The cough drop couldn't keep pace with the school bell, so Quincy Troupe discretely deposited it, half-finished, into a tissue lest he choke on it. “That would be a horrible thing,” he told the 120 or so high school kids sitting in front of him, “a grown person choking, falling over in front of you all.”
No response; perhaps they didn't know what to make of the imposing 6-foot-2 black man, dressed entirely in black, with dreadlocks past his shoulders.
“Y'all laugh?” he prodded. That won him some chuckles. “Kidding, kidding,” he said gently.
The reticent group, comprising one class each from ninth through 12th grade third-period English, was Troupe's third audience that day, following a classroom visit and a larger assembly, with students at Gompers Secondary school in Lincoln Heights. It was a rare public appearance for Troupe, who's laid low since resigning as California poet laureate last month after a state Senate committee discovered he had fudged on his résumé, claiming he received his BA from Grambling State University in Louisiana when he never actually graduated.
His resignation, pounced on by some members of the local media, would seem especially painful for Gompers students who had been studying Troupe's poetry in anticipation of his appearance, Troupe's own rough childhood in St. Louis' meaner parts resonating with Gompers' status as an inner city school.
Principal Don Mitchell, who's brought in a steady stream of authors to talk to his kids, had Troupe's Nov. 13 visit on schedule long before the controversy hit. Mitchell, however, said that he never once reconsidered the invitation. “Who hasn't done something in their life that they regret?” he pointed out.
Nor did Troupe consider canceling his visit to Gompers even though he knew he'd face a tough audience. English teacher James Claffey's ninth grade American Literature class had sent Troupe letters upon learning about his resignation. That group of students, along with an 11th and a 12th grade advanced-placement class, would be Troupe's fourth-period audience.
For the third period group, however, some didn't seem to grasp the fact that they had a chance to meet with perhaps one of the greatest contemporary Black poets. Those sitting the farthest from their teachers yawned, shuffled their feet and glanced at their watches. Troupe, who's taught college for 30 years, has mastered the ability to reel young people in with pop culture mentions and smooth slang and, while he has them hooked, slam 'em with the substantial stuff. He told the kids he'd been both shot and stabbed when he was younger and friends of his killed in gang fights outnumbered the audience. “I had some of the most dangerous friends you can imagine,” Troupe said of his high school days. “If I liked your hat,” he said, pointing to a young man in the front row, “I'd come up and take it.
“I didn't think I was going to be a poet,” he told the kids, many of whom Mitchell noted later fall into the “low performing” end of the academic spectrum. “I didn't think I was going to be a college professor. At one time I thought I was going to be a gangster.
“People do what their friends do,” he said. “Very seldom do people go against their friends.”
He did a stunning reading-”fast like a blur,” he said-of his poem, “Take it to the hoop Magic Johnson” (first checking the audience to make sure they knew who Magic Johnson was-“can't assume anything,” Troupe said). “You got any questions about that poem?” he asked when he finished. “Did you dislike or like it?”
“Didn't like it,” piped up a kid in the front row. “Too long.”
“How about this one?” Troupe offered. “The other brandy-sweetened night, I dreamed we was kissing so hard and good, you sucked my tongue right on out my trembling mouth and I had to sew it back in in order to tell you about it.”
It was a crowd pleaser, no doubt, that won Troupe a mix of self-conscious giggles and rousing applause. The dissenter in the front row, however, didn't like that poem, either.
“That's cool, that's cool,” said Troupe. “At least you're honest.”
After some talk about basketball and poetry and jazz and rap, the bell sounded again and the restless third-period group was replaced by a far more stoic audience of about 50. The front-row dissenter of the former crowd was replaced by a young man twice his size who folded his arms and focused his eyes on Troupe, who, this time around, remained behind the podium, his voice less dynamic than with the previous group. He acknowledged the letters the students had sent him.
“I had a choice,” he said, “I could deal [with your questions] first and then read poetry, or not deal [with questions] at all.”
He wanted the former, he said. And he offered a caveat of sorts. “Life is about going forward,” he explained, “everyone makes mistakes. You will not find a perfect person anywhere. You will not find anybody who hasn't told a lie.”
Troupe opened it up to questions, and after a few seconds a hand went up. It was not, however, the sort of question he expected. “How long have you taught at UCSD?” asked a young woman.
Twelve years was the answer.
Next question: “You said you're going to make a film; what type of film are you going to make?” That opened up a discussion of one of Troupe's favorite subjects, Miles Davis, about whom he's written two books.
The questions that followed were equally innocuous: How'd you get started writing? How did you go from basketball to writing? Have you ever written lyrics for anyone? Can you read us some of your stuff?
Sure, Troupe said to that last one, but first he wanted to make sure there were no more questions, something he might have later regretted. A hand shot up from the back row and a small Latina in glasses spoke up slowly and clearly: “What was going through your mind as you were filling out your résumé?”
“At UCLA,” said Troupe, “I didn't tell them I had graduated from Grambling, nor at USC or Ohio University,” he said, listing off the schools he had taught at. “I didn't tell them [I hadn't graduated] until one day a man said to me, ‘If you had this on your résumé, you could be tenure track. Do you want to be here, or do you want to be there?'
“I wanted to be there,” said Troupe, “that's the mistake I made.”
“Was it necessary to resign,” she followed up. Yes, it was ethically necessary, Troupe explained.
“Why the big risk of that coming back to bite you in the behind?” asked a student from the other side of the room. Troupe skirted the question a bit, saying that once it was done, it was done; to go back and remove the credit from his résumé would have only caused problems.
“To change something [back] leads you to something else,” he said. “You just leave it there; at least I did.”
“If you hadn't of gotten caught, would you have come forward?” asked a girl. Yes, said Troupe. He explained that he's currently working on his memoir in which he talks about the decision and consequences of lying about his credentials.
The series of questions left little time for poetry reading and so Troupe offered the same five-liner he had recited for the previous group and got the same delighted response. “That's terrible,” he laughed, “reciting a poem like that to high school kids.”
After the assembly, students filed past Troupe to shake his hand. Claffey, the English teacher, stood to the side and described the class discussion prompted by the news of Troupe's resignation as poet laureate. About 30 percent of the class said he shouldn't have lied, said Claffey; that it was a morally wrong decision.
“Seventy percent said that it was something [Troupe] had to do to get ahead in life,” he explained. “It's a choice he had to make to live, to support his family.
“The greatest thing about America,” said Claffey, who's from Ireland, “is that if you fall you can get back up again. America has the greatest capacity to forgive.”