William Haylon’s novel describes a young man’s struggle to belong by proving himself on the basketball court and off.
The following is Chapter 10 from the novel, I’m Will.
I looked around to make sure that the biggest guy in the school was talking to me. Six feet eleven inches. Black. Cornrows dangling down to his shoulders and the beginnings of a goatee showing on his chin. His teeth were more than a little crooked. Nonetheless, for someone of my stature, it was like talking to Zeus. This was the first time I had ever heard him speak. Zeus’ voice was a little higher than I had expected.
“Sorry. I didn’t know what to say. You’d never talked to me before.”
“You know, dog, you go round calling people ‘sir’ and somebody is going to think you’re a queer.”
“I guess I can understand that.”
“You’re not a queer are you?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“So you want to play on my team?”
“For the 3-on-3?”
“Yo. Got to have one girl and one kid not on the varsity.”
“I would be the one kid not on the varsity.”
“Man, you ain’t gonna be the girl are you?”
“No, I guess not.”
“I seen you play on JV. You’re pretty good. All you got to do is pass the ball to me.”
“I can do that.”
“Figured you could.”
“Who’s the girl going to be?”
“Thought maybe you could help me with that. I don’t know many of the girls here.”
That made two of us.
“Sure. I’ll find somebody if you want.”
“Yeah, you do that. But make sure she is good. You know any girls who are good basketball players?”
“Not really. I only know about two girls in the whole school.”
“But don’t worry. I’ll figure something out.”
“You sure you can do it?”
“Hey, I want to be on your team. I’ll ask every girl in the school if I have to.”
“Good, cause I wanna win. Last year I lost in the finals.”
“I won’t let you down.”
When the best athlete in the school talks to a freshman, it feels pretty good. When he goes out of his way to ask you to be on his team for the annual school basketball contest that includes most of the boys, girls and faculty members in the school, it feels incredible.
I was beginning to build a little reputation for myself because of my basketball skills. In high school there were basically two ways to get a good reputation—either be cool or be a good athlete. My sense is that it had been that way since the beginning of time. I was never going to be cool, so basketball was all that I had going for me. I had scored seventeen points in the previous day’s game and was on a high. Sometimes on the court you get into a zone and everybody else seems to be in slow motion. Yesterday was one of those days. All of my decisions and movements were just a little bit ahead of everyone else’s. I don’t know why this sense is there some games and not others, but it was there yesterday. I wished I could bottle that feeling of invincibility, not just on the court but everywhere in my life. The leather left my hand and there was nothing but nylon. I had been good. Since basketball was really the only important thing in my life, I was in a great mood. And it was great that I had been noticed by the best player in the school.
For the three-on-three I figured I could always get Abby. She was pretty big, was athletic and had good basketball genes. She’d certainly be thrilled if I asked her. It would give her something to talk about for the rest of the year.
“Hi, Mr. Bussmann.”
The big man was barreling down the hallway of the Main School, looking in no mood to be tangled with. One of his infamous Buzzsaw moods. I had never seen him lose his temper before, but when he got pissed off, the consensus was to steer clear. His face was almost always red because he labored so hard with all the extra weight he carried. But now when he was about to lose it, the red turned to purple. I figured that I would just offer my obligatory greeting and get out of his way. After all, he was my teacher, and I couldn’t rudely ignore him.
I was stunned when he grabbed my shoulder and basically dragged my scrawny frame down the fifty feet of hallway to his tiny office in the center of the building. My shoulder was like a coat hanger in his thick, calloused hand. He wasn’t hurting me at all, but I could see from the looks of the other kids in the corridor, who had turned stone silent, that this was going to be no joy ride.
Once inside his office, he essentially threw me into the wooden captain’s chair facing his desk and slammed his office door shut. It was the sole chair, other than his desk set, in a room that was crammed with folders, pads, magazines, old sweaters and boots that made his already tiny, airless office a pothole. I had never been in here before, nor never really wanted to be. Since Bussmann was the dean of discipline, being in this room didn’t have much upside. I had no idea why I was here, but I was scared shitless.
More than ever in my life.
A dark purple vein—darker than his now purple face—was popping out of the middle of his forehead. It stretched right from his hairline to the bridge of his nose. I couldn’t look at anything else, hoping all along that it wouldn’t burst. Me and Buzzsaw and his big purple vein sitting in his office. His entire oversized body was shaking from anger; my skinny little body was beginning to shake from fear.
The purple vein throbbed and throbbed. It was like it was reaching out to tell me something, to warn of the terrific force of the Buzzsaw that was about to be laid upon me. I only wished that I could hear what it was saying.
“What the hell is the matter with you!”
He was as angry as I had ever seen anyone, and even though his voice had a bit of a smoker’s hoarseness to it, I was sure that all of the kids up and down the Main School hallway would be able to hear every word he was saying. I wondered how many had ever seen the throbbing little person sitting on his forehead, still trying its best to warn me.
I thought he was going to kill me.
Then he held up a history paper I had submitted many weeks ago. In huge red ink was written what no student ever wants to see—no matter how little effort he, on average, puts into his homework.
Holy crap! How the hell did he even get my paper? I wrote if for Mr. Reese’s Civics class. Bussmann taught Math.
“I don’t get it, Mr. Bussmann. I thought I actually did a pretty good job on that paper.”
By my modest standards anyway.
“I expect Hartford thinks the same thing!”
“Imagine Mr. Reese’s and Mrs. White’s reaction when they eventually realized they got the exact same paper submitted twice!”
“The exact same paper?”
The exact same paper?
My lower lip quivered, and my body shivered even more. As much as I wanted it to stop, I couldn’t control it. I was sitting in this crappy hot little office and freezing to death.
“Young man, I don’t know what the protocol was at your previous school, but here we do our own work! I have never in my day seen anything so brazen or stupid.”
“But Mr. Bussmann, I did do my own work.”
My voice sounded incredibly high—more like a young girl’s.
“Like hell you did!”
The purple man on his forehead was now dancing. If it burst, I didn’t know what I would do. I didn’t know how to put a tourniquet on someone’s head, and giving CPR to a teacher was not something high on my list—particularly one who smoked a lot. I did the only thing I could given the situation, which was to begin to cry uncontrollably. I wasn’t proud of it. I hadn’t cried in a long time. But I couldn’t help it.
“I didn’t copy anyone’s paper! I wrote it myself!”
“Call your parents and have them come get you.”
I wasn’t in the habit of talking back to teachers and I was deathly afraid of Buzzsaw, but I was more afraid of my father.
My guess is that no one had talked back to him in a long, long time.
“You can’t do this to me! I wrote that paper! I can prove it to you!”
“Your days are done here young man.”
I couldn’t believe I was hearing him say this. I was finally getting a little rhythm in this school. Basketball was giving me a life. My relationship with Jelly was confusing but something I somehow enjoyed. Shaky and our oasis. Even Dawson and Abby. So I was finally beyond just treading water, and Buzzsaw was going to take it away. It just didn’t seem fair.
At that point some force inside of me took over, and I pulled back and punched Bussmann right in the middle of his enormous midsection. Every last morsel of strength in my undersized little body went into that punch. I didn’t know I had that kind of power in me.
Bussmann looked like he had swallowed a watermelon whole. He slumped back into his desk chair, the wind gone from within him, his eyes showing nothing but disbelief. Disbelief that I had copied a paper word for word and handed it in as my own. Disbelief that I could pack such a punch. I was certain that the purple vein was now ready to burst.
I ran from his office without stopping to see if he was all right. The kids in the hallway, who had no doubt been listening to the screaming match, just stared as I sprinted by them. I had no idea where I was going. Just like when I threw the punch, some uncontrollable inner force was guiding my actions.
I kept running for a long time, without regard to where I went and what I was going to do. The running was easy; I had been doing this all semester. But my mind was racing faster than my legs. It shouldn’t have surprised me that I ultimately ended up amidst the big old trees that made up the cross country course. While it was not my favorite place on campus, and I would always be afraid there after dark, it was the place I knew best. It was cold and wet in the woods. By the time I finally stopped running, my shirt was drenched with a combination of tears, sweat and the previous night’s cold rain that was dripping from the leaves of the trees. My basketball sneakers were also soaked and began to squish with each step I took. It wasn’t yet lunchtime, yet I had no idea what to do.
And I just couldn’t stop shivering.
You can purchase I’m Will here.