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: http://snl.jt.org

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.


Humanities Origins: Goofball

May 5, 2011

This week marks thirty years since I learned that my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Della Bryant had recommended me and two other classmates into Mount Vernon public schools’ Humanities Program. It was a great achievement, but it felt bittersweet at the same time. For it came a week after the end of my friendship to Starling, and three weeks into the bizarre-ness of being a Hebrew-Israelite. It was the beginning of six long years of learning life’s lessons the hard way, like a soft-shelled crab in the middle of a hailstorm.

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Mrs. Bryant had pushed for my acceptance into Mount Vernon’s Humanities Program at the beginning of May. Between my SRA scores (Reading, 12th grade level; Math, 11th grade level), three years as a straight-A student and her recommendation, it was pretty much a slam dunk. This meant that I could spend as much as the next six years taking accelerated courses with the brightest students in Mount Vernon. When Mrs. Bryant told me about her recommendation, I bounced the seven blocks home to tell Mom about the opportunity. Mom asked, “Are you sure about this?,” as if I was planning to become a Catholic priest. I responded with an emphatic, sportscaster Marv Albert-esque “Yes!”

Of all the things that I was first asked to do after Mrs. Bryant told me that I was in, I had to pick a language of study — for the next four years! I didn’t think much past the next couple of weeks, except when waxing philosophic, so four years might as well have been forty. I opted for Italian over Spanish and French, mostly because of my love for spaghetti and pizza and Italian cheeses, a desire to visit Little Italy, and because the other six Holmes School classmates who had been accepted into Humanities chose the other languages.

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But with the loss of Starling as my best friend, it was hard to celebrate without feeling lost and loss. I hoped that, at the least, that I could connect with the other kids that would make up Humanities at A.B. Davis Middle School in seventh grade. I hoped that I would do as well as I’d done between fourth and sixth grade, that I could prove myself as among the smartest — if not the smartest — kid in the program. Most of all, I hoped that I’d be challenged in ways that fourth, fifth and sixth grade hadn’t.

A.B. Davis Middle School, Humanities Wing, November 21, 2006. Donald Earl Collins.

As it turned out, I was challenged. Thoroughly. My future and now former classmates challenged all of my assumptions about people and life, about how the world works, about relationships, tolerance and acceptance. I faced challenges that I couldn’t have possibly anticipated three decades ago.

I attended William H. Holmes Elementary, a school that was 99.8 Black and Latino, with high number of kids from poor and low-income backgrounds. I assumed that with a greater degree of intelligence came a greater degree of acceptance, but I hadn’t learned anything about eugenics or Nazism as an intellectual practice yet. (Not that Humanities was an incubator of Nazism, but it shows how poor my assumptions were.) I was arguably the highest performing student in my class, but that’s like saying that I’d won a hot-dog eating contest against a two-year-old.

But that was all to come with the transition to middle school, the economic collapse of my family and the puberty process. In the moment of origin in May ’81, I was on an academic high that I wouldn’t achieve again until my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh. I was a newborn baby, beautiful yet naive, not yet ready for the torture of the growing pains that would follow.


The Tyranny of Salvation

April 18, 2011

Foot On My Neck & Head, symbolic of my years as a Hebrew-Israelite, April 18, 2011. Donald Earl Collins

Thirty years ago this date, on a sunny Saturday in April ’81, the false prophet known as my stepfather came back into our lives with a new religion, delaying my spiritual growth by at least three years. The day before both Easter and Passover that year, me, my mom and my older brother Darren became Hebrew-Israelites, Black Jews, Afrocentric Jewish Negroes, strange folks among strange folks in our strange land. It was supposed to be my and our salvation, the beginning of glorious times. Instead, it was a hell on Earth like no other, with fists, kicks and empty stomachs to look forward to for the next three years.

An excerpt from Boy @ The Window seems appropriate here:

“Maurice returned to our lives in April ’81 after a six-month separation from my mom (sort of, because unbeknown to us, she was pregnant with my younger brother Yiscoc, a Hebrew variation for Isaac) claiming that he was a different man, a changed man, thanks to an allegedly reincarnated Balkis Makeda and his Hebrew-Israelite conversion.

This was the religion my stepfather converted to after he and Mom had separated. In the period before his return, my stepfather had been working on Mom, attempting to convince her that he was now a good man and could be trusted as the man of our house. He loved Jehovah, had stopped smoking, and had learned how to love himself. And he had changed his name to Judah ben Israel, not legally, mind you. The name literally means “Lion of God and of Israel,” and referred to my stepfather as a royal descendant of Jacob/Israel, the immediate father of the Israelite people. It was in this context that my stepfather gained a sense of himself and control over his world.

I didn’t know what to think at first. After I had watched Maurice load up on lamb shanks and pork chops on the first Saturday in October six months earlier, I hadn’t expected him to come back at all. I already thought of the man as the great pretender after three and a half years of living in the same 1,200 square-foot space together. That, and eating like he was Dom DeLuise at a banquet, were his only true talents. As few and far between my visits with Jimme were after Mom’s divorce became final in ’78, I’d always seen an inebriated Jimme as more of a father than Maurice could be if he really tried.

The Kufi, cute on some, a symbol of a curse for people like me, April 3, 2010.

Still, despite my confusion and skepticism, I worked extremely hard to convince myself that Maurice’s conversion was real. Especially since Mom had decided to welcome him back into all of our lives. I had to. Because becoming a Hebrew-Israelite wasn’t exactly a process in which free will was involved. Our mother told us that this would be our religion “for the rest of our lives.” Then our stepfather came to explain this “way of life” to us, and we put on our white, multi-holed, circular kufis for the first time. I had no idea what Mom and Maurice had pushed us into.

A part of me was on the outside looking in, thinking, “this is crazy.” But we were already the children of one divorce, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see another one so soon. Darren, to his credit, played along as if being a Hebrew-Israelite was just a role in a school play.”

I lost many of my sixth-grade friends when I showed up to school the Tuesday morning after Easter and Passover with a kufi on my head, including my best friend Starling (see April 2009 posting “My Best Friend” http://wp.me/pRU8Z-1E).

I might not have lost my childhood thirty years ago on this date. But it was the beginning of eight years wandering in the wilderness. It was a bitter, tyrannical wilderness, populated by wolves in sheep’s clothing, Maurice Washington number one among them. I stepped on many landmines in the process of finding myself again.

Still, those years are ones I can’t get back. It’s amazing that I found God at all, given all of the crap we’re told by spiritual leaders about the road to salvation.


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