Thursday, June 18, 1987. It was twenty years ago on this date that I graduated from Mount Vernon High School, twenty years ago today. After two decades and a manuscript that covers the years leading up to this date, you’d think that I’d have some witty and unconventionally intellectual perspectives on this day. Yet all I’ve been thinking about is if I or my former classmates will really try this time or over the next five years to have a class reunion.
Ten years ago, a few did just that, without really taking the time to plan it right. Out of our graduating class of 509 students, only 72 actually made it to the reunion in October ’97. Most of those folks had stayed or moved back to Mount Vernon, New York. I only found out about the reunion through one of the few classmates with whom I still had contact and a friendship, whom herself only found out because her father was once a prominent man in the city. Neither of us had been invited, at least not directly. I decided not to go, coming off of three months of unemployment as a new Ph.D. and in need of money to present at a conference in Philly at the same time as this partial reunion. From everything I heard, though, it was an overpriced disappointment, kind of like my times in Mount Vernon High School. The cliques that became post-high school circles of friends mostly showed up. None of them included my circles of classmates, as many were long gone by ’97.
But this isn’t all there is to think about when it comes to the twentieth anniversary of the end of my formal schooling in my first hometown. Mostly the issue for me is waste and loss. When I started seventh grade in ’81, there were nearly 1,700 other students (about 75 percent of them of Black, Afro-Caribbean and Latino descent) that could’ve been part of my Class of ’87. By the time we reached ninth grade, that number was down to 1,075. The very first day of high school, our principal Richard Capozzola had all ninth graders report to auditorium to welcome us. “Four years from now, only half of you will graduate,” he said with a jaded sense of sternness. I didn’t think the man cared if any of us would ever graduate. Of course he was wrong. Less than half of us graduated four years later.
Even if you were to account for the affluent Whites and middle class Blacks who left Mount Vernon and the high school before graduation for private and parochial school or another school district, it would only account for a tiny fraction of the attrition. The building that I grew up in, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, is a more typical example of what I’m sure happened to so many of my former classmates. At least two people I knew who dropped out ended up becoming low-level drug dealers and would spend most of the past twenty years in and out of jail (mostly in). One neighbor and former classmate who dropped out became a prostitute, contracted HIV and died from AIDS a couple of years ago. So many others became drug addicts or wandered from job to job or became mothers before I finished college that it almost goes without mentioning.
Of those of us who went on to college and left Mount Vernon behind, my more immediate classmate circle, the bonds we formed during middle school and high school were about as strong as wet pieces of toilet paper. It’s sad, really, when I think about it now. I can count on one hand the former classmates I have regular contact with, and half of those are as a result of writing Boy At The Window.
I do hope that we do have a 20th or 25th anniversary reunion. I just hope that enough time has past to heal the wounds of loss and waste that were so much a part of our lives back then–and for many of us, have survived to this day. To those of us how have succeeded and survived, I tip my cap to each of you and hope that life is treating you kindly, certainly more kindly than back then. Vaya con dios and, dare I say it, happy anniversary!