Stinking Up The Joint

April 15, 2014

Pepe Le Pew stinking up the flowers, April 15, 2014. (Chuck Jones/WB, via http://www.animationartwork.com/). Qualifies as fair use because of picture's low resolution and related subject matter.

Pepe Le Pew stinking up the flowers, April 15, 2014. (Chuck Jones/WB, via http://www.animationartwork.com/). Qualifies as fair use because of picture’s low resolution and related subject matter.

Puberty is often a confusing and scatterbrained time even for the most well-adjusted of folks. Changes in body chemistry, hair growth, body parts, height, weight and sleep patterns are all part of this excruciating rite of passage. When thrown in with the realities of poverty and the cruelty of Humanities and Mount Vernon High School, puberty was also a long march of embarrassing moments.

One of my last embarrassing moment strictly thanks to puberty came around this time three decades ago. It was an unusually warm early April Tuesday in ’84, one in which I was hardly prepared. I’d just started using deodorant the year before, once spring had sprung in ’83, with basketball and softball as a regular part of gym class. In gym for ninth grade, we were in the swimming pool for March and April.

We just happened to be out of deodorant at 616 while I was in the midst of this class. It wouldn’t have been much of a problem, except for the fact that the cool weather of early spring had given way to a sudden heatwave, bringing temps into the upper seventies the second week in April. On that fateful Tuesday, I tried one of my Mom’s home remedies, and put a baking soda paste on my armpits, hoping to conceal my still new manly smell.

Well, it actually did work, at least from periods one through six. Then it was time for gym. I didn’t count on the fact that the high level of chlorine in the pool would completely wash away my makeshift deodorant. Nor did I consider that the swimming pool area would be about ten degrees warmer than it was outdoors. Nor did I think about the fact that we ordinary students weren’t allowed to shower after swimming or any other gym activity, for that matter. That was reserved for the school’s athletes — equipment must be protected from the “animals,” as some administrators and parents saw fit to describe us.

Speed Stick (green) deodorant by Mennen, 1980s edition (en Español), April 15, 2014. (http://www.b2bsupply.co/).

Speed Stick (green) deodorant by Mennen, 1980s edition (en Español), April 15, 2014. (http://www.b2bsupply.co/).

So, no deodorant, in a hot area of an already warm school with the air conditioning turned off, and with no opportunity to rinse off — what do you think happened eighth period? I went to Geometry class, completely unable to conceal my underarm stench. From about the second minute on, my equally sweaty classmates complained about “the smell” and “the stink,” all the while, fanning themselves with manila folders. Even with Mr. Louis Cuglietto’s windows open, it didn’t help — there was no wind to speak of.

But of all the sweat and smells, mine was the one that stood out most. Why? Because, despite it all, I remained an engaged student, and raised my right hand to answer questions. Which meant that I raised my right arm, and anyone within a six-foot radius could smell me. After ten minutes of complaints, I put my arms down, and held them close to my body for the remainder of class, looking forward to the end of the school day.

After class, Cuglietto pulled me aside to tell me, “You’re a man now. You need to get some deodorant,” as if he was offering sage advice or tough love. This wasn’t the first time Cuglietto played his version of poor assumptions about race, class and gender, and it wouldn’t be his last. I ignored him, and went on my way home.

But I didn’t stop there. I went over to Jimme’s on South 10th that evening. It was the middle of the week, a time of hungover sobriety for my father, which meant he would be home early from work. I bummed $20 off him while taking a stick of his surplus Speed Stick with me.

Is there a lesson here? Remember to keep deodorant in stock no matter what? Don’t swim with baking-soda-for-deodorant under your arms? That some teachers and classmates wouldn’t understand a moment of my life even if I passed it onto them like Brandon Lee’s character from the movie The Crow (1994)? That I was poor and in puberty, and things like this sometimes happen? Yeah, sure, I guess. The real lesson here is to remember, not for revenge or retribution, but so that younger others like me know that they’re not alone, so that the story can be told, later and better.


On My Mother’s Side – Meeting The Gill Family

April 5, 2014

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

This weekend marks twenty years since visiting my extended family on my mother’s side for the first time. It was Final Four weekend ’94 when I hopped on a Continental Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Houston. To think that until April 2 ’94, I hadn’t been farther west than Atlanta or been in any other time zone seems far-fetched now that I’ve crisscrossed this country enough times to earn hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. To think that for years I never felt I had a family to talk about at all or that what I did have wasn’t worth talking about. That all changed that weekend.

A conference presentation proposal I put together with Bruce Anthony Jones — my unofficial advisor in the School of Education at Pitt — had successfully made it through the difficult American Educational Research Association’s review process. So me, Bruce, and two other School of Education grad students were headed to the Big Easy to take in the sights and the serious scholarship that would be discussed, ad nauseum, the first full week of April. I managed to get a layover in Houston, all so that I’d have the chance to meet my extended family for the first time. Between the letter I sent to my Uncle Robert and my first adult conversation with a Gill relative other than my mother or Uncle Sam, I hoped that someone would be at the airport in Houston to meet me.

I landed in Houston around 9 am local time. I slept well on the flight, but I had only had about five hours total sleep before arriving in Bush country. I expected a dump of an airport, but the George H.W. Bush Intercontinental Airport (it wasn’t call that at the time I think) was as modern as Pittsburgh’s then two-year-old airport. I got down to baggage claim, and there they were. Uncle George and Uncle Darryl were there, grinning and smiling as if they could see me from a mile away. “I knew it was you, with that Gill nose,” he said as he walked toward me and gave me a big hug.

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

We got in George’s car, stopped by a gas station near downtown Houston first, to get gas and to get me something to eat and drink. Then they immediately went to the Third Ward to hang out with friends and play basketball. They only let me take three shots, and I missed all three, tired as I was. “We need real ballers out here,” my Uncle George said.

My uncles were good, but given the amount of time they spent on the court, they should’ve been. They both played basketball in high school in Bradley, Arkansas. Heck, all of the Gill boys played at least two sports growing up. My Uncle Sam played four — basketball, football, baseball, and track — and all of the others at least played basketball and football. George at thirty-two and Darryl at twenty-eight (neither of them like me calling them “Uncle,” with me being twenty-four at the time) were still in pretty good shape, though Darryl complained about his midsection. They kept asking me, “Are you sure you’re a Gill?,” based on three shots I missed, including two that rimmed out.

Eventually I’d meet my Uncle Robert, his wife and sons, my Uncle Darryl’s girlfriend and eventual wife, and a few of Uncle George’s friends that weekend. Of all of the family meetings that took place, none was more meaningful than me sitting down to dinner that Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon with three of my uncles at one time. They grilled me with more questions than I’d get from my dissertation committee some five months later. “How big sis [my Mom] doin’?” “Do any of the kids play sports?” “What’s it like livin’ in the big city?” Even though my mother had been on welfare for eleven years, and living in poverty for some thirteen — working or not — they still thought that we were doing better than they were living in the middle of Texas. I tried, but failed, to convince them that our poverty was real.

It was a weird conversation, seeing that it was happening in the dining and living rooms of my Uncle Robert’s ranch-style house, a four-bedroom, two-bath home with a carport, backyard and decent front yard in suburban Houston. They owned four cars, and a leaky boat that needed some repairs. Pretty good for a man with a high school diploma and someone who was a shift supervisor for a local trucking company. Uncle Robert was the man, a six-five rail-thin man who looked almost like he could be his brother Sam’s twin instead of his slightly younger brother at forty-four years old. But Uncle Robert and the rest of them all assumed that since my mother hadn’t come running back to Texas or Arkansas for help that things were all right. They weren’t, as they’d learn a year later when the 616 fire left my mother and younger siblings homeless.

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

Beyond that, I learned a lot about the family. I confirmed some of the stories that my mother had told me over the years, including the one about my half-Irish, half Choctaw/Black great-great grandmother who was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1880. I also learned that my grandmother Beulah was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I really did have a great-grand aunt in Seattle, apparently New Edition lead singer Johnny Gill’s grandmother or great-grandmother, making all of us related.

That my uncles were and remained close was heartening, and that they managed to get decent and good-paying jobs was encouraging. It also gave me some sense of reassurance, if not pride, in the fact that they had put their lives together in Houston without any real guidance from family. By the time I boarded my flight to New Orleans that Sunday evening, I felt like I knew enough to talk about my family, mother’s and father’s side, for the first time.


My First Mugging

April 3, 2014

New York mugging, Granger (1857), April 3, 2014. (http://chroniclevitae.com).

New York mugging, Granger (1857), April 3, 2014. (http://chroniclevitae.com).

This is another story not in Boy @ The Window, though it could’ve been. It was thirty-five years ago this week that a group of my preteen neighbors from the Pearsall Drive projects (now the Vernon Woods co-op community) jumped me on my way home from the store, beat me up and stole a grand total of four dollars. It seems like such a small thing now, getting mugged for the first time, a block from 616 East Lincoln, our apartment building on the eastern edge of Mount Vernon, New York. Still, I learned a few things on that first Saturday in April ’79 about myself, my older brother, my mother and humans in general, things that haven’t changed in the three and a half decades since.

That particular day was definitely a crisp early spring one, windy, partly sunny and cloudy, just warm enough not to need a winter coat. I’d barely been out the house at all since attempting to run away from home some four months earlier. In the months in between, I’d been engrossed in reading everything I could, especially World Book Encyclopedia, not to mention what I hadn’t already read in Charles Schulz’ Peanuts series.

I hadn’t been out the apartment to do much of anything other than go to school or to the store. So little was my time outside that when I had to do a full food shop, I’d forgotten a few basic rules about protecting myself. Like making sure that a group of nine-to-fourteen-year-olds weren’t following us home from the local grocery store. And making sure to take the most direct route home when I could, or a circuitous route home when necessary. Going west on the north side of East Lincoln, making a left on Station Place, then a left on Lafayette Avenue, then a final left on Bradley, walking four short blocks that would’ve left us in front of 616.

134 Pearsall Drive (now part of the Vernon Woods co-op complex), April 3, 2014. (http://trulia.com)

134 Pearsall Drive (now part of the Vernon Woods co-op complex), April 3, 2014. (http://trulia.com)

On this day, the circuitous route would’ve been better. But that would’ve meant me being better, too. I was already not feeling well when I left with Darren for the grocery store. I had a stomach ache, and the diarrhea that came with it. So my best bet was to go to the store at 671 East Lincoln with Darren, cross over to the south side of East Lincoln, and walk as quickly as we could back to 616.

Only, the half-dozen boys trailing me and Darren back home had crossed with us, and immediately tried to surround us near East Lincoln and Pearsall. Darren, to his credit, ran off for home, leaving me alone and holding two paper bags of groceries. Somewhere between “nigga” and “muthafucka” and “giv’ me the money,” I struggled and ran away with the groceries, where after a minute or two, I ended up in the bottom floor of one of the project buildings.

I was jumped again, punched in the face and the mouth until one of the wannabe thugs had busted my lip and left me bleeding down the side of my face. I somehow crapped on myself during the run, but hadn’t noticed because I was too busy trying to not get mugged. After they took the four dollars’ worth of change I had in my right pant pocket, another wannabe said, “Oh shit, the punk dukeyed on hisself!” They laughed and left me there, in this abandoned, junky apartment, garbage and groceries and two ripped grocery bags all over the room, bloodied and soiled.

I picked up all I could from what remained of the groceries and began the long one-block walk home. By the time I walked through the front door, there was my Mom, angry with me about the groceries. “What I’m gonna do with this!” she said. It was afterward that she noticed my condition. “You let them kids scare the shit out of you!,” she gasped with what seemed like a bit of laughter in her voice. I said, very angrily, “I told you before I left that I had diarrhea!,” then went into the bathroom and cried.

Oscar de la Hoya's face after his beat-down via Manny Pacquiao, December 6, 2008. (AP via http://boxingscene.com).

Oscar de la Hoya’s face after his beat-down via Manny Pacquiao, December 6, 2008. (AP via http://boxingscene.com).

My Mom came in later to help me wash myself down. In the meantime, I had a bruised left cheek, a busted lip, feces all over my lower body, and soreness all over my ribs and stomach. It took about twenty minutes in all, but by the time I was done and washed, I went into mine and Darren’s bedroom and fell asleep.

It was April 7, ’79, and I already knew that I couldn’t count on my older brother to help whenever there would be a crisis. I knew that my Mom cared about me, but apparently not enough to keep me protected. I knew that the assholes that lived around me wouldn’t have minded it if I’d been run over by a Mack truck, as long as they could get a dollar out of me. I knew, most of all, that I needed to look out for myself as much as I could, since there weren’t any cousins or other family around to look out for me.

So when at the end of ’83, the city had sold the projects at Pearsall Drive to a real estate developer, though I was sad for a few individuals, I wasn’t sad in general. Those wannabes had helped make one relatively small aspect of my life — going to the store, going outside and going to Wilson’s Woods — miserable. And with so much misery in my life already, I was glad to see many of those kids move away.


My and Diane Ravitch’s Path to Reign of Error

March 11, 2014

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

I first began reading Diane Ravitch in July 1990, the summer before my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the summer in which I became interested in understanding magnet programs and their relationship with desegregation and diversity efforts, courtesy of my own experience with Mount Vernon, New York public schools and its now defunct Humanities Program. I read both The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973 (1974) and The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (1985) that summer, with education scholar and Ford Foundation director Jeanne Oakes’ Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (1985) sandwiched in between.

It was the beginning of a twenty-year period of constantly intellectual disagreement between me and Ravitch. Oakes’ work captured inequality in terms of race and socioeconomics so much better than Ravitch, whose writings back then often treated these inequalities and distinctions as afterthoughts. When I shifted my research area to multicultural education and multiculturalism, though, that was when I found Ravitch’s absolutist defense of so-called traditional American democratic education and all things e pluribus unum unbelievably stifling. With all Ravitch knew about the politics of education, in New York and with the US Department of Education, how could she possibly defend a system that did as much to control and exclude students as it did to provide something akin to an equal opportunity?

I chalked Ravitch up to being another out-of-touch neoconservative, scared to death of race and diversity and multiculturalism. I said as much at conferences like the American Educational Research Association meeting and other conferences. I wrote as much in my dissertation and in my first book, Fear of a “Black” America: Multiculturalism and the African American Experience (2004). Through it all, I always found Ravitch’s writing compelling, but her conclusions wanting, because they lacked perspective and empathy in the context of public schools and diversity.

Then, Ravitch wrote Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform in 2000. Though it contained some of her common themes — overemphasis on the mantra of reform, the need for more testing, support for school choice, denigration of a multicultural curriculum — Ravitch showed growth in this book. She was less hostile to a more progressive curriculum and seemed, for the first time, really, to understand how much race and poverty had shaped the direction and the harshness of school reform going back to 1900. I happily used Ravitch’s Left Back in my History of American Education Reform course at George Washington in 2002. For her book provided a comprehensive and even-handed overview of the politics of K-12 education in a way that any educator of any American ideological perspective could understand.

I’ve finally read Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013). Reign of Error is Ravitch at her most passionate and energized. If I hadn’t read a couple dozen of Ravitch’s articles from the 1980s and 1990s and four of her previous books, I would think that this was her first book, as there is sense of urgency in Reign of Error that can seldom be found outside of epic memoirs and epic fiction novels.

Ravitch’s argument in Reign of Error is a simple one. Corporate education reform, if allowed to continue unfettered, will destroy public education in the US, and in the process, American democracy. Privatizing public schools (i.e., turning them into “public” charter schools), destroying teacher’s unions, constant high-stakes testing, bypassing school boards and forgetting about racial segregation and poverty — that’s corporate education reform’s agenda. As Ravitch said in Chapter 12 on the fallacies of merit pay for teachers, “Merit pay is the idea that never works and never dies (p. 119).” She could have also substituted the words “school choice,” “creationism,” “standardized testing,” “closing schools,” and “privatization” for “merit pay.”

But Ravitch goes further in her 400-page treatise. That though public education in the US has had its share of problems — the need for more teacher training and time for professional development, racial segregation and high levels of poverty while underfunded — that corporate education reform has compounded these problems several times over. That with corporate education reform, teachers, parents and students will have no say in public education, at least the ones without their own personal foundation with which to endow their own public charter school.

From a writer’s standpoint, this wasn’t Ravitch’s best effort. Her argument is repetitive, one where she likely could’ve cut the main chapters by a quarter (about 100 pages) and made the same points. I likely could’ve become inebriated if I had a shot of vodka every time the words “poverty,” “Gates,” “Walton,” “Broad,” “high-stakes testing,” and “corporate education reform” come up. But given my history with reading Ravitch and with this topic, of course Reign of Error was repetitive — it was like reading my own words on this same topic.

Ultimately, Ravitch’s Reign of Error is a primer for anyone interested in averting the social injustice that is the corporate education reform tyranny of wealthy philanthropists, money-grubbing entrepreneurs and politicians across America’s limited ideological spectrum. For those whom up to now this issue has been of limited interest, or for those who’ve felt the change in public education but haven’t quite been able to articulate those feelings, Reign of Error is for you.

For educators, parents and even students already involved in writing about or protesting against corporate education reform, this book is still for you. Ravitch provides so much ammunition that Reign of Error can be applied in numerous ways to numerous situations. At school board meetings. With #AskMichelleRhee hash tags on Twitter. In job interviews with Teach for America and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In letters to the editor of the mainstream newspapers and in comments to mainstream TV and radio newscasters. In arguments with neoconservative parents who send their kids to private schools.

“Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time (p. 325).” is how Ravitch ended her Reign of Error. It’s not an exaggeration. But it does beg a question. If we can successfully fend off corporate education reform — and assume that the country will continue to ignore the poverty and racial segregation that Ravitch desperately wants addressed — can she and I then spend five minutes discussing multiculturalism?


What I Didn’t Know Growing Up – It Still Hurts

February 27, 2014

George Bernard Shaw and ignorance, June 2013. (http://www.irelandcalling.ie/).

George Bernard Shaw and ignorance, June 2013. (http://www.irelandcalling.ie/).

“My people perish for a lack of knowledge,” it seems, is something that anyone can find in almost any religion’s texts anywhere. Heck, depending on perspective, even atheists in general can agree with this statement (of course, the issue would be what constitutes “knowledge”). I read this verse (it’s in Hosea and Isaiah, and versions of it as well as in Jewish texts and the Qur’an) for the first time when I was fifteen in ’85, less than a year after I converted to Christianity. Boy, I had no idea how little I knew about myself, my family and my history when I first read that verse twenty-nine years ago.

In light of the end of Black History Month, I wouldn’t be me without noting how little any of us know about our families, our lineages and our ancestors. But it’s not just true of the millions of us descended from West and Central Africans kidnapped, bound, abused, raped and nearly worked to death to provide Europeans (and Arabs) wealth and comfort. Most of us don’t even know what we think we know about much more recent history and events than surviving the Middle Passage or overcoming Jim Crow.

A rabbi, a priest and an imam, 2013-2014. (PizzaSpaghetti via http://www.deviantART.com).

A rabbi, a priest and an imam, 2013-2014. (PizzaSpaghetti via http://www.deviantART.com).

For me and my family, I knew so little about us that my Mom could’ve told me that Satan had thrown us out of Hell for being too brown to burn and I would’ve accepted it as an appropriate answer. All I really knew of my mother’s side of my family was that they were from Arkansas, that my Uncle Sam (I chuckled sometimes thinking of the irony) was my Mom’s closest sibling, and that they grew up as dirt poor as anyone could get without living in a thatched root hut on less than $1 a day.

I asked for more during those rare moments when my focus wasn’t on high school, getting into college and getting as far away from 616 and Mount Vernon, New York as possible. I ended up finding out about how my Mom’s mother once beat her with the back of a wooden brush for not being ready on time for church, that there were years where her father made only $200 total from cotton farming, and that she was the oldest of twelve kids. She had done some form of work either taking care of her siblings, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes by hand, and hoeing and picking cotton, since she was five or six. Oh yeah, and she played basketball in high school.

On my father’s side, I knew a bit more, if only because Darren and me went with my father to visit the Collins farm in Harrison, Georgia in August ’75. I was five and a half then, but I do remember the fresh smoked ham and bacon, the smell of my grandfather’s Maxwell House coffee, me being too scared to ride a horse, so they put me on a sow (my brother did ride the horse, though). But what people did, how a Black family owned their own land going back to the turn of the twentieth century, I wouldn’t have known to even ask about at not quite six years old.

What I didn’t know until after high school, college, even after earning a Ph.D. in knowing (that’s what a history degree ultimately is) was so much worse than I imagined. To find out at twenty-three that my Mom was a star basketball player in high school. She played center, and led her team to Arkansas’ segregated state quarterfinals in ’65. My Uncle Sam played four sports in high school (basketball, football, baseball and track and field) and was offered college scholarships, but didn’t have the grades to move forward. I learned a year later that my Uncle Paul followed in their footsteps, and played three years at the University of Houston, left early and played for the Houston Rockets in ’82-’83 (not a good year for them, or for me, for that matter) before blowing out a knee and moving into entertainment work.

My father’s family — at least the women of the family — boasted at least three college degrees. Two of my aunts became school teachers. My uncles started businesses in Atlanta and in parts of rural Georgia, working their way well beyond the farm to the work they wanted to do.

Unidentified tenant farmer, his home, automobile, and family, Lee Wilson & Company, rural Arkansas, 1940s. (http://libinfo.uark.edu/SpecialCollections/)

Unidentified tenant farmer, his home, automobile, and family, Lee Wilson & Company, rural Arkansas, 1940s. (http://libinfo.uark.edu/SpecialCollections/)

I learned all of this by the time I turned thirty-two, just a year and a half before my own son was born. How many different decisions I would’ve made about my life if I had known that one half of my family was full of athletes, and the other half was full of business owners, not to mention three aunts with a college education? I would’ve known to try out for any sport in high school — particularly basketball — and to not be afraid to fail. I would’ve known that I was only the first person in my immediate family to take a go at college beyond a certificate in dietary science (my Mom earned that in the summer of ’75), and not the first one on either side as I once thought.

Most of all, I would’ve known that though I was lonely and played the role of a loner my last years growing up, that I wasn’t alone. There were a whole bunch of people in my lineage, some of whom were alive and well, from whom I could’ve drawn strength, found kinship, felt pride and confidence in, where I wouldn’t have seen myself as an abandoned and abused underdog anymore.

If I’d known all this growing up, I wouldn’t have felt and sometimes feel robbed now, by poverty and parenting, abuse and alcoholism. This is why having knowledge to draw from is so important.


Muggers’ Delight and The Aftermath

December 5, 2013

Champagne popping, December 5, 2013. ( ).

Champagne popping, May 2011. (Brian Freedman via http://www.uncorklife.com).

I was mugged for the last time on this date thirty years ago, the first Monday in December ’83. I’ve talked about this before, the experience of being jumped by four teenagers, who in the end, made away with $13 and change, the dumb asses. It was the beginning of a long and emotional month for me, mostly because of how my classmates responded to finding out about it.

From Boy @ The Window:

The first person who came up to me to ask what happened was Craig. He saw me as I was leaving Carapella’s office, on my way to gym. We talked for several minutes about what had happened. He gave me a high-five, which completely surprised me. It was maybe the second or third time in three years that anyone cared to ask me about what was going on with me outside of school.

It wasn’t just Craig. From Phyllis and Wendy to Joe and Danny, they all seemed to care that I was all right. It was the first time in three years that I knew anyone actually cared about me even in the most basic sense. That whole twenty-four-hour period was overwhelming. Fighting off four muggers and chasing them for over a mile, Mom responding by taking me to the police and their tracking down of Corey, to my classmates’ genuine concern left me emotionally exhausted. I spent most of that evening at 616 asleep.

It was the last of four muggings and robberies in four years, at ages nine and twelve, and two at thirteen. People said that Harlem was rough, and from my trips on the Subway through and times in Harlem with Jimme, it was. It didn’t mean that Mount Vernon was soft or a place for only wannabe-thugs. Within a couple of months, Corey and his gang had all gone to juvenile detention for what they had done to me.

It would also be the last straw for me as far as my identifying myself as a Hebrew-Israelite. The fifth and sixth of December had taught me a lot about the human condition. My classmates had shown me their maturity upon learning about my mugging. Mom took more initiative on my behalf in taking me to the police than I’d seen her take in years. The police actually cared about my case and didn’t play around in tracking down my assailants. It took about three weeks, but I tracked Jimme down, and, after collecting some money for the holiday season, gave Maurice his thirteen dollars.

I guess I also learned a small lesson in redemption. The fact that I had even a teaspoonful of support was very different from the way my classmates might’ve treated me if Corey and company had gone after me two years before. I must’ve done something right in middle school and in ninth grade, enough to where I redeemed myself as a decent human being in the eyes of my classmates. Despite this, I didn’t trust it, not completely. I realized that things would get back to normal in a week or two, and I’d go back to my loner role. And while I was happy that Mom came to my aid, I knew that this was a rare event. Expecting Mom to be there to support me was really too much to ask.

Behind the emotionless mask based on Itachi Uchiha, a ninja from the Village Hidden In The Leaves (Konohagure) of the anime, Naruto, January 25, 2013. (http://sites.psu.edu).

Behind the emotionless mask based on Itachi Uchiha, a ninja from the Village Hidden In The Leaves (Konohagure) of the anime, Naruto, January 25, 2013. (JeiGoWay via http://sites.psu.edu).

Emotionally, it was as if someone had uncorked a bottle half-filled with warm champagne. I had gotten used to my role as nerdy loner at school and blank, unemotional eldest child in resistance to my idiot stepfather’s abuse at home. My classmates’ positive expressions toward me caused a psychological systems error, one that meant I could no longer avoid a simple truth. That it had been more than two and a half years since the last time I’d felt any connections to any person in my life. I had no friends, no family with which I shared an emotional or psychological bond. I hadn’t had a hug in at least two years. At least, until the day after my mugging.

After years of being weird and odd, of being made fun of (luckily Facebook, Twitter and cyber-bullying didn’t exist in ’83) and beaten up (with the constant threat of abuse to boot), and our plunge into welfare poverty, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make it to be fourteen, much less become a full-grown adult. I was approaching a crossroads, where my previously bottled-up emotions of the period between April ’81 and the mugging were coming directly into contact with my emotionless persona. It was an explosive mix, leaving me to question my very need to exist at all.


Major Change

October 18, 2013

College Major Cartoon. Source: http://choctawsap.blogspot.com

Twenty-five years ago on this date, I made a most important educational decision. Despite my fears, my mother’s misgivings and my former Humanities classmates’ mockery, I changed my major from Computer Science to History. I’d been thinking about making this change since the middle of my first semester at Pitt, but decided against it at first because I knew that it wouldn’t be easy to make enough money to live on as someone with only a bachelor’s degree in History. Luckily my former TA Paul Riggs, a grad student in the History Department at Pitt, helped a lot in convincing me to “follow my heart,” as he put it. It was my third semester, my sophomore year, when I finally had the guts to come out of the closet academically.

The semester went well despite my five days of homelessness and the two months of financial strife that followed. It turned on another nail in my upbringing’s coffin. In addition to Biology, Psych 101, and General Writing, I was taking History of Art and Assembly Language, the last as part of my Computer Science major. Playing around with codes that related to “011000100101010000010” all the time drove me out of my mind with frustration. It was after our first major programming assignment that I recognized the problem. “I’m going to school for Mom and not for me,” I said to myself one late evening after running the debugger software at my CIS job. I had a major decision to make.

On the eighteenth of October, I went to the College of Arts and Sciences office on the eighth floor of Cathedral and changed my major to History. I then walked to Thackeray and withdrew from my Assembly Language course. Boy, did that feel good!

Then I called Mom from William Pitt Union to tell her my good news. She was completely quiet for a good ten seconds.

“What are you gonna do with a degree in history?,” she asked with shock in her voice.

“I don’t know yet, Mom, I don’t know. But I do know that I’ll graduate if I major in something I love.”

“All right, are you sure?,” Mom asked more directly. She already knew I was.

Choices Picture. Source: http://collegejolt.com

Choices Picture. Source: http://collegejolt.com

Looking back, it was probably the best academic decision I made while I was an undergrad at Pitt. My mood, my approach to life, my thinking of the future, all changed that semester. I could’ve easily majored in English writing or Psychology, given the way I see myself now.

But that’s what made majoring in History a wonderful experience. Studying history involved multiple disciplines for me. A great knowledge of history was much more than dates, names and events. It was about understanding the human condition, our attempts at greatness, our exhibition of behaviors that would be considered savage by savages. The ability to write about and analyze critical issues in American and other histories, including apartheid and slavery in South Africa, Latin American revolutions, and the resegregation of Pittsburgh Public Schools through magnet schools. Not to mention looking at the writings of other historians and other scholars in other fields. Most of all, I learned a lot about myself in the process of following a part of my passion.

Still, there were and are practical issues in pursuing a major that doesn’t have a direct relationship to jobs on the job market. I didn’t want to teach high school, and I needed to go to grad school if I wanted to be a professor or scholar. Having come through on the other side, I can say that I learned how to have fun while learning again. That’s what undergrad is for, after all, as the average student changes their major three times in five years. If I had figured out how I was a writer first and a historian second, I would’ve done something different for my master’s degree. But with my major in history, I wouldn’t change a thing.

It’s after finishing my history degree at Pitt in ’91 where, looking back, I’d make a few changes. A master’s degree in education or psychology — not so bad. A PhD in education policy & foundations would’ve likely been a better choice in terms of making my career transitions smoother. I would’ve figured out that I wanted to write Boy @ The Window much sooner than the end of ’02. This is what makes life interesting, though. So many twists and turns, so many times to embrace change, especially if it is for the better.


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