My First Vacation, Valedictorian Included

March 10, 2012

Ballston high-rise (on right), Arlington, VA, where I stayed with "V" and her roommate during first DC area visit, June 26, 2008. (

I’ve lived in the DC area now for nearly thirteen years, but it was this time two decades ago that I came to the DC area for the first time. This was my first vacation ever as an adult, and the first time I’d gone on a vacation of any kind since my mother took me and my older brother Darren on a day trip to Amish country in Pennsylvania at the end of third grade, in June ’78. The visit had as many layers to it as a Vidalia onion, as it involved my past, present and future, and all at once.

At the center of my visit was spending time with my Humanities classmate and friend “V,” the valedictorian of Mount Vernon High School’s Class of ’87. I crashed at her and her roommate’s place in the Ballston section of Arlington, Virginia for a week during my spring break in March ’92. As I said in a previous post (see my “A Friendship Changing Lanes” post from October ’11), I’m not sure how our acquaintanceship ever became a friendship. Somewhere between having circumstances in which our fathers weren’t around consistently, or at least being able to relate to Billy Joel, or both of us scoring “5”s on the AP US History exam.

Healey Hall (front gate perspective), Georgetown University, Washington, DC, September 19, 2010. (Daderot via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The fact that we went our respective ways, to Pitt and Johns Hopkins, helped. The fact that we wrote each other about some of our social triumphs and challenges helped more. Most importantly, it helped a lot that we both were more honest about our family troubles. Everything from my mother’s need to divorce my idiot ex-stepfather and the issues with my younger siblings to V’s mother’s health issues and her struggling with burnout trying to watch over her family while going to school. So, by the time I began my second semester of grad school, we’d become fairly close.

I hadn’t seen V since the day before New Years Eve ’88, the last Friday of that year. I hadn’t planned to visit V at the start of the year, but by the middle of February, I needed a break from Pitt and graduate school (see my “Paula Baker and The 4.0 Aftermath” post from January ’12). As I knew that I was two months away from finishing my master’s, I had begun to check out some alternatives to doing my history PhD at Pitt.

Key Bridge, connecting Georgetown area with Rosslyn section of Arlington, VA, at sunset (picture taken from west), September 18, 2008. (Jersey JJ via In public domain.

Through Dr. Transatlantic Studies himself, Marcus Rediker — he was a Georgetown University history professor who somehow had been given an empty office in Pitt’s history department — I made arrangements to do some informational interviews at Georgetown during my early March spring break.

As soon as I told V of my opportunity to check out Georgetown, she offered me a place to stay for the week. I made arrangements through a couple of friends driving to Virginia to have them drop me at V’s that first Saturday in March.

The trip was a whole series of firsts and seconds for me. I rode Metrorail for the first time, went to Capitol Hill for the first time, and visited Howard University for the first time. I also spent one full day hanging out with V at Suitland High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where she was a first-year math teacher. Other than a couple of rowdy students, V was a very good teacher, and not just for a rookie.

My meeting at Georgetown went pretty well also. I managed to get a sweatshirt out of the deal, one that I still wear to this day. Aside from that, finding out from a then second-year grad student (and now and associate professor in African American history at Georgetown) that his annual stipend was only $7,500 a year in expensive DC made my decision for me. I decided that despite the name recognition, Georgetown wouldn’t be where I’d earn a PhD.

I also visited with V’s sister and mother toward the end of that week. V’s sister was in the process of transferring to Goucher, a far cry from the rising high school freshman I’d last seen a week before my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. V’s mother seemed happier in Virginia than in New York, but medically speaking, she had gotten worse since ’87. Her speech was slower and more slurred, and her upper body motions were even more limited than I last remembered. It was a reminder that as much as things had gone well for V over the years, she also faced the intense pressure of trying to care for a slowing dying mother and her sister, and all at twenty-two years old.

What I came away with from that week as my friends picked me up the following Saturday afternoon were two things. One, that I really liked being in an area with great diversity, with Whites, Blacks, Latinos and Asians from all walks of life, but without the rude chaos and energy that was and remains New York. Two, that V and I had truly become friends, as adults in our twenties, mostly unattached from how we saw each other when we were in Humanities and high school.

End of An Era

February 29, 2012

Coach John Thompson, John Thompson Show, ESPN 980 AM, Washington, DC, February 29, 2012. (

It’s Leap Year Day, so in light of having the first February 29 in four years, I want to take a different tack today. For it just so happens that today is John Thompson’s last day on the air on ESPN 980 AM in Washington, DC. The legendary former Georgetown University men’s basketball coach will air his final radio show this afternoon.

Thompson has had this show for about thirteen years, and I’ve listened off and on now for seven of them. What has made him interesting to listen to over the years has been his ability to be ornery, light-hearted, downright goofy and insightful, and all at the same time — whether I agreed with him or not. That the seventy-year-old Thompson has managed to maintain a solid audience across all demographics has been a sign of his ability to be a man with an old-school philosophy without become an old man. It’s a fine balance that Thompson maintained show after show, regardless of the outrageous calls he responded to time and again.

I’ve been a fan of Coach Thompson’s since I was in high school. Back then, he had Patrick Ewing and later Alonzo Mourning as part of his vaunted Hoya Paranoia defense. They won it all in ’84, only to be done in by Villanova’s raining of shots from all angles in the NCAA Championship Game in ’85. Despite his normally gruff demeanor, Thompson handled the loss with the graciousness and sportsmanship that was rare even then, and almost impossible to find now.

I came to like Thompson even more when he watch an analyst on TNT’s NBA games in the early ’00s. I used to call him “Sugar Bear” because of the way in which he delivered his take on players and coaches. It was through that context that I learned of The John Thompson Show, and began listening nearly seven years ago.

More than anything else, I appreciated the fact that many segments of his show had little or nothing to do with sports. Even as uncomfortable as he may have been about the topic, he discussed race, poverty, crime, relationship, the Black church, public education and higher education. I think that this diversity of ideas and topics is what I’ll miss the most. That Thompson used his show to educate his listeners — as well as educate himself — about much more than sports speaks to him as the educator he has been for most of his adult life.

I don’t know if I could’ve ever played for Thompson — between my relative lack of talent and my ears being burned from his yelling at me on every possession. But I have enjoyed listening to him and his show.


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