Second Day of High School, Wake-Up Call #17

September 8, 2013

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

I talked about my first day at Mount Vernon High School in ’83 a few days ago. But as I said in my book Boy @ The Window, my second day was just as memorable. It was already the beginning of the end of my days as a Hebrew-Israelite by the time the summer of ’83 had turned into ninth grade. I didn’t need any more wake-up calls than the reality that my then stepfather was more of a hypocritical bastard than he’d been before finding this strange Afrocentric and “Jewish” religion. But my classmate Nes gave me yet another one anyway:

“After a day of assignments and learning the names of our new teachers, I went to Louis Cuglietto’s eighth-period Geometry class. It was on the first floor of the school, just to the right of the front entrance and the cafeteria. As I milled around the classroom looking to take my seat, my Latino classmate Nes came out of nowhere and snatched my kufi off my head.

“’Give it back now!,’ I yelled.

“’Make me!,’ Nes responded with a bit of sarcasm.

“Just as he was about to throw it to another classmate. I grabbed Nes and knocked him to the floor. There we were, on the floor by the dark green chalkboard, me on top of Nes, who was struggling to hold on to my kufi. I lay on top of him, punched him in the face a couple of times, and took my kufi back from him just before Cuglietto came into the room. By this time everyone in our class had formed a circle to watch the spectacle. I don’t remember all of what Cuglietto said, but he did ask, ‘Do you want to get suspended?’ After we dusted ourselves off, we went to our desks and got back to work.

“For me, the incident marked a transition point in my life at school. This would be the last fight I’d have in school. Some people continued to try to verbally intimidate me. But they left it at that, probably because my height and my face said ‘Don’t mess with me’ before I’d say anything.

“The more immediate result was that I began to question more consciously my motives for defending myself as a Hebrew-Israelite. ‘Why do I care if Nes snatches my kufi from me?,’ I said to myself on the way home from school that day. It wasn’t as if I truly believed in any of the teachings anymore. I definitely didn’t want anyone messing with me at home or in school. At the same time, I didn’t want to use up energy defending something in which I didn’t believe.”

To say that I was disillusioned would be like saying active volcanoes are dangerous. I had a smoldering anger from the previous twenty-eight months of physical and mental abuse at home (along with our plunge into welfare poverty), and ridicule and isolation at school. But I also realized that making a move to declare that I was no longer a Hebrew-Israelite meant that much of what I had gone through at school, though, was a complete waste of time and energy. And with nothing and no one to believe in or for, I still wasn’t ready to move on.

But the month of September ’83 had more in store for me, Yom Kippur especially (to be continued).


Kufi Battles

February 15, 2013

Slow-motion punch frame from Matrix Revolutions (2003), February 15, 2013. (http://theathleticnerd.com/).

Slow-motion punch frame from The Matrix Revolutions (2003), February 15, 2013. (http://theathleticnerd.com/).

My days as a kufi-wearing Hebrew-Israelite at school is one of those things I don’t spend much time on this blog talking about. Mostly because it involved defending myself to protect a piece of clothing and a religion in which I never fully believed, especially after early ’83. Plus, it involved fairly rare attempts in which dumb asses attempted to bully me. Compared to my now deceased idiot ex-stepfather’s abuse, no kid or wannabe thug after the summer of ’82 really stood a chance.

There were three incidents in eighth and ninth grade in which a kid got into a scuffled with me over my kufi, for whatever reason they’d invented in their head. The first was in February ’83, as one Black kid — probably about fifteen — snatched my kufi from my head and started to run up the basement hallway with it at Davis Middle School. The incident occurred as I, A and another member of A’s “Italian Club” entourage were in the middle of an errand for a teacher. I immediately ran the boy down, knocked him to the floor, dusted off my kufi, and put it back on my head. The boy got up and threatened to beat me up. It was at this point that A intervened, saying that he would “have to take us all on” if he wanted to fight me. A’s moment of support notwithstanding, I would’ve beaten the kid in the face as many times as it would’ve taken to get my kufi back.

Pittsburgh Steelers' James Harrison sacks Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco, AFC Division Round, January 15, 2011. (http://espn.go.com).

Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison sacks Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco, AFC Division Round, January 15, 2011. (http://espn.go.com).

The second incident occurred a month later, prior to the opening morning bell at Davis. Out of the blue, “Little J” picked a fight with me, calling me a “dickweed” and a “shithead” for no reason at all. I hardly knew the Jewish kid, who immediately came at me to push, shove, throw punches, and grab at my kufi. It really was crazy for Little J to think that he had a shot at doing any damage. I was already five-eight. He was lucky if he was four-eleven and one hundred pounds after a potato latkes breakfast.

This wasn’t a fight. It was a pushing and shoving match, with me doing all of the pushing and shoving and Little J landing in bushes or on his ass. For seven minutes, he kept running at me, trying to throw a punch or kick me. I caught or blocked his attempts, grabbed him, and shoved him into the bushes near the boys’ entrance to Davis. By the sixth time, Little J was crying and his cheeks were fire truck-red, I was laughing and shaking my head, and the other Black boys at Davis were asking me what was going on. When I told them, they started laughing as well.

Beyond him grabbing at me and my kufi, I never knew what Little J wanting to fight me was all about. My guess then was that Little J was playing the role of Esau (the hairy brother of Jacob from the Bible, Torah and Qur’an) and didn’t like the fact that I claimed to be a descendant of the father of ancient Israel and his people.

The Man In Black (presumably Esau; played by Titus Welliver) with Jacob (Mark Pellegrino), from TV series Lost (2009-10), February 15, 2013. (http://magiclamp.org).

The Man In Black (presumably Esau; played by Titus Welliver) with Jacob (Mark Pellegrino), from TV series Lost (2009-10), February 15, 2013. (http://magiclamp.org).

Incident Three occurred on my second day at Mount Vernon High School. After a day of assignments and learning the names of our new teachers, I went to Louis Cuglietto’s eighth-period Geometry class. It was on the first floor of the school, just to the right of the front entrance and the cafeteria. As I milled around the classroom looking to take my seat, my Latino classmate “N” came out of nowhere and snatched my kufi off my head.

“Give it back now!,” I yelled.

“Make me!,” N responded with a bit of sarcasm.

Just as he was about to throw it to another classmate. I grabbed N and knocked him to the floor. There we were, on the floor by the dark green chalkboard, me on top of N, who was struggling to hold on to my kufi. I lay on top of him, punched him in the face a couple of times, and took my kufi back from him just before Cuglietto came into the room. By this time everyone in our class had formed a circle to watch the spectacle. I don’t remember all of what Cuglietto said, but he did ask, “Do you want to get suspended?” After we dusted ourselves off, we went to our desks and got back to work.

For me, the incident marked a transition point in my life at school. This would be the last fight I’d have in school. Some people continued to try to verbally intimidate me. But they left it at that, probably because my height and my face said “Don’t mess with me” before I’d say anything.

The more immediate result was that I began to question more consciously my motives for defending myself as a Hebrew-Israelite. “Why do I care if N snatches my kufi from me?,” I said to myself on the way home from school that day. It wasn’t as if I truly believed in any of the teachings anymore. I definitely didn’t want anyone messing with me at home or in school. At the same time, I didn’t want to use up energy defending something in which I didn’t believe.


The Fight (Again)

February 18, 2012

Clubber Lang vs. Rocky in Rocky III (screen shot), 1982, February 18, 2012. (http://media.comicvine.com).

The fight that changed my approach to Humanities and put me back in a determined frame academically happened on this date thirty years ago. After all of these years, I find it awfully strange to look back and find that some of my more poignant moments growing up were ones of rage, resistance and renewal. All either around abuse, muggings or fights with classmates.

Strange because I’d never seen my immature and thin-skinned self as much of a fighter before that day in February ’82 (see my post earlier this week, “Quitting Before a Fight“). Strange because it often takes something only indirectly related to my struggles to cause me to regroup and fight for what I want. Strange in the ways that all immature preteen boys and girls who get into fights always are.

It had gotten so bad that month that folks who wouldn’t have dared to mess with me at the beginning of the year — guys significantly shorter than me and guys who were so superior to me that they didn’t even notice me — started messing with and threatening me. JD (see my “The Contrarian One” post from February ’11) was one of those classmates. The week before the mid-February winter break, our homeroom/English teacher Mrs. Sesay was home with the flu. Our substitute’s idea of managing a classroom was reading a newspaper while the class engaged in verbal and physical combat. It seemed that no one was safe from strife that week, including me.

JD decided that it was his turn to give me a hard time. A ten-second scuffle took place on Tuesday over the usual tweener issues of communism versus capitalism, or to use more sophisticated language, neo-Marxism versus Keynesian economics. He also didn’t like that I had corrected him the month before about Australia’s official language, which he said was “Australian.” I learned that day that you should never correct a preteen contrarian when they think that they’re right.

When I walked into the boys’ locker room for gym class that Thursday afternoon thirty years ago, I was greeted with two punches to my chin and face. He walked away and went through the green double doors to his locker, arrogant enough to think I wouldn’t respond. He muttered “stupid” as he walked away. I think it was the combination of being caught by surprise and being called “stupid” by JD that got the better of me. Or maybe it was five months of enduring public humiliation combined with the sense that things at 616 were spinning out of control.

Whatever it was, I finally snapped. I stared blankly at the red lockers, green doors, and depleted beige-colored walls for a couple of seconds, and then my mind exploded in violent colors. I threw my entire being into JD as he had started to undress at his locker, knocking him to the floor.

I choked and punched him until I had bloodied his mouth and made his nose turn red. JD attempted to fight back to no avail, as I kept my weight on his legs while I head-locked him with my left arm and wailed away with my right hand. Just as I began to run out of energy, the gym teacher came in to break us up. He yelled at us and asked “Do you want to be suspended?” When I got off the floor to go my locker, I almost couldn’t believe that I had won that fight. I went into the break with an emotional boost, one that I hoped would lead to better things for me at school.

You could say that only a nerdy preteen boy like myself would find academic motivation in a fight. That’s definitely true. But, not just someone like me. Every kid who’s trying to find their way can only work with what he or she knows or what he or she is presented with. I could’ve either decided to keep being a punching bag — literally, figuratively and academically — or decided that whatever else I wanted to be, I needed to stand up for myself and fight.

So yes, winning that fight with JD sent me into that winter break as if I’d thrown a Hail Mary to Hakeem Nicks just before halftime for a touchdown. It provided the inspiration I needed that I wasn’t getting from Humanities, A.B. Davis Middle School or 616. Where else would I have found it in February ’82?


On Women and Wired Weirdness

March 5, 2011


[Why Sade? Closest I could find to my dream-life muse, and most appropriate video I could find]

Getting a bit long in the tooth to be rattling off about Crush #1 again, right? After all, yesterday was the twenty-ninth anniversary of the fight that led to a crush that led to some sort of falling in love for the first time. The three-month period between March 4 and May 30 of ’82 shaped the ways I saw girls and women from the age of twelve until my early thirties. The crush on Crush #1 and its inevitable side-tracking as my then stepfather knocked my mother unconscious in front of me helped shaped my feminism, my womanism and my sexism.

In all of that, I’ve learned that I was wired for this weirdness. Because as a person of deep thought, a boy surrounded by sexism and misogyny, and a lonely and semi-ostracized preteen, the sum was much greater than these contradictory parts.

To think that this all pretty much started because I picked a fight with Crush #1 at the end of class in seventh grade. Almost all of my extracurricular incidents that year began or ended in our homeroom with our homeroom/English teacher Mrs. Sesay. I know that she’s a principal somewhere these days, but back then, her lack of behavioral leadership skills in the classroom led to more verbal abuse and fighting than a group of gifted-track kids should’ve stood for. Anyway, the incident began because Crush #1 asked a question about a subject that Mrs. Sesay had spent the entire week going over, a concept that Sesay would test us on that Friday. I laughed out loud — thinking that I was only snickering — after Crush #1 asked that question.

Thinking nothing of it, I began to pack up after the 2:15 pm bell rang. Crush #1 came up to me and pushed me from behind.

“You’re an ugly, arrogant asshole!” she said with the distaste of a ballerina being asked for money by a junkie.

I called her “stupid” and then said something else stupid. “You’re an idiot!,” Crush #1 yelled as she threw two punches into my chest and a third at my jaw.

The fight lasted about fifteen or twenty seconds, but after landing a punch on her left boob and nipple, I stopped fighting, already descending into the land of the idiot romantic. All while Crush #1 kept hitting me, then being pulled away from me by a couple of her friends. One of them, the recently deceased Brandie Weston, called me a “pervert” as they exited the classroom.

I know that I wasn’t the first boy in history to start a fight with a girl who I’d come to like or love, but I do think that boys who do that have a lot of weird in them. Mind you, I hadn’t quite hit puberty yet, so my testosterone levels weren’t high enough yet to be the cause of my brain malfunction. No, my very sexism and her fierce sense of tomboyish feminism was why I liked her in the first place, and drank deep from that well for the next three months.

The Memorial Day ’82 incident with my mother changed what was an otherwise innocent crush and love into something weirder and more meaningful. I think that’s why it has so clearly affected how I’ve seen girls and women over the years. Crush #1 defended herself, my mother tried and couldn’t. Crush #1 was cranky and usually personable, my mother polite and as close-minded as a clam in deep water. Crush #1 would be fine whether she knew I liked her or not, my mother a damsel-in-distress that needed someone with sense and care to help her.

The weeks following that Memorial Day I made a decision to put my mother first. The side effect of that decision was that I’d spend the next fifteen years or so using Crush #1 as my template — and my mother as the anti-template — for understanding women, for befriending, dating or not dating women, for women I’d put on a pedestal from afar and for women I’d merely sleep with. In the end, I’d resent myself and my mother for that decision. And another six years trying to understand why.

Thinking about it now, it still amazes me how much of what occurred between ’82 and ’96 was part of an unconscious decision process. But since the end of ’89, I’ve gotten a reminder about once every six weeks. Crush #1 has been a part my dreams and nightmares, a muse that would surface some of my wiser thoughts. She’s a reminder that the twelve-year-old in me isn’t dead, just dormant.

The muse reminds me of how little I do know about women and romance, even after eleven years of marriage and more than two decades of various relationships overall. And that the struggle between the various strands of feminist, womanist and sexist thought in me remains just that.


Anger Issues and Management, Inc

September 25, 2010

Rage of the Incredible Hulk. Source:http://www.ramasscreen.com

Exposure to abuse, ridicule and scorn in fairly large dosages when you’re young will leave you with anger issues to manage. I should know. Don’t believe the impressions that my classmates from Humanities and MVHS and my friends from my first two years at Pitt have of me. I may have appeared to smile, to be happy-go-lucky, to be sober and monk-like. But mostly, I was angry, not in a raging, vengeful way, but in a depressed way, a constant, gnawing, sometimes envious, sometimes ironic and sarcastic way. My anger was the kind of anger that I chewed on and swallowed, simmered at low heat for a while in the pit of my belly, then I’d regurgitate it into my mouth, and then chewed on it and swallowed it again.

But, despite what some folks in certain religious circles may say, not all anger is bad, evil or sinful. In fact, sometimes anger is necessary, even if and when it’s dangerous as an emotion or a state of mind. Why, you may ask? Because without anger, you take what life gives to you, even when most of what good you get out of life comes in a miserly and begrudging way. Everything else that comes, if indeed bad or evil for you, isn’t taken in stride or taken with difficulty. You simply don’t take it at all. You become so emotionless that whatever happens doesn’t matter at all, as if your purpose for existing is merely to exist, not to succeed, not to do good works or make yourself a better person because of or despite your circumstances.

That, by the way, is what I’ve heard over the years when some of my former classmates from Mount Vernon — and a few people who knew me in my early days at the University of Pittsburgh — describe me. It was as if I was Porgy in Porgy and Bess, Louis Armstrong or Paul Robeson singing, “I’ve got plenty of nothin’, and nothin’s plenty for me.” That would and did piss me off, but I reminded myself that this was how I had to be to deal with the anger I had within. With emotion, I could’ve easily flown into a rage many

In Treatment Screen Shot. Source: http://sepinwall.blogspot.com

a day between ’81 and ’89.

At the same time, I had the wisdom to allow my anger to rise up, to channel it many more times than not into what I needed to have happen at a particular moment in time. It’s amazing how much you can get done with a sense of righteous anger and indignation, a feeling of got-to-get-it-done-or-else anger. It came at the right time, usually when I felt that my back was up against a concrete wall, with no way out except to fight my way out.

Like in February ’82, the middle of seventh grade, when I just got tired of my 7S classmates thinking that they could say and do anything to me without me getting angry, and tired of days on end at 616 without food to eat. After a fight in the boy’s locker room with one of my classmates — which I won, by the way — I channeled the energy unleashed by that rage and fight into two things. Improving my mediocre grades, and my infatuation over Crush #1. It was three months of relative bliss in the middle of the worst eighteen months of my life.

Richard Marx, 1987.

Or in January ’88, after recovering from the crash-and-burn of my first semester at Pitt. I was mad and disappointed with myself over allowing my obsession with Crush #2 hijack the final six weeks of my semester, not to mention my generally hopeful and creative imagination. After an incident with a couple of my more evil and drunken dorm mates — one in which I cracked a broom handle on the crowns of their heads (no injuries or investigation, luckily) — I summoned some discipline and theme music to get through that second semester. From Richard Marx’s “Should’ve Known Better” to Paul Carrick’s “Don’t Shed A Tear,” I spent fifteen weeks turning anger into A’s and jadedness into new friendships.

I’ve had other periods in my life — in ’93, ’98, and ’03 — where the circumstances dictated that anger, with some patience and understanding, was absolutely necessary in my overcoming of them. The lesson here is that anger — like fire, electricity and nuclear fusion — can be and is often dangerous. Yet it’s also necessary, a potential evil that can be an actual good, if channeled, allowed to dissipate, if tempered by wisdom and patience. At the least, anger allows those of us under stress to know that we are very much alive.


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