The only person in our seventh grade class who was as fascinating to us as our teacher, the very large Miss Henry, whom I wrote about in my previous post, was Johnny Labbatti. His shoulders were already broad and straight, he could run faster than any of us, and even on the coldest day of winter he’d go outside for recess without his coat. He had panache and flair, and an insolent grin, and a way of telling jokes that went on forever, getting our laughter long before the punch line came. He greased his jet black hair, wore wide collared shirts open half way down his chest and metal clips in the heels of his shoes. My parents would not have let me out of the house dressed like him.
One day, when we were studying Mexico, Miss Henry said, “I have to go to the principal’s office, I will be gone for about five minutes. I expect you to behave yourselves in my absence.”
What? Behave ourselves when the teacher’s not in the room? She knew perfectly well we were not going to behave. The rumor was that the principal had put every potential juvenile delinquent in Miss Henry’s section of the seventh grade class because she was the only teacher who could control us. And indeed she could. She was the one who was uncontrollable, unpredictable, full of surprises. I thought she must have something up her sleeve.
As soon as she was out of the room, we looked at Johnny for direction. He put his finger up to his lips to call for silence. Then he got out of his chair, went to the bulletin board and removed a big serape and sombrero on display there and put them on. He went out into the hall. We all followed to watch. What was he going to do out there?
We soon found out. He started galloping – yes galloping – down the long hallway toward the principal’s office which was around a corner at the other end of the hall. Waving his sombrero, the metal clips on his heels clicking with each step on the hard tile of the floor, he yelled “Hi Ho Silver Away!” He really was both the Lone ranger and the Lone Ranger’s horse. No one else in the world could have made it so real.
Just as Johnny reached the corner at the other end of the hall, Miss Henry appeared coming around it. “Whoa Silver!” Johnny yelled, pulling on the reins with hands, and I swear to God the horse reared back. Then Johnny did something with the reins to turn the horse around. He put the sombrero on his head and galloped back down the hall. “Come on Silver, let’s fly!” he yelled, Miss Henry in slow pursuit behind him. When he arrived we retreated back into the classroom and took our seats. Johnny entered the room, slowed to a canter, then a trot, then a walk, made that snuffling noise that horses make in westerns, and sat down in his seat. It would take Miss Henry a lot more time to reach our room than Silver took, so Johnny had plenty of time to pin the sombrero and the serape back on to the bulletin board, but he left them on. We all waited for Miss Henry to arrive. We wondered what the punishment was going to be, but Johnny was unconcerned. He picked up a book –something he almost never did – and started to read.
Miss Henry arrived with a blank expression – or perhaps a tiny smile. She walked down the aisle and stood next to Johnny, towering over him with her hands on her hips. He kept his head down, reading his book, as if he didn’t know she was there, also wearing a blank expression, or, perhaps, an almost imperceptible smile. After what seemed a very long time, she put her hands on the brim of the sombrero, one on each side, and gently lifted it off his head, while he continued to read the book. Then she went to the bulletin board and pinned the sombrero back up where it had been. Then she went to the front of the room and started us on the day’s arithmetic lesson.
Johnny wore the serape for the rest of the day, while we continued to wonder when we were going to learn what punishment Miss Henry had in store for him – and for us, for having enjoyed his performance. Just before the ending bell, he got up out of his chair and returned the serape to the bulletin board. “Thank you, Johnny,” Miss Henry said.
Then the bell rang and we all trooped out.