The Arrogance of Youth, Grad School Style

June 5, 2012

Me taking the most thuggishly-goofy-arrogant picture I could, June 5, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks I’ve met and known over the past three decades who think that they could sum me up in one word – arrogant. I know beyond a doubt that’s what Crush #1 thought of me back in ’82. I know that some my grad school classmates and friends varied between seeing me as “aloof,” “arrogant,” “cocky,” and “focused” in my five and a half years of master’s and doctoral work. And I know that one person I worked with in the past fifteen years thought of me as arrogant, even though I doubt that he would know what arrogance looked like if he saw it in the mirror every day, which he did (see my post “The Messiah Complex At Work, Part 1” from November ’11).

Former Sen. John Edwards [and new symbol of arrogance], after acquittal/mistrial, Greensboro, NC, May 31, 2012. (AP/Chuck Burton via

But arrogance isn’t simply cockiness run amok, or people bragging about what they intend to do without doing it, or doing it and then showing off with a Tiger Woods’ fist pump or my occasional cross-kick. It’s making assumptions about the things of life as if the march to success is a given, as if victory is guaranteed, like taking the next breath or being able to stand upright.

I did that in the spring and summer of ’93, in the transition between my grad school days at the University of Pittsburgh and my more successful yet gloomy times at Carnegie Mellon. I was a year removed from my great first year of master’s work (see my post “The 4.0 Of It All” from December ’11), and a summer removed from working for Westchester Country Department of Community Mental Health in Mount Vernon for the last time (which I will discuss later this summer). The way I saw things, I knew that God was on my side, that my hard work would pay off, that everything I did led to more success, or more money in my pocket.

I acted on those beliefs that March, April and May. I wanted to move out of my crappy studio and drug-infested apartment building on Penn Circle South in East Liberty, to what I called grad student’s row — Stratford Avenue — off North Negley and Penn Avenue between East Liberty and Friendship. I even put a deposit down on a one-bedroom apartment at the beginning of March, anticipating that I’d find something work-wise for the summer. “Something would come up,” I often thought and said. So typically American of me!

Terrell Owens, somewhere between arrogant and suicidal, 2012. (

I had applied for three fellowships that year, including a summer fellowship through Pitt and the Ford Foundation’s Predoctoral Fellowship Program (via the National Academies). I just knew that I’d get at least one. But the least laid plans of the arrogant often lead to the land of losses. Throughout April and May, I received rejections for all of my well-received, coming-in-second or “Honorable Mention” applications. Not to mention that my soon-to-be former grad program wouldn’t allow me to teach a US history course, though they didn’t have anyone else to teach it other than me at the time.

I realized after my mid-May root canal (see my “Facing The Tooth” post from May ’12) that I was about to enter a tough summer financially. I managed to get back my deposit for my dream apartment two weeks before I was due to move in, paying my Penn Circle South studio rent in the process. Then, with $350 to work with until further notice, I waited.

It wasn’t until the end of the first week in June that, after some qualms about my over-qualifications, Randy Brockington and the Allegheny County Department of Federal Programs hired me to work on a report. They wanted me to assess the work of their staff on the Job Training Partnership Act portion of their department. And all to the tune of $6 an hour. My mother spent the next four years teasing me about it. As if I had another option, as if coming back to 616 for the summer would be less torturous than falling six weeks behind on my rent and receiving an eviction notice.

I made one minor adjustment in my halcyon days of grad school that in-between summer of ’93. To simply not assume anything to be a sure thing, even when it was, to make Richard Marx’s “Don’t Mean Nothing” my mantra when it came to anything around money. Who knew that a little more than two months later, me and my friend Marc would have a controversial article in Black Issues in Higher Education? Who knew that less than two years later, I’d have a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, this despite my advisor? Life is a funny, ironic walk.

After The Fall

May 18, 2012

The planet Caprica under nuclear attack, Battlestar Galactica (2003), September 28, 2011. (Gary Hutzel/SyFy Channel via Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution of picture.

Fifteen years ago this date, I officially graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with my PhD, no thanks to Carnegie Mellon itself (see my post “The Audacity of Youth, Grad School Style” from August ’11). I’d been done with the dissertation since the Friday before Thanksgiving ’96, so the ceremony itself was anticlimactic. The week of my graduation, though, revealed more about my mother and the ugly truth about how conditional our relationship was than I knew or thought possible (see my post “My Post-Doctoral Life” from May ’08 for much more).

All of that was on top of a week that included doing an interview at Teachers College, going to my mother’s associate’s degree graduation and being followed while Black at the Barnes & Noble that used to be on 66th and Broadway in Manhattan. That week came on the heels of recovering from the ordeal that was the political struggle over my dissertation process with Joe Trotter (see my “You’re Not Ready” and “Running Interference” posts from November ’08 and April ’11).

By the time I went back into town with my girlfriend (now wife of twelve years) Angelia from Pittsburgh International Airport, I was in a space I hadn’t been in since the late spring and summer of ’82. The “summer of abuse” at 616, as I call it now (see my “To My Ex-Stepfather” post from July ’09).  My pursuit of higher education, then advanced degrees and career options, and all of the success — direct, collateral and otherwise — that came with that striving and those triumphs was apparently a lot of what had kept me grounded for the previous fifteen years.

Lava lake, Mount Nyiragongo (volcano), Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 7, 2011. (Cai Tjeenk Willink via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

Now that I was done, and I was able to see people for who they really were, I found myself unbound. A deep well of rage — along with a bucket of betrayal with which to haul it up — was suddenly available to me, and would remain so for years to come. For the first time since the beginning of my sophomore year at Pitt, I felt despair, as if I was homeless and sleeping on a stairwell landing in Forbes Quadrangle again. I spent that cab ride back to East Liberty in an emotional fog, somewhere between tearing up and ready to beat someone half to death.

Angelia brought me back to her place, made me sit down, and insisted that she make dinner for me. She pulled out of her freezer some leftover stir-fry vegetables and turkey from Thanksgiving ’96, and made it into a stir-fry over rice. I was about halfway through this meal before my brain began receiving messages from my normally precise palate. “Stop eating!,” my synapses started screaming. The food I’d eaten had probably gone bad long before Angelia had frozen it. And despite the sweet and sour and soy sauces, it also became apparent that the meat had experienced severe freezer burn.

Within a few minutes, I had severe bloating and pain in my stomach, and Angelia had given me water and Pepto Bismol to settle my stomach. She apologized, “Sorry, Donald,” with an ironic laugh, adding, “This just isn’t your day.” I went back to my studio apartment on Penn Circle South that evening, in pain in many more ways than one.

My intestinal pains became worse over the next three days. I wasn’t eating much to begin with, and what I

Chemical structure of bismuth subsalicylate, aka, Pepto Bismol, September 5, 2007. (Edgar181 via Wikipedia). In public domain.

had in my system as a result of Angelia’s poisonous gruel had resulted in an intestinal blockage. A clear-headed person would’ve gone to the ER and had himself checked out. But my brain was about as clear as a mushroom cloud in the middle of Central Park. I could barely move, it hurt just sitting up, and I cried, sometimes in my sleep. At some point, the pain in my gastrointestinal tract and the pain from my graduation ceremony merged as one and the same.

Was I experiencing some psychosomatic trauma? It wouldn’t have been the first time my emotional flaying manifested itself in my G/I tract. Angelia’s food may have been the catalyst, but the realization that my mother was never really on my side — along with my advisor and some of my friends — was the root cause.

By that Friday, I was able to eat again. But like my relationship with my mother, my intestinal tract has never been the same. Betrayal and loss of trust — and faith — will do that to the most confident of us.

Facing The Tooth

May 14, 2012

My front teeth, including slightly darker lower tooth (right/my left), two root canals later, May 14, 2012, (Donald Earl Collins).

A funny series of events occurred on the transition from Pitt PhD student to Carnegie Mellon doctoral student in the spring and summer of ’93. Well, not really funny at the time. Nineteen years later, the months between April and October ’93 look like a semi-hilarious blip on my screen of life compared to what I’d gone through before and have faced since. But for a three-week period in April and May of that year, one of my teeth helped me both begin grad school at Carnegie Mellon and brought home the truth of my impoverished existence at the same time.

The week before the end of spring semester at the University of Pittsburgh — as well as the end of six years of undergraduate, master’s and doctoral work there — I woke up with a throbbing that went around the left side of my jaw. It radiated up through my left cheekbone, ear and temple. It was a toothache, one that I assumed was stress-related. Between the transfer to Carnegie Mellon, my efforts to move out of my crappy studio in East Liberty, and my search for summer work, I assume that it was just me grinding my teeth.

I relieved my stress and pain the way any normal twenty-three year-old male would. I took some Advil, went to sleep, hung out with friends and at hole-in-the-wall bars once the semester was over, and had myself a pretty good time. I took the approach that “everything will work itself out” to all the worries I had.

I also met with Carnegie Mellon’s History department’s graduate advisor that first week, John Modell (I learned later that he had been Joe Trotter’s dissertation advisor back in the mid-1970s). Modell cleared me to take the written part of the PhD comprehensive examination that the department’s second year students could take at the end of the year, which in ’93 was on May 14. Modell cleared me despite the fact that my first course as a Carnegie Mellon student wouldn’t begin until the end of August.

Then, after a week or so pain-free, I woke up a little after 5 am. I snapped up in my bed, knowing that

Severe premolar tooth decay (abscess), December 17, 2006. (Lycaon via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0 license.

something was wrong. Then, the pain came. It was like Mike Tyson had punched me in the left side of my jaw and I’d fallen head-first onto a boulder. The pain shot up and around like a puck in an NHL playoff game in overtime. The toothache was back, and it wasn’t going away.

Dumb-ass me, who rarely took meds for headaches, much less a rare toothache, tried to gut it out for a couple of days without much medicine at all. I went to Pitt that Monday and Tuesday to see if there was any chance to pick up a course to teach for the summer. There, I discovered how cold the History department administrators were regarding my time there. It turned out that there were two courses available. Even though I technically could’ve taught those courses, they held my transfer to the “other program” against me.

That made my pain worse. I couldn’t eat without a construction team of bacteria pounding my jaw. I couldn’t have a conversation without feeling brass knuckles punch my face in. I certainly couldn’t sleep more than four or five hours, and then only sitting up in a chair. By Wednesday afternoon, I couldn’t think straight anymore.

I finally walked across the bridge on South Highland Avenue to a dentist’s office next to the local neighborhood laundromat, and after an hour, scheduled an appointment for 2 pm that Friday, and picked up a prescription for 800 mg Motrin pills. For someone as drug adverse as me, it might as well have been heroin. I was taking two at a time — the equivalent of eight Advil tablets — between Wednesday evening and Friday morning. In doing so, it became obvious that my lower left front tooth was the culprit, and that my dentist was correct. I needed a root canal procedure to drain the abscess.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

So it was that on that fateful May 14, with three more horse-sized Motrin pills in my system, that I took my written comprehensives on the second floor of dark and factory-like (with its sloped floors) Baker Hall. I hadn’t studied at all, and all I really wanted to do was sleep. I chose two questions: one on women’s history/rights and historiography, the other on immigration history. From 9 am until about 12:30 pm, I wrote page after page on both subjects and conjured all the books and articles that I knew on both topics, which turned out to be quite considerable. I found the comps quite easy. Easier than any hoop that I had to jump through while at Pitt.

Still, I felt the throbbing of my tooth. Not the pain — the Motrin did its job — just the nerve in the tooth and the blood supply pushing pass the well of abscess in that tooth. I handed in my essays (I filled out four booklets’ worth of essays) and meandered my way to my dentist’s office. The root canal surgery took about two hours, but it only seemed like a dream, as I fell asleep off and on throughout.

I floated the two blocks home to 6007 Penn Circle South, secure in the fact that I passed my comps (as it turned out, with high distinction, although one of the examiners was puzzled by the fact that I had used sources not taught by any of the professors in the department). Just before I hit my pillow, ready to snore for the next fifteen hours, I thought, “Boy, is this going to be a long summer!”

Finding Home

August 30, 2010

Highland Building (tall) and 6007 Penn Circle South (short). Source:

A flat at 48 Adams Street in Mount Vernon, New York. Followed by one at 24 Adams Street. Then 48 Adams Street again. Then the entire second floor of the house at 425 South Sixth Avenue. After that, a 1,200-square-foot apartment on the third floor of the front building of the 616 East Lincoln Avenue

48 Adams Street, circa 2006

complex. After going to Pittsburgh for college, a dorm room at Lothrop Hall my freshman year. Five days of Howard Johnson’s and sleeping on a concrete landing on the fifth floor in a stairwell at Forbes Quadrangle (now Wesley Posvar Hall) the beginning of my sophomore year. A poorly partitioned one-room flat with a shared kitchen and bathroom in a firetrap for a row house, 25 Welsford Avenue, the rest of my sophomore and all of my junior years at Pitt.

The above is every place I’ve lived during my first twenty years on the planet. I never felt at home in any of those places, and when I’d come close, something violent or life changing would occur to remove that feeling of at least a sense of minor uneasiness. Alcoholism, domestic violence, divorce, second marriage, financial pressures, religious stupidity, more domestic violence and abuse, more siblings, financial collapse, college, homelessness, lack of funds and privacy defined the spaces in which I lived between ’69 and ’90. I was mostly lonely and yet hardly alone for all of those years. I had about as much space to think and write as I would’ve had in a bathroom stall at Grand Central before the renovations there during the ’90s (a story for another post). Which is why most of my Mount Vernon classmates and friends can testify to dozens of “Donald sightings” — me walking everywhere — between the ages of twelve and eighteen.

I made the decision after my junior year to find my own place, my own space, as close to or as far away from Pitt’s campus as I could. I took a week off from my summer job at Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health in White Plains at the beginning of August ’90 and took the express Greyhound to the ‘Burgh. I stayed with my friend Terri and her mother — a blog post unto itself — while looking all over the city and its po’ White and Black trash suburbs for anything between $150 and $300 a month in rent, one with my own kitchen and bath.

I found a nice place in Wilkinsburg, only discouraged by the distance it was from the East Busway East Busway near East Liberty stop. Source: elected in ’64 to spend twenty years building a busway instead of a subway to connect downtown with the suburbs — talk about being cheap!) and Pitt. Not to mention feeling uneasy about a slightly older next door neighbor who looked like she caroused a bit too much. I looked at places in Shady Side, Squirrel Hill, Highland Park, North Oakland, off Braddock Road and near Frick Park, even the Manchester and Friendship neighborhoods (somewhere between middle class, affluent, and student housing). The rent was either too rich for me or the places looked a bit run down.

Finally, on my next to last day to look, I found a place at 6007 Penn Circle South in East Liberty, right

East Liberty Presbyterian Church, down the street. Source:

across from the Shady Side neighborhood. It was a one-room efficiency (calling it a “studio” would make it sound better than it was). I had a kitchenette area with a sink, counter, cabinets, a stove and oven with a ventilation fan, and a fridge. I had my own bathroom and enough closet space for my meager clothes and toiletries. I was within walking distance of Giant Eagle, the big grocery store in the area, as well as the busway. The Highland Park Zoo bus, the 71B, as well as the 71C, ran their way to Oakland and Pitt. And Pitt was within my walking distance back then — it was more than two and a half miles from Penn Circle South to the Cathedral of Learning.

It was $220 if rent for each month was paid before the first day of the month, and $245 if not. I took the 450-square-foot flat, this despite some of the riff-raff living in the building, the hole-in-the-wall bar Constantine’s within a couple of blocks, or Kelly’s Bar for the down and out across the street. The heating and cooling, the toilet and shower, the food in my fridge was all mine. My friends Kenny, Elaine, Marc all thought it was a dump. Maybe so, especially compared to the places I’ve lived since. But it was my dump. Those eight and a half years there, I learned so much about myself and life and God and women and love. I learned how to live my life while I was in apartment 204. That began twenty years ago today. The building’s now gone (at least, it was slated to be), but the memories remain.


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