the outside. Sometimes on my way to class, I'd stop, close my eyes and try to hear the ocean, smell the marshy air that filled the car when we approached the shore....
My homeroom teacher, Mr. Page—whose job each morning was to take attendance and hand out smeared, unreadable blue mimeographs from the office—sputtered up and down the rows of desks like a rusty lawn mower, coughing and hacking, occasionally stopping to idle, mumbling to himself over an empty desk, reengaging his throttle and making a notation in his roll book.
"Didn't I see you juggling in the student lounge yesterday?" he asked one morning in October. As he leaned over my desk, I detected the faint odor of ink and wondered if he drank the stuff.
I looked up from the ocean I was sketching in my blue canvas notebook. "I'm working on five balls, and the lounge has really high ceilings."
"You should try out for the talent show," he said, poking his chalky finger at the announcement sheet for tryouts, which he'd just deposited on my desk.
"I don't know," I said, hedging to try and be polite. "It's just that I'm, you know, a professional."
Mr. Page scratched his head. "But it would be fun," he said.
"It would be work, too."
Mr. Page hiked his gray pants and lurched up the aisle, shaking his head and clearing his throat.
Jimmy had impressed upon me the importance of professionalism. "Never give it away or they won't respect ya. Ya stick the hat in their faces, make 'em pay up, 'cause you deserve it. You ain't no amateur." Besides, rehearsals would interfere with my street juggling. It would be like paying to be in the talent show.
Almost every day, Mr. Page handed out notices about after-school clubs, plays and sports. I'd never played anything on any team. I'd never even played a game of catch.