Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and My Own Prison

February 16, 2015

East Library branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, before (the version I worked in) and after renovation, October 4, 2006 and September 25, 2011. (http://popcitymedia.com and http://eastliberty.org).

East Library branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, before (the version I worked in) and after renovation, October 4, 2006 and September 25, 2011. (http://popcitymedia.com and http://eastliberty.org).

On February 17th seventeen years ago, we opened one of the first community-based computer labs in the US at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. What was once known as the Microsoft Library Fund (which later became the Gates Library Foundation, and then became part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) had provided the initial $110,000 to place this computer lab in one of the East Library branches resource rooms. I guess it could’ve been a proud moment for me. If I hadn’t earned my PhD the year before, only to face unemployment for three months during the summer of ’97 and underemployment in the five months since taking the Carnegie Library job. But this was a humiliating moment, not one of pride or, at least, taking comfort in a job done well. It was a learning moment at a time when I thought I already knew what I need to move forward with my career and life.

The dissertation process, my battles with Joe Trotter, the truth about my relationship with my Mom, had all taken a heavy toll on my heart and mind by the time Memorial Day ’97 rolled around. So much so that I lived between moments of humility (which is different from humiliation) and moments of rage in the sixteen months between May ’97 and the fall of ’98. I was living on fumes from my last Carnegie Mellon paycheck when I began working for Carnegie Library the day after Labor Day that year. I’d been conditioned, though, to think that everything happens for a reason. So I assumed that God was attempting to teach me a lesson, that I needed to give more out of the needs I had in my life in order for the things I thought I deserved to come my way.

John Wooden saying on being humble, February 16, 2015. (https://pbs.twimg.com).

John Wooden saying on being humble, February 16, 2015. (https://pbs.twimg.com).

There was a bit of a flaw in my logic around God’s lessons. For one, the idea that I wasn’t finding work in academia because I hadn’t been a giver was ridiculous. Between volunteering for soup kitchens, tutoring high school students, tithing at church, and so many other things, it was dumb to think that not enough humility was the reason I didn’t get the job at Teachers College or had trouble finding adjunct work in the fall of ’97. Or rather, it was dumb not to think that bigger issues — like my dissertation committee abandoning me when I needed them the most — played a greater role in my not finding full-time work in my chosen profession than any inability to serve others.

The Carnegie Library job provided a part-time stop-gap for my income while I attempted to figure out how to move forward without my advisor and my committee and move on with the knowledge that my relationship with my Mom would never be the same. I figured that the job gave me the opportunity to help others and to do good, and that it was a good first foray into the nonprofit world, especially with money from the world of Microsoft.

Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong! I had a co-worker who was jealous of my degree and attempted to undermine the work of putting together the lab and the class materials for teaching patrons how to use the computers at every turn. I figured out that the bosses at the central branch in Oakland had essentially pocketed some of the funding for the lab to cover the costs of new computers for their own personal use, and had underfunded both my position and my co-worker’s position as part of the grant.

Album cover for Creed's My Own Prison (includes title track), released August 26, 1997. (Jasper the Friendly Punk via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws to illustrate title and theme of this blog post.

Album cover for Creed’s My Own Prison (includes title track), released August 26, 1997. (Jasper the Friendly Punk via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws to illustrate title and theme of this blog post.

But I didn’t learn all of this until June. By February ’98, I began to realize that, more than anything else, I needed to free myself from my own prison of an idea, that I’d done anything wrong or sinful to end up running a computer lab project at twenty-eight when I had done much of this same work at nineteen years old. I had to begin to find prominent people in my field(s) to support me in finding work, even if none of them were on my dissertation committee. I still needed to apply for academic jobs, even if my status meant than some would reject me because of my issues with my advisor. I even needed to explore the idea of jobs outside academia, in the nonprofit and foundation worlds, where my degrees and my ideas about education policy and equity might still matter.

It definitely helped when Duquesne hired me in April to teach graduate-level education foundations courses in History of American Education and Multicultural Education. It helped even more, though, when I decided in August to quit the Carnegie Library job. Between the Microsoft folks and the sycophants at Carnegie Library who were willing to do almost anything for a few extra dollars — anything other than serve their neighborhoods, that is — I’d had enough of duplicitous people. Who knew that my first job with sycophants and Gates money would come back to haunt me in the seventeen years since!


Quitting Before a Fight

February 13, 2012

Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks Fight, Convention Hall, Atlantic City, NJ, June 27, 1988. (http://antekprizering.com).

As a writer, I can often see my past as if it happened within the past week. As a forty-two year-old, though, it sometimes seems like my failures and pitfalls are a long-lost memory, one of a very bad dream. To think that it’s been a full thirty years since my preteen struggles with identity, purpose, and the realization that I was in an intense academic competition that I was predestined to lose. It seems like I was playing a role, acting my way through my tweener and teenage years.

But this time thirty years ago, I seriously thought about quitting the Humanities Program. It was the beginning of the third marking period in seventh grade at A.B. Davis Middle School, early February ’82. My grades were unimpressive. I struggled in every subject except social studies, where three years of reading World Book Encyclopedia and forty books of all kinds on World War II made me a nerdy standout among my mostly nerdy peers. My social studies teacher Paul Court was so much fun and so inept that he played games with us to keep our class interesting. Anyone who could find factual errors in his teachings on American history would earn twenty-five cents. I’d already earned more than three dollars by the end of the second marking period.

I barely averaged a C+ in math. My Italian teacher Ms. Fleming told me that my “Italian sounded British.” And I was averaging a C+ in art. In Art! All because Doris Mann, who was about as good an art teacher as I was at making friends, said, “I don’t give A’s for effort. I give out grades based on your ability to create good art.” I couldn’t believe that she gave me C+’s while the art world fifteen miles away cheered folks who smeared blood, paint, and feces on canvasses!

I thought that I was the only one who felt like a failure. I was certain that I was more of a failure than my Holmes School classmates or other, non-Pennington-Grimes students in Humanities, at least. If other students appeared to have problems, especially my classmates who were alumni of the Pennington-Grimes program (Mount Vernon public schools’ K-6 Humanities Program), I believed that they were faking it.

The Crucible (play), date and location unknown. (http://reyvl.com).

I had good reason to. It was around this time that one of my White female classmates from Pennington-Grimes had become anxiety-ridden prior to a test in our English class. She began to sweat, her hands and face turned colors, like one of Arthur Miller’s female characters in The Crucible, his famous Salem-Witch-Trial play.

Within a few seconds, three of her friends joined this tortured soul in this expression of fear. The one girl kept saying, over and over, “I know I’m going to fail!” The other three huddled around her and joined in séance, as if they expected God to witness this physical expression of pressurized fear and take pity on them. That this involved the Pennington-Grimes group of Humanities girls was not lost on me. They loved their grades, almost as much as they loved Jordache Jeans, The Gap or Benetton.

We received our exam grades from Mrs. Sesay a few days later. My grade: a 78. The Fear Bunch’s lowest grade: a 92. Understanding how quickly fear can destroy your confidence: priceless. Their fears had left me thinking more about failure — theirs and mine — than it did about the task at hand.

Then it was my turn to act demon-possessed. I went to the back of the classroom at the end of that day and chanted, “I’m silly, I’m stupid. I’m silly, I’m stupid. I’m silly, I’m stupid.” over and over again while pounding the back of my head into the side wall. But I learned a valuable lesson that day. That doing well required me to ignore the worries and grades of other, to concentrate on me and my own emotions on test days.

So, I spent the first two weeks in February thinking about sliding into the general population of A.B. Davis Middle School. I couldn’t do much else other than think. With the growing problems of lack of food, late rent payments and three siblings at 616, my mother’s tiny Mount Vernon Hospital paycheck, and my idiot and long-term unemployed Hebrew-Israelite of a stepfather, I had no one to talk to about school (see “Humanities: First Contact, Full Circle” from September ’11).

What I didn’t realize was that I hadn’t yet begun to fight. My efforts up to that point in Humanities — from making friends to studying — were all half-hearted at best. I was the emotional equivalent of an eight-year-old in a preteen’s body, one right at the early stages of puberty at that. With life at 616 starting to fall apart and the isolation I felt at school, I was growing up, whether I wanted to or not. All it would take was an immature spark of inspiration to prove it….


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