June 23, 2008

This past weekend was an interesting change of pace. I came up to Princeton University on Saturday to begin teaching a one-month summer intensive in AP American History as part of the Junior Statesmen program. My students are wonderful. Princeton’s still potentially as lily White and intimidating as it is opulent. But that’s hardly what I’ve thought about in my first few days up here.

Besides missing my wife and son, the thing that I’ve thought about the most are the days leading into my first day in the late Harold Meltzer’s AP American History class at Mount Vernon High School. The week of 16 June ’85 was an up and down one for me, and one that left me disgruntled with Humanities, with 616 and with Mount Vernon in general. It reflected the disillusionment that I had felt all year after defying my stepfather and letting my classmates and teachers know that I had converted to Christianity. Lots of things still weren’t going my way. I had few acquaintances, much less friends. I knew that despite my weirdness that some girls liked me, but I had no idea what to say to them.
My teachers sucked. Period. One was a chain-smoking chemistry teacher (teachers could smoke in front of us back then) who was horrible in conveying anything other than tartar buildup. Another knew as much about trigonometry as I did about quantum physics and romance (at least in ’85). Our English teacher lounged on the couch in the classroom most of the year, while our so-called World History teacher spent most of the year annoying us with stupid comments and stupid tests on Baroque music and architecture. Our Italian teacher was fired two months before our New York State Regents exam (he apparently now owns the largest car dealership in the state of New York). He was replaced by a Spanish teacher, who made us realize that most of us hadn’t learned much Italian over the previous four years.
So the week of endless tests and Regents exams came at the worst time for me. The cupboards and fridge were as bare as they had been since the days before my mother had gone on welfare. There was only enough milk for my younger siblings, and besides cornbread and cabbage, we were SOL. That Monday we had our exams in World History and English. Tuesday was the Trig Regents, which I started preparing for at the end of February because our teacher didn’t know the difference between sine, cosine and tangent. All of those went pretty well.
Then we ran out of food Tuesday night. I woke up the next morning with water, milk, ice and freeze-dried meat as my choices for breakfast and 50 cents in my pocket. I chose water and only water for the morning. And Wednesday was the busiest day of all. There were two Regents exams, one that morning in Italian, the other in Chemistry. I went to school feeling like I could overcome my hunger and do decently on the test. After all, I had been taking Italian since seventh grade, and I already knew I had scored an eight out of ten on the oral part of this exam. But deep down, I knew I just didn’t have the energy to get through the exam. I had a headache from the lack of food, which grew worse as I started to forget the difference between Italian in past, present, future and present perfect tense. I finished the exam and found myself just hoping for a 70 (anything below a 65 was an F, and the exam counted for a third of my total grade for the course).
I went to lunch and walked over to Chester Heights (Eastchester) to a deli and bought the only thing I could think of to eat: one Sara Lee Brownie. It cost 45 cents, and it was probably the best investment I had made up to this point in my life. I walked back to MVHS, slowly ate the brownie to make it last, and had just enough time to drink some more water before we sat down to take the Chemistry Regents.
When I opened up the exam booklet I started laughing. Our idiot Chemistry teacher had told us the month before to “not worry” about organic chemistry as part of the Regents exam even though he had never covered it in class. Listen to him had me averaging a C in his class all year, with my highest exam grade an 86. So I bought a Chemistry Regents test prep book the weekend after his pronouncement, and did nothing but study organic chemistry for this exam. It turned out that the first ten questions on the exam were organic chemistry ones. With my brownie digesting, I was ready to kick some butt.
It turned out that I had failed the Italian Regents, with a total score of 45–I only earned a 37 out of 90 on the written exam. On the Chemistry Regents, I had the third highest score in the school–a 95 out of 100, as about a third of the questions were in organic chemistry. I was bummed, ecstatic and pissed at my teachers and with myself, all at the same time.
Luckily on the Friday we found out our scores was also the same day we were to meet our AP American History teacher. I’ve already described my late friend and mentor in a previous post. But it’s worth mentioning again how he broke down my protective wall to talk to me about things I’d never discuss with my classmates or my mother or Jimme. One of those issues was hunger. Not just my constant need for food even when there was food at 616. My hunger, my drive for something better in life. Meltzer noticed it, and gradually got me to exhibit that side of myself in class. For years after AP, he would tell me over and over again how he never worried about me. I guess it was because I didn’t take the world around me at face value. I wasn’t intimidated by my classmates, but I wasn’t going to allow myself to engage in worrying about grades and pleasing teachers the ways in which they did.
Meltzer picked up on this, and laughed about it all the time. He said that I had that one-of-a-kind look of a student who wasn’t just hungry for good grades, but hungry for knowledge, hungry for something to make sense of a senseless world. I guess that this is all true. I just hope that the students I have, as privileged as many of them are, are equally hungry to learn about themselves, their classmates, what they hope their hopes are, as they are about earning a 5 on the AP exam next year.

The Day After

June 19, 2008

Another year has passed since I graduated from high school and looked forward to a better life outside of 616, Mount Vernon, New York and MVHS. The day after I graduated from high school–twenty-one years ago this date–captured in a few short moments what life for me in the New York City area had become.

Tower Records, Friday, June 19th of ’87. With high school now over, I was in a celebratory mood. I took the 2 train from 241st to 72nd and walked the six short blocks to the great Tower Records on 66th. I had my latest Walkman, my first Sony Walkman, actually, and my book bag with my recent tape investments, including a few I’d bought at Tower Records the previous Friday. Investments like Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night, Genesis’ Invisible Touch, and Glass Tiger. Glass Tiger, by the way, was a good indication of my state of mind, of how weird and disillusioning my life in ’87 really was. Boy was I pathetic.

I went into the store and began to browse the R&B and Pop/Rock sections for tapes. There I noticed some plastic wrapping on the floor, as if someone had taken a tape out of its case and stolen it. While I thought about the wrapper on the floor, three White security guards grabbed me and dragged me to a storage room downstairs.

“We got you for stealing,” one of them said, presumably the store’s head of security.

“You don’t have me for anything. Is this because I’m Black?”

“Well, how do you explain the wrappers we found on the floor and the tapes in your bag?”

“The wrappers were on the floor when I got there and the tapes . . .”

“You’re going to jail, asshole, when we bring the cops in here!”

“First of all, I’m not going anywhere. The tapes are all mine, and some of them I bought in this store last Friday. I have the receipt at home. Don’t you have ways to verify my purchases?”

“We don’t believe you!”

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me. I’m under eighteen. You can’t hold me or turn me over to police without calling my parents. I’m not even from here, I’m from Westchester County, and my receipts are back home there.”

“If we were outside instead of in here, I’d slap you around, wise-ass!”

“Then I guess I’m the lucky one. Why don’t we check the receipts from your cash registers up front for my purchases from last Friday? I know they’ll show that I’m right and you’re wrong!”

The hotheaded White man who did all of the talking got up and made a threatening slap gesture with the back of his left hand before the other ones grabbed him and told him to calm down. They let me go. On my way out, I said, “I hope you learned that not every Black person coming in your store is a thief!” It would be ten years before I went into Tower Records again (of course, Tower Records went out of business at the end of ’06).

It seemed like that entire year was about me realizing that I was no longer just a kid doing adult things. I was an adult, whether I wanted to be or acted like one or not. I needed to stop seeing myself as twelve and five-four in age and stature. Others saw me for who they thought I was, a tall, young and dangerous African American male. To say the least, the incident at Tower Records was an indication that life after high school would be anything but easy and my learning curve to adulthood anything but smooth.

I’ve often wondered why did things like this always seemed to happen to me, especially since my motto back then was to keep quiet in public, to not say or do anything that would piss others off. I wouldn’t realize until a year or two later that someone as tall as I was (and am) and as hard-thinking as I was would stand out no matter what my demeanor was. The Tower Records incident was a reminder that though I had some reason to celebrate making it through four years of high school, five years with my abusive stepfather, and six years of Humanities, that there was plenty of work left to do. On myself and with others.

Honors Coronation

June 9, 2008

I have a bit of an ax to grind today. Today marks twenty-one years since one of the more painful moments of my life, one that I had no control over. It was the Honors Convocation put on by Mount Vernon High School, the night before our last official day of high school before graduation and going off to college. The previous few months before this event had become a series of what I now call “parting shots” from my former classmates, my guidance counselor, and as I’ve documented here in detail, the Science Department chair at the very last moment of my last day at MVHS.

The Honors Convocation ceremony, though, summed up in two hours my six years of junior high, MVHS and gifted-track experiences in Humanities. Me and about 160 others sat on stage in front of our parents, teachers, administrators and school board members (and a couple of folks from the local press). In all somewhere near 1,000 folks showed up for this night of nights before our final day at MVHS students. Our graduating Class of ’87 was being honored for our academic achievements over the previous four years.

It turned out not to be much of an honor at all. Many of us squirmed in our unfolded chairs as one award after another was given to our valedictorian and salutatorian over the course of the ceremony. To be sure, a few others won two or three awards or scholarships. But in all, our valedictorian and salutatorian probably won between 80 and 90 percent of all of the awards and local scholarships given out by the school. The two of them picked up enough scholarships to put some of us through four years of college, much less one.

In all I won two awards: the Presidential Academic Fitness Award (which all of us on stage won) and a Perfect Attendance award (I missed thirteen days of school in four years — hardly perfect). I was so incensed by the award that I did receive that I promptly tossed them into a garbage can on my way out of MVHS that night. Luckily my mother wasn’t there.

Now I’m not begrudging the top two members of our class for having received so many awards. I wasn’t all that upset about not even winning the History Award (I knew that the Social Studies Department chair didn’t like me or my favorite teacher Harold Meltzer). It was more about the realization that none of us rated high enough for consideration in the eyes of our teachers and administrators. At least high enough for them to realize that no kid would want to sit on stage for two hours in an honors ceremony held in essence for two of their peers. It was typical behavior on the part of the adults in authority at MVHS at the time. If I had known in advance how so many awards would go to the top two of our class, I would’ve stayed home.

The Honors Convocation we experienced sent the message that our four years of high academic achievement didn’t matter unless our administrators and teachers liked us or if our weighted GPAs were over a 5.0 on a 4.0 scale. Or unless we had parents who mattered in the city’s economic and civic arena. All of those larger issues were at work behind the scenes in the lead up to this ceremony. All of us on stage may have been well on way to college and had done much while at MVHS to deserve recognition. The fact that most of us, including me, didn’t get it was more about how MVHS and the school district saw its diverse student body than it had to do with any of us.

This week MVHS will hold another Honors Convocation. Gone are the distinctions between gifted-track and other students, because Humanities ended as a program in ’93. That’s a good thing in general. But something else has cropped up that is also somewhat unnerving. One of my former classmates decided to begin a memorial fund for the recently deceased Brandie Weston, one that would provide a small scholarship to a MVHS student with creative aspirations (e.g., music, arts, writing, etc.) for college. A good and admirable idea. Except that no mechanisms had been set up to make this more than a one-time donation. No procedures were in place to raise money for this first scholarship in the first place until about two weeks ago. Nor was Brandie’s mother contacted about this prior to moving ahead with the scholarship. Who knows? It may have been better to approach Brandie’s SUNY Purchase classmates (as part of their Alumni or Class of ’91 or however they’ve organized themselves) about donating to a memorial fund that may or may not have included MVHS or other entities.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this process has been the lack of consideration of what Brandie might’ve wanted. Given all of our experiences at MVHS, including hers, I doubt very seriously that Brandie would’ve wanted a memorial fund in her name given at MVHS with MVHS staff involved in the selection process. It’s somewhere between presumptuous and arrogant to go forward with this memorial fund given this reality. I hope that if I or other classmates ever decide to do something like this again or more regularly, it will be done with practical and experiential considerations in mind so that we can avoid being part of a tainted selection or coronation process.


June 6, 2008

Last night and this morning marks 40 years since RFK was assassinated in the kitchen of a California hotel, a harbinger of things to come for the Democratic Party in ’68. Between LBJ’s refusal to run again, MLK’s assassination on April 4th, and RFK on June 5th, any traditional Democrat, liberal or even someone with some sense of hope in America’s future must’ve been devastated. All of these events occurred over 69 days in ’68. No wonder the Democratic Convention in Chicago was more a mob sense for protest and chaos than a real attempt at winning an election again Nixon.

I was born in ’69, so I didn’t get the chance to experience living through these horrible events. But I did learn about them early on. Seeing painting of MLK, JFK and RFK in the living rooms of my mother’s friends. Through John Lennon’s music and CBS’s All in the Family. That sense of lingering hopefulness in changing the world that I did see at the end of America’s Vietnam era. In some ways, I’m as much a child of the 60s as anyone who was ten or fifteen years old at the time of RFK’s death.

But I grew up in the 70s and 80s, a time in which most liberals and Democrats forgot about the overall message of change and social justice that RFK and MLK represented. The youthfulness and motivation that was JFK in the early 60s. The sense that by breaking down barriers and encouraging the end of those practices that leave many Americans behind, our nation would retain its strength as a beacon of democracy, freedom and equality. As much as it pains me to say it, the Democratic Party and the rest of the liberal establishment have yet to recover from ’68. Many from the era have rejected these ideals or have deluded themselves into thinking that they could achieve them by “working within the system.” Or have worked tirelessly to achieve them with only the most old and tired of methods.

Yet I’m old and wise enough (age doesn’t equal wisdom — just look at who’s been running our country for the past four decades) to know that American liberalism and the Democratic Party’s liberal faction had and has its limits. Civil rights reforms were only meant to be implemented gradually, “in due time,” “with all deliberate speed,” to quote a few catch phrases from the era. It took MLK’s March on Washington and JFK’s assassination to push LBJ into pushing the Civil Rights Act of ’64, and murders of voting rights workers in Mississippi (as highlighted in the movie Mississippi Burning) in the summer of ’64 and the Selma, Alabama march in ’65 to push LBJ into pushing the Voting Rights Act of ’65 through Congress.

The reason why “The ’60s” happened in the first place was in no small part because many American liberals though little about education, poverty, racism and sexism as social justice issues in the previous two decades. It’s been said on numerous occasions how Americans “discovered” or “rediscovered” poverty in ’62 or ’63 because of new research and interesting articles on the issue. America’s post-WWII prosperity, the communist scare of the late ’40s and the McCarthy era that came with it also helped to dampen liberal enthusiasm for social justice issues.

So in looking at the ’08 Democratic primary season, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything that occurred. HRC, the presumptive nominee long before anyone had casted a vote, lost to Barack Obama, a biracial Black man with a “funny” name. For all atypical liberals, this turn of events wasn’t surprising. I’m sure that for them it might’ve even been refreshing. But for typical American liberals — the ones who want every group’s lives to improve but still see themselves as ones most qualified to do the improving — BHO’s victory was a shock to the point of outrage. This isn’t racism in any typical sense. Not a lot of N-word shouting or “Go Back to Africa” venom spewing occurred. Just a lot of accusations from HRC’s camp about inexperience and naivete on BHO’s part. Just an avalanche of assertions about the viciousness of BHO’s camp, the media’s misogyny and the stale linger of sexism throughout the primary season. All indicate that even liberals like HRC and her second-wave feminism followers have a lot of growing up to do.

Even HRC’s innuendo about BHO has a long history in America’s liberal discourse. In the years before the Civil War, the abolitionist movement and the women’s suffrage movement were literally joined at the hip as mutual causes. Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass worked together on their relative causes throughout the 1850s and 1860s. Then, once slavery ended, the cause for full Black voting rights and women’s suffrage intensified. But once it became clear that the Radical Republicans were only willing to give Black men the right to vote — and passed the 15th Amendment in 1868 to both punish the unrepentant South and to bolster their election numbers (not really Frederick Douglass’ fault, right?), the two causes split.

Not only were Douglass and other prominent Blacks no longer invited to women’s suffrage meetings. Black women were no longer welcome either. Between 1870 and the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 granting the franchise to women, few if any Black women were involved in this first wave of American feminism. Nor did first-wave feminists generally work in the cause to prevent the emergence of Jim Crow and Black disenfranchisement at the end of the 1800s.

It’s obvious from the historical record that even liberals working on similar causes often have a falling out because of the combination of arrogance and bigotry, one in which one group believes they are more necessary to their own and other’s group’s success than that other group. It doesn’t have to be a conscious or obvious thought. But HRC’s language indicates — sometimes in not-so-subtle ways — her belief that she’s better than BHO the young Black man (no younger than her husband was when he took the oath of office, by the way). The reason why so many folks still feel hurt 40 years after RFK’s death was the same reason so many people had pictures of him, JFK and MLK in their living rooms. He didn’t talk about people from other backgrounds as if they needed his help — even when he likely had the thought in his head. His ego wasn’t so big that he saw himself as better than MLK. His grace and populism is what Americans who remember June 5th and 6th of ’68 remember. Maybe this is why BHO won and HRC lost, as the country may well be ready for a change that will reveal its better self.

One Year Old

June 2, 2008

Hey, it’s been a while. I took an unscheduled break last week due to out-of-town interviews and other work to update the website and to push my search for an agent and a publisher to a successful conclusion (sooner or later, anyway).

“Notes from a Boy @ The Window” is now a year old. Thanks so much to all of you for reading, reflecting and commenting on my blogs over the past 52 weeks. I hope that my blogs have inspired, depressed and even provoked anger over the past year. But I hope, more than anything, that they’ve make you think more deeply about our lives and our world, to not take everything at face value or to make assumptions without noting that there are always exceptions to them. I’ve discussed my life, my education, the education of others, domestic violence and abuse, infatuation and obsession, homelessness and religion, salvation and wisdom, race and gender and coolness, and life and death over the past year. I plan to be both as serious and as entertaining as I can in the next year of this blog, hopefully picking up a book contract along the way.

I’m in the process of making two Boy At The Window related changes to the site in the next week or so. I’m adding two pages: one a photo gallery that would end up in the book once published, the other a list of the music I listened to during my Boy At The Window years. I plan to create an iMix via iTunes based on the list, but the webpage will include commentary about the music list and what did and didn’t make it.

I decided to expand the Boy At The Window offerings because it would give all of you the opportunity to visualize much of what I discuss in my blogs. But I have other reasons as well. Based on the agents who’ve read the manuscript and provided even a little bit of feedback, my “marvelous manuscript” tells a “compelling story” that “deserves to be published.” Yet some of them “haven’t fallen in love with it” or aren’t “enthusiastic” about attempting to sell it because of the “current state of the market.” The upshot is that I need a business or publishing-related hook to sell the manuscript. I proposed months ago that because Boy At The Window is a narrative nonfiction memoir, it should be connected with other efforts, including popular music from the 80s. So I’m adding these features to the site as an experiment to take readers beyond my blogs and some manuscript excerpts to the visual and the musical. Don’t expect to download music here, though.

Please send me your comments and questions as I expand the website. I hope that you’ll enjoy these changes and continue to read my blog as we move into our second year. Thanks again.


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