Miss Thompson was my regular third grade teacher, but she didn’t teach me much of anything, unless you consider giving the side eye a skill. All my most important learning happened Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons from one o’clock to 2:05. That’s when I went downstairs to a small classroom across the hall from the cafeteria to see Miss Troup for Title 1 remedial reading. Kids called it the slow class, but I didn’t care. I loved hanging out with Miss Troup. She was the exact opposite of my mother: quiet, calm, and patient. Plus she was the number one sharpest dressed teacher in the whole school. Miss Troup must have had a closetful of pastel-colored skirt suits and matching floral blouses, because it seemed like she wore a different outfit each day. She styled her hair in a big, bouncy press ’n’ curl and wore long fake eyelashes. But best of all were her boots: bad-to-the-bone, knee-length, brown leather with stacked heels, and always polished to a shine. She looked like she just stepped out of the pages of Jet magazine. Miss Troup—the baddest bitch at English Avenue Elementary—is the teacher who finally taught me how to read.
“Patricia, honey, just try to sound it out,” she said one afternoon, tapping the page with a bright red fingernail painted the color of a cinnamon Red Hot. We were sitting in her classroom with a book cracked open on the desk in front of us. It was hot and I was tired. “Just give it a try,” she said again. I looked hard at the letters. I knew they were strung together in words I should recognize, but none of it made sense.
Not everybody in my life knew I couldn’t read. Mama, for one, thought I could read my ass off. Every afternoon, she would pick up a copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the corner store. First she’d flip to the comic strips and put her face close to the paper, looking for numbers she was convinced were hidden in the hair or clothes or scenery of the cartoons. Like maybe she’d see a 4 in the background behind Charlie Brown, or a 7 in Hagar the Horrible’s beard. Those were the numbers she’d use for the fifty-cent bets she placed with the Numbers Man. The only other thing she got the newspaper for was to check her daily horoscope. But Mama had never finished elementary school and didn’t know how to read. Instead, she’d hand me the paper and ask me to tell her what it said.
“Sagittarius,” I’d say, looking down with my forehead wrinkled in fake concentration. Then I’d make some shit up: “This is NOT a good day for beating on your children. TODAY IS NOT A GOOD DAY FOR ANY TYPE OF WHOOPING AT ALL!”
Reading Mama’s fake horoscope was easy, but with Miss Troup reading took all my brainpower. Sitting beside her, I could feel the frustration rising up inside me. “Sound it out,” she said again. “Just take your time.” On the page in front of me was a drawing of a cat wearing a big-ass striped hat and red bow tie, holding an umbrella. What the hell? I thought. If the damn picture made no kind of sense, how was I supposed to figure out the words?
“I don’t know what it says,” I mumbled.
“Just give it a try,” she urged.
“I can’t do it.”
I put my face down on the desk, closed my eyes, and swung my legs hard, kicking the metal frame of my chair with the back of my heel.