Boy @ The Window is an in-depth story about my preteen and teenage years growing up in Mount Vernon, New York. Most of those years were difficult, violent, and even heart-breaking at times. But those years weren’t all bad, and at times I felt downright inspired even in the worst of times. This week twenty years ago represents some of the worst of my experiences and how they shaped me into the person I am today.
This past weekend, June 9 and 10, made it twenty years since my last two days at Mount Vernon High School. For better or worse, I spent my Saturday at the Washington Independent Writers Conference on George Washington University’s campus. It was a boring and pompous affair led by literary agents who, as usual, talked down to us allegedly neophyte writers as if we didn’t know in advance how much money we had wasted on the registration fee.
Yet it gave me time to think about another June 9, a Tuesday in ’87. That evening, our high school held an Honors Convocation to hand out awards to deserving graduates, especially those of us heading immediately to a four-year college. There were almost 150 of us on stage in the high school auditorium, with a full house of nearly 800 parents, teachers, relatives and friends. But only two of us–the top two in our class of 509 students–really had any face time. For nearly two hours, our principal and administrators called out the same two names over and over again. All the while I watched my classmates squirm in their seats out of boredom or frustration. It was almost a surprise when I did head other names called for awards. I had no delusions that I would win lots of scholarships or awards, but I hoped to win at least one. Well, I did win two, one for perfect attendance (I missed thirteen days of school in four years), and the presidential academic fitness award (which everyone on stage received). Seething from the experience, I immediately dumped my two pieces of paper in a garbage can on my way out the building.
My WIW ’07 experience felt pretty much the same, except that I came into the conference with low expectationsto begin with. Neither experience, though, tops what happened on my last day of high school. For those of you who’ve read Fear of a “Black” America, particularly the beginning of Chapter 4, the story that follows should sound familiar. After my eighth-period Health class, I walked down the second floor steps and the first floor halls of the high school to my locker one more time. While clearing out my locker, Estelle Abel walked by and asked to meet with me. I went over to her office, and for the next fifteen minutes, she proceeded to explain to me how much of a disappointment I was while a student at MVHS.
Abel claimed that I had underachieved throughout my four years as a student, that I should have been ranked in the top ten of my class, and that my performance in AP Physics was beyond abominable. All I could focus on was the amount of anger and emotion she possessed in her voice and eyes. You’d have thought that I’d been expelled from school or had raped her daughter.
There were two really odd things Abel said during her attack on my character. One was that I had let down the Black students of the school and “my community” by not finishing closer to the top of my class. She said, “You could’ve been a shining example of achievement to us,” all but hinting that I should’ve been like the Black guy who finished second in our class and was on his way to Harvard. I guess I did let my Black classmates down. I only ranked second in GPA among Black males and eighth among all African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans in my class.
Abel’s other comments really surprised me.”You don’t have any excuses! There is nothing going on at home that could justify your performance.” When I disagreed, the Science department head’s face turned stern. She said that nothing occurring in my life would ever compare to the problems Blacks faced “back in the 1960s . . . I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King!” I clicked off my eardrums at that point. Short of showing her my war wounds and having her meet my family, what could I possibly do or say to that?
Thinking about all of that over the weekend and watching HBO’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee left me feeling sorry for myself for a couple of hours yesterday. I know that there’s no comparison, but loss is loss, whether it’s physical, cultural or psychological in nature. It would ridiculous for me to say that those last days of high school motivated my journey to become the author of Fear of a “Black” America or write my Boy At The Window manuscript. Those events, though, did make me realize that I needed to live my life on my own terms, regardless of whether folks in my life showered me with praise or tried to tear me a new one. Or, as it’s been the case more often than not, have shown indifference to my struggles and triumphs. I also learned something else. People, even well-meaning people like myself, sometimes don’t get it and allow their own crap to get in the way of their work to help others. I just hope that my crap isn’t getting in the way of folks reading this today.