About A Boy Moments

July 11, 2009

It’s one of my favorite movies, and every time I watch it, I see a bit of my old self in it. About A Boy would be my alternative universe movie if I’d been in it as an eleven or twelve-year-old. For those of you who don’t know the movie, it came out in ’02 with Hugh Grant and Rachel Weisz as its stars. It featured a tweener boy who was a geekish weirdo on the verge of becoming an outcast, thanks in large measure to his suicidal mother, played by Toni Collette. To make his mother happy, the kid entered his school’s talent show. He wanted to sing her favorite song, Roberta Flack’s ’70s hit “Killing Me Softly.” Everyone knew that the boy was about to commit “social suicide,” including Hugh Grant’s cloistered character Will. He stepped in at the last minute to save the day, taking most of the heat and giving the kid a chance to have a normal teenager’s life.

For better and worse, I had several About A Boy moments in seventh grade, very early on. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a person like the character played by Hugh Grant anywhere in my life who could’ve saved me from the ostracism that followed me and my kufi that year and in the years to come.

It started on the very first day of seventh grade, my first day in Humanities. I can still remember what I wore: a pair of navy-blue dress pants, a pair of white Adidas sneakers, and a white, short-sleeved Izod Lacoste (the “alligator” logo) knockoff. These would be the only new clothes I’d get for the entire school year. Oh, lest I forget, I also wore my bright and white kufi (a knitted cap with many small holes in it) with the rest of my ensemble. As our teacher Mrs. Sesay went through our introductions, one of my new Italian classmates asked

“Have you ever been to Israel?”

“Yes, once. I’ve been to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

I’d only traveled outside of New York four times, including my fetus travels in ’69. But at least I lied about it in my most proper diction. I assumed that she knew that I was lying, but it turned out that she was shocked when I admitted the truth four years later in our eleventh-grade English class.

That was hardly the worst of it. Six weeks into seventh grade, I had a fight with the late Brandie Weston. Or, rather, she had a fight with me, stemming from comments I had made about her weight a year and a half before (see posting from September 2007). It wasn’t much of a fight, though. Two semi-nerds in a fight of words, lots of shoves, and a flurry of half-hearted punches isn’t a fight. It’s an ugly display, like watching Mike Tyson fight in his later years against White guys taken off the street. In one corner, at five-foot-two and 120 pounds was me, in the other, at five-foot-seven and about 150 pounds was Brandie. I certainly didn’t want to fight a girl. Brandie thought that she could pound me into the ground. At one point I punched Brandie in the chest, only to find that her chest felt spongy. It dawned on me that Brandie had breasts. I stopped pushing and punching her right then and there, somewhat in shock from the revelation. This was while she had called me a “pervert.”

Since I didn’t know what “pervert” meant—not that I would’ve admitted such a thing—my juvenile writer’s brain found the word that was the most similar sounding to pervert. Somewhere in my tangle of speech center nerve endings, between “adjective” and “breast,” I pulled out “adverb” and called Brandie that in response. That ended out fight in horrific laughter from Brandie and the classmates who witnessed it, including my eventual crush #1. It was another About A Boy moment, one that I wouldn’t soon live down. If my classmates thought I was weird before, I was sure that some now suspected that my intellectual reach exceeded my grasp. That’s academic-speak to say that many of my classmates thought that I was dumber than dirt!

About a week later, something even more embarrassing and soul-destroying occurred after school in the back of Davis. Two of the “Italian Club” boys instigated my ambush and beat-down in November ’81, the one where about half of 7S watched. They and about ten other 7S classmates attacked me. They grabbed, punched, and kicked me, and called me everything but a child of God. This was my third About A Boy moment, making me verbal cannon fodder for them for the rest of the school year.

Ironically, these attacks because of my kufi and the dumb things I used to say (I can still be tactless on occasion, but it’s rare compared to those days of doom and gloom) made me dig in my heels regarding the kufi, being a Hebrew-Israelite, and reveling in my weirdness. Not exactly “reveling” — more like “exaggerating.”

At the same time, between my mouth, my religion and my kufi, I was a semi-outcast in the Nerd Society by the end of the first marking period. My weirdly normal classmates saw me as an enigma and treated me as such. Sometimes they picked on me, a few tried to pick fights with me, a curious minority asked me questions about being a Hebrew-Israelite. Most simply avoided me. It was as if I was part of the goyim, a stranger in a strange and sordid land. I considered quiting Humanities because of my Bs and sometimes Cs by February ’82, and after the summer of abuse, there were times I was downright suicidal. Thank God for crushes and other signs of love and emotion!

I often think about my son Noah when I think of these things. I want him to be more like me now and much less like me from twenty-seven years ago. I have to make sure not to put him in the position of making mistakes that would lead to social ostracism. I also need to let him know that it’s okay to be weird in some way or another. How to balance being cool with being unique, I don’t know. It took me the better part of two decades to figure it out. But I do know one thing for sure. He will never have to wear anything to school that he isn’t proud to wear. Nor will he have to wear something that he doesn’t fully understand for himself.


Stronger Than Pride (I Guess)

July 8, 2009

In some ways, I guess I’m like Sade, or at least, like her in the song by the same name as the title of this post. Certainly in the world of looking for quality work. I think that this has been the case for me for the past thirteen years. I’ve had two overlapping careers in that time. One as an ambivalent part-time academic historian and professor. The other as an unfulfilled nonprofit manager. At times I’ve enjoyed both, and plenty of times I’ve enjoyed neither. For most of that time, my expectations for myself and my jobs have been way too high.

Some of that, to be sure, came from finishing a master’s and a doctorate in history between August ’91 and November ’96. Even with me constantly reminding myself not to be too cocky about having become Dr. Collins before I turned twenty-seven, I could sometimes see signs that I might’ve had a bit too much pride in my accomplishments. So when I first started applying for jobs, I expected to get more than a few calls. And not just for academic positions either. After all, I had published in Black Issues in Higher Education, done work on the AHA’s Guide to Historical Literature and the Historical Dictionary of American Education, presented at numerous conferences, including the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting twice, and had been a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow.

With next to no support from my advisor or dissertation committee, not to mention my own ambivalence about the world of academe, it took longer than expected to get telephone calls for interviews. Of course, I only applied for jobs in places I knew I’d be more than satisfied to reside. No job applications went out to the University of Maine at Machias, or to the University of Northern Iowa, or to the University of Mississippi at Tupelo. Nope. I thought only of places like New York, DC, Philly, Boston, or Chicago. I applied mostly to schools of education and African American studies departments. In the meantime, I dutifully converted my doctoral thesis research into academic articles I’d send out for publication all during ’97 and ’98, with no succeed.

I did get two calls for academic job interviews. One at Teachers College (Columbia) in New York, the other at Slippery Rock. Both were for history of education positions. I finished second for one, and the other position was eventually suspended. By the time of my interview at Slip Rock, I was already on financial fumes, and was wondering how the heck I ended up doing an interview for a job that might as well have been in the middle of Idaho.

So I took a part-time job working for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh while negotiating what would become a two-year stint as an adjunct professor at Duquesne University in their College of Education. I took it, thinking that this was God’s way of teaching me to be patient and humble, to not become prideful, to not rest on my laurels. My assumption was, even in prayer, that God will somehow directly intervene and make a way for me, giving me the career I wanted.

What happened instead was a lost year. I spent most of ’98 teetering somewhere between embarrassment and frustration over my job situation. If I wasn’t upset about working with the unwashed masses at Carnegie Library, I found myself pissed that I had such low quality students at Duquesne. I applied for only nine academic positions between September ’97 and September ’98, and about an equal number of nonprofit or other kinds of jobs. I was too good for this, I thought.

What I figured out at the end of ’98 was that I was in my own way. Pride wasn’t the main issue here. Expecting God to do for me what I was now capable of doing for myself was. Shame for letting myself go so long in a struggle that shouldn’t have been was. Recurring anger over the last year of my graduate work was. I had to forgive, let the things that didn’t matter go, and relentlessly go after what I wanted. And within eight months, I found a job in DC, working for someone I’d later learn was a bigot.

But you know what else I’ve figured out over the years? There’s no such thing as an ideal job, even if it’s in your ideal field or directly on the career path you’ve carved out for yourself. It’s about pursuing the interests that you’re most passionate about, and finding the right fit, the right balance, along the way. Acting or theater work is not the same as working in the porn industry, though, no matter how much you convince yourself that acting is acting. Teaching, writing, and consulting have kept me in a state of employment for the past seventeen months, but it’s hardly enough, and I’m not just talking about money either.

What I do know is that I know enough to continue plugging away on all fronts, to continue networking, and to say “No!” to those things that would keep me from finding my career balance. And, at least I know that the problem here this time around isn’t pride or heavenly assumptions.


On An Idiot Ex-Stepfather

July 7, 2009

It’s been twenty-seven years and five and a half hours since my idiot ex-stepfather literally whipped me with a belt and gave me a concussion because I hadn’t succeeded in finding a teenager who had stolen $10 from me. But this post isn’t about what happened to me on this date back in ’82. At least, not directly. I want to concentrate on all the things I learned about how not to be the worst stepfather in the history of stepfathers.

My stepfather was an everyday example of what can happen to you if you’re seriously love-deprived. Born in August ’50 in Richmond, Virginia, Maurice spent most of his growing-up years as a semi-orphan, shuttled between grandparents, aunts, and uncles in Richmond and in Trenton, New Jersey. Maurice didn’t know his father, and rarely had contact with his mother before he turned fourteen.

Because of the lack of maternal attention, Maurice used his imagination to make himself into the ultimate pretender. He gained a reputation in his extended family and among his friends as a smooth-talking, often boastful man who could talk as if he had a PhD and could dream up “get rich quick” schemes faster than the $700-million, junk-bond-scamming Michael Milliken. Despite his size and physique, Maurice didn’t try to become “like Mike” or, more likely, Jim Brown. His grades were good enough for him to attend Montclair State University in New Jersey in ’70, only completing one semester. He also spent a year in Uncle Sam’s service as an MP at Fort Bragg before he was discharged.

Maurice lacked a clear sense of direction for his life, as well as an understanding of who he was. My mother met Maurice when he came to work at Mount Vernon Hospital as an orderly in ’75. She’d been working as a supervisor in the Dietary Department since ’68. This wasn’t exactly love at first sight, as Maurice came into Mount Vernon Hospital with the reputation of an adulterous womanizer. He already had a five-year-old daughter from his failed first marriage.

My mother’s marriage to my increasingly alcoholic father was slowly swirling around the toilet bowl when they met. After a platonic courtship that began that summer, they had begun seeing each other on a more serious basis by the end of ’75. My mother began an affair with Maurice several months before officially filing for a divorce from my father in July ’76. Not exactly the best way to move into a new relationship.

My father’s drunken awareness of my mother’s infidelity led to a number of nasty incidents. Jimme once destroyed a glass-topped coffee table by stomping into it—in front of my mother, Maurice, Darren, and me. This happened on my seventh birthday, and left me hiding in the corner of our second-floor flat on South Sixth Avenue. Jimme had also put about $3,000 worth of my mother’s clothes and shoes into a bathtub full of hot water, thrown a thirteen-inch color TV out of a window, and had repeatedly cut up the new furniture my mother had bought in the months after filing for divorce.

This stress was more than my mother could bear. She ended up in Mount Vernon Hospital for almost two months with a serious kidney ailment that turned out to be stress-induced. Darren and I stayed with our usual babysitter, one of my father’s drinking buddies in Ida. By the time my mother came out of the hospital, which was in April ’77, Maurice and my Uncle Sam had moved us into an apartment at 616 East Lincoln Avenue on Mount Vernon’s North Side. But not before my Uncle Sam, also a big man at six-foot-four and about 230 pounds, clotheslined Jimme over a fence in front of our old place as an act of vengeance.

Moving in together was the next mistake for Maurice and my mother, along with marriage and kids between ’77 and ’81. As their relationship evolved and devolved, so did Maurice’s propensity for pretending. He tried to convince me and Darren that he had fought and killed Viet Cong, carried a briefcase because he was a doctor and a lawyer, and was a writer because he had a typewriter and would occasionally write poetry and short stories. All of this while driving a cab for Reliable Taxi. Only the part about being a writer was true, except he never attempted to do anything with it besides brag about it to his friends. I was gullible, not stupid, and when I found some of his official papers in my mother’s closet a few months before their wedding in ’78, I began to wonder who Maurice really was.

But Maurice’s biggest pretending project of all was attempting to play the role of father for Darren, me, and eventually, my younger siblings. His definition of discipline was a belt for a “whuppin’,” and his idea of play-time was teaching us how to be “men” through karate. When we first moved in at 616, Maurice declared that Darren and me “would be [his] house servants.” As few and far between my visits with Jimme were after the divorce became final in ’78, I’d always seen an inebriated Jimme as more of a father than Maurice could be if he really tried.

I witnessed Maurice on too many occasions in which his role as a father was to lie to me and abuse baby Maurice. My stepfather once beat the six-month-old boy to keep him quiet because he was trying to sleep, and would forget to change his diapers while we were in school. My mother eventually found a babysitter to watch baby Maurice, but the damage was already done. We just didn’t know it yet.

So when Maurice came back into our lives in April ’81 as a Hebrew-Israelite, had made up with my mother, and began training us to walk as proud Sons of Judah, I worked extremely hard to convince myself that his conversion was real. At eleven, I wanted a father I could talk to about God, life, school and becoming a man. With Jimme temporarily out of the picture, I decided that I’d give Maurice another chance at being a father.

Boy was I such an idiot back then! If I had possessed just a tiny understanding of the world outside what I knew about Mount Vernon, New York City, and from reading bunches of books, I would’ve known the whole Hebrew-Israelite things had nothing to do with religion. Maurice was in search of an identity that would magically transform him from the creep he was into someone successful, like Bob Johnson (founder of BET, for better and especially for worse) or Reginald Lewis (the late one-time owner of Beatrice Foods). My mother didn’t want her second marriage to fail, and wanted Maurice to be the man in our family. It was so simple, and yet, I didn’t see it for nearly a year.

By that time, I was virtually friendless, one of the weirdest folks out of a group of nerdy wackos. I had to grind for three months just to get back to par, and would spend another three years finding enough of myself to have some semblance of a life outside of 616 and school. Most of all, I was beat-up, bruised, and felt betrayed on this day. I knew for sure that there was no chance in this universe of ours that Maurice could ever be a good stepfather or man, assuming he had a clue as to who that was.

The worst thing about getting beat-up that day and off and on for the rest of July ’82 was that the mugging was a set-up. About a year after my summer of hell, I saw my stepfather and Pookie in the middle of a conversation near the Pearsall Drive projects. I was on my way home from grocery shopping in nearby Pelham. I saw them from a distance, and figured that they didn’t see me. So I hid behind a tree across the street from the Getty gas station and a closed grocery store, where Maurice and Pookie talked. They were laughing and joking around, having what appeared to be a friendly conversation. I thought that I was mistaken, but how could I forget who my mugger was? My stepfather, who knew where we were that day in June ’82, had paid Pookie with my mother’s money to mug me at the pool. My carelessness had only made it easier for Pookie to do his job. It was my stepfather’s warped way of making me a man. What he did was steal my childhood.

One day my senior year at Pitt, the Henderson twins and I were in conversation about fathers — I have no idea how we got into that. I said, “the only person I’d ever really known as a father was Jesus.” I didn’t think it was especially profound at the time. But they remembered that for years after I said it. For those times, it was so true, and in many ways, it still is.


Man in the Mirror

July 4, 2009

I guess that I should be discussing the meaning of Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park,” especially with this July 4th being on a Saturday. But in light of Michael Jackson’s death last week, it’s an even better idea to discuss the effect that his music had on me at various times in my life. My first exposure to Michael Jackson came through the Jackson 5 cartoon series that was on in the early ’70s. Then he did The Wiz in ’78, and his first solo album Off The Wall came out in ’79. I remember that one of my first times hearing “Rock With You” was at an in-class dance party in my fifth grade class with Mrs. O’Daniels. Of course, who could forget Thriller and all that came with it between October ’82 and April ’84? Twenty-five million albums sold in the US alone during that time, and some 50 million worldwide. They should’ve renamed Sony “MJ-ony!”

And that was when all of the weirdness and changes began. The plastic surgeries on his nose, the changes in his skin tone, the permanent straight waviness of his hair. Not to mention the studded glove and the semi-punk style by the time Michael Jackson’s Bad dropped in late August ’87. I remember those days well. It took time for this album to grow on me, partly because it was hard to look at Michael Jackson with all of those changes at first. “Bad” was all right, “Just Can’t Stop Loving You” would’ve been better if I hadn’t been in the process of getting over Crush #2, and “The Way You Make Me Feel” was turgid. I guess I didn’t like the girl in that video either. 
Once again, I digress. I was feeling at bit of MJ fatigue in April ’88 when his folks released “Man In The Mirror.” Man In The Mirror.mp3 I found myself falling in love with the song despite myself. My rational side thought, “Boy, these lyrics are corny!” My optimistic side, though, thought, “Wow, he’s putting all of himself into this song!” As much as I found “Man In The Mirror” ironic, given Michael Jackson’s idiosyncrasies, I found it a bit inspiring. The video, while overdone, was also uplifting. It was ’88, after all, and with the coming summer, it was NBA Finals, the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and time home at 616, where I needed all the inspiration I could get.
That’s how I thought of “Man In The Mirror” at first. Watching Pistons great Isiah Thomas (notice I’m not saying anything about his work with the Knicks) drop 20-something points in the third quarter on the Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, single-handedly willing the Pistons into the game, and on a bum ankle at that. Watching Magic and the Lakers respond by beating down the Pistons in Game 7, with Isiah on the bench for most of the second half. These memories often bubble to the surface when I listen to “Man In The Mirror.”
I also find myself thinking about Carl Lewis, Flo-Jo, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Greg Louganis, Bob Costas, Bryant Gumbel and the ’88 Olympics always twelve hours or so ahead of us on the East Coast. Weren’t they all great, even with the crappy coverage? I remember Florence Griffith-Joyner and her wonderful runs, racy outfits and sexy bod. Too bad she’s gone away as well. Of course, I can’t help but think of Ben Johnson in that light as well. Setting a world record, only to be banned for life from his sport for using steroids. Ah, sports and politics!
Most of all, I think of the last of my difficult summers at 616, the summer of unemployment, 120 days of torture. The one bright spot for me that summer was spend time with my younger siblings, Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai and Eri. They all were receptive to me, especially my music. They loved it whenever I’d pop Michael Jackson’s Bad album in my tape deck, especially when it would get to “Man In The Mirror.” I don’t think that Eri or Yiscoc would like me reminding them of how much they got into it trying to sing to it, though.
The ONE song I listened to during my week of homelessness on Pitt’s campus was “Man In The Mirror.” Hokey, I know. But when you’re in the worst of all possible situations, hokey and optimistic’s much better than pathetic and pessimistic. It was at that point I no longer needed to justify listening to MJ. Even with the molestation and related charges in ’93 and ’04 — not to mention his social and racial identity issues — I separated the work of a musical genius from the troubles of a man who hadn’t quite grown up, even though he was in his forties by then.
It’s funny to see how many Michael Jackson fans have come out of the closet now that he’s dead. I think it would’ve given MJ something to smile about had he known how much we all treasured his music. It’s too bad folks didn’t express this much love for the man and his music in the last years of his life. Still, his music lives on, in me and in so many of us. And though there will never be another Michael Jackson — short of reincarnation — we can hope for another great musical genius who will touch us in ways we can only dream of. By the way, I still sometimes look in the mirror and say, “I’m gonna make a change, for once in my life…”



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