Peaking As A Sixth Grader

June 24, 2011

William H. Holmes Elementary, Mount Vernon, NY, November 23, 2006. Donald Earl Collins

I can’t believe that this Sunday’s the thirtieth anniversary of me and my cohort finishing sixth grade. Thirty years since I first felt that feeling of reaching the mountaintop, as if I’d accomplished something in my life. Three decades since the last time I was unknowingly naive and unnecessarily arrogant.

Combined with having become a part of a bizarre religion, I had a new point of view on my life by the time graduation day on Friday, June 26 of ’81 rolled around. My family was now two months into our serving Yahweh, and I was six weeks removed from losing my best friend Starling because of this nutty religion. It was a time in which I felt overwhelmed about my present and immediate future. Yet I acted as if I’d published a book that was both a New York Times Bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize winner. I couldn’t have been more pumped up if I’d been on Walter White’s blue crystal meth from Breaking Bad.

But I had some basis for seeing myself as great. As far as I was concerned, I was the unofficial valedictorian of my elementary school class at William H. Holmes Elementary, the ’50s structure next to the big Presbyterian church on North Columbus and East Lincoln Avenue. My teachers had chosen me out of all of my classmates to speak at our graduation ceremony. On that last Friday in June ’81, I served as the opening speaker, introducing the city councilman who served as our keynote. I even wrote the short introduction that I delivered on that wonderful day.

I firmly believed that no one in the world was smarter than me. In the three years prior to graduation, I had straight A’s. Still, that paled in comparison to my performance my last year of elementary school. I figured out that I earned an A on forty-eight out of fifty-two quizzes and tests in sixth grade. The lowest grade I earned that year was an 88 on a spelling quiz. I’d won a Dental Awareness Month award for Best Poster and came in second in a city-wide writing contest that included essays from high school students. If anyone had known how big my head had grown that year, they would’ve stuck a pin in my temple just to let the air out.

It wouldn’t have been any funnier if I’d pretended I was Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, saying his

Ana Gasteyer as Celine Dion, SNL, April 6, 2002. Source:

words, “Sometimes I underestimate the magnitude of me.” Or, really, Ana Gasteyer (of SNL fame) playing Celine Dion and calling herself the “greatest singer in the world.” I wanted so badly to see myself and to be seen by others as special that I forgot about the work it had taken to move my reading and writing skills up seven grade levels in a little more than two and a half years.

It was a great day, sunny and low-eighties with cumulus clouds and low humidity. But knowing what life at 616, Mount Vernon and Humanities had in store for me over the next eight years, I should’ve smelled the ozone in the air. I should’ve looked more closely at my sky, to see the flocks of seagulls flying away from the shoreline. I should’ve sensed — and did, on a very low-frequency — the hurricane gaining strength in my life. I chose to ignore it, hoping that I could fake my way through it while resting on my laurels.

To think that it would’ve been another nine years before I felt like I could take on the world again. If someone had told me in June ’81 that I’d have to wait until my junior year at Pitt to have a straight-A semester, I would’ve grabbed a gun and shot myself through the heart with a Colt .45. And I would’ve made sure that the bullet I used had a hollow tip. If I’d known that I’d have to wait a full decade to be comfortable with myself as myself in all of my goofy-ness again, I probably would’ve cried on the spot.

All I can hope these days is that I can help my son strike a balance between being cool and being cool with himself, especially once he approaches his teenage years. I don’t want him spending a decade trying to figure himself out all by himself.

On Baseball & Hyprocrisy

April 2, 2011

Fenway From Legend's Box, Fenway Park, Boston, June 21, 2008. Jared Vincent via Flickr - Permission granted under the terms of the cc-by-2.0 license.

A new baseball season has arrived for this estranged ex-fan of the game. Millions of people celebrate as if this is a rite of spring, like a cherry-blossom festival or an opportunity to spend more time outside. When I see the start of baseball, it merely reminds me to up my dosage of Zyrtec and Rhinocort.


But that’s not quite true. It also hits me in the brain and gut with the common mythologies and hypocrisies of America the Beautiful. Especially this spring, with Barry Bonds on trial for perjury — and indirectly, for using steroids, sullying the game, not to mention his Hall-of-Fame record prior to ’99. The guardians of the game — baseball purists like George Will and numerous others, and sports reporters like Pope Lupica and Bob Ryan — supply us with the myths and legends of Babe Ruth, Joe Di Maggio, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Mickey Mantle and Cy Young. Along with their records, those precious records. Of home runs, total hits, hitting streaks, RBIs, strikeouts, wins, stolen bases, games played, batting averages, slugging percentages. The stuff that makes baseball America’s pastime (which should always be written as past-time, or past-its-time), different from all the other major sports.

The hypocrisy comes from this ridiculous notion of keeping the game separate and holy, like the sabbath for orthodox Jews and for the most devout of Christians and Muslims. Except that this game, this most American of games, is about as pure as New York City snow two minutes after hitting the ground. The biggest, most disgusting hypocrisy of all is how most baseball purists will celebrate Babe Ruth’s greatness any day over a Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson, or Josh Gibson. Or Walter Johnson over Satchel Paige. That sixty-four years since Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball, there’s still a color line in baseball’s precious records, as well as among the people who hold them. That alone is a stomach-churning, blood-pressure-raising shame.

But this issue of who should and shouldn’t be in Cooperstown because of the Steroids Era in baseball, well, it presupposes a false dichotomy. That there was a time before, say ’88, where baseball wasn’t dirty, and that with anabolic steroids and HGH, baseball became dirty. But since ’03, baseball’s become clean and transparent again. This is beyond ridiculous. Baseball’s been as dirty as any sport in American history, in fact dirtier, than the other sports put together. Between amphetamines and illegal drugs, pine tar and Vaseline balls, sharpened cleats and headhunting and the exclusion of Blacks, the sport and the individuals involved in it have been seeking and finding competitive advantages for as long as baseball has been a professional endeavor.

Still, the biggest myth and hypocrisy in baseball remains its insistence that its records are sacred, above critical scrutiny and reproach. I have a problem with this, and not just because of the racism that’s built into any records achieved prior to 1947. But because baseball’s sanctimonious bigotry infects any record that’s been achieved in the sixty-four years since. Whether it was Roger Maris in ’61, Hank Aaron in ’74, or Barry Bonds before ’99, much less after.

As long as the guardians of the game remain White, male and overly connected to baseball as patriotic and its records as sacrosanct, baseball’s hypocrisy will know no bounds. “It’s a shame and a pitiful,” as my father would say. And it’s also a reason I hope my son never plays this wretched game.


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