Taking Off the Mask

Chapter 1

                                                                                                                    Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without

                                                                                                                             and know we cannot live within.  -James Baldwin


 I can’t believe I’ve been assigned detention! Me, James Hoskins. I’ve never done a bad thing in school in my life- until today.

It’s all Jackie’s fault. She just had to make that stupid face in Mrs. Horner’s class while she was in the middle of a lecture. I really didn’t care that Robert E. Lee turned Abraham Lincoln down as being head of the Union Army, just because he was from Virginia. That happened like over 150 years ago. Who cares?

But Jackie looking over at me, crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue was just too funny. I really didn’t mean to laugh out loud, but I couldn’t help it. Mrs. Horner didn’t have to get so upset, did she? I’m always paying attention in class- just not this afternoon.

Then when she asked me what was so funny, I shouldn’t have told her nothing was funny. But she just kept drilling me, trying to embarrass me in front of the rest of the class. Her face turned really red when I told her to ‘shut up.’ 

 “What did you say to me, James?” She stood towering over me. I thought I was going to pee my pants from fright. I’m not the bravest of souls. I usually try to blend into the background whenever I can. But she was purposefully trying to embarrass me. I had never said anything in her class before. Why did she all of a sudden have to pick on me? I wasn’t the only one not paying attention. Half the class had their heads down on their desk sleeping. Why didn’t she say something to them?

I jumped a foot when she slammed her book down on my desk. “I asked you what did you tell me to do, James?” she shouted. I looked around and everyone was looking at me. I looked over at Jackie and it seemed like she was going to burst out in tears at any moment.

I don’t know what got into me, but I started to gather my books. I stood up and looked directly into Mrs. Horner’s eyes. “I told you to shut up.” I then walked out of the room. Actually, I wanted to run like hell, but I thought that would be even more embarrassing than anything else that had just happened.

I went to my locker and put my books away. It was only the middle of fifth period, and I had already decided I was going to ditch the rest of the day. Sixth period was Algebra II. I already had an ‘A’ in Mr. Jeffers class, so it wouldn’t hurt me to miss a day.

My only problem was, I didn’t have a clue as to where to go. I’d never left school early, so I didn’t know what you were expected to do. I couldn’t go home. My mother would be there, and she’d want to know why I was home early.

Like I’m going to tell her I came home because I told a teacher to ‘shut up.’  She’d probably find out later anyway, so I was sure I’d be grounded until I was at least thirty. She had let me get by with quite a bit, but disrespecting an adult would never be tolerated.

“Would James Hoskins report to the main office.” I was closing my locker when Mr. Marshall, the assistant principal, called my name over the PA. Mrs. Horner must have called him and reported what had happened.

When I entered the office, the secretary pointed me towards Mr. Marshall’s office. He was sitting behind his desk reading a folder. Without looking up, he motioned for me to sit down in the chair opposite his desk. I waited nervously while he continued to read. After several minutes, he looked up and studied my face. Once again, I could feel my bladder begin to weakened. I prayed that I wouldn’t pee my pants as I sat there under his scrutinizing look.

“Mr. Hoskins,” he said, stretching out my name. “I’ve been going over your records. When Mrs. Horner called me, I couldn’t recollect who you are. This is the first time you have ever been referred to the office, is it not?”

“Yes, sir,” I responded meekly. I looked down at my hands, noticing the veins running through them.

“Four A’s and two B’s last quarter,” he said. “These are very good grades. In fact, you haven’t made a grade below a C in the past two years. Excellent.”

He looked at me, expecting me to say something; but I knew if I did, my voice would probably quiver from nervousness.

“Would you like to tell me your side of the story?” he asked. “I know Mrs. Horner can be a little abrasive at times, but did you actually tell her to shut up?”

I looked up and nodded. “It just slipped out,” I squeaked. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure it did,” he agreed. “But we still can’t have students disrespecting the staff. You understand?”

I nodded once again. “Am I going to get suspended?” I asked worriedly. There was no way I could go home and explain to my mother that I had been suspended from school for several days. She would be so disappointed in me.

“If it were someone else, I probably would.”  I let out a small sigh. “But I think we can deal with this without you having to miss any school.”

“What do I have to do?” I managed to squeak out.

“First, I think you need to apologize to Mrs. Horner,” he replied. I nodded my head. “In front of the class.” My eyes flew open when he told me this. I couldn’t go back in there and stand before the class and apologize. I’d seen other students have to do it, and they were teased unmercifully for weeks afterwards.

“Secondly,” he continued. “A week of detention after school.” I was screwed. When you were assigned detention, you had to take a notice home to your parent and have them sign it and then return it to school. My mother would find out what I had done in class.

“Mr. Hoskins?” Mr. Marshall called out my name. I had been lost in thought worried about the consequences of going home later. “Do you agree to these terms? It’s this or a five day suspension.”

A five day suspension!  For telling a stupid teacher to shut up! I looked at Mr. Marshall and nodded my head sadly. He looked at his watch.

“We have ten minutes until class lets out,” he said. “You have enough time to go apologize. Then come back here after school. I’ll let you know where you’ll be serving detention. I’ll also notify your mother that you’ll be home late.”

“Yes, Sir.” I rose and walked reluctantly out of the room. My young life as I knew it was over. I had to go face Mrs. Horner and apologize to her before the entire class. In addition, Mr. Marshall was going to call my mother and tell her I had five days of detention. I was going to be punished twice. Here at school, and again when I got home.

I walked back to class like a man heading to the gallows to be hanged. I would have walked on past the room and headed out the back door, but Mr. Marshall was following at a distance to make sure that I did report back to class.

I knocked at the door, and Mrs. Horner opened it up. She looked at me angrily, then stepped aside, allowing me to enter.

“Quiet class!” she yelled above the noise of chatting students. Everyone stopped talking when they saw me standing at the front of the class. They knew what I was there to do- humiliate myself in front of them.

“James has something he wants to say,” Mrs. Horner said nastily.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. I could hear several students start to snicker.

“I didn’t hear what you said, James,” she said with a smirk.

“I said I’m sorry,” I said angrily. I looked out the door and saw Mr. Marshall watching me.

“I’m sorry I told you to shut up,” I said, only this time without a tone of disrespect. I didn’t want Mr. Marshall to change his mind and suspend me.

“Very good, James,” she said smugly, “You may take your seat.”

I gave Jackie a dirty look when I walked back to my desk. She looked sadly at me and then turned her head. I sat for the next few minutes knowing that everyone in the room was talking about me. They thrived on seeing other students getting in trouble- as long as it wasn’t them.

When the bell rang, I rose from my seat and walked out of the room without looking at Mrs. Horner. I was just in a hurry to get to algebra and put the whole ordeal behind me.

“I’m sorry,” Jackie apologized as she grabbed my arm and walked beside me. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.” I continued walking hurriedly, but I made no attempt to remove her hand from my arm.

Jackie and I had been best friends forever. She lived next door, and I don’t even remember when we first met. My mother said I was about three years old when the Thompsons moved in. She said Jackie and I immediately bonded.

Jackie was also my best friend. I never thought of her as a girlfriend, and she never had any romantic interest in me. We were just always there for each other, without any strings attached or demands. We even told each other our darkest secrets.

I’ve known that she’s had a crush on Evan Sears since the seventh grade. Now that we are sophomores, her feelings for him still hadn’t changed. However, he is Mr. Popularity and dates all the cute girls in school. Poor Jackie doesn’t have a chance.

Jackie is attractive, if she would let herself be. However, she wears glasses and never makes an attempt to dress in the fashion of teenage girls. She always leaves the house as if her grandmother dresses her.

I have tried for years to get her to wear designer jeans and a tight tee shirt to show off her ‘assets,’ but she insists on looking like she buys her clothes off the racks of a thrift store.

Jackie also knows my darkest secret. In fact, she was the one who told me I was gay last year. I really hadn’t given my sexuality much thought before then; but as I grew older I just wasn’t interested in girls other than Jackie.

After trying to get me to date for two years, she finally threw up her hands in exasperation one day and announced to me that I had to be gay. We talked about it for days, and I realized that she was right. When we talked about the people we found attractive, it was boys in our class that I finally admitted I liked.

The funny thing is, Jackie didn’t seem to be bothered by it. It was as if she found it amusing. She has spent the last year trying to get me to date a boy, but so far I have refused. I keep telling her that when she starts dating, then I will. So we have been happy keeping each other company.

“It’s alright, Jackie,” I reassured her. “It’s not your fault. I should have been paying better attention in class.”

“Yeah, but Mrs. Horner didn’t have to be such a bitch,” she responded angrily. “You had every right to tell her to shut up.”

“Tell Mom that,” I said sadly.

“Oh, yeah,” she replied. “Shit’s going to hit the fan when you get home.”

“Tell me,” I replied.

“If it will do any good,” she offered, “I’ll come over tonight and tell her it was my fault.”

“It won’t do any good,” I replied. “She’ll still say I was wrong. Listen, we’re going to be late if we don’t get to class.”  I reached out and hugged her.

“Will I see you after school?” she asked.

“Nope. You’ll have to walk home alone.” She gave me a questioning look. I held up my hand,  “Five days of detention.”

“Shit,” she hissed.

“Yeah, shit,” I moaned. “See you tonight,”  I turned and headed off to class.

When sixth period was over, I went to my locker and took out the books that teachers had assigned homework. Since I had never served detention, I didn’t know what to expect. I just assumed that I’d have to go to some room and sit quietly and work.

I trudged slowly to Mr. Marshall’s office. I felt like a criminal. Only bad students get detention. Even Mr. Marshall had said I had excellent grades. Two stupid words; and now what little self esteem I had was gone. I would soon be put in the same category as our school’s worst students. Everyone knows that detention is for those who fail to play by the rules.

The school secretary once again pointed me towards Mr. Marshall’s office. He wasn’t at his desk, but another student was sitting nervously in a chair. I nodded and took the seat next to him.

I knew who he was, but I couldn’t remember his name. We shared three classes last year, but I really couldn’t recall where he sat. I just remembered seeing him as I entered and left the classroom. I don’t think we have ever said a word to each other over the past two years.

He is one of the few black students who attends our school. He is shorter than me by about two inches; so I figure him to be about 5’7” tall. His hair is cut short, but it isn’t shaved. He has a dark complexion with pretty brown eyes and long eye lashes. He is rather skinny, and his clothes drape on his body. He doesn’t have the hip hop look, but looks  rather like someone who wears his brother’s clothes when he outgrows them.

I felt extremely uncomfortable sitting in the small office. I could hear both of us breathing heavily. I guess we were nervous. I didn’t know if it was his first time serving detention.

We had been sitting for about ten minutes, and Mr. Marshall still hadn’t come back into his office. Neither of us had said a word to each other. We both kept looking forward, reading the post notes he had pinned to a board on his wall. Finally, unable to take the silence any longer, I looked over and spoke.

“What did you do?”

“Nothing.” He said coldly. I looked over quickly as he continued to stare forward.

“I told a teacher to shut up,” I said. He looked over and rolled his eyes and said nothing.

So much for trying to be friendly. It was obvious he didn’t want to talk to me.

“Gentlemen,” Mr. Marshall said cheerfully as he walked into the room. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I was in a parent conference down the hall.” I looked over as the boy beside me rolled his eyes again. I was beginning to hope that he only had one night of detention. I didn’t want to spend the next week dealing with his unfriendly attitude.

“James and Dion,” he said, “would you come with me.”

So his name is Dion. I could now recall teachers calling out his name when they took roll the first few days of class before they got to know their students. I followed him and Mr. Marshall down the hall to another office.

It looked like a conference room. There was a large circular table with eight chairs around it. Mr. Marshall motioned for us to sit down before several stacks of paper. He looked at his watch before speaking.

“Alright, guys,” he said. “For the next forty five minutes, I want you to alphabetize these schedules for me. James, you take A- L. Dion, you can do M-Z. I’ll be back later to check on you.”

Just great! Isn’t there a law against this? I thought when you serve detention, you just sat quietly in a room and did your homework. I didn’t think you were supposed to do work for someone who was too lazy to do it themselves.

I pulled the stack of schedules in front of me and started putting them in alphabetical order. “This sucks,” I said out loud. I looked over at Dion as he fumbled with his stack. It was going to take hours. There were about 900 students in our school, so we had a lot of sorting to do.

Instead of alphabetizing them individually, I decided it would go faster if I put all the schedules in a pile that started with the same letter. Then I could sort them easier that way. I worked diligently for about a half hour, before finally completing my task. I looked over and noticed that Dion was still struggling with his pile.

“You want me to help you finish?” I asked.

“No,” he said sharply. “I don’t need your help. I can do it.”

“Have it your way,” I responded angrily. He didn’t have to be so rude. I was just trying to be friendly. We had been sitting in the room for over a half hour and he still hadn’t uttered a word to me.

I sat and put my schedules into neat little piles waiting for Mr. Marshall to return. Since I was finished with my task, I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t leave. However, I was afraid I’d get in more trouble if I did.

“Dammit!” Dion shouted as he dropped a stack of the schedules he’d just arranged onto the table. A half hour’s worth of work was wasted.

I reached over, retrieved the stack and put them in front of me. I sorted them in half and handed him a stack. “Here. We’ll make separate piles. I’ll start and you just do what I do.”

“I don’t need your help,” he insisted.

“Yes, you do,” I replied as I started working. He watched what I was doing, and soon we were working quickly to alphabetize his stack. At one point, Mr. Marshall stuck his head in the door and smiled.

Working together, we had them in a neat pile in about fifteen minutes. There was an awkward silence as we waited for Mr. Marshall to return.

“You boys did a good job,” he remarked cheerfully as he strolled into the room. “I thought it would take you two days to finish this task. Now I have to come up with something for you to do tomorrow.” He chuckled as he took the stack of schedules. I looked over and watched Dion roll his eyes again. It was really beginning to get on my nerves.

Another thing I realized was that I would have to spend another afternoon with Dion. I only hoped that whatever Mr. Marshall had us do tomorrow, we could do it individually.

Mr. Marshall told us we were free to go, but he reminded us to be sure and return tomorrow. He warned us that if we missed a day of detention, then we would be suspended. As we walked out together, I made one last attempt to speak.

“That wasn’t too bad, I guess,” I joked. “He could have made us scrub out toilets with a toothbrush.” I couldn’t believe it when he looked over and once again rolled his eyes at me.

“Whatever,” he replied as he walked off, leaving me standing alone. As I watched him stroll slowly down the hall, I vowed I wouldn’t utter a word to him the rest of the week. Actually, I was hoping he’d skip out, so he’d be suspended and I wouldn’t have to spend any more time with him.

The walk home was unnerving. It seemed like no matter how slowly I walked, it didn’t prevent the inevitable- I had to face my mother sooner or later. Later was fine with me.

I knew I was in serious trouble the minute I opened the door and she called out my name, “James Michael Hoskins!” she shouted. “In the kitchen, now!” 

Why is it you know your life is doomed when your mother uses all three of your names?  There seems to be a certain degree of severity. If she uses just your first name, then the punishment will probably be just verbal. If she uses your first name and your middle name together, then some privileges may be taken away or you may be grounded.

But when she adds your last name, then you don’t know what to expect. Sometimes it may take a governor’s pardon to have her lift whatever punishment she has meted out. The last time she said James Michael Hoskins, I lost my computer privileges for a month, my cell phone for two months and I had to spend three Saturdays cleaning out the garage and basement. All I did that time was violate curfew by thirty minutes, when me and Jimmy Parker were playing a video game on his computer and I lost all track of time.

“Let me put my book bag in my room,” I hollered back. I wanted to try and stall. I was hoping she’d perhaps calm down if I gave her a few more minutes.

“Get your ass in her now!” she shouted angrily. My heart stopped. I knew I was doomed. I’ve only heard my mother curse twice in my life. Once when my Dad walked out two years ago, and she slammed the door behind him and called him a bastard. The second time was a few months ago when she was hammering a nail into the wall and hit her thumb.  I didn’t know the word ‘damn’ could be emphasized so many different ways.

I walked timidly into the kitchen to meet Satan from Hell. “Sit down!” She pointed to a kitchen chair. “What is going on in that thick, little head of yours?” She paced around the room, stopping occasionally to stare down at me.

My little sister, Janet, arrived from school and came strolling into the kitchen. I was really hoping to get this over with before she got home. She would love to see me get into trouble. With her home, she would hear everything; and then would make fun of me for the next several months.

“Get out!” She turned to my sister and shouted. “Go to your room until I tell you to come out!” My sister’s eyes widened, and she looked down at me. For a split second, I think she actually was felt sorry for me.

“Explain,” she demanded. She stood and bored her eyes into me. I could feel my cheeks begin to burn with embarrassment. “Well?” she asked angrily.

“She was picking on me in front of everyone,” I tried to explain. “All I did was laugh at something Jackie did.”

“So that gave you the right to tell an adult woman to shut up?” I wanted to melt into the floor as she glared down at me. I don’t think I’d ever seen her so mad before; not even the time I accidentally  broke her favorite lamp by throwing a softball in the house.

“No, Ma’am,” I mumbled.

“What?” she asked angrily.

“No, Ma’am,” I said a little louder.

“Go to your room,” she ordered, but her voice had a quieter tone to it.

“What?” I looked up at her and saw tears in her eyes. Oh no. Not tears. Anything but tears. Scream at me, yell so loud the neighbors can hear, pick up a dish and throw it across the room, kick the dog. Anything. Do anything. Just don’t cry. When she cries I know I’ve disappointed her so much that she can’t even say anything to me. I wanted her to say something, so that I would at least know I hadn’t hurt her deeply.

“We’ll deal with this later,” she said, trying to control the tears; but I saw them begin to fall. I turned and left the room, completely dejected.