I’ve written about parts of this before, back in my first days of blogging about my life and times as a student. But this week is especially poignant. Yesterday (September 2) marked twenty years since I sat through and passed my PhD dissertation overview defense at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, making me ABD (All But Dissertation, an official PhD candidate). Tomorrow (September 4) will be forty years since my first day of school, attending kindergarten at the Nathan Hale Elementary School (now Cecil Parker ES) in Mount Vernon, New York. It was a school two buildings and an asphalt playground down from our second-floor flat, 425 South Sixth Avenue. In between was nineteen years and 363 days of time as a formal student, going from learning how to read “Dick and Jane went to the store” to writing a “book” about multiculturalism and Black Washington, DC.
I’m sure most of us don’t remember so much of what occurred in between day one and day 7,303 of student-hood. I remember plenty, though. I remember the morning being unusually cold and having to wear a windbreaker or a raincoat (according to a weather website, the high that day was only 69F, and it actually rained at some point during the day). Kindergarten was only a half-day endeavor back then, so I remember getting released to come home for lunch and spending the rest of the day playing with my Tonka toys and watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company.
Contrast that with a warm first Friday in September ’94, at a time when I’d met some new first-year PhD students in the History program, Carl, Jeff, Susannah and a few others, who all seemed surprisingly interested in my dissertation work. I think it was just that I was one of their first points of contact, going through something they themselves hoped to do within a few years. Either way, I’d been preparing to defend my eighty-page dissertation overview for the previous six weeks, in between working on a migration studies research project for Joe Trotter and keeping an eye out for dissertation grants that I firmly believed were necessary for me to get out of grad school with my sanity intact.
As I walked up the sloped, dark, factory-mimicking hallway on the second floor of Baker Hall to what would be two hours of interrogation from Trotter, Dan Resnick, Bruce Anthony Jones and Department Chair Steve Schlossman (among others in the conference room that morning) with my “entourage,” I had this two-decade juxtaposition in mind. I actually started thinking about the long path from kindergarten to PhD, and all the bumps, bruises and breaks along the way. About how on a September 2nd morning six years before, I’d been homeless and came within days of dropping out of college. About how none of this would have been possible without my older brother Darren, who taught me how to read on Christmas Day ’74. Or, for that matter, without my third-grade teacher Mrs. Shannon encouraging my Mom to buy the entire set of the ’78 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia, which led to me reading through that set between December ’78 and April ’79.
Even J. Anthony Lukas‘ Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985) was in my head as I laid out my papers and dissertation overview as references for my overview defense. I’d only read the book in the previous year. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book for nonfiction lived up to the award it earned Lukas, as he went to excruciating lengths to make the process of desegregation by busing, White fears, and Boston’s racism and racial divide come alive.
In reading about what the White parents did to stop busing in September ’74, it forced up a memory of watching the evening news my first two days of school about Boston’s White community rioting over busing and desegregation. The picket signs, the bottles and rocks. I remembered asking my Mom about it then, but I don’t think she gave me a direct answer. Lukas, though, did, twenty years later.
Finally, I thought about my Humanities classmates as I sat down and had gone through all of the pleasantries with my dissertation committee and other professors and grad students in the room. I thought about how classmates like Josh and Danny ridiculed me as a savant, who told me that history essentially was only trivia, that I couldn’t do anything with it other than “go on Jeopardy.” In some ways, they were right. They just weren’t correct on September 2, ’94.
All of this gave me a place to start. So when Trotter asked me, “What in your life has prepared you for this moment?,” I knew from which parts of my life’s journey to pick. Only to realize that in starting at the beginning, I was nowhere near full circle.