“Let Me Tell You About Ms. Martha…”

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Ms. Martha with her grandson, Silver Spring, MD, December 25, 2009. (Donald Earl Collins)

I’ve been reluctant to write this post. Not because I have nothing good to say about my late mom-in-law, someone I’d known for nearly half my 51 years. I have nothing but good things to write about her. Not because I’m grieving. I often write when I’m in an altered state emotionally or psychologically. No, I’m a bit nervous because this will be my first blog post about any specific member of my wife’s family, Thanksgiving 2001 excepted. I’m mostly concerned that some will see what I have to write about my mom-in-law as an indirect slap toward my own mother and parents/guardian in general.

Trust me, it’s not. That I first met Martha Mae Guinn Levy (1931-2020) a month after my twenty-sixth birthday meant the nature of this relationship was never going to be strictly parent-to-child or mother-to-son.

The truth is, Ms. Martha really did treat me that way. But not just that. Sometimes our conversations could be contentious, like professor-student, or like two bickering friends, or brother-sister. The woman had nearly 39 years on me, but the battle-axe of a geezer could just as quickly be affectionate and a never-ending fountain of love and optimistic clichés. There are so many conversations, so many arguments, so many moments I could discuss that made me see all the facets and contradictions of my mom-in-law.

Ms. Martha made herself available for nearly every important event in my life since my then girlfriend introduced us on the last Saturday in January 1996. She attended my doctoral graduation at Carnegie Mellon the following year. She drove me and her daughter to the Greyhound bus station in “dahntahn Picksburgh” in August 1999, so that we could begin our 20-plus years of living in the DMV, the Washington DC area. She shared a hotel room with my mom in 2000, just a few months after me and her daughter eloped. She came here to Silver Spring and watched at Sibley Hospital in DC as my wife gave birth to her one and only grandchild in 2003. She stayed with us for six weeks to watch her grandson in November and December of the same year, so that my wife could go back to work, and just before our son would start daycare.

But there’s one conversation that really and truly encompassed the evolution of our relationship over the years. It was in December 2013, just a few months after I had self-published Boy @ The Window. A week earlier, I had called my father about his yearly Christmas ritual of sending barely cashable Western Union money orders to give to his grandson for the holiday season. Instead, he mumbled and gave gruff one-word answers to my questions. “What’s wrong?,” I asked. “I told you not to put me in your book,” he said, sounding hurt and embarrassed. “I didn’t want nothing to do with your book. You shoulda left the past in the past.” My dad actually hadn’t said any of these things in the seven years between first sentence and the rough final draft I ended up publishing that April. I had been completely open about what I was going to write and why. I guess having a paperback copy of Boy @ The Window in his hands to leaf through was too much for him.

The weekend before Christmas 2013, Ms. Martha called. She dialed up my partner on her cell phone to talk to me (mind you, she had my direct number, but called her daughter first). When I picked up Angelia’s phone, I heard “Hey Donald” in Ms. Martha’s gravelly voice. After a brief exchange, she said, “I wanna talk to you about your book.” I mailed Ms. Martha a copy of Boy @ The Window, along with my dad and a few others, but I hadn’t expected her to read it, at least not so quickly.

“I started reading and I didn’t wanna put it down,” Ms. Martha said. I was surprised. Really, I was dumbstruck. I hadn’t expected this response at all. Not because Ms. Martha didn’t read. I figured, Oh, she’s just being polite, especially after hearing from my dad a little more than a week earlier.

We talked about my book for nearly an hour and a half on my wife’s iPhone. I might as well have been doing a book talk as conversation with my mom-in-law. Ms. Martha asked questions about my Boy @ The Window years, wanting more details beyond the stories I did include. There were a lot of “I didn’t know…” and “I couldn’t believe…” comments about what I and my family lived through. She asked at least a dozen questions about my mom and her decision-making, about my brothers and sister, about my asshole classmates.

Mostly, she doted on me. “Oh boy! I liked this sentence here…,” Ms. Martha said while reading me back to me a number of times. When I explained away my accomplishments or challenges, she’d say, “…as far as that matter goes…” to remind me that what was normal for me was not normal for most tweeners or teenagers, not even Black ones living with poverty. “This was a joy to read,” she said so many times. She said she laughed and cried while reading the book, and laughed and cried while talking to me about it.

I ended that conversation with Ms. Martha thinking, Wow! This tough old woman really loves me! It made me feel better about writing Boy @ The Window. It made me feel better at a time when I felt low, about my writing, about switching careers, about life in general.

And yes, I truly loved and love Ms. Martha. I will miss our conversations, our rational disagreements, our out-of-nowhere arguments, our hugs, our embraces, and her love for me, her daughters, her grandson, for family and community more broadly. I will miss your presence and your voice in my life. May God bless you and keep you…and give you peace, in your life after life.

In Cicadas and Graduation Years

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Noah and me, stuck in a post-graduation moment, Montgomery Blair HS, Silver Spring, MD, June 2, 2021. (Angelia N. Levy)

Hard to believe but still true. Today, our son graduates from high school, nearly 34 years after my own high school graduation, or three cicadas cycles (1987, 2004, and 2021). In between has been “my second childhood” of Pittsburgh, undergrad and grad. In between was learning how to be comfortable in my own skin, dating, marrying. In between was my beginning to reject so much of the fear and bs that my parents and idiot guardian and others fed to me. Otherwise there would be no graduation of our soon-to-be 18-year-old son to celebrate, no reason to work to be an example to him about building and walking a path, no misogynoir or misogyny to give up.

I have only been alive for four cicadas cycles (1970, 1987, 2004, 2021), our son in the middle of number two. Most humans in this part of the world don’t get to see more than five cycles (I’d have to make it to 85 to see my sixth cycle, and who knows what the US would be like by then). 

But there’s symmetry here. I was in my first year of life when I likely saw but could not possibly remember my first cicadas. So was our son in the late spring of ‘04. I graduated high school in the middle of the cicadas’ mating season in ‘87. I vaguely remember them. I walked so far and so fast in those days. My headphones and my Walkman were practically glued to my ears and left hip and belt. I may have noticed the unceasing chirring and flying and crunches a time or two. But I walked at Warp Factor 3 or 5 blasting Genesis, White Snake, Whitney Houston, or U2 through your ears down one Mount Vernon street or in Co-Op City or somewhere in between. The cicadas’ were mostly a crunch speed bump on my way to obsessive heartbreak and on my way to college and Pittsburgh.

Our son’s path has been bumpy, and not just because he walks at a tortoise’s pace. He’s not a big fan of school. Nor does he have the fight-or-flight instincts I had when I was his age, well-honed from years of trauma and living in a place where no one cared how broken I was. His musical tastes barely register on the decibel meter. He often claims he likes “nothing,” but I’ve found him bopping to The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23” and Hall & Oates’ “Private Eyes” and Haddaway’s “What Is Love” in recent years. He apparently does like one indie rock band, Bloc Party, a UK group.

Music has changed so much over the past three cicadas cycles. So has our world. When I graduated nearly 34 years ago, Cameo’s “Candy” and “Word Up,” Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” U2’s “With Or Without You,” Luther’s “Stop To Love,” Europe’s “Final Countdown,” and Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” were the sappy hits of the moment. Yet some songs were subversive, and deliberately so, like “With Or Without You” (who thought this song was about romantic love? — certainly not me!), Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” and Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times.” And there was the music that as a 51-year-old I’ll admit I knew was wack and lame even at the time, including anything by Glass Tiger or Starship. The cicadas must have loved it when I warped by blasting this schlock.

Our son might not like much music, but it isn’t because we don’t play any at home or in the car. We play the music we grew up around, the music of our adult choices, the music we listened to despite and because of our parents. Blues, gospel, real R&B, rap, hip-hop soul, punk rock, heavy metal, ‘80s pop, ‘90s pop, grunge, jazz, smooth jazz, emo, country (that’s my spouse, definitely not me), and yes, even BTS. All are welcome to the eclectic music party. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t feel the need to pick a genre. Our family is a jukebox, er, iPod, no, um, iPhone and Spotify of sounds. That’s not something a Walkman or 700 billion cicadas can duplicate.

But I also keep in mind two things. One is that from our son’s perspective, JLo’s On The 6, Coldplay’s “Clocks,” even Kanye’s The College Dropout is the growing-up-as-a-zillennial equivalent of The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Diana Ross & The Supremes’ version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye did the original), and Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” via his What’s Going On album was for me at 17. It took me years to appreciate the music, understand what it was always trying to say to me. Hopefully, with enough luck and time, our son will get there. Hopefully with enough cicadas cycles, so will our world.

Especially with the second issue. Have you heard the music of the past decade? BTS is fine, but will peak as all glambands do at some point. Between SZA and RZA and Sia and H.E.R. and Lizzo and J. Cole and Lil Nas X (love him, btw) and so many others, I’m longing for the days of Solange. I know, so five years ago. No instruments, no good lyrics, and aside from Lil Nas X and The Weeknd, not much subversiveness, either. A wall of sound that seems indecipherable, like the cicadas this morning. Hopefully, our son will decipher it all, for himself, if not for any of us.

BA Collins, 30 Years Ago

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Pitt logo, the one closest to what was on their brochures in April 1986, April 12, 2016. (http://pitt.edu).

As I have said in a couple of places this week, this time three decades ago I completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. My major was History, with minors in Mathematics (courtesy of my 1.5 years working toward a Comp Sci degree) and Black Studies (before the powers that were changed the name of the degree to Africana Studies). Yay me!

My degree is nine years older than my marriage, between five and 10 years older than most of my students. Goofy semi-asexual me was more than 12 years away from becoming a father. It seems surreal to look back at myself from 30 years ago. Especially when there had been so many years before Saturday, April 27, 1991 when I didn’t think I’d make it to 30.

If I could somehow get a message to my 21-year-old self, and only one message, what would it be? Trust God? Write as if your life depends on it, because it will, and sooner than you think? Take time off after finishing the master’s next year? Move back to NY, so that you can please your Mom? Don’t try to date E, it will go badly?

No, no, no. None of those will do. Find your true self. Find your core beliefs. Admit your loves, your disdains, your anxieties, and your fears. You do that, you will be the writer and the person you always wanted to be. That’s what my dreams and my multiple muses have been saying for years. I’ve heard them, but only in bits and pieces, since I was in my teens.

Well, better lately than never, and better late than Laettner, as I say.

The Start of the “Shalom Aleichem” Years

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Primary Names of God in Hebrew, October 2018. (https://www.chabad.org).

This week 40 years ago brought an avalanche of changes to my already unstable world. I wouldn’t have noticed the instability, though. I believed my bubble of Mount Vernon and the NYC was pretty stable back in mid-April 1981. I had friends who I could talk to and debate with all day. I saw my father about once every three weeks. I was starting to get into mainstream popular music, and had some interest in sports. I liked a few girls here and there. I was doing well in school. I was doing well in general, with my stepfather separated from my mother for the previous six months. So well that I’d forgotten my sexual assault trauma from 1976. So well that even the bullies around my block hadn’t tried to stone me to death or beat my face in for nearly seven months.

But Maurice came back as “Judah ben Israel,” and the brief years of worldly enlightenment came to a crashing halt. I tell this story in Boy @ The Window this way:

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, which was what convinced Mom to end her separation from him.

I was so confused that my brain felt like it was on a carnival ride. Really? This is what we are doing now? We’re still a family? What about my dad?, I thought. But people desperate for an identity that defies the beliefs of White folk often take desperate, cultist measures.

This week 40 years ago, Maurice worked on me and my brother Darren to take this Hebrew-Israelite bullshit seriously, which meant threatening us with ass-whuppins if he found out we weren’t wearing our kufis or yarmulkes at school.

The next step, of course, was our acceptance of the Hebrew-Israelite religion. This 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 as nutty as this sudden conversion seemed, I convinced myself into acceptance. 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 went to the school the following Monday with my bright white kufi on top of my head for the first time. Talk about committing social suicide! The expressions on my friends’ faces, from completed stunned and disgusted to eyes that revealed what their set faces attempted to conceal. I was immediately an outcast, especially as far as my best friend Starling was concerned. Once I explained to some of them what had occurred the week before, they seemed to get it, even if they kept me at ulna’s length. They still said “Hey Donald. Wassup?” the way they did before.

Not Starling and some of our mutuals. He saw it as my betrayal, not just of him, but of God himself. Such are the inflated egos of children of preacher-men. His weeks of silence led to a fight (which he won) and the end of our two-year friendship.

But the friendships and my within-normal-levels weirdness came to a crashing halt the moment I decided to allow myself to be a canvas my mother and stepfather used to express their eccentric yearnings for identity. It was the worst three and a half years of my life, with child abuse, another sexual assault, the fall into welfare poverty, suicidal ideations and one suicide attempt included.

My brother Darren handled the situation so much better than me. “Darren, to his credit, played along as if being a Hebrew-Israelite was just a role in a school play,” is what I wrote. He only wore his kufi at 616 and whenever he was out and visible to my stepfather’s peeps. Otherwise, the hat was off his head. But then again, Darren attended The Clear View School, where no one would have cared what he wore.

Yes, it is important to remember the past. If only because it is a reminder that, pandemic or not, there have been worse times in my life. I’m so glad that I haven’t worn a kufi in nearly 37 years.

Playing “Cooties” For a Year


Screen shot of Milton Bradley game Cootie, March 26, 2021 (https://amazon.com)

Between 1975 and 1978, I learned to play three games with my child-aged neighbors around the 400 block of South Sixth, my babysitter Ida’s building and adjacent junkyard at 240 East Third, and during our first year at 616. The most obvious one was Hide-and-Seek. I was never good at it, except when just playing with my older brother Darren. Usually I was among the first to be found. Because others were more creative or athletic about hiding spaces — as in climbing trees or hiding in nearly-empty yet dangerous dumpsters — I didn’t find too many kids, either.

There was also You’re It, or Tag, and the folks at 616 were especially rough with their tags. The kids around there each thought it was their duty to “it” you with the heavy slap on skin of someone who seemed to want a fight. Of course, they sometimes did. The first time me and Darren went outside to play, they chased us around 616 and 630, pelting us with rocks every chance they could. That some of them thought this was play is so telling of the roughness of all our lives. With neighbors like these…

There was a less popular version of You’re It and Tag. I mostly played that during my extended stays with Ida at 240 between 1975 and 1977. It was Cooties. This one could be mean in its own way. The kids would gather around and yell “Cooties!” when they touched you with their germ-infested hands. Some of us were designated vaccines, so that when we touched someone with cooties, they’d yell, “I got my cooties’ shot!”

We hid even harder for Cooties than we did for Hide-and-Seek. We’d be all over the junkyard, hiding in and around gigantic pieces of metal with rough edges, sometimes cutting up a hand or a leg on a piece of jagged rusted iron, steel, or aluminum. We’d hide behind 240 in the woods in between it and the junkyard, subjecting ourselves to smells of puddles of piss, broken beer and soda bottles (Pepsi and Coke wouldn’t start producing plastic soda bottles until 1977) and sharp glass that could come up through our thin-soled sneakers. Yeah, playing Cooties at 240 could sometimes lead to us actually getting the real-life cooties. Such were the dangers of poverty and environmental racism.

This week a year ago is when I began playing our real-life version of our global game of Cooties. Except this is not a game or a drill. Like so many, we did not have everything we needed to protect ourselves during our ventures into the world. March 23, 2020 was the first time I wore material over my mouth and nose. I say “material” because all we could order initially were pieces of cloth that we could fold over. I placed a coffee filter in between my two folds to create a makeshift face mask. It was red. I looked ridiculous.

I ran an errand that weekend to a mom-and-pop store I’d bought good cheap meat from since 1999. I was one of maybe four people with any type of face covering at all. Otherwise, it was a normal errand. Except for the elderly couple I saw walking in after I had cleared the front and was walking toward our car. The White man who trailed the White woman was struggling to walk, which is normal for someone in their mid-80s or 90s. The White woman was struggling to breathe. She was flush, looked congested, and looked ready to collapse at any moment. I haven’t been back to that store since. I heard it was under new ownership a few months ago.

Seeing that White woman, likely with the flu or with COVID-19 or even both, it changed my approach to the pandemic. I went from Let’s be careful out there but let’s not get paranoid to Let’s set the board to Def Con 3 — it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you! My shopping habits changed. I used to hit up to five stores in one outing to put $150 or $200 of groceries and stuff we needed in carts, bring in my reusable bags, talk to shelvers and cashiers, bump into neighbors and colleagues, and make a go of it. Or, when cash was less fluid, I’d shop for small sets of items at a couple of stores.

Either way, I spent three, four, five days a week in warehouses and supermarkets shopping. The last time I was in a grocery store was December 5, in Pittsburgh, buying just enough food to take back to our hotel room while visiting Pittsburgh after my mom-in-law died. Locally in the DMV, I have not shopped for anything other than Disaronno or Absolut Citron (which I’ve hardly touched) since October 15. Why? Because I don’t want anyone touching me with their cooties.

Per Crystal Fleming (yes, #CiteBlackWomen) and Twitter, I started cleaning groceries after shopping at Safeway and Trader Joe’s last April 10 and last April 24. Even at that early stage, as I saw people refusing to wear masks as mandated by Maryland, my aversion to cooties got worse. By then we had secured ten medical masks, and we were looking for medical grade gloves. We had just switched to using Dawn for our dish washing in the summer of 2019, so we were good there. But Lysol, Clorox, Microban, Windex, and all the stuff we needed to keep the house smelling like an antiseptic surgery bay, was long gone from most stores. Every human I saw was a walking meat bag of COVID-19 cooties.

We received our first pack of gloves at the end of April. We hardly used them. I went to a Latinx store in my community for toilet paper on May 1, and picked up groceries in a Safeway parking lot on May 30. After that, I visited a medical supply store for more masks and face shields on June 30, shopped with all that equipment at Giant on July 15, Trader Joe’s on August 17, and Whole Foods on September 15. This past year is the most time I spent indoors since the World Book Encyclopedia-discovery years of 1978 and 1979. Get thee hence, Cooties!

I already had a healthy disdain for humanity before the pandemic, one where I could fake my way through life with superficial interactions and a thin veneer of trust. Now it feels strange to even sit in the car and drive a mile to the nearest USPS mailbox, just to send off a payment. Now it is beyond weird being outside — I cannot believe I used to run or shoot hoops nearly every week for the previous 20 years. Now if I can find any reasonable workaround, I will pay double for something I know I can go get at a store, but don’t wanna leave the house, because people are cooties and cooties are people.

Lucky for me, I am in the queue for a cootie shot, and soon.

Michael Clayton vs. Jerome Kersey

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Then Blazer Jerome Kersey slashing his way to a lay-up past Laker Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, n.d., but likely pre-1991-92 season. (Mike Powell, Getty Images; https://www.blazersedge.com/2015/2/18/8066753/jerome-kersey-dead-portland-trail-blazers-legend)

A few years ago, I declared myself the writer equivalent of the fictional character Michael Clayton, whom George Clooney played in a movie of the same name in 2007. Like Clayton, who straddled the worlds of police officers, attorneys, and fixers, I found myself a misfit between academia and writing, journalism and writing, and professional writing. Despite whatever successes I have had in recent years (if one can call them that), I do not think this equation has changed. I still often find myself pounding on the walls of stone temples, a world of white folks who would just as soon spit on me and my manuscripts as they would ignore my queries. Such is the world in which I inhabit as one of the Black folx.

But I am not just Michael Clayton. I am also like the late Jerome Kersey (1962-2015) (may his body rest in peace while his spirit takes a moment to read me out — hopefully). At least as a writer. The six-seven small forward who came from a one-time Division II school and played the bulk of his career with the Portland Trail Blazers was one of the best slashers and one of the better defenders in the NBA in the late-1980s and in the 1990s. Kersey was especially adept at weak-side defense and playing passing lanes, great at finishing off of full-court fast breaks, and could beat defenders off of give-and-gos in the half-court set with ease. His J (if one could call it that) was serviceable at best. Anything outside 12-15 feet was a risky proposition, especially in close playoff games. But if you needed a weak-side rebound and put-away dunk, Kersey was the man.

In his prime, he was a necessary asset as part of the Blazers’ runs to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992, part of Clyde “The Glide” Drexler’s underrated band of brothers who entertained us. At least until they ran into teams that liked beating up on their opponents, like the Detroit Pistons in 1990 and MJ and the Chicago Bulls in 1992. When Drexler left in a mid-season trade to the Houston Rockets in 1995, obviously hungry for a ring, I knew Kersey’s days as a Blazer were numbered. They still had the great Cliff Robinson, so they would be a playoff team for years to come, but not a championship team.

I think I write the same way Kersey approached basketball. I am not someone who can take on a team one-on-three or one-on-five. I am a good passer, but the Chris Webber no-looks or LBJ pocket passes, okay, but nothing to wax braggadocious about, either. But if I get one step past a defender, good luck in keeping me from making a lay-up. Also, don’t leave me wide-open from three. I’ll make at least one for every three I take on my best days. I will fight for rebounds while taking elbows to my cheeks and jaw and eye socket, while knocking knees and shins, and will fall to the ground to get the ball.

That’s how I write. I am straightforward in my approach, hoping that my wit, my goofiness, and my knowledge bleed through. But I am also counterintuitive, and will take big ideas and try to break them down in ways no one else I know in the writing world is doing (that’s how I’ve managed to publish the pieces I have over the past six years, hitting the occasional 3). I write like I defend, as if my life depends on it, precisely because it does.

And yes, this leaves me vulnerable. In today’s NBA, even in Kersey’s NBA, one cannot just put their head down to the floor and drive to the basket without looking cross-court for an open teammate. Or, in case a defender plants themselves firmly to the wood, waiting to take an offensive foul or to block your shot. That’s where Kersey’s slash-to-the-hoop game often worked against him, especially once the injuries piled up, as his first step became slower.

So, I might not have the slow yet deliberate pick-apart-a-defense moves of an all-time great like Walt “Clyde” Frazier, or can staccato through defenses like the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, Kawhi Leonard, or current Blazer Damian Lillard, the equivalent of the way poetry slammer and author Bassey Ikpi writes. Nor do I have the quantum-level precision of pouring in points, beating defenses off the dribble, or making turn-around jumpers like Bernard King once did and MJ did with cold-blooded lethality, the way Colson Whitehead and Kiese Laymon weigh every single word, every phrase, every sentence, and every paragraph. Nor do I have the ability to flash killer smiles while also killing you with my post-up game, the way Magic Johnson once did and future WNBA hall-of-famer Candice Parker still does, which is how I see Roxane Gay, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Walter Mosley (most of the time) as writers.

Kersey had a 17-year NBA career, won a title with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999 (against my Knicks), and is in the top-3 or top-5 in most team statistics all-time as a result of his 11 years in Portland with the Blazers. Maybe I am not a hall-of-fame writer. But my writer game as Jerome Kersey might make me a long-hauler in this calling. Even if agents and editors, journalists and academicians still only see me as Michael Clayton.

Poverty Wages

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“How We Slice the Pie in the USA” editorial cartoon (cropped), September 19, 2011 (David Horsey/Hearst Newspapers; https://catherineandojaswi.weebly.com/document-ten.html)

It’s hard for me to believe sometimes how blissfully ignorant I used to be about the fourscore-and-three-layers’ worth of elitist bullshit there are to the nature of academic — and American — life. Even in the months after reading Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well, even after reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, I still believed that my talent and my production alone would win the day over having the right connections in my circle. What a dumb-ass chump I was, in 1993, and as recently as 2013.

But at least in 1993, my 23-year-old behind could be excused for simply not knowing enough about the world that I inhabited. I was a quick study, academically, but not so quick socially, only four-and-a-half-years removed from homelessness and not trusting humans all. My tutor, my unofficial advisor about the professional worlds that would take up the next 28 years of my life, was one Bruce Anthony Jones. I have talked about Bruce in the past, about how he quietly dumped me and all of his Pitt grad students upon leaving for University of Missouri-Columbia in 1996. That’s near the end of this story, though, not it’s beginning.

It was the year after I did an independent study on the literature of multicultural education in the US, Canada, and the UK with him as a master’s student. I was working with Bruce again, this time to learn more about curricula decision-making and cultural bias among the multicultural education and Afrocentricity set. He knew that this was likely my last semester at the University of Pittsburgh. I had tired of White professors and their withering White gaze, and of Larry not quite keeping up with my work, even though he was my history advisor.

So it was in late February 1993 that he invited me out to dinner to discuss my next moves. We ate at some high-end Chinese restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh on or off Grant Street. It was just a few blocks from where Bruce lived, his mini-penthouse on one-and-a-half floors (the 11th and 12th) in The Pennsylvanian, situated on a hill overlooking downtown. It was once the station building for all passenger trains in and out of Pittsburgh, having been converted into a luxury apartment building the year I arrived for undergrad at Pitt, in 1987.

As someone whose moments of interaction with affluence and luxury were few, the dinner meeting and discussion was dizzying. We had a five-course meal, sat and talked for two hours about grad school, the dissertation process, finding work in higher education, the crock of the tenure clock and tenure process, and so much more. Bruce really helped me demystify the cloistered world of academia that night.

But, between the end of that dinner, the walk over to Bruce’s penthouse apartment, and the conversation we had about his work, the high wore off. When we got to talking about salaries, he began to bitch and moan about his own lot as an assistant professor in the School of Education at Pitt. “Well, how much are you making as an assistant professor?,” I asked rather courageously (this isn’t something grad students were supposed to ask, my mutuals had told me, but you don’t get anywhere by not asking questions). “Forty-five thousand. But them’s poverty wages,” Bruce said matter-of-factly, his “Lon-Guy-Land” (Long Island, New York) accent kicking in more fully as he spoke.

In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, Arrogant asshole, the most I’ve ever made in a year is $11,000, and you talkin’ poverty wages to me? I’ve grown up without food, without any amenities beyond the basics, and you live in a 1.5-floor penthouse? Really? I don’t know how well I hid my envy and my rage after hearing Bruce’s complaints about his salary. I let him continue his monologue.

It turned out that Bruce’s time at Teachers College was about more than earning his doctorate. It was also an opportunity for him to earn money, really good money, through his connections at Teachers College and at Columbia University as a whole. Including one with Charles V. Hamilton, the co-author of Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (originally written with one Kwame Ture, née Stokely Carmichael in 1967).

The Pennsylvanian, near downtown Pittsburgh, PA, circa 2012.

I cannot recall if Hamilton was on his dissertation committee or not, but no matter. Apparently connections with Hamilton and others had helped Bruce find work as an education consultant with the Ford Foundation, among several other private foundations. In the two years leading to his PhD and the year before landing his Pitt faculty position, this was his other professional life. “I make double as a consultant than I do as a professor (really “professa,” the way it rolled off Bruce’s Long Island tongue), and for half the work,” I remember Bruce saying.

“What would I have to do to get into that kind of work?,” I asked once I got over the shock of calculating that Bruce was pulling between $130,000 and $150,000 a year while living in a 1,500-square-foot penthouse that cost $1,350 per month. Bruce should’ve said, “With help from people like me, lifting as we climb.” But instead, he made it sound like he just lucked out, somehow, like he just happened to be walking down a random hallway when leading Black scholars at Teachers College and Columbia offered lucrative consulting gigs on a random Friday.

A bit more than four years later, the summer of 1997, I found myself without work post-PhD. Teachers College had just rejected me for an assistant professorship in social foundations of education. I was literally a month or two away from being completely out of funds. I could pay my rent, but that was about all I could do until I found more work. I hated to do this, but I ended up contacting Bruce for help, either in finding work or in lending me money until I could pay him back.

Bruce returned my call, and was very stern on the phone with me. “I usually don’t lend students money,” he said, as if I was some random students who reached out to him out of nowhere. But he offered to write me a check for $100. “Now I expect you to pay me back,” Bruce said, as if he was being magnanimous. That was when I finally, really, truly understood. My time with Bruce was about making him feel like a powerful person in academia. It was never about mentoring or helping me at all.

Between 1997 and 2000, I continued writing my own letters of recommendation with Bruce’s name on them, a practice we had developed while I was still a grad student. Only, I also used one of Bruce’s old signatures and some University of Missouri-Columbia letterhead to make his letters written by me on my behalf look more authentic. After I turned down a job at Howard in June 2000, I wrote Bruce a check for $100 and wondered, Should I include interest in the total, and if so, how much? That was the last time I used Bruce’s letter, the last time I contacted him.

In the years since, I’ve worked jobs that paid $70,000 and $80,000 a year, charged as much as $550-per-day as a consultant, and turned down jobs paying $100K in areas that were too expensive for that salary (like the Bay Area, for example). I’ve also had a couple of years where I’ve barely earned $20,000 as an adjunct (those were years I also consulted, so). I know damn fucking well what a real poverty wage looks like. The closest Bruce has been to socioeconomic poverty was probably the night he sat across from me at dinner all those years ago. Intellectual, social, and spiritual poverty have been Bruce’s close companions, I’d bet, for many years. For such are the wages of narcissism.

When Plagiarism Isn’t Plagiarism, When Teachers Are Assholes

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A gas pilot light (what gaslighting and other weaponized behaviors can feel like when one’s on receiving end), February 11, 2021. (https://generalparts.com/)

I have been truly miffed and hurt before. But not like this. At least, not since my senior year of high school and my first year as a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon. But it is for my 17-year-old son that I am feeling this pain, this anger that ebbs, but doesn’t quite go away. It is apparent to me that so many teachers and staff in K-12 education are operating without a net with a pandemic all around them — and making the most of their ability to make life easier for their students anyway.

But there are others for whom the pandemic and all that has come with it literally means “students should just work as normal” or “even more than normal,” because they are “at home.” I already have colleagues at American University who think that they can take their 2.5-hour block classes and do what they did before the pandemic, lecturing for two hours at a time without giving students breaks, even assigning more work. I didn’t think I’d learn of the same stubbornness to adapt from high school teachers, too.

This story is one about my son’s struggles with school this year and off and on over the past few years. But it is also very much about how a high school in East Silver Spring, Maryland can let even a slightly above average student slip through the cracks, and then punish him, once noticed. It is about how teachers and administrators can circle the wagons like the NYPD or any other “blue wall of silence” police institution and gaslight the parents of such a child when confronted about how they have neglected and abused this child academically. My educated guess as an educator is that this issue with our own kid can easily be multiplied by a factor of a couple thousand across Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), and by hundreds of thousands in the 14,000 school districts across the US.

The story begins with our son in his senior year in a virtual remote learning environment, with some teachers (like his Creative Writing teacher) offering flexibility with due dates and other concerns, and other teachers (like his gym teacher and honors 12th grade English teacher), not so much. Our son has had his ups and downs throughout his high school years, but still was roughly a 3.0 or so student through his first three years. Even with the pandemic setting in last spring, he managed three As in his core courses. His combination of anxiety, social isolation, and (at times) inattention and laziness kept him from doing as well as he likely could’ve those years.

With schools in virtual remote mode for at least the first half of his senior year, we expected it to be pretty rough for our son. But not this rough. It seemed as if MCPS flipped a switch, and as a rule expected teachers, administrators, students, and parents to carry on this 2020-21 school year as if everything was normal. Daily attendance checks, more homework piled on top of homework, constant testing, points off for any late assignments, all part of the normal and toxic routine of rote discipline in the Common Core era.

And so it was for our son. In his gym class, his teacher marked him absent at least three times on days he opened his Zoom more than five (5) minutes past his start time. In the first three weeks, our son switched from Anatomy, Marine Biology, and Calculus to Creative Writing and Intro to Statistics, putting him behind in his courses overall.

But by the end of the first month, of all the classes, we did not expect honors English to be an issue. He had been taking honors English classes since seventh grade, after all. His honors English teacher for the first half of 12th grade, though, was not impressed with our son’s work. Even his A+ work:

You need to be more specific here. There is way to much generalization and because of that lack of specificity you kind of repeat the same ideas over and over again.

…you really didn’t follow the layout that we reviewed in class for this narrative. You need to show and not tell. Use a scene to demonstrate the theme rather than just telling the reader what they should know.

A little more detail as to the character and the setting would have been helpful here.  This goes back to the “show don’t tell” conversations we’ve had about the project.

I’d like to hear a little more discussion with the group next time – that’s what I am assessing.

Because I have electronic access to our son’s assignments, grades, and comments, I read these off and on throughout his months with this honors English teacher. I figured that our son wasn’t quite doing his best work. But then again, who would be these days? I was busy grading my own students and their papers. Although I thought this teacher’s commentary was a bit tough, I assumed it was because our son kept making the same errors again and again.

Until I started reading his assignments and answers in more detail. Even when our son understood the assignment or essay and showed understanding, it was never enough for his honors English teacher. The last quote in the string above was about an assignment in which this teacher had assigned a perfect score. That was in December, just before the holiday break.

I emailed his honors English teacher, in fact, all of our son’s other 12th grade teachers and his counselor at that point. I wrote that we “fully understand your frustrations with [our child], and share them as well.” We asked for them to keep a look out for him, to not let him “blend into the background.” Notice that we did not say that we condoned this teacher’s frustrations or his “terse language” toward our child. Nor did we say to give him a grade he doesn’t deserve. We simply wanted the flexibility that any of us would want in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of death (including the death of his grandmother at the beginning of December), on top of his ongoing issues with sleeplessness and anxiety.

Instead, our son’s honors English teacher became more frustrated, and never addressed us as his parents directly in response to my email. It all came to a head on our son’s last assignment, an essay on satire. Apparently the teacher expected our son to roll with one example on satire and point to how many methods of satire this one example checks off. Instead, our son used four examples, and went through those methods with those examples. In the end, the teacher scored it a 50/100.

At first, I really wasn’t that surprised, given our son’s history with this teacher. But then, in the middle of his comments, the teacher wrote:

As for the elements of satire that you explore, in order to address sarcasm you must include the term irony in order to fully demonstrate your understanding of the device- you also don’t give specific examples.  A caricature is a satirical device but the example you give is not satire, it’s racist.

That was when I read the essay. What our son wrote was meandering, not well organized, but not exactly a disheveled mess either. It was pretty middle-of-the-road, like he wrote it in a rush (given the state of things, I’m certain he wrote it at the last minute). But it did contain a thesis, a mediocre and incomplete one, yet I clearly knew his topic and some of what he intended to cover just from reading it. He addressed the issue of irony in his second paragraph, and went on in detail to describe it in his fifth paragraph. The racism charge was ridiculous, given that our son had immediately pointed out that caricatures of groups like Jews were historical “stereotypes” as part of his essay. Plus, the nerve of this man to write, “I really wish I could’ve done more to help. With this assignment in particular I can help you with these types of essays- that help will prepare you for college if that’s the route you’re thinking of taking.” Tone deaf, with -isms and assumptions at his educator core.

I emailed our son’s honors English teacher, again, this time to ask him to take a second look, to note what our son did correctly in his essay, not just what our son didn’t do. Based on this teacher’s own rubric and nearly three decades of teaching students between 13 and 80 years old, our son’s score should’ve been between a 70 and a 79.

Instead, the teacher doubled down and accused our son of plagiarism, which was now the real reason for his score. My guess was that the teacher deliberately found another weakness in his essay, once confronted by me via email. He offered, though, to knock our’s son’s score up to 66/100, even though this wouldn’t change our son’s grade in the course.

I had to really, really contain myself in my follow-up email. As a father and an educator, I know all the tricks that teachers and professors use to get students and/or parents off their backs. But plagiarism is a very serious charge, the kind that requires evidence, and not mere accusation. That, and the fact that our son’s honors English teacher had not mentioned plagiarism, not at all, until I confronted him about our son’s grade and his unsubstantiated commentary.

I called for a conference with the teacher, our son’s counselor, the English Department chair, and (if available), our son’s 12th grade principal. I did it having already read our son’s essay, and having run it through Turnitin.com myself. Nine-tenths of the assignment was in our son’s own words. The other 10 percent? Parts of three sentences — about 55 words in all — included definitions that our son had not put quotes around. Two others had links to sources, ones our son clearly identified as sources. Inconsistent citing of sources, something I deal with from my own students so often it barely raises an eyebrow. It would have been enough for me to take off some additional points, but it is not a plagiarism offense.

As expected, the conference call that was supposed to be about the honors English teacher’s ill-treatment of and accusations toward our son was really an exercise in gaslighting him and us as his parents with the plagiarism accusation. Expected, but very disappointing. They kept telling us that our son was lucky to have not received a 0 and failing grade in the course. I said that they should be ashamed of themselves as educators, that they were “circling the wagons” like law enforcement. Our son’s honor’s English teacher said nothing for 35 minutes, and kept playing his TV in the background, which kept cutting in and out throughout the call (what a coward!). He was the only person on the call who didn’t speak.

They offered to share their so-called evidence. The “evidence” was exactly the same as when I ran our son’s essay through Turnitin the week before. If this is plagiarism, I would dare say three-quarters of the students I’ve taught since 1992 should be accused of such. MCPS’s definition of plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty? It includes the key phrase, “the willful giving or receiving” of an academic advantage of some sort, meaning the act has to be an intentional one. It can’t just be a couple of citation errors; evidence of intent must be involved. The wanton theft of other’s words must be involved. I seriously doubt three partial sentences in an average essay granted our son any “advantage” at all (having been a victim of plagiarism myself, I know the signs).

They did so much terribly wrong here, to our son, and to us as our son’s parents. They cared not about the teacher’s escalation of comments to our son. They cared not that the other accusations proved to be false. They cared only about three sets of quotation marks missing from a 900-word essay. They cared only about this, because they knew they could do nothing institutionally that would help students struggling with the pandemic. They cared only about the accusation because K-12 institutions care more about protecting a mediocre White male teacher than they do about Black and Brown students, as these institutions are racist and ableist to their core.

Luckily, our son has a different honors English teacher this semester, his final one at his Silver Spring high school. But as damaging as this could have been for him, at least I can say I stepped up as his dad, right? Except that this has conjured up lots of bad memories about the assholes who were my administrators at Mount Vernon HS, about folks whom I’ve known to be assholes in the education field over the years. Given this, why would anyone want to see these toxic sites of social control open up again for in-person instruction? I don’t.

I had thought about volunteering at our son’s high school this semester, with a smaller teaching load at my institutions this spring. But after this, why in hell would I want to volunteer with these uncaring shits who call themselves educators? They can all kiss my middle-aged Black ass!

However, if our son, a slightly above-average student, had to endure the bullshit of a bullshit-artist-as-certified-teacher, I can only imagine the number students across the achievement spectrum who are catching hell from teachers who have not adjusted well to teaching virtually in the midst of this pandemic. So maybe, just maybe, once I stop thinking about putting our son’s former teacher in a chokehold, I’ll see about volunteering once more. 

But, even if everyone at our son’s soon-to-be-former high school is vaccinated by late this spring or by Fall 2021, I’m still wearing two masks and a face shield. The place is way too toxic for us.

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I truly would like to hear from parents, students, even teachers, in Silver Spring, in Montgomery County, MD, in the DMV, in general. Tell me I’m wrong, that these aren’t examples of education as punitive and gaslighting. Or, conversely, tell me if you have had similar experiences with this high school and this school district, especially since the pandemic.