It seems to me that I’ve spent a lot of time over the past three decades overcoming other people’s psychological issues. Regarding race, race and gender, race, gender and class, not to mention performance issues, success, jealousy and envy, and other psychoses that had little or nothing to do with me. It’s something that most folks who aren’t Black, male, grew up in poverty and had some success (however one defines that) really can’t understand unless they have parents who’ve told them every single day that they “weren’t good enough to live.”
Still, these issues have mostly cropped up for me when I’ve experienced what most people would recognize as success, as if the only role I was ever supposed to play in life was that of a doormat. The first time I went through this process of blowing up other people’s low expectations of me was at the beginning of my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, about this time twenty-five years ago. A couple of weeks into the school year, MVHS released our class rankings. Out of the 545 or so students eligible to graduate as part of the Class of ’87, I was ranked fourteenth with a 3.83 average.
I understood that this was pretty good, but I was also disappointed that I hadn’t cracked the top ten. In fact, the top twelve students in our class all had GPAs above a 4.0, all because of our weighted Level 0 and Level 1 courses. Crush #1 finished just ahead of me, thirteenth in our rankings, something I saw as ironic. Despite this sign of academic success, I hoped and wished for more, and spent several late-night walks over the next few weeks second-guessing my work in tenth grade.
My classmates started to show their darker sides, some for the first time since the days of 7S. One came up to me after my AP Calculus class soon after the rankings were posted. “The only reason you’re in the top twenty’s because of history!,” implying that I was an average student in all of my other subjects. Another, much shorter and much more condescending classmate chimed in a few days later, saying that “the only thing you can do with history is play Jeopardy.” I wasn’t exactly walking around school celebrating my good fortune. I chalked it up to the stress of years of academic competition, the boiling over of senioritis and the rage associated with college preparations. The possibility that jealousy was involved didn’t cross my mind until much later. I didn’t think that anyone could be envious of my standing.
Fast-forward four years to the fall of ’90, as I prepared in earnest for grad school. Not only had I endured a short conversation at the beginning of that year with the great Sylvia Fasulo and her attempts to discourage me from pursuing grad school, law school or a career in law (see my “The Legend of Sylvia Fasulo” from September ’09). I had two professors from Pitt who told me that they weren’t sure about my chances for getting into grad school, and Reid Andrews, who flat-out told me that he didn’t think that I was “graduate school material.”
I have no doubt that if these yahoos were jealous of me at all, it was because of my age, and not my potential. They simply didn’t see how a 3.4 GPA and a 3.82 in my history major would be good enough to get me into a master’s — much less a doctoral — program. The fact that I completed my master’s degree in two semesters within twenty months of essentially being told that I was a fool left Andrews, at least, at a loss for words.
There are so many other instances in which a grad student, a professor, a supervisor, even my siblings, have expressed their low expectations and jealousy over my tiny little crumbs of success that it has left my head spinning on a broom handle. I mean, what did I really do to earn or deserve that kind of attention? I don’t own a house or have a million dollars in gold lying around. I have yet to publish an article in Rolling Stone or in The Atlantic Monthly. I don’t exactly have LeBron James or President Obama on speed dial.
So what is it about me, I’ve asked myself so many times? And then, I’ve reminded myself of something I figured out about twenty-one years ago. That the only expectations that I ultimately need to meet or exceed are my own. That what other people say about me, no matter how distasteful, really doesn’t matter, for those folks were never going to be there for me anyway.
Maybe it’s my refusal to live under someone else’s low expectations, to not allowing myself the luxury of envy, that irks those around me. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s as simple as misery loving company, and not loving mine. Either way, it’s ironic that we live in a time in which we prefer to tear each other down rather than help each other get going in our lives. Which makes my relationship with the rest of humanity so bittersweet. I guess I really am a writer!