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.

Ivy League Dilemma – Addendum

March 18, 2012

My addendum to the “Ivy League Dilemma” post, as there are several lessons to learn from my stumbling successfully into college at the University of Pittsburgh:

1. Always do your homework regarding the kinds of schools you want to attend. Easier said than done when you’re sixteen, the Internet didn’t exist, and your family doesn’t have the money to take you to visit schools prior to applying. Even with the disadvantage of poverty and lack of knowledge, I certainly had enough money for the $1.25 fare to catch the 2 to 110th Street and transfer to the 1 to get off at 116th, then walk up the step to find myself on Columbia University’s campus in ’86 or early ’87. That I didn’t see Columbia’s campus until ’90 is inexcusable.

2. Never allow the slights and ridicule of others determine where you should and shouldn’t go to school. I assumed that because my affluent and White (and some Black) Humanities classmates were snobbish, cliquish and entitled that I would see the exact same patterns at places like Columbia and Yale, making me more likely to see the University of Pittsburgh as an oasis from that side of human nature. It turned out that I was right and wrong. Pitt was so big, with so many different kinds of students, that there wasn’t this exaggerated sense of academic entitlement that I’d been a part of in the six years prior to attending. Over the years, I’ve learned that even truly talented and affluent students could be and often are wonderful human beings.

3. Don’t become intimidated by competition just because of the pressures and failures of the past. I don’t think that I was intimidated per se, but I do think that I wanted to not make a fool of myself among other high academic achievers either. My mix of the schools in which I applied in the fall of ’86 reflects this middle-of-the-road and contradictory thinking:

University of Pittsburgh                Columbia University
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute  Rochester Institute of Technology
Hobart & William Smith Colleges  SUNY Buffalo
Yale University                              University of Rochester

I simply didn’t know enough — or knew anyone who knew enough — about me, my potential, and about the kinds of schools I’d been looking for to apply to the best mix of schools back then. Today, knowing what I was like then, but also knowing what I know now, I can reasonably assume that the list below would’ve been the best one for me to work from a quarter-century ago:

University of Pittsburgh                University of Pennsylvania
Cornell University                         Brown University
University of Toronto                    University of North Carolina
Georgetown University                 New York University

Of course, hindsight in my case is 20/10. This list just means I have a ten-year head start in helping my son figure out his higher education plans.


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