MVHS and Memorial Day Weekend Decisions

May 25, 2015

Laurence Fishburne yelling "Wake up!" at end of movie School Daze (1988), December 9, 2009. (screenshot via Qualifies as fair use due to low resolution and clarity of picture.

Laurence Fishburne yelling “Wake up!” at end of movie School Daze (1988), December 9, 2009. (screenshot via Qualifies as fair use due to low resolution of picture.

Thirty years ago this weekend, I made a couple of decisions that I would take with me for the rest of my days of formal schooling, and still keep in mind for myself when I’m in the classroom as a professor. The decisions I made about my teachers came out of a sense of both malaise and desperation. You see, I was near the end of tenth grade in May ’85, and had figured out months earlier that I had hit the mediocre-and-apathetic-teacher-lottery at Mount Vernon High School that year.

That my Humanities teachers were underwhelming shouldn’t have been a surprise, really. Yet it was. I’ve written here and in Boy @ The Window already about two teachers — Zini for history and Lewis for Chemistry — who either “got on my last nerves” or as an “unimaginative instructor” who lived in “a chain-smoking world.” But I also had an Italian teacher who lost his job in April because of the distractions of owning a car dealership, a Trig teacher who could screw up an equation for me faster than I could quip, “Yeah, right!,” and an English teacher in Carol Buckley who spent most our eighth periods together lying on a couch and asking us to water her plants! The best teacher I had that year was my keyboarding instructor, who spent most of the year congratulating the women in the class who came in typing sixty or ninety-five words per minute.

It wasn’t all their fault. I was fifteen as well, more than a bit rebellious, as nearly every adult authority figure in my life had either abused or neglected me in some way. Yeah, maybe I did take my teenage angst, my lack of belonging, and my troubles at 616 with my Mom, my idiot ex-stepfather and my father Jimme out on them from time to time. I’m sure that’s true. It’s also true that I distracted myself with Humanities and school. I used that forty-two weeks out of each year to throw down academically, to work, to grind, to use my Jedi-mind tricks to take music and movies, arts and sports to absorb knowledge like Takeru Kobayashi and ‎Joey Chestnut at a hot dog eating competition. Those teachers, with their lack of nuance, or in some cases, actual lack of knowledge (and in at least one case, lack of teaching acumen), ruined my standard operating mode.

Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut battle it out at the 2007 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, July 4, 2007. (Seth Wenig/AP;

Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut battle it out at the 2007 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, July 4, 2007. (Seth Wenig/AP;

My Memorial Day Weekend ’85 decisions actually began in February. I decided after another week of watching Viggiano mess up another sine, cosine and tangent lecture that I needed to learn how to do Trig properly, which meant on my own. I went to Mount Vernon Public Library, checked out the best Trig textbook I could find, and began working on angles and equations whenever I could squeeze in a spare moment. I bought the Barron’s Trig Regents Exam test preparation book at the end of February, and started working on practice exams in April.

It wasn’t until the week going into Memorial Day Weekend, though, that I had an epiphany about my tenth-grade teachers. Lewis made it so with yet another stream of nonsense.

Lewis went as far as to say, “There’s nothing to worry about” on the subject of organic chemistry. “There will be hardly any organic chemistry on the exam, anyway,” he said. After eight months of listening to his blathering, I thought “That’s it! Whatever he says to do, I’m doing the opposite!” The next time I got money from Jimme, I went out and bought the Barron’s Chemistry Regents exam prep book. It was just before Memorial Day, and I had a month before the exam.

That wasn’t all I decided and did. I really did think that my teachers were incompetent, lazy and arrogant. I simply could no longer trust them, even as I was desperate to trust someone at fifteen. I decided that ultimately, I was my own best teacher and own best barometer of what I needed to learn and why I needed to learn it. I decided that teachers had to earn my trust as a student, that I was no longer going to automatically entrust them with my educational enrichment, no questions asked. I decided that if I really was going to be going to college in a couple of years, that I had to keep my eyes open for individuals I could trust, because by the end of tenth grade, I didn’t trust Humanities as a program and MVHS as a school.

Those decisions turned out to be good ones, even though it also meant few new friends and only a couple of mentors after tenth grade. Luckily there was Meltzer, luckily there was Martino, and luckily, I was only two years from graduating.

Kiss From A Rose – 20 Years On

May 20, 2015

Twenty years ago on this date, I re-met the woman who’s now my wife of fifteen years, Angelia on a PAT-Transit bus in Pittsburgh, the old 71B-Highland Park into Oakland. It was an eighty-five degree Saturday afternoon in the ‘Burgh. I decided to treat myself to a movie, Batman Forever (1995), mostly because I knew Val Kilmer was in it. After seeing him act as well as he did in Tombstone, I figured I needed to give it a try. I needed a break, between the euphoria of the Spencer Fellowship and the depression from the fire at 616 that had rendered my family homeless.

So here it was, 3:15 in the afternoon, with me dressed in a blue t-shirt with blue basketball shorts and sneaks. I was standing at the corner of Highland Avenue and Penn Circle South, across from my apartment building, waiting for a bus. The 71B showed up first. I jumped on, sat down on the right-hand side in a front-facing seat. As soon as I sat down, I saw her, sitting right in front of me. It was “Angela with an ‘i’,” Angelia, like that Richard Marx song from ’90.

Seal's second album/CD, Seal (1994): "Kiss From A Rose" re-released as part of Batman Forever (1995) soundtrack in June/July 1995. (

Seal’s second album/CD, Seal (1994): “Kiss From A Rose” re-released as part of Batman Forever (1995) soundtrack in June/July 1995. (

The thing was, I had a dream that she showed up in the Saturday before this one. I hadn’t seen Angelia in more than two years, hadn’t given her any thought. But it seemed weird that she would just show up a week later in the flesh.

So I said, “Hi Angelia!,” excitedly, wondering what she was doing on the bus. She paused, said “Hi” with the heaviest, stop-bothering-me sigh I’d heard since my high school days. That didn’t deter me. I coaxed out of her the fact that she was pissed off with Carnegie Library because a book she was looking for at the East Liberty branch wasn’t there, even though the catalog said it was. It was a conversation that was one-sided, with Angelia doing most of the complaining.

I listened, and thought, “Yep, same Angelia, same weird Angelia.” But since I was weird also, I kept listening. Finally, she asked me what I was up to. I told her about school, my Spencer Fellowship, my family’s homelessness situation. I kept it brief. I mean, I hadn’t seen her in two years.

By the time we reached Oakland — me to catch one of the 61s to Squirrel Hill to catch the movie, Angelia to walk over to the main branch of Carnegie Library — we exchanged numbers, with Angelia saying, “It was really good talking to you.” I wasn’t so sure about that myself, but at least, she didn’t seem as weird as the woman she was five years earlier.

Screen with Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis from Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995), posted February 28, 2013. (

Screen with Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis from Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995), posted February 28, 2013. (

I went to see the movie, but it turned out that it wasn’t out yet. It wasn’t due out for another month! I ended up seeing Die Hard With a Vengeance with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Though much better than Die Hard 2 (1990; one shouldn’t really watch any feature film with John Amos taking up significant screen time, it still sucked, because Willis and Jackson spent half the movie yelling, and Jeremy Irons’ performance didn’t have Alan Rickman’s sense of social irony. I walked home, got together some grub, and through all preconceptions out the window. I gave her a call to tell her about the film mix-up. We ended up talking for more than three hours! It was the first time in a long time I had talked to a woman who wanted to hear what I thought about, well, anything, at least anything outside of sex. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

A month later, we went to see Batman Forever, and it sucked, just like Angelia said it would. But Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” didn’t. I bought his CD, though, and not the movie soundtrack!

The Long Road Home

May 19, 2015

My stressed-out PhD walk photo, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

My stressed-out PhD walk photo, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Angelia N. Levy).

It’s been eighteen years and nearly a day since I had to shake then Carnegie Mellon Dean Peter Stearns’ hand on stage as part of the PhD portion of the 100th commencement ceremony for graduates, that third sweltering Sunday in May ’97. I’ve talked about the ceremony, my Mom’s jealousy and issues about my degree, Peter Stearns, Joe Trotter, Bruce Anthony Jones, and what happened before and after the degree ceremonies on that fateful day.

But time and enlightenment — especially the latter — has allowed me to take a step back from the events leading to a new wave of disillusionment in my life. If I really think about it, my struggles with where I wanted to go with my career go as far back as ’81, in the months after my first accolades as a writer, to the time when at eleven, I already had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, basic science, and technology. Heck, I already knew some of the historiography around World War II, the Cold War, American slavery and civil rights, long before I ever knew the definition for historiography. Not to mention, I was already living what we now call migration studies, thanks to my Mom and dad.

But my Boy @ The Window years did their damage to me. By the time I turned twenty at the end of the ’80s, I wasn’t fully clear of the array of choices I had for a career or set of careers. I knew I could write, and often write well. Yet I had stopped seeing myself as a writer by the time I went through my summer of abuse in ’82. I knew that I was a historian, because I asked the kinds of questions about history that only trained historians would. Yet I hated the idea that I was supposed to write only one way, using words like synergistic and interstitial (at an esoteric minimum) along the way. I toyed with the idea of going to law school in ’90, even going so far as to take the LSAT, scoring a then-50th percentile 31 on the exam in my one-and-only try.

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), The Long Road--Argilla Road, Ipswich, circa 1898, April 28, 2010. (BrooklynMuseumBot via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), The Long Road–Argilla Road, Ipswich, circa 1898, April 28, 2010. (BrooklynMuseumBot via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I struggled for years with my fundamental question: “Am I an academic historian who’s also a writer? Am I a writer who’s also a historian? Can I be both?” I realized about a decade ago the question was moot. I am both. The real question really has been, will the working world allow me to operate as both without giving me grief and a hard way to go? (By the way, if I ever were to do a second, post-Boy @ The Window memoir, this would be one of that book’s big themes.)

I can safely say as a mildly successful freelance writer that the answer for many in this world of singularities is no. The working world puts up a fight, has and will continue to try to force me and others with multiple talents to choose one path, to do one thing, and one thing only, ideally for all time.

Academicians only think about each other via teaching duties or well-placed articles and books in scholarly journals and scholarly publishing houses. Higher education administrators believe that the only way to understand their work is through the lens of their specific university, as if universities and colleges aren’t similar from a management standpoint. Nonprofit organizations

A male mallard duck, a bird's triple threat (can walk, swim under water and fly), Saint-Eustache, Quebec, Canada, November 19, 2007. (Acarpentier via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

A male mallard duck, a bird’s triple threat (can walk, swim under water and fly), Saint-Eustache, Quebec, Canada, November 19, 2007. (Acarpentier via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

discount teaching and higher education administrator positions because finding money or managing students isn’t exactly the same as managing staff. Foundations who use your salary history instead of your scope of programs developed, people reached, and money raised as a barometer for even granting you an interview. All would prefer that you be quiet about injustices, especially ones in which their institution, organization, or foundation might well be complicit.

For me in the past couple of decades, though, I’ve worked in and with academicians, higher education administrators, nonprofit organizations, and private foundations. I’ve helped raise $3 million over the years, managed as many as twenty-five staff members, organized four-day conferences with a couple hundred attendees, worked with as many as 500 students at any given time, and taught undergraduate and graduate courses. I’ve written scholarly articles, published in scholarly journals, presented at a couple dozen conferences, and consulted for nonprofit organizations and foundations. To think of myself as only one thing is beyond ridiculous given my by-necessity-and-neglect careers so far.

Yesterday, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted the article “Thriving as a Freelance Academic” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal. In it, Pryal interviewed three White women about their experiences freelancing in the academic world. The women interviewed found a singular niche, found steady work through that niche, and otherwise didn’t question the idea of freelancing in a world in which freelancing is a rare career choice.

A square peg hammered into a round hole, May 2014. (

A square peg hammered into a round hole, May 2014. (

All that is fine. Except there was little soul-searching in Pryal’s piece. The women interviewed might as well have decided to go on a global trek or rock climbing, given their lack of ambivalence about academia or deliberate lack of specifics and dryness about the work they actually do. I don’t doubt that one can freelance in academia. I doubt, though, that one can do it without personal relationships with a specific university or alma mater, or with a specific higher education administrator or prominent professor. Why pick on this piece? Because there are far more people like me in and out of academia, who’ve consulted and freelanced and worked and stitched together a career, then there are the people represented in Pryal’s boutique article.

There is a lesson here besides the reality that life is a journey, and to get it right, we need to understand that it can and will be a roller-coaster-ride of a journey. The lesson, for me at least, is that while being true to myself has sometimes had consequences in terms of immediate victories and easy financial gains, it does mean I get to have success, and sometimes, even lasting success.

Middle School Teachers, Middle School Memories

May 14, 2015

A.B. Davis Middle School, Mount Vernon, NY, November 21, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins). Built in 19226, it used to be Mount Vernon High School before Black migration, the Brown decision and ending some discriminatory ability grouping practices forced the school board to build a new high school after 1954.

A.B. Davis Middle School, Mount Vernon, NY, November 21, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins). Built in 1926, it used to be Mount Vernon High School before Black migration, the Brown decision and ending some discriminatory ability grouping practices forced the school board to build a new high school after 1954.

There’s a reason why much of the recent research on middle schools has called for the elimination of middle schools long-term, that instead, K-5 or K-6 ought to become K-8. It’s a transitional period for kids, one that even with the best of parents, most preteens face mostly unprepared. It’s based on a system that educators and policy makers designed a century ago, when the average student completed their formal education in seventh or eighth grade (only one in five students living in the early twentieth century went on to high school).

The teachers traditionally prepared by schools of education really aren’t prepared specifically for sixth, seventh or eighth grade, but for secondary education. Meaning, teachers either have higher social and emotional expectations of 10-to-14-year-olds than they have prepared for, or they have higher academic expectation of their students than the students have been prepared for, or both. These are among the reasons why middle schools can easily become a black hole for students too young to be dealing with teachers trained really for high school, and a black hole for teachers who simply aren’t as prepared for tweeners and thirteen-year-olds as they like to pretend.

Sligo Middle School, Silver Spring, MD, August 2014. (

Sligo Middle School, Silver Spring, MD, August 2014. (

Despite the advances in teacher preparation in the past couple of decades, this reality still exists at most middle schools, including my son’s Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring. Common Core, PAARC assessments, a wide variety of fatty lunch options, all make students feel that education matters and yet it really doesn’t. My son has already had a couple of teachers whose first and second instinct for controlling their classrooms has been to yell early and often, to the point where I’m convinced that at least one of his teachers this year had Tourette’s (at least, until we had the school move him out of that class). At least two others could be accused of unconsciously labeling their students, as their expectations of their students have gone unmet.

Through meeting these teachers, I’ve re-recognized something that used to be wrong in my own teaching, back when I first started teaching in Duquesne University’s College of Education in the late-1990s. To have high expectations and standards of conduct isn’t enough. Teachers need to communicate it, through examples, through their lessons, through a rubric, quite frankly, and not just a laundry list of expectation. Simply put, given the age of the students, teachers need to positively and consistently encourage students to meet those expectations, and lay out why these expectations will help them, academically and practically.

I had precisely two teachers at A.B. Davis Middle School in Mount Vernon, New York in the early 1980s who did exactly that. My eighth-grade science teacher, Mrs. Mignone, and my first-year, eighth-grade Algebra teacher, Ms. Jeanne Longerano were the best two teachers I had in two years of middle school Humanities-style. Both were committed to the idea that every student in the classroom deserved their undivided attention, which meant that we as students — even us fidgety ones — had to give our maximum preteen attention to what was happening in the classroom as well. Both had high expectations of us, academically and otherwise. I don’t think I got away with much of anything in their classrooms that 1982-83 school year, not even as much as scratching my pubescent balls because the hair was coming in that year.

I learned a life lesson about internalized racism and having high standards for human decency from Mrs. Mignone at the end of eighth grade. Not to mention, the applications of math to science, and science to history, which I carry with me to this day. From Ms. Longerano, I renewed my love for math, began my technical understanding of computer science (we had a computer science club that she started that year), and had a neighbor that I talked to from time to time. Ms. Longerano had given us such a strong foundation in Algebra that it wasn’t until AP Calculus in twelfth grade when I ran into any serious math troubles again.

In all, though, I had twelve different teachers in two years of middle school. I had an art teacher who was also the Humanities coordinator for A.B. Davis in Doris Mann who graded us on the quality of our art, “not just for trying,” to use her words. I had a seventh-grade science teacher whom I’d based some of the nutty stories I told my son over the years, about him eating raw clams in class or coming in after being sprayed by a skunk that same morning. I had a music teacher in Mrs. Mallory for two years who was flat-out goofy to the point of seriously immature, only to find out years later that she had done her same song-and-dance when she taught second-graders. I had a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Mr. Court who was the teacher who probably made his class the most fun, but not necessarily the most educational.

In contrast, Ms. Simmons (seventh-grade math), Ms. Fleming (Italian), and Dr. Demon Travel (eighth-grade social studies), were teachers who cared more about discipline and/or quick-and-dirty rote memorization than anything else. Simmons actually intimidated me, until one day near the end of the school year, I stood next to her. Only to find that I’d grown two inches, to five-foot-four, and that I was now at least an inch taller than her curly mini-fro. Mrs. Sesay, my homeroom and seventh-grade English teacher, was the opposite, a teacher who had little control over her classroom. Almost every incident of taunting and humiliation I experienced in seventh grade had its origins in 7S homeroom or English first period.

Still, I survived, mostly because of a crush in seventh grade, more maturity in eighth, and two really wonderful teachers in that latter year. I don’t want my son, though, to look back at his middle school years and go “Meh.” Unfortunately, he can already do that for sixth grade. Seventh and eighth will have to be better, even if it means I have to home-school him.

The 8th-Grade History Award Race

May 6, 2015

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, last general-secretary of the Communist Party, USSR (1985-90), first and last president of the USSR (1990-91), May 6, 2015. (

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, last general-secretary of the Communist Party, USSR (1985-90), first and last president of the USSR (1990-91), May 6, 2015. (

One of the worst teachers I ever had was my eighth grade history teacher at A.B. Davis Middle School between September ’82 and June ’83. His name was Mr. Demontravel, our American history teacher. Or as he preferred in the last three months of eighth grade, Dr. Demontravel (he had finished his doctoral thesis on the Civil War, on what beyond that, I wasn’t sure, and, given the way he was to me and us, I didn’t care either). Or as I liked to call him throughout that year, “Demon Travel.”

Old Scantron machine, January 24, 2012. (

Old Scantron machine, January 24, 2012. (

His was a class that sucked the life out of history for most of us. Like most teachers of K-12 social studies or history, it was a dates, names, and places class. Unlike most social studies teachers, his teaching methodology was the epitome of lazy. Every class, five days a week, Demontravel would put up five questions on the blackboard for us to copy down and answer using our textbook. At the end of every two-week period, we’d get a fifty-question multiple choice exam, helping Scantron stay in business.

Demontravel rarely stood up to lecture or do anything else. Lectures for him might as well have been appearances by Halley’s Comet, only the lectures were far less memorable. This process went on unabated for forty-weeks, four marking periods, an entire school year. Calling this boring would only get you into the door of the intellectual famine Demontravel subjected us to in eighth grade.

He wasn’t particularly helpful on the rare occasions when someone did have a question. When a classmate did ask him something, the portly Demontravel would stand up from his desk, which was to our right as we faced the chalkboard, slowly walk toward it, point to a question on the board, tell us in his best Teddy Roosevelt voice what page to turn to in looking for the answer, and then, just as slowly, return to his seat at his desk. Demontravel was truly an unremarkable and boring fifty-something man, virtually bald in all of his pink salmon-headedness, skinny and potbellied beyond belief. His shiny bald head had a Gorbachev-like spot on it.

But there was the fact that there was a prize on the line for us nerdy middle-schoolers—the eighth-grade History Award. “Something I could actually win,” I thought. And Demontravel was the sole arbiter over the award. My favorite and easiest subject was in the hands of this hack of a teacher. That made me downright angry whenever I thought about it.

Post Grape-Nuts cereal at its visual best, with milk, raspberries and blueberries, May 6, 2015. (

Post Grape-Nuts cereal at its visual best, with milk, raspberries and blueberries, May 6, 2015. (

I ended up not winning the award, mostly because I correctly corrected Demontravel in front of the whole class one day about key battles of World War I on the Eastern Front. And, also because after he threatened to kick me out of his classroom, I drew a naked picture of his Santa Claus-looking body with a scrotum the size of two Grape-Nuts! Though I drew it in Italian class, I’m sure my counselor told Demontravel about it.

So, 96.4 average or not, I lost the award to my classmate Jennifer, who had a 96.3 average. She was part of what I came to call the “Benetton Group.” They were a group of superficially aware, middle-class-to-affluent folks in the Humanities Program who went through the Grimes Center program (which later became Pennington-Grimes Elementary) together, who thought they were down with the cool and the exotic (with people like Wendy and Brandie being prima facie examples of both). Or, at least, Jennifer acted like she was a part of that group.

She was a bit withdrawn in eighth grade. I never fully understood why. All I knew the first half of the year was that she had set a mark that I needed to beat to have any chance at the history award. By the time I drew my post-modernist interpretation of my lazy, boring-ass history teacher, though, I cared far less about the award and a bit more about this person I only talked to after school, on our walks back to our real lives near the Mount Vernon-Pelham border.

As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 12.57.01 PM

I guess Jennifer knew that she would no longer be a part of the grand experiment that was Humanities, the social experience that was integration in a “dangerous” majority of color high school. I bumped into Jennifer a handful of times after eighth grade, between high school and my bachelor’s degree finish at the University of Pittsburgh. Though I have no idea where life has taken her, I must admit, I enjoyed competing with her all eighth grade for an award I knew I’d never get.

Baltimore, A “Riot”? Really?

April 29, 2015

Screen shot of map of violent incidents in Baltimore near site of Freddie Gray protests on Monday, April 28, 2015. ( via Twitter).

Screen shot of map of violent incidents in Baltimore near site of Freddie Gray protests on Monday, April 28, 2015. ( via Twitter).

What happened in Baltimore on Monday wasn’t a riot. Let me repeat that. The violence that broke on in Baltimore a day and a half ago was NOT a riot. Nor was it a referendum on Black violence. Nor was it a microcosm of Black youth as “thugs.” Nor was it “violent clashes between police and protestors,” at least not in any formal sense. It was random violence and vandalism, spread out far enough to be, sadly, a typical week in an impoverished Baltimore neighborhood, as part of larger impoverished and divided city. Period.

Exhibit A of media coverage, Erin Burnett, CNN, April 28, 2015. (

Exhibit A of media coverage, Erin Burnett, CNN, April 28, 2015. (

The Baltimore coverage has been a caustic cocktail so far. One of a media with bipolar disorder, bouncing from ignoring Freddie Gray’s death and the first protests during the White House Correspondence Dinner to wall-to-wall coverage for the past two days. Combine that with the inaction on moving forward with disciplining or arresting the Baltimore PD officers involved in making Freddie Gray paralyzed and dead. Combine that with the Black Respectability Police yammering on as if vandalism is simply an issue of undisciplined youth. Mix that with White columnists and commentators spewing racial stereotypes like a sewer hole. And you get the same numbskull presentation of a situation in which the questions are about how a handful in a community responded in snapshot to years of oppression, neglect, ignoring and ignorance.

Overhead shot of L.A. riots, contrast between South Central LA fires and downtown LA smog, April 30, 1992. (

Overhead shot of L.A. riots, contrast between South Central LA fires and downtown LA smog, April 30, 1992. (

Twenty-three years ago today, half-a-lifetime ago for me, the L.A. riots began, within a couple of hours of the first verdict in the Rodney King case. You know, the one where that all-White Simi Valley jury made up of retired cops acquitted the police officers involved of all charges. That was a riot, in every sense of the word. It was organized, it was disorganized, it went on for days, it took out whole city blocks, it left 53 dead, more than 2,000 injured, and the police and the National Guard arrested more than 11,000 people.

Watching that unfold was a traumatic experience. It was the kind of experience that should make people — especially in the news business — remember that not every act of violence that occurs during a protest is part of that protest or constitutes a riot. By labeling what happened on Monday in Baltimore a “riot” is insulting to anyone with a long memory. Seven fires, a few clashes, a handful of burned out and bashed in vehicles. Heck, where I grew up, in “Money Earnin'” Mount Vernon, New York, that’s a bad weekend in December ’99. But it’s not a riot.

I’ll tell you what is a riot, though. East St. Louis, Illinois in 1917. The 1863 Draft Riots in New York. Chicago and Washington, DC during the Red Summer of 1919. Detroit in 1943. The 100-plus riots after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Vancouver, in 2011, after the Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup Finals (again). Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention, Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization conference. But when White folks destroy property or take lives during widespread and seemingly random violence, it’s either a “protest” or “civil unrest.”

Vancouver Canucks fans riot after team's Stanley Cup Finals Game 7 defeat, June 16, 2011. (Reuters via

Vancouver Canucks fans riot after team’s Stanley Cup Finals Game 7 defeat, June 16, 2011. (Reuters via

I’ll tell you something else. The media, the respectability police, and Whites in denial want nothing more than to make the Freddie Gray killing and the protests a besides-the-point news story. For them, making Blacks look less than human is the story. For them, any imperfection, any violence, any sense of the full range of humanity on display when under systemic oppression, is reason to celebrate. Because it means they can spend another day living in their matrix, where all their racism and race-based privilege is confirmed.

Why Boston U Isn’t For Me, and Shouldn’t Be For You

April 26, 2015

The main classroom buildings for the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, with the BU East 'T' stop in the foreground, July 18, 2010. (Fletcher6 via Wikipedia). Released to the public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

The main classroom buildings for the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, with the BU East ‘T’ stop in the foreground, July 18, 2010. (Fletcher6 via Wikipedia). Released to the public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Since my first job working for my father in Manhattan in ’84, I’ve probably done over 200 interviews. By telephone, through Skype or WebEx or Adobe Connect, at conferences and in person. Probably about a third of those interviews have occurred with colleges and universities, for academic and administrator-level positions. For the most part, whether the interviews went well or when I didn’t have my “A-game,” my experiences have been pleasant ones. But, after two different interview processes five years apart with Boston University — one in October ’10, the other last month — there is a higher education institution that I will not work for, will not send my son, and will not recommend for anyone I know, under nearly any circumstances.

There are only a few institutions that have been so bad that they’ve moved from my [expletive] list to my permanently-banned-from-my-life list. Even Carnegie Mellon isn’t on the latter list, and I’ve talked about their conservatism and weirdness around diversity before here. But Boston University’s treatment of me as a potential employee, well, it took my breath away without putting me in an NYPD chokehold.

Round 1, Boston University, August-October 2010

Let me rephrase. I was never a “potential employee,” because on the two occasions I interviewed for jobs there, Boston University in the end treated me as a checkmark interviewee. In the fall of ’10, I emerged for them as a candidate for the director of their Washington, DC program. They interviewed me three times: at the American Political Science Association conference in DC in August, at their old DC program headquarters (while also showing me their new one, still under construction) in September, and in person on the main Boston University campus in late October.

For that last interview, they pulled out all the stops. They flew me in, put me up in a nearby hotel the night before, and even took me to lunch. Of course, they also had someone give me a two-hour guided tour of the campus that morning, after one morning meeting, on a day with thirty mile-per-hour winds coming off the Charles River as we walked from one end of the campus to the other. It’s funny. Up until then, I never thought of a campus tour as sinister. But then I realized, if I’m spending two hours during the heart of the workday doing a campus tour with a twenty-four year-old BU grad in forty-five degree weather, what did that mean for my real chances at that job?

My final meeting was with a professor who advised political science and history major in the DC program. That meeting ended at 5 pm on October 22, with which I knew that they were supposed to make a final decision in a week or so. Despite a thank-you email and two follow-up emails, I didn’t hear from Boston University again until November 29. Roberta Turri Vise, the point person for my interview process, didn’t explain why the final decision took more than five weeks. Nor did she explain why after six weeks of correspondence, no response from my requests were returned by her or anyone else in her office.

Round 2, Boston University, January-March 2015

I decided that this was a one-off thing, that with our generation of job searches occurring in a buyer’s market, that some folks really don’t care about being professionals in their dealing with interviewees. Boy was I wrong! Even in a market where people ignore applicant materials and send mass rejection emails without a candidate’s name on it (or worse, with someone else’s name), Boston University claimed a unique crown.

Hierarchy tree of Boston University's leadership team via the Provost's Office, April 26, 2015. (

Hierarchy tree of Boston University’s leadership team via the Provost’s Office, April 26, 2015. (

I interviewed with them again in January and at the beginning of March. This was for a position in their provost’s office, a director position managing undergraduate and graduate fellowship opportunities and advising students via those opportunities. The position was a bit beneath my experience, but they seemed interested, and I already knew from some initial research that it was a new position, so I went ahead and applied for it. My first interview was by telephone, with Suzanne Kennedy, the assistant provost for academic affairs at Boston University. It was a pleasant but underwhelming interview, and I actually didn’t expect a call back. So I kept up with my usual work of teaching, consulting, and looking for more consulting opportunities.

I received an email five weeks later asking me to come up to Boston for a second, in-person interview. I gave it the go-ahead, although the length of time between first interview and correspondence concerned me. So too, did my back and forth with Kennedy’s assistant over travel, as she had initially booked me at times that were very inconvenient for interviewing purposes. Not to mention, the major snow issues that Boston experienced in February.

The interview on March 4 was honestly one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had interviewing for any job. I’m including an interview in which I discovered the place was a sweatshop in Chinatown, during my summer of unemployment in New York in ’88. I had three meetings in all, one over lunch with Kennedy, and two with the two associate provosts at Boston University in academic affairs (one undergraduate, one graduate). Over lunch, the conversation was going well, until I asked the question about the level of diversity with applicant pools for Fulbrights, Trumans, Borens, and Rhodes’ scholarships and fellowships. I kid you not, Kennedy’s eyes literally glazed over as soon as I asked about diversity. Keep in mind, I had asked about socioeconomic diversity — I hadn’t touched racial or gender diversity yet. After lunch, I didn’t see Kennedy again for the rest of the interview process.

My second sign came from my third meeting. I met with Timothy Barbari, associate provost for graduate affairs. It was obvious that Barbari hadn’t even looked at my CV before I walked into his office. The first thing Barbari says to me, with him pushing his body into the back of his chair so far that his attempt to be at ease looked more like a rocket revving to take off — “so, you have a rather interesting CV.” I may not have earned all of my money as an academician, but I’ve been around academic-speak long enough to know that interesting can mean a lot of different things, mostly bad. In this context, interesting meant “not straightforward, not linear in progression, not typical in terms of whom we typically hire.”

I was already feeling a bit like a checkmark or token interviewee by the time I left Barbari’s office for Logan. But after USAirways canceled all their flights to DC that evening due to a snowstorm that wouldn’t drop a snowflake for another twelve hours, it got worse. I notified Kennedy through her assistant that I was stuck in Boston overnight from Logan, and left a message the next morning that the Amtrak to DC was my only option, as more flights had been canceled. No word, not even a “I’m sorry that you have to go through this” response. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that Friday, nearly a day after I returned to DC, and after a third message about them needing to reimburse me, that I heard from Kennedy’s assistant.

At that point, I wouldn’t have taken the job even if they had offered it to me. As it was, I didn’t hear from Kennedy again until April 7, five weeks after a second interview, and despite a check-in to find out what happened with this director position. It’s this kind of calloused approach that leaves folks shaking their head.

Shaking Off The Dirt

I’ve made a few determinations based on these experiences. For one, if this is the way that treat job candidates who look like me, how well do they pay and treat their service staff, the most vulnerable people on their campus? Not well, at least from what I saw and have experienced. For two, the fact that for both interviews, their top concern seemed to be about competing with “schools across the Charles River” — i.e., Harvard, MIT, Tufts — was somewhere between disconcerting and ridiculous.

An elephant shaking off the dirt, circa 2012. JD Rucker via

An elephant shaking off the dirt, circa 2012. (JD Rucker via

The fact that with tuition, books, and room and board it would run the average BU student $60,000 per year also told me what I needed to know. Boston University is a place that wants elite status and elite students, and in pursuit of this Pollyanna goal, wants to hire people they feel fit the bill. As long as those people look like everyone else running the university — mostly White, with a few people of color lightly sprinkled in leading positions at the institution. Because Boston University has what activist Linda Sarsour (Twitter, @lsarsour) calls cosmetic diversity, a genuine attempt at diversity across socioeconomic, racial and gender lines is unnecessary, at least for the powers whom run the institution.

Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., who earned his doctorate in divinity at Boston University in the early 1950s, I’ve known or known of only one person of color with a degree from BU. She was a neighbor at 616 East Lincoln, a few years younger. Based on her description of more than two decades ago, I’d have to say that Boston University has changed for the worst. Like most universities, they seem more interested in prestige and raising money than in fulfilling their mission.

And with that being the case, why send your kid to Boston University? Especially when, for the same amount of money or less, every other school in the Boston area is either better, or at least, cares more about diversity and learning beyond the cosmetic.


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