SERIAL NOVEL: “If I Grow Up,” by Danita Evangeline Whyte

Copyright 2016. Torch Legacy Publications. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except for brief quotations included in a review of the book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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if-i-grow-up-coverby Danita Evangeline Whyte

You see, people die every day here. Green Triangle has seen a lot of blood, poured like water, into her streets. But the blood of this child should have been spared. All this little girl ever wanted to do was grow up, move to Hollywood, become an actress, and buy herself a fine mansion. Let’s go back about a year and find out how this all started.

I was living in Green Triangle’s most notorious public housing project with my brothers, Chino “Ray-Ray” and Smokey “Shy Guy” Nelson, and our sister, Aisha Cleopatra Nelson. Things were tough for us. I can’t remember a time when they weren’t so.


for Tolkien, Tolstoy, and Fitzgerald
for Lewis, Lee, and Woodson
for Seuss, Dahl, Snicket, Wilde, Keene, Gaiman, and Baldwin
and countless other storytellers, songwriters, and filmmakers who convinced me that

imagination is stronger than knowledge.
dreams are more powerful than facts.
hope always triumphs over experience.
love is stronger than death.

– Robert Fulghum

Act One – The Setup



Start the picture with the street sign: Green Triangle. Now the camera leaves the sign and moves over grey asphalt stained with graffiti and around menacing red brick buildings. As speed accelerates, girls hooping, boys ballin, gang bangers gang banging, drug dealers dealing drugs, etc., flash by.


Yes, this is Green Triangle, Near North Side, Chicago, Illinois. It’s about ten o’clock in the morning. There’s the ambulance and a police squad. Another murder has taken place. You won’t read about it in the newspapers, I’m sure. You won’t get it over the radio or hear about it on television, which is why you’re going to hear about it from me. I’m going to tell you about the ten-year-old girl whose body is now lying in the middle of the street.

Over the scene we now hear: Sirens wailing. We see: A boy approaching on a bicycle. Police running. Bystanders crying. Flash of the body.


You see, people die every day here. Green Triangle has seen a lot of blood, poured like water, into her streets. But the blood of this child should have been spared. All this little girl ever wanted to do was grow up, move to Hollywood, become an actress, and buy herself a fine mansion. Let’s go back about a year and find out how this all started.

I was living in Green Triangle’s most notorious public housing project with my brothers, Chino “Ray-Ray” and Smokey “Shy Guy” Nelson, and our sister, Aisha Cleopatra Nelson. Things were tough for us. I can’t remember a time when they weren’t so.


One of the red brick buildings, about fifteen stories high. It is so early in the morning, it is still dark. Camera moves toward an open window on the fourth floor, where we look in on the Nelson’s apartment. Aisha Nelson, barefoot and wearing a long t-shirt, is sitting on the bed. She has just awakened.

One: Evi

I wake up earlier than usual because I’m drowning in my own sweat. The air conditioner in our apartment stopped working yesterday and the fan that is perched on a chair at the foot of my bed isn’t doing much cooling. Our apartment is small; so small it leaves me feeling cramped sometimes. There are only five rooms – the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room, and two bedrooms. Ray-Ray and Shy Guy share one bedroom, and I half-share the other bedroom with Evi. She keeps her clothes and other stuff in here, but sleeps on the couch in the living room because we don’t have another bed and she’s too big for us to share mine.

Through the open bedroom door, I see a light on in the kitchen and know that Evi is already awake. I throw off my sheets and go join her. Her head is down, staring at a photo so she doesn’t notice me right away when I walk in. “Whatcha doing?” I ask.

She looks up and sighs. “Figuring out how I’m going to pay all these bills,” she says.

On the round folding table, there are little paper and envelope towers made up of bills, advertisement pieces, and college loan papers. I pick up the discolored photo she has tossed aside. It’s a picture of her in a black cap and gown on the day she graduated from college. Her eyes are bright and she is smiling. Three of her friends are also in the picture. I wonder what they’re up to. Probably rich. Maybe married. Definitely a million miles away from a neighborhood ruled by drug lords and street gangs.

But here Evi is. Stuck.

Evi is only twenty-three, but easily passes as a thirty-year-old. Her full name is Evianna Nelson. She doesn’t have a second name like I do. I guess Momma forgot to give her one. Momma forgot to give our brothers a second name too. I’m the only one in our family who has one which makes me feel pretty special. It is Cleopatra. Evi once told me that Cleopatra was the name of a beautiful and powerful Egyptian queen, but she’s dead now, so I don’t know how beautiful she was. I do know that Evi is beautiful.

Five feet, nine inches. One hundred eighty-two pounds. Her skin is golden brown, rich and warm like honey. She has a heart-shaped face and high cheek bones. Long, luscious box braids punctuated by gold beads. So stunning I think she could be a model, but she claims she’s too thick for a runway. For some reason, I’ve come down on the shorter side, and my hair is more Foxy Brown than Poetic Justice.

Bangbang! Bangbang!

The sudden explosive sound of gun shots causes me to jump. Evi doesn’t flinch. She gets up and walks into the living room to look out the window. The noise awakens Ray-Ray and he comes out of the other bedroom. “It’s too early for them to be shooting,” he says. Even though he is only fourteen, Ray-Ray is nearly as tall as Evi. His hair is in cornrows which he did himself. After the next few minutes pass in silence, Ray-Ray’s tense shoulders relax and he crosses the kitchen. “Man, it’s hot in here.” He opens the freezer and sticks his head inside. “I’m hungry, too. Are you fixing breakfast?”

“No,” Evi says. She is still at the window. “Go and get ready for school. We can get McDonald’s if you hurry.”

The promise of a hot sausage biscuit has me and Ray-Ray speed walking back to our rooms.

“And wake up Shy Guy,” Evi calls after us. “He has school too.”

Two: Shy Guy

Shy Guy hasn’t talked since the day we saw that dead woman in the elevator.

Me, Shy Guy, and Ray-Ray were going to visit Ray-Ray’s best friend who lived on the eleventh floor. I never liked riding the elevators in our apartment. They are way too slow and they stink. Ray-Ray says that’s because people pee in them. So we took the stairs, but Shy Guy insisted he was taking the elevator.

It wasn’t long before he came running up the stairs after us. His eyes were wide and he was nearly out of breath. “There’s a dead woman in there!” he yelled. Me and Ray-Ray didn’t believe him. “For real,” he told us. He looked so scared that we left the stairs and pressed the button for the elevator. We waited about ten minutes. When the elevator finally arrived and the doors opened, we saw the woman for ourselves. She was lying flat on her back. Eyes open. Mouth apart. A knife sticking out of her chest. I don’t think I ever ran so fast in my life. We got away from there quick.

Now, we don’t take the elevator anymore. Just the stairs.

Shy Guy used to tell jokes and rap LL Cool J lyrics, but now he doesn’t say or sing anything anymore. It’s like seeing that dead woman took his voice away. He only nods his head or shakes his head or shrugs. He isn’t the same Shy Guy.

It is only six o’clock in the morning, but people are already lining up in the lobby of our apartment building to buy drugs from Big C. Big C lives right across from us on the fourth floor. “Walk on by,” Evi tells us. “Walk like you have somewhere to go.”

Outside, we get inside Evi’s blue Camry. One of the doors doesn’t work and neither does the air conditioner which is why we always ride with the windows down. “Why can’t we just get a new car?” I ask.

“Do you just have money to buy a new car, Aisha?” Evi asks. She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “I didn’t think so. Besides, people around here aren’t so quick to steal something that might break down on them.” She sticks the key in the ignition and after a few false starts, the car revs to life. I stick my head out the window as red brick, grey asphalt, and colored graffiti blur past. There used to be trees in our neighborhood, but the mayor had them all chopped down to make it easier for the police to keep an eye on things.

So much for the Triangle being green.


Three: Dead Dreams

We stop at McDonald’s and Evi orders us all a sausage biscuit and hash browns. She orders herself a coffee. I pull Evi’s graduation photo out of my neon pink book bag and study it as I eat my biscuit.

Big hair. Don’t care. Eyes bright with possibility. Head full of dreams.

Evi was the first in our family to go to college. Even our momma hadn’t done that. She went away to New York for four long years, studying to be a lawyer. We only got to see her during summer breaks and for Christmas and birthdays. Each time she came home to Green Triangle, she seemed more disgusted with it. “I’m going to get us out of here,” she would say. Momma would start to object, but Evi wouldn’t hear it. “And you’re coming, no ifs, ands, or buts,” she would say.

Back then, Evi was constantly talking about the future. About all the places she was going to go and all the things she was going to do. Now, she just talks about bills, her low-paying job as a cashier, and how she is going to put food on the table.

I remember the day all her dreams seemed to die. The day she stopped talking about the future. She was home on break from college and Momma called us into the living room. “Babies, I have to tell you something,” she said. I had never seen Momma cry, but that day her lovely brown eyes were full of tears. “Babies, I have AIDS.” Momma turned to Evi and took her hands, holding them for a long time, as if doing so would somehow cure her. “Evi, baby, I’m going to need you to take care of the children when I’m gone. You’ll do that for me, won’t you?” Evi promised that she would.

Two weeks later, Momma died. Evi had returned to New York. Chicago Family Services took me, Ray-Ray, and Shy Guy out of our apartment and put us in foster care. I was sent to live with a woman called Empress. She liked to play what she called the Name Game.

Stupid. Dumb. Idiot.

Empress would call me everything except Aisha, just to see how long I would take it without crying. I never lasted long. When I finally broke down in tears, she would beat me with a shower rod. Those were the worst days of my life. Luckily, they didn’t last long.

Evi came back. She gained legal custody of me, Ray-Ray, and Shy Guy. She had kept her promise to Momma and I admired her for doing so. I am proud to call her my sister. But I wonder if her head is still full of dreams or if they’re all dead. I wonder what happens to dead dreams. Are they buried for good or are they able to rise again?

“Aisha, get yourself out of my car and into school,” Evi says. She is looking at me through the rearview mirror the way she looks at people she thinks are crazy, with one eyebrow arched so high it’s nearly touching her hairline. “What are you sitting here for? You’re going to make me late for work.”

Ray-Ray and Shy Guy are already walking up the sidewalk to McLeod Bethune Elementary and Middle School.

“Bye, Aisha. Luv ya,” Evi says. It doesn’t matter where we are or how mad she is, Evi always says she loves me when we’re about to leave one another.

“Luv ya back,” I say.

I stick her photo into my book bag and follow my brothers.

Four: Mr. Claflin

It is the first day of school at McLeod Bethune Elementary and Middle School. I am starting fourth grade. I find my classroom and stand outside the door with a group of kids who look as nervous and excited as I feel. Some of the girls are eying me strangely as if something is off about me. I figure it must be my clothes. They are all wearing bright red polo shirts and khaki bottoms. Evi said we couldn’t afford new school uniforms this year, so I am wearing my favorite pair of faded jeans and a striped sweater. I don’t really care what they think, but I hope I won’t get in trouble with the teacher on my first day.

The door to the classroom opens and our teacher waves us in. “Good morning, girls and boys,” he smiles. His teeth are so white and his eyes so blue it’s like looking at a miniature version of the sun and the sky. His long hair is in a neat ponytail that hangs to the middle of his back. I think it could have been chopped off a Barbie doll. It is so glossy.

Balloons and a huge colorful banner are hung across the green chalkboard. “Is it somebody’s birthday?” I ask.

“That doesn’t even say Happy Birthday,” a boy says. His voice is loud and agitated. “It says WELCOME TO FOURTH GRADE. PREPARE TO BE AMAZED! It doesn’t even say Happy Birthday.”

All right. I get it. I put my book bag in a cubby hole and am about to take a seat when a girl with a beautiful red barrette in her hair pushes me away. “That seat’s for my friend,” she says. I push back, but the teacher notices. “Oh, no, we don’t,” he says, rushing over.

“She started it,” I tell him. “She pushed me out of my seat.”

“It’s not your seat,” the girl with the beautiful red barrette says. “I told you it’s for my friend.”

“Girls, we don’t save seats in this class, and we certainly don’t push one another. It’s not nice,” the teacher says. He marches us to his desk in the front of the room and takes out two numbers from a blue box. He hands me one and gives her the other. “The seats have numbers on them, so go find your number.”

I am number nine. First seat in the second row. The girl sits down beside me and sticks out her tongue. She has a huge gap in her front teeth so I begin to call her gap teeth girl in my head at least. She must be number ten.

“May I have your attention please?” the teacher says. The chatter in the room stops and twenty-six pairs of eyes fix on him. “My name is Blaine Claflin, and I will be your teacher for this year.”

I raise my hand.

“Yes?” Mr. Claflin says.

“Do you have a second name?” I ask.

“You mean a middle name. Of course. It’s Travis, but I don’t like it so I don’t use it.”

A boy with glasses raises his hand. “How old are you?”

“Twentyish,” Mr. Claflin says.

Gap teeth girl raises her hand. “Mr. Claflin, why are you our teacher?”

“Good question. I was just getting to that.” He sits on the edge of his desk and crosses his arms. “I decided to become a teacher because I want to influence the future. I want to share the knowledge I know not to teach you what to think, but how to think. Not to mold you into a walking textbook, but to unfold you into a world that is full of infinite possibilities. If I can do that, if I can make a positive difference in your lives, then I would have had a pretty good role in influencing the future because you – each and every one of you – are the future.”

The boy with the loud and agitated voice raises his hand. “Does that make you the past?” he asks.

Mr. Claflin laughs. “Well, I like to think of myself as the present,” he says. “Now, I have a question for you guys. How many of you have been promised something before?”

I think of Evi’s promise to Momma and raise my hand. Mr. Claflin nods. “A good number of you,” he says. “Today, on the first day of school, I want to promise you three things.” He holds up three fingers. “One: I will work hard for you. Two: I will push you to learn. Three: I will give you my best. Promise.”


Five: If

“Now that you know a little bit about me, I want to know a lot about you,” Mr. Claflin says. He asks our names, what we did during summer, and what we want to be when we grow up.

The boy with the loud and agitated voice is called Lee. Gap teeth girl’s name is Genesis. They both went to Disney World during summer. The boy with the glasses says his name is JeBron. He wants to be an astronaut (like Buzz), a basketball player (like LeBron), and the president (like Obama) when he grows up. I can’t remember all the kids, but there’s a girl named Megan who has braces and looks smart. The boy sitting behind me insists on being called Broderick the Fourth, because his dad is called Broderick the Third, and he doesn’t want to get their names mixed up. There are also twin girls named Maria and Sophia, and a boy named Miller Legend who won’t stop staring at me.

When it comes time for my introduction, I stand up and say, “My name is Aisha Cleopatra Nelson. I don’t remember what I did during the summer, and if I grow up-“

“If?” Mr. Claflin interrupts. “You are the master of your fate. The captain of your soul, Miss…?”

He’s forgotten my name already. “Aisha,” I tell him.

“Miss Aisha, don’t you think you’re going to grow up?” He is not sitting on his desk anymore. He is at the chalkboard, writing our names under the colorful banner in three rows.

I raise and lower my shoulders. “Maybe. If I don’t get stabbed while riding the elevator.”

Genesis turns her mouth into a circle. “Ohhh, you’re creepy,” she whispers. Mr. Claflin seems to think the same. He stops writing on the chalkboard and turns around to stare at me. “Well, at least I have one kid who has an overactive imagination,” he says.

After everyone finishes making their introductions, Mr. Claflin gives us each a sheet of paper. “It’s a short survey of fun questions,” he says. “Nothing serious. No pressure. Since we have to spend five days a week together, I just want to get to know each of you better.” I stare at my paper and see a bunch of black marks on a white background. They might as well be Chinese characters.

I turn the paper over and draw a picture of a bear on a boat belting out a ballad.


Six: Special Ed

During recess, Mr. Claflin walks out of the school and comes over to where I am standing on the swing. “Aisha, can I talk with you for a second?” he asks.

“Okay.” I jump off the swing and follow him inside, wondering what I’m in trouble for. Maybe he finally noticed that I wasn’t wearing a uniform like everyone else. In the classroom, he sits on the edge of his desk and flips through a stack of papers. I recognize them as the fun question surveys. “Why don’t you sit in your chair? That’s what it’s for,” I say.

“It’s uncomfortable,” Mr. Claflin says. He pulls out my blank sheet and holds it up. “Can you tell me why you didn’t fill out your survey?”

I raise and lower my shoulders. “I don’t know what it says,” I tell him.

A flicker of surprise clouds the sky of Mr. Claflin’s eyes. “You can’t read?” he asks, but his voice is low like he’s trying to keep the question a secret. “You’re in the fourth grade, and you can’t read?”

“No,” I answer. Mr. Claflin puts down the survey paper. I can tell he doesn’t believe me. He walks over to one of the three bookshelves in our classroom. After a few minutes of looking, he selects a book. It has a blue cover with a funny looking creature on the front in a tall, red and white hat and a red bow tie. “The Cat in the Hat,” Mr. Claflin says. “It was my favorite book when I was learning to read. I want you to try and read it to me.” He turns to the front page and points to the first words. I stare at it, but can’t make sense of the black marks on a white background. “I don’t know what it says,” I tell him. “But I know a lot of words. And I know my name. I can write it, too.” I take out a piece of paper just to show him.

“That’s good,” Mr. Claflin says. “But why can’t you read?”

“I just can’t,” I say. Then I add, “I’m a special ed kid which means I have a special teacher, but she doesn’t teach me anymore. She only teaches third graders.”

“Uh-huh,” Mr. Claflin says. “Well, since you didn’t fill out your survey, tell me some things you like.”

“I like pizza and French fries and skipping rope, and I like to draw,” I say.

“I can see that.” He picks up my survey paper again and turns it over to the picture I drew. “You’re quite the artist. This is a very cute bear. When I was your age, my drawings were still scribblings.”

I smile. No one has ever called me an artist before. “I also like movies,” I say. “Even more than drawing. I want to go to Hollywood and be an actress like Taraji or Mo’Nique. They were in Hair Show and were so funny. Did you see it?”

Mr. Claflin looks like I’m making that movie up. “I like watching movies too, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Hair Show,” he says.

“I can get it for you,” I say. “And I have some more drawings at home — a whole notebook, if you want to see them.”

“I do,” Mr. Claflin says. “Don’t worry about the movie, but bring your drawings tomorrow. I would love to see all of them.”


Seven: Whippersnapper

Mr. Claflin wants to have some words with my special ed teacher. The room she uses to teach third graders is beside the cafeteria, three rooms down from our classroom. Mr. Claflin walks with a bounce as if his legs are on springs. Head high, shoulders relaxed, arms swinging. Like he’s the best thing on planet Earth and he knows it, not afraid to own it. He knocks on the door. “It’s open,” Mrs. Murphy’s gravelly voice calls out.

“Mrs. Murphy, you remember Aisha,” Mr. Claflin says.

“Of course, I remember Aisha,” Mrs. Murphy says. She is stapling papers together at her desk and doesn’t even look up. “She do something wrong?”

“No, ma’am, I’m just wondering how she did in third grade,” Mr. Claflin says.

“I hope she did well. I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t her third grade teacher,” Mrs. Murphy says. “I only had her for a few weeks to try and teach her how to read.”

“I imagine you weren’t very successful,” Mr. Claflin says.

Mrs. Murphy looks up now. Her eyes loom large over the top of her glasses which are so close to the bottom of her nose I’m afraid they are going to fall off. “Blaine, are you questioning my teaching abilities?” she asks sharply.

“No, ma’am, but-“

Mrs. Murphy doesn’t let him finish. She raises one finger and shakes it at him. “I’ve seen whippersnappers like you in here before,” she says. “Teach for America gets in your head and makes you think you can transform a bunch of unruly brats into smarty-pants angels overnight. But you find out it ain’t so easy after a while, and you know what you do, you quit. I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years. I’ve been teaching special ed for fifteen years. I know the kids who can learn, and those who can’t. I had Aisha for five weeks last year and in those five weeks, she couldn’t put T, H, and E together to form the word THE. I’m afraid Aisha will never read.”

“I see,” Mr. Claflin says.

“I’m glad you do,” Mrs. Murphy says. “Now, if there isn’t anything else, I’m about to go to lunch.”

“What’s a whippersnapper?” I ask on our way back to the classroom.

“A smart aleck,” Mr. Claflin says.

“What’s that?”


After recess, it is quiet story time. One by one, the students choose a book and then return to their seats to read for an hour. It is the first time that day that our classroom is completely hushed. I am wondering what I am going to do when Mr. Claflin tells me to sit at the computer table. “This is an audio book,” he says. “Instead of you reading the book, the book reads to you.” He plugs in his own pair of Beats headphones and gives them to me to put on. Mr. Claflin disappears, and I am immediately transported to a small farm during the start of spring. “This is the story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte,” a dry voice says. “Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.”

Eight: Say It Nicely

I guess all of my classmates were on their best behavior because it was the first day of school, but the second day of school is chaos.

As soon as the classroom door opens, Megan runs inside and throws her arms around Mr. Claflin. She makes a loud show of sniffing him. “Um…Megan, what are you doing?” Mr. Claflin asks.

“I just love your perfume,” Megan says between sniffs. “You smell so good.”

“Well, thank you,” Mr. Claflin says, directing her to her seat. “But teachers aren’t to be sniffed.”

“He doesn’t have any perfume, anyway,” Lee objects. His voice sounds louder than it did yesterday. “Perfume is for girls. He has cologne. I bet it’s Old Spice, too.”

“Yeah, that’s the kind my mom’s boyfriend has,” Miller says.

Mr. Claflin ignores them. “Boys, remember what I told you yesterday,” he says. “Take off your coats and leave them in your cubby.”

“What? You want us to take off our clothes?” Lee says.

“No, I said coats, not clothes,” Mr. Claflin says. “We don’t wear coats and hats inside the classroom. And please don’t go home telling your parents I told you to take off your clothes.”

Once we are all in our seats, Mr. Claflin calls for quiet. He starts the day with Science. “The human body is amazing. It grows, it senses things, it pumps blood, and it can even heal itself. Our bodies do a lot of cool things, but do we really know how it works? Probably not. Which is why we’re going to learn. We’re going to learn about the respiratory system, the nervous system, the circulatory system, and a bunch of other systems that make our bodies go.” He picks up a stack of green workbooks from his desk and starts to give them out. When he gets to me, he bends down so that only I can hear. “Aisha, don’t worry about trying to read the text right now. Just pay attention to what I say, and I’ll let you draw your assignments instead of write them. We’ll work on your reading later. Okay?”

“Okay,” I say.

Mr. Claflin walks to the chalkboard and begins drawing a stick figure skeleton. “Now, before we begin, let’s see how much you guys know. Everyone tell me one thing that is a part of the human body.”

I raise my hand and say, “Brain.”


“Excellent.” Mr. Claflin writes down what I said on the chalkboard beside the stick figure’s head. “Anyone else?”


“Yes?” Mr. Claflin points at Broderick the Fourth who has his hand raised. “When I do like this,” he says, bending his arms. “I can see the vines inside my body.”

“Veins,” Mr. Claflin corrects him. “I think that’s what you meant to say. But yes, veins do look like vines growing inside of us.” He writes it down on the chalkboard.

Megan raises her hand next, but she doesn’t have anything to say about the human body. She wants to go to the bathroom. “Of course, you can go,” Mr. Claflin tells her. “Thank you for raising your hand and asking politely.”

“WHAT? I HAD TO GO FIRST. THAT ISN’T FAIR,” JeBron pushes his workbook off the edge of his desk and crosses his arms. “YOU’RE STUPID. THIS WHOLE CLASS IS STUPID. WHY CAN’T I GO TO THE BATHROOM?”

“Does anyone else have a word about our bodies?” Mr. Claflin says. He points to Lee’s raised hand, but Lee doesn’t have anything to say about the human body either. He also asks to go to the bathroom. “Of course,” Mr. Claflin says. “Thank you for waiting to be called on.”

JeBron watches Lee leave the room, then he sighs, and sticks his hand up. “Yes, what do you have to say?” Mr. Claflin asks.


“Of course, but only after you pick up your workbook from off the floor. Thank you for asking nicely and using the magic word, JeBron,” Mr. Claflin says. “Always remember to do that, and you’ll get what you want faster.”

JeBron picks up his workbook, sets it on his desk, and hurries out the room. “Let’s continue with our lesson,” Mr. Claflin says.


Nine: It Started with a Whale

I keep wondering when Mr. Claflin is going to work on my reading, but each day is much like the second day of school. He’s too busy chiding JeBron about his rudeness and keeping Genesis from throwing a crying fit about everything that offends her. He tells Lee and Miller almost one hundred times a day to stop talking and pay attention to the lesson. Amid the fist fights, temper tantrums, and name calling, I think he forgets that I do not know how to read.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Genesis has her mouth in a circle and is staring at the whale on my drawing paper. During Art time, Mr. Claflin likes to put us in pairs, and for some reason, I am always paired with Genesis. “I am coloring my whale,” I tell her.

“But that’s wrong. Whales aren’t red,” Genesis says.

I raise and lower my shoulders. “So? It’s my whale, and it can be whatever color I want it to be.”

“No, it can’t,” Genesis insists. “Whales aren’t red. They’re only blue.”

“Have you ever seen a whale?” I ask.

“No! But everyone knows that whales are blue,” Genesis says. “And I’m going to tell the teacher because you’re coloring it red and that’s wrong. You’re going to be in trouble.” Genesis raises her hand. “Mr. Claflin, Aisha is coloring her whale red.”

Mr. Claflin walks over and looks at my drawing paper. “That’s fine,” he says.

“But whales aren’t red,” Genesis tells him. “They’re blue.”

“Well, technically whales are gray, black, and grayish blue,” Mr. Claflin says. “Some are even brown and white, but if Aisha wants to use her imagination and color her whale red, she can.” Genesis starts to protest, so Mr. Claflin tells us to switch partners. I pick up my paper and move beside Miller. Broderick the Fourth sits beside Genesis. “I think your whale is beautiful,” Miller whispers. “Don’t worry about what Genesis thinks. She’s such a crybaby. I think she would cry if I poked her with a marshmallow.” We both break into soft giggles.

Miller stops working on his own whale and starts staring at me like he was doing on the first day of school. His chin resting in his palm and his eyes wide and dreamy. Mr. Claflin notices and tells him to do his work.

“I can’t,” Miller says.

“And why is that?” Mr. Claflin asks.

“Because…,” Miller smiles shyly. “Because Aisha is so beautiful and she’s distracting me.”

Mr. Claflin is speechless. The other students begin snickering, especially Lee, whose laugh is even louder than his regular talking voice. He leans over to Miller and grabs his drawing paper. “Why are you drawing yourself on your whale?” he asks. “And why are you coloring yourself brown. You’re not African American.”

“I am African American,” Miller says. He snatches his paper back.

Genesis jumps out of her seat and runs to the front of the classroom where Mr. Claflin is sitting on his desk grading homework. Tears are streaming down her face. “Broderick just called me the G word,” she cries.

“No, you aren’t,” Lee says. “Your mom is white. I see her every day when she comes to pick you up.”

Mr. Claflin motions for Broderick the Fourth to come to the front. “Miller and Lee, stop talking right now,” he orders before turning back to Genesis. “Let’s calm down,” he tells her. “Now, what exactly is the G word?”

“My dad is African American, and that makes me African American,” Miller says.

Genesis is crying so hard she can hardly get the words out of her mouth. “He called me a g…g…jerk!”

Mr. Claflin looks about ready to laugh, but he doesn’t. “That’s a J word, Genesis,” he says. “Broderick the Fourth, why would you call her that?”

“No, it doesn’t. You’re half black and half white which makes you…let me think, oh yes…Mulatto,” Lee says, spitting out the last word.

Miller’s jaw drops. “I’m not!” he yells.

“Miller and Lee, cut it out,” Mr. Claflin says.

“She wouldn’t call me my full name,” Broderick the Fourth explains. “Just Broderick, and that’s not my name. It’s Broderick the Fourth.”

“That’s no reason to call her a mean word,” Mr. Claflin says. “You need to apologize. But Genesis, from now on, please call him Broderick the Fourth.”

“I don’t have time to say all that,” Genesis complains.

Lee covers his ears. “La, la, la,” he sings. “You’re Mulatto, Mulatto, Mulattoooooo-” The end is cut short by Miller’s fist against his face.

“Miller and Lee, to the principal’s office NOW,” Mr. Claflin orders. They start to object, but Mr. Claflin points to the door. “NOW,” he repeats. They both leave the room.


Ten: Names

As soon as Genesis and Broderick the Fourth return to their seats, the twin named Sophia raises her hand. “Mr. Claflin, JeBron just called me a baby,” she says.

“JeBron, did you call Sophia a baby?” Mr. Claflin asks.

“Yeah, but I didn’t mean it in a bad way,” JeBron explains. “I was saying, ‘Hey, baby!’ My mom says it all the time to my dad when she wants him to do something.”

Mr. Claflin closes his eyes briefly as if praying for an angel to help him. “All right, Art time is over,” he says.

“Mr. Claflin, are we getting on your nerves?” Megan asks.

“Yes, you are,” Mr. Claflin says.

“Why don’t you yell at us, Mr. Claflin?” Maria says. “Our mom always yells when we get on her nerves.”

“Maybe Mr. Claflin will yell when we get on his last nerve,” JeBron says.

“I don’t yell because yelling doesn’t help anyone or anything.” Mr. Claflin collects all of our drawing papers and puts them in a big purple folder on his desk. “All eyes on me, please,” he says. “Name calling doesn’t help anyone or anything either. In the past five minutes, I have had three of my own children get in trouble for calling someone outside of their name. Name calling is never okay. Calling someone a name just to see them cry is not okay. Name calling is bullying and it hurts. Do you all understand?”

Everyone nods.

“Going forward, there will be no more name calling in my class,” Mr. Claflin continues. “A very wise person once said that ‘yelling at living things kills the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.’ There is a zero tolerance for calling people ‘stupid’ (he looks at JeBron), or ‘jerk’ (he looks at Broderick the Fourth), or any other name that is mean in this classroom. Anytime I hear anyone saying a mean name, we won’t have story time.”

Everyone looks stunned. Story time is our favorite time of the day.

“Now, I’m going to talk with Principal Robinson about Miller and Lee,” Mr. Claflin says. “Megan, you’re in charge while I’m gone. I want everyone to work on your Math sheets and I want absolutely no talking. And when I come back, let’s try to go the rest of the day without anyone saying ‘Mr. Claflin.'”

The classroom is completely quiet. Mr. Claflin has just reached the door, when JeBron raises his hand. “Um…Blaine, may I please go to the restroom?”


Eleven: A Girl Called Coraline

Every month, Principal Robinson gives out award certificates to each of the classes. For two months in a row, our fourth grade class wins the “Outstanding Loudness” award. When we win it for the third time, Mr. Claflin is not pleased. “We’re going to do something different,” he says. “Instead of only having quiet story time, we’re going to have circle story time. I’m going to read to you once in the morning and once in the afternoon.”

“Why?” JeBron asks.

“Ms. Tully only reads five books a month to her students,” Mr. Claflin says. “Yet, her class wins ‘Excellence in Reading’ every month and they’re fifth graders. I want that award. Besides, you guys love story time.”

So it begins. Every morning after Science, Mr. Claflin sits with us in a circle on the floor. The first book we read together is Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Reading with Mr. Claflin is even better than audio books because he acts out the character voices like he’s in a movie. Everyone is completely quiet as Mr. Claflin reads of how Coraline finds a passageway behind the locked door in the drawing room of her house. She meets the “other” parents and I am hooked on every word.

When he describes their long white fingers and creepy black button eyes, Megan shivers in fright and holds tightly onto my arm.

Mr. Claflin notices and winks. “Don’t worry,” he says assuredly. “It only gets scarier from here.” He clears his throat and begins singing the rats’ song in a high, whispery voice, just like the book says:

We have teeth and we have tails
We have tails, we have eyes
We were here before you fell
You will be here when we rise.

“That’s not a very pretty song,” Genesis says.

“No, it isn’t. Coraline didn’t think it pretty either,” Mr. Claflin agrees. He reads for a few more minutes and then shuts the book.

“What?” Lee asks. “That’s it?”

“That’s the end of chapter three,” Mr. Claflin says. “We’ll read chapter four this evening. Right now, we have English to do, and History, and then lunch, and recess. Up, up, up, children. Back to your seats.”

Grumbling and protesting, we leave the circle to begin our “other” work. But the promise of continuing the story keeps everyone on their best behavior. Miller and Lee don’t fight. JeBron isn’t rude. Genesis doesn’t cry.

At recess, I bypass the swings to search for a stone with a hole in it. “What are you doing?” Miller asks when he sees me poking in the dirt.

“Looking for a stone like Coraline’s,” I tell him.

“Why? Are you in danger?”

“Not now, I’m not,” I say. “But I might be one day.”

“Well, I hope it’s not anytime soon,” Miller says. He puts his hand in his jeans pocket and takes out an envelope. “Here,” he says, giving it to me. “Next week is my birthday. I’m having a royal party and I’m the king. I want you to be my queen.”

I take the envelope and open it. Inside is an invitation for Queen Aisha to be the guest of honor at King Miller’s royal birthday party where there will be food, games, and presents for everyone. “I’m going to have a huge chocolate cake and chocolate ice cream with M&M’s in it,” Miller says. “And you’ll get to wear a crown. Please say you’ll come.”

“I’d love to come,” I say. “But I have to ask my sister first.”

“Oh, right,” Miller says. He picks up a stick and starts digging in the dirt. “I’ll help you find a stone.” We finally find a stone that is round and white. It doesn’t have a hole in it, but it is so smooth that I decide to keep it because recess is over and we have to go back inside.

“You can always pretend that it has a hole,” Miller tells me.

Twelve: I Am Brave

Ray-Ray and Shy Guy are waiting on the sidewalk outside of the school when I come out. “Where’s Evi?” I ask them.

“Her car broke down so we have to walk,” Ray-Ray says.

Green Triangle is a long way from McLeod Bethune Elementary and Middle School, and I don’t feel like walking that far. “Why can’t we just wait here until it’s fixed?” I ask.

“We’ll be out here all night waiting for that car to get fixed,” Ray-Ray says. “C’mon, it’s not like somebody stole it. You won’t have to walk every day.”

Me and Shy Guy follow Ray-Ray through a myriad of unfamiliar alleyways and backstreets until I start to recognize some signs of our neighborhood. We stop at a convenience store and Ray-Ray buys us each a Fanta grape soda and a pack of Skittles. This makes the rest of the walk easier. By the time our apartment building comes into view, I’m feeling good. “You want to play ‘it’?” I ask Shy Guy. “You can hide this time, and I’ll do the finding.”

Shy Guy nods. He looks at Ray-Ray, but Ray-Ray shakes his head. “Nah, I’m too old for that. I’m going to play basketball.” He starts running to the end of the street where a group of his friends are waiting for him at the corner. A black Hummer slides to a stop in front of them. One of the tinted windows is rolled down and Big C, rimless sunglasses covering his eyes, sticks his head out. “You kids get inside. We ’bout to be shooting,” he says. The words are hardly out of his mouth before gunfire erupts.

Bang, bang! Bang, bang!

Ray-Ray is sprinting toward me and Shy Guy as his friends scatter. Forget about playing hide and seek. Forget about playing basketball, too. Me and Shy Guy turn toward our apartment and start running. “No!” Ray-Ray yells. “Get down!” He is faster and quickly overtakes Shy Guy, pulling him down to the ground, covering his head with his camouflage book bag.

Bang, bang! Bang, bang!

Grape. Strawberry. Orange. Lemon. Lime. A rainbow of Skittles spills out of the bag Shy Guy is clutching and bounce in a hundred different directions across the grey asphalt.

Ray-Ray is still yelling for me to “get down,” but I am almost to our apartment and don’t stop running until I am safely inside the lobby. A few minutes later, Ray-Ray and Shy Guy make it inside. Shy Guy’s knee is scraped from falling so hard on the ground, and he is crying silently. His face is screwed up real ugly and tears are falling. Ray-Ray is mad. “What’s the matter with you?” he asks. “You want to be shot or something? You know you’re not supposed to run like that when they start shooting. You drop and roll, Aisha.” He palm slams the button for the elevator. “Next time, you won’t be so lucky.”

“We can’t take the elevator anymore,” I remind him.

“We’re taking it this time,” Ray-Ray says. He hits Shy Guy. “Stop your crying.”

My heart starts pounding again as we wait for the elevator to come down. I think about Coraline. We are now at the part in the story where she is working to rescue her missing parents and three other children who were imprisoned by the “other” mother. I pull out my own smooth stone and squeeze it. I take Shy Guy’s hand in mine.

“We have to be brave,” I tell him. Ray-Ray rolls his eyes. I correct myself. “No, we are brave.”

The elevator arrives. No one is there. We step inside and ride all the way to the fourth floor. When the doors open, we rush off. Alive.


Thirteen: Royal Party

Evi doesn’t get her car fixed until the day of Miller’s birthday and we drive straight to his party. Miller lives even farther away from our school than I do in a part of Chicago that I’ve never seen before. His house looks like a castle with two floors and balconies around the windows. A dark purple carpet is rolled out over the walkway. There are balloons twisted in the shapes of animals all over the green lawn. Colored streamers flutter from the porch. A man is parading around on stilts in striped pink pants blowing huge bubbles everywhere. Stevie Wonder is singing “Happy Birthday” over and over again from a stereo system. It is like a dream.

Evi shades her eyes at the running, screaming children and frowns. “Sounds like a circus,” she says as I get out of the car. “I hope you have fun. I’ll be back in a few hours to pick you up. Bye, Aisha. Luv ya.”

I wave and watch her drive away. Miller runs down the purple carpet carrying a silver tiara with pink diamonds. He is wearing a gold crown. “I’m so happy you came,” he says and fits the tiara on my head. “There. You’re the queen now.” He stands back and looks me over. I am wearing a white dress with a yellow flower at the waist and yellow flower petals all around the hem. It is the only dress I own. Grandma bought it for me when we visited her one summer in South Carolina. Before she died, Grandma went to church every Sunday and was shocked that Momma had never bought me a “church dress.” She stormed out of her house early Sunday morning, took me to the department store, and bought the dress I have on now.

“Is there a booger in my nose or something?” I ask.

“Huh? Oh, no.” Miller laughs. “It’s just that each time I see you, you’re more beautiful than last time I saw you.” He takes my hand and we walk up the purple carpet where he introduces me to his mother who is sitting on her boyfriend’s lap on the porch swing. “Oh, hey honey,” she says in such a sleepy voice I do a double take to make sure she’s awake.

Miller’s birthday party is the most fun party I have ever been to. We are in and out of the house all afternoon, bursting piñatas, treasure hunting for candy, and running through the backyard obstacle challenge course. Everyone’s favorite game, however, is “Catch the Dragon.” Miller’s mother’s boyfriend volunteers to play the dragon. He covers his face with a dragon mask and fills a bag with chocolate pieces. We chase him all around the backyard with water balloons. When a water balloon hits him, he throws out some chocolate. The game is over when all of the chocolate is given out. Wishes are made. Ten candles are blown out. Presents are given. After eating Miller’s chocolate cake and chocolate ice cream with M&M’s, the other children start going home.

“Honey, when is your mom going to pick you up?” Miller’s mother asks when she sees I am the last one left.

“My sister dropped me off,” I tell her.

“Mom. Sister,” Miller’s mother says like it doesn’t matter. “When is she coming?”

“She said she would come back in a few hours,” I tell her.

“We can just watch a movie until she gets here,” Miller suggests.

“Whatevs,” his mother says. “Suit yourself.” She yawns and goes up stairs.

We go in the living room and turn on the television. Miller puts in Ice Age and we sit on the couch and watch it. I’ve already seen this movie, but Miller hasn’t and he laughs at every silly thing the rat-squirrel Scrat does. When it is finished, Evi still hasn’t arrived. We go upstairs to check on Miller’s mother. She and her boyfriend are in bed in nothing but their underwear, fast asleep. Miller covers them with a blanket and then tiptoes out of the room, closing the door behind him very softly. We go back down stairs.

“Let’s get something to drink,” Miller says. “Then I have to check on Monster. I almost forgot about him.”

“Is that a dog, a cat, or a fish?” I ask.

“A dog,” Miller says. “Mom said I had to keep him in my room during the party because she thought some of the kids might be allergic to him. You aren’t allergic to dogs, are you?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never had a dog,” I answer. It is now night time, so I cut two more slices from Miller’s left over chocolate cake for us to eat for dinner. Miller climbs up on the counter and takes out two wine glasses. He pours a small amount of splashy pink liquid into each glass. “Just a little because we don’t want to get too drunk,” he says. We take our cake and wine and go to his room.

Fourteen: Super 8

I expect a huge bulldog to rush out at us, but when Miller opens the door to his bedroom only a small black and brown terrier jumps down from the bed. He follows us out onto the window balcony with tail wagging. I put Monster in my lap and feed him some of my cake which he gobbles up greedily.

“Do you want a dog?” Miller asks.

“Yeah, but I’d like a pig first,” I say. “And a spider like in Charlotte’s Web. I asked Evi could we get a pig and she said no because pigs belong on farms, and we don’t live on a farm. But if I grow up and move to Hollywood and become an actress and become rich and famous, I’ll build my mansion on a farm, then I can have as many pigs as I want.”

“Is that what you want to be?” Miller asks. “An actress?”

I nod.

“Cool! I want to be a movie director when I grow up,” Miller says. “Maybe we can move to Hollywood together and you can act in all my movies.” He is excited. I can see the gears in his head moving. “Actually, I’m working on a movie now. Do you want to be in it?”

“Sure. What’s it about?”

“I don’t know yet,” Miller says. “I have SO many ideas, but I don’t know which one to do first.” He stuffs the last of his cake in his mouth, jumps up, and disappears into his room. He comes back outside carrying a box. “When I told my dad I wanted to be a movie director, he said there were two things I needed most: a good idea and a good camera,” Miller says. “I already have a lot of good ideas, so I only needed to get a camera.” He opens the box and proudly shows me what’s inside. “This is a Kodak Super 8. My dad bought it for me on my birthday last year. He says all the great directors started out using Super 8’s, including Spielberg.”

“Is your dad a director?” I ask.

“No, he’s a stunt double, which is still pretty cool,” Miller says. “One time he was working and got to meet Jamie Foxx.”

“Really? Jamie’s my favorite actor,” I say.

“Mine too,” Miller says. “Who is your favorite actress.”

I don’t even have to think about the answer to that question. The first time I saw Taraji P. Henson was when I watched Streetwise with Momma late one night. Taraji’s movie character, Tammy, reminded me of Evi. The drug dealers and gangsters in the movie reminded me of the drug dealers who rule Green Triangle. The entire movie seemed to be a mirror of me and my world, and that is when I decided I wanted to grow up and become an actress like Taraji. On and off screen, she is fierce and fashionable, intense and glamorous. To me, she is everything an actress should be.

“What? You too!” Miller exclaims. “Taraji is my favorite actress, too.” We both start laughing, because it’s hard to believe that there’s another person in the entire world who likes the exact same things and people that we like. I would have never guessed that Miller wants to move to Hollywood and become a movie director. When we’re in school, he constantly talks out of turn and gets into fights. I guess he does it to prove to Lee that he is African American even though his mother is white. But now that Lee is not around, the boy sitting beside me sipping deliciously sweet pink wine is funny, thoughtful, considerate, and full of dreams. He has all but declared his love for me. I’m not ready to do the same, but I do like Miller — very, very much.

“We have so much in common, Aisha, it’s crazy,” Miller says.

“Crazy, and probably not good,” I say. “Remember when Mr. Claflin was teaching about magnets? Opposites are supposed to attract, not similars. He said it was the same with people.”

“Yeah,” Miller says. He is quiet for a moment, then he says, “But maybe it’ll be different with us. Maybe we’re an anomaly.”


Fifteen: Wish on a Star 

We lay down on the balcony, our heads together. Monster crawls on top of my chest and curls himself into a ball. “See that star, Aisha?” Miller asks. “That one over there, the brightest one?”

“Yeah, I see it,” I say. I don’t really know which one he’s pointing to. There are so many stars in the sky and because the moon isn’t out, all of them seem bright to me.

“You wish on it, and I’ll wish on it,” Miller says. “Not out loud, just in your head.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because then your wish will come true,” he says.


I close my eyes. Against the back of my eyelids, the stars are still there. After a few minutes pass in silence, Miller asks, “Are you finished?”

“Uh-huh,” I answer.

“What did you wish for?” he asks.

I open my eyes. “I’m not telling. You just said not to wish out loud.”

“Oh, right,” Miller says. “Well, I’m going to tell you what I wished for anyway. I wished for all your wishes and all your dreams and all your desires to come true because I love you, and when you love someone, you want what they want.”

I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. I am almost sure he is going to kiss me.

Beep-beep. Beep-beep.

The honking of a car horn shatters the stillness of the night. “That must be your sister,” Miller says. He carefully puts his Super 8 camera back into its box, and we go inside. His mother and her boyfriend must still be sleeping because the house is quiet and neither of them come downstairs to see me go out.

In the entrance hall, I start to take off my tiara, but Miller tells me to keep it. He sticks his hands in his pockets and stands there looking restless. Outside, Evi beeps her car horn again.

“Would you mind if I did something?” Miller asks.

“Maybe,” I answer.

He leans close and quickly kisses my cheek. “Thanks for making today perfect. I was hoping it wouldn’t have to end,” he says. “Bye, Aisha.”

I walk down the purple carpet, past the balloon animals that now look like statues in the darkness of the night, and get in Evi’s car. “Did you have fun?” she asks.

“Lots,” I answer.

She drives away. When I look back, Miller is still standing in the open doorway, silhouetted by light, and waving. A king in his castle.

Sixteen: Terabithia

Soon, Mr. Claflin finishes reading Coraline to us. During the last chapter, all of us collectively sigh with relief when the “other” mother’s hand goes tumbling down into the darkness of the well. Then our sighs turn to cheers because Coraline is such a brave girl and we’re happy she’s okay. Our cheering is so loud that when we line up in the hall to go to the cafeteria, Principal Robinson says she could hear us all the way in her office. “It looks like you’ll win the ‘Outstanding Loudness’ award again,” she teases. Mr. Claflin just smiles.

We run through a string of books. Each of them more exciting than the last. There is a book by the same author who wrote Charlotte’s Web, except this one is about a mouse named Stuart Little who was born to human parents in New York City. When I ask Evi if she ever met Stuart Little while going to college in New York, she says, “No, Aisha, but I went out on a date with this boy once. His name was Stuart and he had a pet mouse called Little.” It’s clear we aren’t talking about the same thing.

After Stuart Little, we read about a boy who stands up against a really mean man to protect a dog called Shiloh. “That was my favorite book ever,” Miller whispers to me when Mr. Claflin finishes reading it. Our next book is also about a dog, but the main character is a girl and her dog’s name is Winn-Dixie. “That was my second favorite book ever,” Miller whispers when we finish. I guess stories about dogs remind him of Monster.

We then start reading Bridge to Terabithia, in which two friends named Jesse and Leslie create a fantastical world of their own where they escape the bullies and burdens of life. But when something really sad happens to Leslie, Genesis begins crying and Mr. Claflin has to stop. “I don’t want to finish it,” she says.

“Me neither,” Megan agrees.

“It’s okay,” Mr. Claflin says. “We don’t have to. The subject may be too much for you to understand right now.”

It’s not too much for me to understand. I want to finish the book. I want to find out what happens to Jesse and the kingdom of Terabithia, but I remember that I can’t read. When Mr. Claflin leads the class out to the cafeteria, I stay behind and pick up Bridge to Terabithia. I try to find the page where we stopped reading, but the little black marks all look the same. Empress’ voice echoes in my head: Stupid. Dumb. Idiot. Maybe she was right. I shut the book in frustration, tears of shame stinging my eyes.

“Aisha, come on,” Miller says. He noticed I was missing from the line and came back to get me. I wipe at my tears, but not before he notices and asks, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I nod.

“No, you’re not. You’re crying.” He looks at the book I am holding. “Is it because of Leslie?”

I shake my head.

“You know, you can tell me anything,” Miller says.

Anything? Even that I can’t read. No one knows I can’t read except for Mr. Claflin, and even he wouldn’t know if he hadn’t noticed my blank survey sheet. Not being able to read isn’t something you broadcast to the world. It’s a secret you keep under lock and key, and don’t let anyone inside that dark part of your life.

I put the book back on the shelf. “Really, it’s nothing,” I say. “Let’s just go to lunch.”


Seventeen: A Hobbit Called Bilbo

“Is there a Coraline, Part Two?” Maria asks when we discuss what book to read next.

“I’m afraid not,” Mr. Claflin says. “But you’re more than welcome to send Mr. Gaiman a letter and ask him to write one.” He takes out a book with a green cover.

The Hobbit?” Lee asks and bursts into hysterical laughter. “That sounds funny.”

“Actually, I think the author meant to call it The Dragon,” Broderick the Fourth says. “See, there’s a dragon on the cover.”

“What is a Hobbit anyway?” I ask.

“Hobbits are little people, not even as tall as you,” Mr. Claflin explains. “They’re even smaller than Dwarves and they don’t have beards and they wear bright colors and they don’t wear shoes and-“

“Wait,” Miller interrupts. “What are Dwarves?”

“Why don’t we just read the story?” Mr. Claflin says. “You’ll find out plenty about them. There are thirteen in here and—“

“So there’s one Hobbit and thirteen Dwarves, and the book is named after that one Hobbit,” Broderick the Fourth says. “I think the author should have called it The Dwarves.”

“What is it with you wanting to change book titles today?” Mr. Claflin asks.

“It’s thirteen to one,” Broderick the Fourth says. “Congressionally speaking, it sounds right to name the book after the majority, not the minority.”

Mr. Claflin looks genuinely impressed that Broderick the Fourth has been paying attention to his Social Studies lessons. “You have a good point, but literature doesn’t work quite like politics,” he says. “This book is called The Hobbit because the Hobbit is the main character. And this is not just about any Hobbit. This is the story of a Hobbit who went on an adventure. His name was Bilbo Baggins.” Mr. Claflin opens the book and moves it in a circle so we can see the map that is on the first page. I can’t make heads or tails of it. Going once. Going twice. Gone. He begins to read, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit-“

“Why on earth is the Hobbit living in a hole?” JeBron interrupts.

Mr. Claflin attempts to explain, but his explanation is followed by another question, and by the time circle story time is over, we haven’t even finished the first chapter. The Hobbit is not as scary as Coraline, but it is even more adventurous. When we start reading again, the wizard Gandalf and the Dwarves make their entrance and soon we are following them out of the Shire to see if they can reclaim their gold from the dragon Smaug. The three trolls are JeBron’s favorite characters. To Genesis’ horror, he goes around at recess trying to catch her and roast her, until Mr. Claflin makes him stop.

After reading about the riddles game that Bilbo has with the creature Gollum, I borrow one of Evi’s gold band rings and wear it to school. “Look,” I say showing Mr. Claflin. “It’s my precioussssss.”

Mr. Claflin smiles, but his smile is like a mask. I don’t know why, but I think what he really wants to do is cry. “Are you okay?” I ask.

“Yes, Aisha. Why?”

“No reason, just asking,” I say.


Eighteen: The Idea

Miller gets into another fight with Lee and is suspended from school for two days. When he returns, he is upset. He tells me that his parents’ divorce was finalized and he has to move to Los Angeles to live with his dad.

“That’s great,” I say. “Maybe he’ll take you to work with him, and you’ll get to meet Jamie Foxx.”

Miller shakes his head. “I don’t care. I don’t want to leave,” he says. “I won’t get to see you anymore. We won’t get to make our movie.”

It is recess, and we are sitting on the swings. All around us, the other kids are running and screaming. JeBron is yelling for Miller to come and join him to play ninjas, but Miller doesn’t even notice. His head is down and he is digging a hole in the dirt with the heel of his brand new sneakers. “Is your dad nice?” I ask.


“Maybe he’ll let you come and visit,” I say.

“Maybe,” Miller says. He raises his head and looks at me. The sunlight streaming between us paints his lips pink, turns his curly black hair a reddish-brown, and makes his eyes glimmer. He looks gold and pale behind the haze of heat. “Maybe we could run away,” he says. “Then I won’t have to be without you. I won’t have to live with my mom and her boyfriend. I won’t have to live with my dad either. We would be on our own, and we would never have to come back.”

“I don’t know,” I tell him after thinking about it. Running away sounds like it would be fun, but Evi would worry about me if I went somewhere without telling her. She doesn’t even want me to walk around Green Triangle by myself. I imagine that the rest of the world, the place we would run away to, is not as cruel as Green Triangle. Even if it isn’t, I’m almost sure Miller hasn’t thought about where we would stay or what we would do about food. I change the subject to get him talking about something else. “Have you thought of an idea for our movie yet?” I ask.

“Oh, yes. I came up with it last night,” Miller says. For a moment, he forgets about his parents’ divorce and moving to Los Angeles. He forgets about running away and tells me his idea. “It’s about a boy and a girl. In a dream, they find out they are rulers of a kingdom which is in danger of being destroyed by a fire dragon and a bunch of goblins.”

I have to interrupt. “How can they have the same dream?” I ask.

“Well, they have similar minds, so they have the same dreams,” Miller says. “They’re always thinking of the same things even when they sleep.”

“Okay. I guess that makes sense.”

“Yeah, so…anyway, the boy’s parents are getting a divorce and won’t stop fighting over him. The girl’s parents are dead, so she is staying with her mean aunt and uncle,” Miller continues. “When she tells them she has to leave to save the kingdom, they don’t believe her. The boy’s parents don’t believe him either, so they decide to run away. At night, they break out. The boy steals his dad’s Cadillac and they go search for their kingdom. They meet a talking elephant, an ogre ninja, and a flying possum who gives them some secret weapons and super powers. A bunch of other stuff happens, but in the end, they save the kingdom, are crowned king and queen, and live happily ever after.” Miller grins. “I still have to work on it some, but what do you think?”

“I think it’s the best idea ever,” I say and I mean it.

We sit quietly, moving back and forth on the swings, watching the other kids play. Miller goes back and I go forward. Miller goes forward and I go back. I can tell he is thinking hard because his forehead is furrowed and his nose is wrinkled. “We won’t run away,” he finally says, dragging his foot against the dirt to stop his movement. “Not yet, at least. I have to write the script before we can make our movie, but I’m not really good at writing. My dad knows how to write scripts, so I’ll go to Los Angeles and get him to help me.”

“And then, you’ll come back,” I say.

Miller nods, “And then, we’ll make our movie.”


Nineteen: Missing You

When Principal Robinson gives out award certificates at the end of the month, our class wins two: the “Outstanding Loudness” award and the “Excellence in Reading” award. Mr. Claflin has read sixteen and a half books to us. Ms. Tully only read a measly five to her fifth-graders. Mr. Claflin is so pleased that he brings vanilla cupcakes dotted with colorful sprinkles for us to eat, and tapes the award to the door of the classroom so everyone else in the school can see it. Miller is not there to see the award. He is in Los Angeles with his dad. He is going to a new school and making new friends. He will probably fall in love with a new girl and forget all about me.

I got a hole in my heart the day Momma died. Evi calls it a “missing you” hole. When I told her about it, she asked me to describe what it felt like.

“Empty,” I said. “And the empty hurts.”

“That hole is the shape of Momma,” Evi said. “She used to live there. Now she’s gone and she’s taken a piece of your heart with her.”

“But I don’t want to always be hurting. I don’t want to always feel empty, Evi. Can I fill the hole?”

“No, Aisha,” Evi said. “Momma was momma. She can’t be replaced.”

So even after all this time, the hole is still empty and the empty still hurts.

The day Miller left, I got a second hole in my heart. It is a very small hole, but it gets a little deeper each day that we are apart. I know that this second hole is in the shape of Miller, but I’m pretending that it isn’t. Every time I think of him, I always smile; then I catch myself and force myself to stop. You’re missing him, my heart beats.

“No, I’m not missing him at all,” I respond. No matter what my heart says. No matter how empty the second hole feels, and no matter how much that empty hurts, I keep on lying to myself. I do not miss Miller. I do not miss him at all.

I think Ray-Ray is lying to himself, too. He has a hole in his heart, but he pretends that he doesn’t. Shawn was his best friend who lived on the eleventh floor of our apartment building. Shawn was tall and kept his hair cut low. He wanted to become a rapper and kept notebooks full of rhymes. Last year, he was shot. Ray-Ray plays like it’s no big deal, but I can tell it still hurts him something bad. Whenever someone wants to talk about Shawn, he gets real angry. Like the day the mayor came to his class.

“How was school?” Evi asks when she picks us up.

“Stupid,” Ray-Ray says. “The mayor was in our class today. Asked dumb-as-hell questions like, ‘How many of you know somebody who’s been killed?’ Like, seriously? He just went on and on: ‘Everyone raise your hand if you know somebody who’s been killed?’ Everyone raised their hand. ‘How were they killed?’ Seriously, man. What kind of a question is that?”

“Did you tell the mayor about Shawn?” I ask.

Ray-Ray gives me a death stare. “No,” he says. He shuts down. He doesn’t say another word for the rest of the night. It hurts too much for Ray-Ray to talk about Shawn, but that doesn’t keep him from swearing to him. The name of Shawn has become as sacred to him as the Name of Jesus. Whenever Ray-Ray wants to prove he’s sincere or telling the truth, he puts it “on Shawn.” Evi doesn’t like him talking like that, but Ray-Ray doesn’t care. He believes it keeps Shawn’s memory alive. “That’s all everyone really wants,” Ray-Ray says. “To be remembered after they’re dead and gone; to have someone call their name even though they aren’t around to answer it.”


Twenty: Tired

Right before the Christmas holidays, Mr. Claflin starts meeting with the parents of all the students in his fourth grade class to give them an update of how they are doing before the end of the school year. I don’t see why this is necessary. None of the other teachers give end of year updates, but Mr. Claflin says it is part of his job to make sure parents know how their children are progressing educationally. He gives me a yellow slip of paper and tells me to give it to my mother.

“My momma’s not here anymore,” I tell him.

“Oh. What happened to her?” Mr. Claflin asks.

“She died. From AIDS.”

Mr. Claflin nods his head very slowly. “I see,” he says and sighs. The air escaping his mouth sounds tired. “And what about your father. Is he around?”

I shake my head, no.

“Who do you live with, Aisha?” Mr. Claflin asks.

“Evi and Ray-Ray and Shy Guy,” I say, sticking out a finger for each name. “Evi’s my sister. She’s twenty-three, so she can take care of us.”

“I see,” Mr. Claflin says again. “Then you’ll give this note to her and let her know I need to meet with her about how you have been doing in school.”

“Okay,” I say and put the yellow slip of paper in my book bag. I don’t really want to give Evi the note because I’m pretty sure Mr. Claflin is going to talk about my reading problem when they meet. Evi doesn’t know I can’t read, and I don’t want her to know. She will probably be mad.

On the day me, Evi, and Mr. Claflin are supposed to meet, Evi doesn’t show up. I sit outside of the principal’s office on a plastic chair waiting for her. Even though the door is only open a crack, I can hear what Mr. Claflin and Principal Robinson are saying. They are talking about me. “Aisha’s not stupid,” Mr. Claflin says. “She’s really good at Math. She can say the times tables from two to fifteen backwards. She can divide into the hundreds without using a calculator, but I don’t understand why she hasn’t learned to read. Four grades and she can’t read a word. Even Mrs. Murphy couldn’t help her.”

“There must be a reason why you’re telling me this,” Principal Robinson says.

“Well, I can’t graduate her come spring,” Mr. Claflin says. “Not in good conscience, at least. Her sister probably won’t like to hear it, but I just can’t do that. Entering the fifth grade and not being able to read is a serious problem.”

“Blaine, the problem is you care too much,” Principal Robinson says.

“When did caring become a crime?” Mr. Claflin asks.

I tune out the rest of their conversation. Evi is certainly going to be mad when she hears I have to repeat a grade. I’m a little glad that she hasn’t shown up for the meeting. I don’t want Mr. Claflin telling her the things he is telling Principal Robinson right now. I wonder why he is so concerned about me learning how to read anyway. Everyone else says I can’t read. Why does he think I can? When Mr. Claflin comes out, he is looking at his watch. “It’s been an hour,” he says. “Are you sure your sister is coming?”

I raise and lower my shoulders.

Mr. Claflin does the same. “Is that a yes or no? I don’t understand shrugging, Aisha,” he says. When I don’t respond, he continues, “Tell her I’ve rescheduled for us to meet tomorrow, but if she can’t make it, just let me know. Do you have someone picking you up?”

“My brothers are waiting outside,” I said. “We’re walking home.”

“I can drive you if you want,” Mr. Claflin offers.

“No, we’ll walk,” I say. I pick up my book bag and start down the hall. Then I remember something and stop. After Mr. Claflin finished reading the story of Bilbo Baggins, our class wanted to hear more stories about Hobbits. So, Mr. Claflin started reading The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien, the same person who wrote The Hobbit. It is the first book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy—a really long story about Bilbo’s cousin, Frodo Baggins, and a host of other characters who embark on a quest to destroy Gollum’s precious ring. But now that the Christmas holidays are almost here, there won’t be a circle story time every day. There won’t be anyone to read to me so I can hear how the story ends, unless I can convince Evi or Ray-Ray to do so. “Um…Mr. Claflin, can I have The Fellowship of the Ring?” I ask him.

Mr. Claflin stares at me for a long time. “No, Aisha,” he finally says. “I mean, it’s not like you can even read. Why do you want it?”

I stare back at him. He looks tired. He looks like he is ready to give up. He looks like he is about to break into a million tiny pieces. “Never mind,” I say. I turn away and continue walking down the hall.


Twenty-three: It’s Me, Not You

The next day, Evi is on time for our meeting with Mr. Claflin. She marches into Principal Robinson’s office, settles into a chair beside me, and eases her feet out of her shoes – just a little. “Sorry I couldn’t make it yesterday,” she says. “I had to work late.”

“That’s okay,” Mr. Claflin says. He sits on the edge of Principal Robinson’s desk and picks up a red folder with my name on it.

“What has she done wrong?” Evi asks.

“Oh, nothing,” Mr. Claflin says. “Aisha’s not in trouble. She’s a good kid. She’s actually been one of my best students this year.” He shows Evi where I made all A’s in Math, and where I drew an anatomy of a flower for Science. I was supposed to write a one-page paper about the flower anatomy like the rest of my classmates, but since I can’t write, Mr. Claflin let me draw it. He called it an alternative. When Genesis asked why he was always letting me draw on my school work, I was afraid Mr. Claflin would tell her and the entire class my secret. But he didn’t. He simply said I was part of a special statewide experiment that required me to do some things differently.

Evi smiles at all the good things Mr. Claflin is saying about me, but Principal Robinson’s next words wipe the smile off her face. “It’s just…we’re concerned about her reading,” Principal Robinson says. “Blaine doesn’t think he can pass her into fifth grade as she is.”

“Wait a minute,” Evi says holding up one hand. “You’re saying Aisha has a problem with reading?” The tone of her voice is one of complete disbelief.

“Well, yes. And it’s not just a minor problem,” Mr. Claflin says. “She can’t…she can’t read at all.”

Evi arches her eyebrows and then lowers them. She turns on me. “Aisha, why didn’t you tell me you can’t read?” she asks.

I raise and lower my shoulders. “You never asked me to read anything,” I say.

Principal Robinson shakes her head. “That’s no excuse,” she says. “If you had paid attention in your first three grades, you would know how to read by now. You even had special tutoring from Mrs. Murphy.”

“Aisha, what’s wrong with you?” Evi asks. “Why can’t you just listen to your teachers and learn to read like they say?” I know she is disappointed. Evi is smart. She graduated at the top of her high school class. She graduated from college with honors. Now, she’s stuck with an unlearned little sister who is nine years old, in the fourth grade, and can’t read or write. For the next half hour, Principal Robinson, Mr. Claflin, and Evi take turns expounding to me the importance of books and the many benefits of reading. I sit in a slump with my head down, wishing my chair would swallow me up. At the moment, I hate myself. I want to disappear. My eyes are brimming with tears. Like a cup that is too full, they soon overflow and trickle down my face.

Mr. Claflin is walking back and forth in the small space of Principal Robinson’s office that is not covered in file cabinets and dusty boxes. I think he realizes they aren’t getting through to me. He stops walking and sighs. “No. It isn’t her. It’s us,” he says. “Her first grade teacher, her second grade teacher, her third grade teacher, Mrs. Murphy, myself—we’ve all failed her.” He kneels so that we are on the same level and lifts my chin with his finger. “You aren’t the problem,” he tells me. “I am. On the first day of school, I promised to give you my best as your teacher, and I haven’t done that. And I’m sorry.”

Mr. Claflin leaves the room. When he returns, he is holding three books and a DVD box set of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He gives them to me. “They’re yours to keep,” he says. “I bought them for you as a gift, and this gift comes with a promise that I’m going to keep. Aisha Cleopatra Nelson, I’m going to teach you how to read so you can find out how this story ends on your own.” Mr. Claflin smiles. His smile is not a mask this time. It is real.


Twenty-four: Mary McLeod Bethune

When the Christmas holidays are over and school begins again, I start fifth grade on one condition—I give up my hour of recess and stay one extra hour after class to learn how to read. Mr. Claflin is no longer the fourth grade teacher. He is my reading teacher. We even have our own classroom. It is the room right across from the cafeteria where Music and Theater lessons used to be taught. It is spacious and airy with a stage near the front. Mr. Claflin tried to clean it up some, but there is still thick dust on the dark red curtain that covers the stage. There is an antique piano, a red and black drum set, a cello without any strings, tambourines, and a dozen guitars that I’m sure must have once belonged to Dewey Finn. There are boxes and bags stuffed with costumes and wigs and puppets and props and masks. “You can try some on if you want,” Mr. Claflin says.

I select a red wig with big curls that looks like it belongs to a clown and stick it on my head. I try to imagine the stories that were acted out with it before the room was abandoned. “I wouldn’t mind if Principal Robinson decided to do away with English or Science,” I tell Mr. Claflin. “But Music and Theater? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Yeah, well, we don’t have enough money for it,” Mr. Claflin says. “It’s unfortunate, but arts and libraries are always the first to go when it comes to school budget cuts.” He pushes a table around on the stage, slides it a little more to the right, and then a little more to the left. “There, we’re ready,” he says and motions for me to come up on stage and take a seat. I sit in one of the chairs. He sits on the table.

Mr. Claflin picks up a photo from the top of a stack of books. It is a black and white picture of an African American woman with white hair and a string of white pearls around her neck. Her expression is thoughtful and determined. “Who is she?” I ask.

“Mary McLeod Bethune,” Mr. Claflin says. “She’s the school’s guardian angel. It’s named after her, you know.”

No, I didn’t know that my school was named after a real person. Kind of like how I am named after Cleopatra. “She must have done something really important to have a school named after her,” I say.

Mr. Claflin nods. “She worked harder than anybody to help boys and girls like you get an education. She was the only one in her family to go to school. After she went to school, she became a teacher and started her own college. ‘The whole world opened to me when I learned to read,’ she said. And that’s why I named our reading project after her – the Mary McLeod Bethune Reading Project,” he says proudly.

“But why?” I ask. I still don’t understand why he would stop being the fourth grade teacher just to teach me how to read.

“Why?” Mr. Claflin repeats.

“Is Principal Robinson paying you to teach me to read?” I ask. “I know you’re not doing it for free. People don’t do nice things for free.”

“Teaching you how to read isn’t a nicety, Aisha. It’s a necessity,” Mr. Claflin says.


Twenty-five: I Am

“But I can’t read,” I say. “You know that. Mrs. Murphy already tried to teach me. There’s no need to waste your time.”

Mr. Claflin is quiet, then he begins talking, “When I was in high school, I was on the track and field team for four years. My coach was this guy called Honeycutt. Before we even ran one race, he told me and my teammates, ‘You are the fastest runners out there. You are winners.’ Our first year, we didn’t win anything. But he kept telling us, ‘You are the fastest runners out there. You are winners.’ Our second year, we won only two races. Honeycutt kept calling us the fastest. He always said we were the best. He kept saying we were winners. Our third year, we broke nine state track records. Our fourth year, we couldn’t be beat. We won everything.”

I raise and lower my shoulders.

“When we were losing, Honeycutt didn’t call us losers,” Mr. Claflin explains. “He called us exactly the opposite, and eventually, we began to believe him. We became what he said we were.”

Mr. Claflin gets up. He paces the stage. “Mrs. Murphy meant well, Aisha. I’m sure anyone who ever told you that you can’t read meant well, but they’re wrong. I believe you can read. The question is: Do you believe you can read?” He points at me. “You need to stop giving people permission to put you down. You need to stop listening to those voices that make you feel less smart or less competent than others. You need to tell those voices to shut up. People are going to be mean to you. There’s not much you can do about that. But you don’t have to be mean to yourself.”

Mr. Claflin stops walking and stands on the other side of the table, facing me. He crosses his arms. “Before we begin learning to read, let me tell you the things you are not. You are not stupid or dumb. You are not the girl who will never read. You are not who Mrs. Murphy says you are. You are no one else’s definition of yourself.”

I sit there, wondering if Mr. Claflin knows about Empress and the names she used to call me.

“You’ve listened to mean voices for too long. Now, I want you to listen to me and I want you to listen closely. Let me tell you the things that you are,” Mr. Claflin says. “You are bold and you are brave. You have brains. And you are beautiful. You can read just as well as anyone else, and you will. Now you say it.”

“Say what?” I ask.

“Say what you are,” Mr. Claflin says. “If you can’t say it, you won’t believe it. And if you don’t believe it, you’ll never be it.”

I begin, but my voice is very low and I am unsure of my words. “I am bold. I am brave. I have brains. I am beautiful. I can read.”

“Say it louder, Aisha,” Mr. Claflin tells me.

I begin again, my voice rising and growing a little surer. “I am bold. I am brave. I have brains. I am beautiful. I can read.”

“Say it like you mean it, Aisha.”

I close my eyes and clench my fists. I begin again, this time my voice is shouting in absolute confidence of what I’m saying. “I AM BOLD! I AM BRAVE! I HAVE BRAINS! I AM BEAUTIFUL! I CAN READ!”

Mr. Claflin sits back down on the table. “Good. Let’s begin.”


Twenty-six: Phonics

We begin with a phonics book.

Mr. Claflin introduces me to the letters and their sounds. “The letters are a big family called the Alphabets,” he says, “So we aren’t going to rush through this. We’re going to go slow so we can learn well.”

The Alphabets are divided into two groups – vowels and consonants. The vowels are A, E, I, O, and U. All the other letters are consonants, except Y. Y is sometimes a vowel and sometimes a consonant.

For each new letter, Mr. Claflin lets me draw a picture. He hangs the pictures on lines of string around the stage. When I forget a letter or sound, I look at the picture to help me remember. Slowly, we blend the letters into sounds – sounds like cldrbr, and cr. And then we blend the sounds into words – words like clawdressbride, and crab.

We make up a rap and beat out the alphabet between finger snaps, hand claps, and foot stomps.

A(a) is for actress. B(b) is for ballerina. C(c) is for candy. D(d) is for dog.

You say A(a) like ei. B(b) like bi. C(c) like si. D(d) like di.

E(e) is for eggs. F(f) is for fan. G(g) is for gumballs. H(h) is for home.

You say E(e) like i. F(f) like ef. G(g) like yi. H(h) like eich.

I(i) is for igloo. J(j) is for jellybeans. K(k) is for keys. L(l) is for lion.

You say I(i) like ai. J(j) like yei. K(k) like kei. L(l) like el.

“Sit up straight, Aisha,” Mr. Claflin says. “Open your mouth wide. Stress each sound.”

M(m) is for marshmallow. N(n) is for night. O(o) is for octopus. P(p) is for pie.

You say M(m) like em. N(n) like en. O(o) like ou. P(p) like pi.

Q(q) is for queen. R(r) is for rainbow. S(s) is for star. T(t) is for telephone.

You say Q(q) like kiu. R(r) like ar. S(s) like es. T(t) like ti.

U(u) is for umbrella. V(v) is for volcano. W(w) is for world. X(x) is for x-ray

You say U(u) like iu. V(v) like vi. W(w) like dabol iu. X(x) like ex.

Y(y) is for yo-yo. Z(z) is for zipper.

You say Y(y) like uai. Z(z) like sed.

Mr. Claflin says, “Let’s do it again.”


Twenty-seven: A is for Aisha

If Mr. Claflin could be anything in the world, he wouldn’t want to be the president or a basketball player or a rock star. More than anything, he wants to be the poet laureate of Illinois. “I love poetry,” Mr. Claflin says. “It’s seriously underrated and underappreciated. I would love to attend every poetry reading and promote awareness for it.”

He reels off the names of a bunch of people I’ve never heard of before: Nikki Giovanni, T. S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Robert Burns, and e e cummings. He quotes Hughes’ poem, “Dreams,” from memory – something about holding fast to dreams and not letting them die. It reminds me of Evi. But Maya Angelou is his favorite. “You should read her. You’ll love her,” he tells me. He says he has whole notebooks full of poems that he has written, kind of like how Shawn kept notebooks full of rhymes.

I ask him to write a poem about me. He agrees. We create a long list of words that I think describe me. This is what he comes up with and I love it.

I am Aisha.

I wonder if I will grow up to be twenty-one

        and twenty-two and twenty-three and twenty-five.

I hear my dreams dancing in the middle of the day.

I see a red whale swimming in a blue ocean.

I want to go to Hollywood and be an actress.

I am Aisha.

I pretend that I am the queen of a royal kingdom.

I feel rain before it falls

        the sun before it rises.

I touch my heart and find a hole inside.

I worry about dinosaurs coming back to life and eating us up.

I cry for Ray-Ray’s best friend and that woman in the elevator.

I am Aisha.

I understand the indignity of not being able to read.

I say that love is my creed

        and my strength and my weakness.

I wish for peace in Green Triangle.

I try to get Shy Guy to talk again.

I hope that all of Evi’s dreams come true.

I am Aisha.

Twenty-eight: Quit

Mr. Claflin pushes me hard, but sometimes I get tired of studying. The letters become muddled together in my mind and my tongue gets twisted trying to sound them out over and over again. I think about the other kids who are outside playing. I wish I could join them. I wish I had never agreed to give up my hour of recess just to learn how to read.

Mr. Claflin shakes his head when he hears me say that. “You’re going to outgrow the playground one day, Aisha,” he says. “But you’ll never outgrow books.”

Something tells me that he is right, but I don’t tell him so. Instead, I lay my head on the table and say, “I thought you were going to quit teaching, like Mrs. Murphy said.”

“Yes,” Mr. Claflin says. “A ruptured cell had me thinking I was going to quit teaching too. Going to quit everything, even life.”


“I have cancer, Aisha,” Mr. Claflin says. His voice is quiet and serious.

I sit up then. “Are you going to die?” I ask.

“In six months or so, yeah,” he says like it’s the most normal thing in the world. I expect him to cry like Momma did when she told us kids she had AIDS, but he doesn’t. He just goes on sitting there, using a paper puncher to poke a hole in my last letter picture so he can hang it on one of the lines of string. It is the letter Z and I drew a zebra wearing a jacket with a zipper.

“But what about being the master of your fate?” I say. “Remember that? The captain of your soul?”

Mr. Claflin looks up, but I can tell he doesn’t see me. He is thinking about something else. “I was wrong about that,” he says at last. “I’m not the master of my fate. You’re not the master of your fate either. No one is really, and you know what? That’s fine. I love being a teacher, but Mrs. Murphy is right. Soon the day will come when I’ll quit teaching, and that’s fine, too. Knowing that there is a limit, an end, is why I came back and it’s why I want to teach you how to read.”

Copyright 2016. Torch Legacy Publications. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except for brief quotations included in a review of the book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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