When Sugar laughs, it’s also a holler. It sounds like, “Shwa!” Other kids mimic it, and if you’re not careful, you can soon have an entire class of kids yelling “Schwa!” and then you can kiss your lesson plan good-bye. Sugar is a lanky skinny black girl with a big smile most of the time. She’s good natured. But did I mention that she is loud? As some of the other girls would say,

“Girl, Sugar be loud!”

Sugar and a few other girls had sewing class together. (They don’t call it sewing class anymore, though. It’s some craziness like, “industrial arts”. Why can’t we just call things for what they are?)

Sugar was not her given name. “Sugar” was not only Sugar’s nickname, but also the name of a small club of girls who followed Sugar around and were friends with Sugar. They had logos made, which they sewed onto their clothes together in sewing class. It was all beautifully done. Three girls with “Sugar” stitched on the back of their jackets. Sometimes, other kids would want to be a part of their group, and there would be a disturbance over it,

“What I don’t like is when other people be saying they Sugar when they ain’t Sugar Club.”

They also considered sewing other things onto their clothes, like quotes from Langston Hughes poems I taught them. I was truly baffled one day, looking at some of the copies of the poems I had handed out to them to read, and their were numbers above the words, like this:

20 20 10 30
Hold fast to dreams
15 10 30 15
For if dreams die
25 10 5 35 30 20
Life is a broken-winged bird
20 30 15
That cannot fly.

I finally figured out that they were going to monogram the quote onto their clothes, and were figuring out the cost per stanza: 5 cents a letter.

It never happened, but it was interesting that they even considered it.

One day, it was the beginning of class, and I was reading this novel out loud to them, The First Part Last. It’s about a boy who gets his girlfriend pregnant and ends up raising the baby on his own. I had my lesson plan all written out on the board, starting with this read aloud, but my confidence was shot.. On a whim and feeling completely uninspired, I said,

“Does anyone want to read this for me?”

“What?” said a bunch of kids.

“I’m just not up to reading this to you today. Anyone who likes to read out loud care to read it to the class? Just a chapter or two.”

“Sugar should read it!”

“Have Sugar read it!”

“Sugar’ll read it!”

Sugar looked like she had just been caught changing her pants in the back of the room. This was actually fairly typical behavior for her. Her next class was gym, and for some reason, she always changed into her gym shorts in the back of my class during my lecture. It’s one of those things that seems really crazy, but seemed almost normal at the time. Commonplace.

Only Sugar could have sixteen kids literally catch her with her pants down and not be embarrassed by this.

“Sure, Ms. M,” she said as she snapped the elastic up around her waste and swaggered over to me. “I’ll read it for you.”

There were hoots and hollars, and a few, Schwa’s, but when she made it to the front of the room, and cleared her throat, she read quite well. She had good expression. Sometimes, she stopped and asked me a word.

What I really liked, though, was her commentary,

“Now, this is what I’m talking about! This is my kind of man! He stand by his woman! M hm...” and then she would go on. She wasn’t just reading, she was interpreting. Which came in handy, actually, when someone in the story had a slightly complicated medical condition.

And then it got really sad. Sugar started reading about [spoiler!] Nia’s “irreversible vegetative state” and she started to cry.

The room hushed.

“Sugar,” I said softly, “I can read it if you want me to.”

“No, no,” she said, swallowing hard. “Just give me minute.”

That whole crazy class gave her a minute. (Not that they were silent- there were a lot of murmurs going on, but it was respectful.)

The whole last three chapters are real tear jerkers, and Sugar had to stop several times. It became apparent after a while that we weren’t doing my lesson plan.

“Can we just read this book all period?” someone asked.


So, what happened was, we finished the book. Sugar finished it, crying (but not too hard) in the front of the class, taking a lot of deep breaths, and reading it aloud and talking about it, and they all asked questions and answered each others’ questions and discussed all the horror of it. She had to pause a lot, but we got through that book.

I basically spent the class watching.

What will happen to Sugar, twenty years from now?

Did I mention she can dance just like Michael Jackson? No kidding.

*(This is fiction. Any similarity to real people or events is completely coincidental.)


  1. I really like this story. It's very well written, you English teacher, you!

  2. Thanks. I'm so glad someone read it!