This week marks thirty-three years since my first days in the gifted-track Humanities Program, a fairly diverse group of very smart and (some) pretty creative students. Despite the common refrain among administrators of this long-gone program, me and my Humanities classmates weren’t the “crème de la crème” when it came to critical or independent thinking. In recent years, I’ve learned that their views on politics, religion, sports, entertainment, family and so many other things are so typically and sadly American.
Since the creators’ premise for the Humanities Program was to develop the whole person, and not just academic success, it seems to me that the program failed in terms of providing a holistic education. That our parents and other authority figures helped shape the opinions and beliefs we take to adulthood is part of my observation here. The disappointing part for me, though, has been the fact that these opinions have gone unadulterated over the past twenty-five or thirty years.
This isn’t an indictment of everyone I’ve ever known from Mount Vernon, New York, or from Mount Vernon public schools, or from MVHS, or even from my Humanities years. There are more than a few individuals who I am so glad to have reconnected with in person or through Facebook, Twitter and WordPress in the past decade or so. Everyone has the right to their beliefs, their ignorance, their opinions, however ill-informed or illogical. But there are consequences to never challenging one’s own beliefs, ignorance and opinions. Consequences that include victim-blaming, xenophobia, religion-as-politics, respectability politics, jingoist hyper-patriotism and colorblind racism.
What I’ve observed over the past ten or eleven years is that, when taken as a whole, it seems that I grew up around and reconnected with a group whose beliefs and opinions differ so much from my own. So much so that it really strains my memory to think that I grew up there. As my wife said to me on her first visit to Mount Vernon in Christmas ’99, after seeing a burned out Mazda smack-dab in the middle of downtown, “You sure you weren’t adopted?”
You Can’t Go Home Again to a Place That Was Never Home
I suspected some stark differences by the time I started working on Boy @ The Window in earnest in ’06. Any number of the ex-classmates I interviewed expressed opinions that I’d heard long before about “illegals,” about how Mount Vernon was some sort of middle-class haven, about our Humanities class being a faux “Benetton commercial” or a “mini-Fame.”
These were the kinds of opinions I remembered hearing from their parents and our teachers back in the ’80s. The sense of paternalism and entitlement, or the sense that MVHS was dangerous or “a jungle” or full of “animals.” It reminded me that there were many classmates who I’d met in seventh grade who’d transfer to private or parochial school or had enrolled in “better” schools in other districts by tenth grade because their parents were terrified by the so-called dangers of a mostly Black and Latino high school, with poverty and criminality being the unspoken words here.
I’ve faced off with the son of our late former principal Richard Capozzola several times on my blog and on Facebook in the past three years over this very issue, of how MVHS was run like a prison-prep program. His rationale for justifying Capozzola’s anti-Black draconian policies at MVHS consisted of “my dad was a great dad” and that I “wouldn’t have survived a day” at MVHS without his father as principal. The frame of MVHS as a war-zone or prison with students of color assumed to be criminals within this frame, this son of Capozzola couldn’t recognize even if Spock did a mind-meld to give him a dose of the Black experience.
Uncritical Melody, On Mount Vernon and the World
My observations aren’t limited to race or MVHS per se. Among my former classmates, with everything from affirmative action to Zionism, from political parties to education reform, from immigration reform to religious diversity, so many have views that range from conservative to right-wing. For some, every question can be answered with Leviticus or Ephesians, and any disagreement with a condemnation to Hell. For others, the frame for these issues are a “both sides do it” or “let’s look at both sides.” As if any issue involving climate change or social injustice is an algebraic equation, as if these issues are about finding some preposterous balance, rather than about exploitation or oppression.
But where I’ve found myself most at odds with some of my ex-classmates is the very issue of Mount Vernon itself as a city or a nurturing environment. It’s not as if I’ve never acknowledged the reality that if one didn’t grow up in poverty, or had connections to city politics, church or community leaders, or at least thirty cousins within a mile of your domicile, that Mount Vernon was a pretty good place to grow up. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for many people I grew up around.
Yet time and again, as I’ve told my story here and as I began to put Boy @ The Window together between ’06 and ’11, some of my former classmates and a couple of my former neighbors have opined that I have an ax to grind. Yeah, actually, I do, but not about Mount Vernon per se. About the poverty, abuse and ostracism I experienced growing up there, that shaped my experiences there, that authority figures often ignored. In those things, I do have a point that I have and will continue to hammer away at with the sledgehammer I have at my disposal. Too often, my former classmates believe that the only Mount Vernon that should be on public display is the one that emphasizes their raceless or supercool middle-class experience.
Some of My Classmates = Conservative America
Even in this, there’s a conservative perspective. One that says, “don’t rock the boat, don’t express a perspective that’s different than the narrative we want to put out to the world.” I know from experience and as an educator that sweeping truth into a dustbin and expressing only acceptable opinions — or acting as if all opinions, when expressed respectfully, are equal to each other — hurts us all, but especially those who are shut out of the conversation. I wish that so many of my ex-classmates had learned this while growing up in Mount Vernon, while in Mount Vernon public schools, while in Humanities with me.
I’ve come around to Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough’s way of thinking. America is a center-right nation, just as the Founding Fathers intended. Or, to be most precise, America’s DNA is one that has always had the “this-is-a-heterosexual-White-man’s-country” mutation baked into it, a gene that morphs to the point of virtual immutability. A fair number of my ex-classmates also have this mutation, which may explain my inability to fit in more than my kufi, Hebrew-Israelite status, or living at 616 in the midst of poverty domestic violence and child abuse.