When the toll collector saw the oversized cougar head on the seat next to me, she burst out laughing.
For the record, the mascot suit wasn't my idea. But the handmade bows, the pompoms, the glittery signs, the wristbands – I will own up to that pep.
This is how I came to be in charge of our middle school cheerleaders: One afternoon, five minutes before study hall, an eighth-grader ducked into my office to ask if I could watch the cheerleaders while they practiced in the gym. During study hall. None of the other teachers could do it, she said, and the girls weren't allowed to practice alone.
When did Sister Academy get a cheerleading squad? But I agreed. I didn't want the girls to miss a practice. Besides, I'd been at my desk all day. Tired and slightly slap-happy, I was glad to walk away from my computer.
"Sucker," my principal joked later. The team was new – formed to support our new basketball team – and my saying yes to one study hall of baby-sitting somehow meant that I was now the group's adviser.
The basketball team had one game scheduled, against The Bryn Mawr School, one of the most elite girls' schools in Baltimore. We are a school for girls from the city's underserved neighborhoods, and we've never had an athletic team before.
"We probably won't win," one of the cheerleaders said.
"But we'll have fun," I told her. "And we'll be so full of fun and spirit that everybody will want to come and play us."
In other words, we had to represent. We had to be good. We could not be laughed at.
But the cheerleaders had no uniforms, and no budget with which to buy them. After a discussion on the merits of BeDazzling (there are none, it seems), we settled on gym uniforms and a no-sew cheer bow I found on Pinterest.
We were ragtag, but we were ready. Sort of.
Now 16 fifth-graders wanted to join the cheer team, which meant we'd have 24 girls crowding the sidelines. The fifth-graders can be our pep squad, I told our principal. They can sit in the stands (our cafeteria chairs) and hold signs. They can pass out red wristbands to all the spectators.
Oh yes, the wristbands: We had only a month to get ready and only one day a week to practice. The cheerleaders collectively knew maybe half of one cheer – not necessarily the same one. I forbid the one with "hiney" in it, also the one that mocked the other team's ball-handling skills.
Then I realized: pompoms! If the girls could learn three or four cheers, they could do them first with pompoms and then without, doubling their repertoire.
The first school I called didn't have pompoms, or even cheerleaders. But they had a box of red wristbands. Red was one of our school colors. Perfect.
After I scored black-and-red pompoms from another school, my principal asked me if I could find a cougar costume for our mascot.
I won't elaborate on the pitfalls of Googling "cougar costume." Needless to say, "cougar mascot" will provide more reliable and G-rated examples. That's how I ended up at the Harbor Tunnel tollbooth with a giant, doe-eyed cat head next to me: A school on the other side of the city lent us a cougar costume.
We were all on edge the day of the big game – especially when Bryn Mawr showed up with the world's tallest team of middle school hoopsters. "Forfeit!" one of our students begged.
But we didn't. Our players donned donated jerseys that said "Team Random," and our cheerleaders broke out their seven cheers. The mascot hammed it up. Our fans wore wristbands, and the pep squad held up glittery signs and led chants. It was an SRO crowd.
With our hand-me-downs and a lot of goodwill, we pressed on. And we won – by one buzzer-beating basket!
Later the Bryn Mawr players told us they had never seen such a crowd. In fact, they said, hardly anyone came to their games.
"We should go," one of our scrappiest players said. "We should go and cheer them on."
We've had other offers. The team that lent us the cougar suit wants an all-cat matchup. But we're also planning to pack up our signs and our pompoms and take our Team Random cougars on the road to cheer for Bryn Mawr.
Because that's the kind of team we are.