Time now for a silly post. As I interviewed my former Mount Vernon classmates and friends for Boy At The Window, I was frequently reminded by them of the way I spoke and the way I walked during my six years in the gifted track. I’m sure that some of that carried over to my years at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. Except that the folks who knew me in my higher education years don’t seem to dwell too much on those ticks. Yes, I was a bit weird, but many of my classmates, acquaintances and friends were a bit weird too. As recently as four years ago, when I worked to upgrade my public speaking skills for promoting my book Fear of a “Black” America, my coach, a trained theater actor, said that no one would ever “mistake [me] for James Earl Jones.” But according to him, I can and have altered my cadence and volume to project my voice, to create different emotional states in my voice to pull an audience in.
Anyway, how did I get to the point where one group of folks thought I was somewhere between weird and a buffoon, another thought that I was weird yet deliberately erudite, and the folks who’ve known me since the middle of grad school though that I wasn’t so weird and my voice the smoothness of an orator? It doesn’t make much sense. Well, I figure it started at home. My vocal examples include a mother from Arkansas, a father with between eight and twelve teeth who drank a lot from Georgia, an ex-stepfather from Virginia/New Jersey, and growing up surrounded by New York accents — Black, White, Italian and Jewish — and Jamaican ones at the same time.
Even at eight, I cared about how my voice sounded, how words rolled off my tongue. It was third grade, and I still said thirty like “dirty,” specific like “pacific,” had trouble saying words like “spaghetti,” “broccoli,” “cannoli,” etc. My teacher — but I more so — wanted me to harness the ability to speak standard English as I moved on to fourth grade. So I worked on it, enunciating my t’s and th’s, picking up New York accents for “warda” (water) “bwaught” (bought), and “soda” (soda) in the process.
No one explained to me that I needed to pick up the pace of my words. Being in a classroom full of students of widely varying skill levels didn’t help. Girls spoke faster than boys anyway, I thought. There were several boys in my class who weren’t reading, speaking or writing anywhere near grade level, so I might as well have been Michael Eric Dyson by comparison. (I’m not clownin’ here. There was a thirteen-year-old in my fifth grade class who was reading somewhere between the first and second grade level. My teacher, the late Mrs. O’Daniels, had me tutor him for a couple of weeks.) So I had only a handful of decent examples of how to “twalk” (talk) around me. Add that to my mother’s slow pace and the disconnect between the speed at which I thought in comparison to the speed in which I spoke. It would create an interesting journey.
My first crush, my one-time seventh-grade beauty, pointed out during our interview “how annoying” it was for her to hear me introduce myself to others. Me saying, “My name is Donald Collins” might as well have been done at Slow Level 3 on our Sony DVD player. She thought that I thought that I was better than her merely because I spoke so slowly. She wasn’t the only one. You add that to the whole Hebrew-Israelite, naivete because of growing up in and around poverty, not in touch with pop culture thing, and I was first among equals when it came to weird. So after seventh grade, most of the time when I did speak, I spoke in class. And for whatever reason, my exchanges with teachers came at a much more rapid pace that my quiet, soft-spoken way with my classmates.
My walk developed much later, and it was an accident. It was the fall of ’84, and I was coming out of a summer in which I had tried out for the JV football team. I made the team, only to drop out because of my fears, responsibilities at home, and an assistant coach who insisted on bulking stick-figure me up. Over the summer months, I’d gotten into the habit of running to and from the stores on East Lincoln Avenue, even running to C-Town in Pelham on occasion, a mile and a quarter walk if I didn’t run. Who cared? People thought that I was weird anyway, and with my mother sending me to the store as many as three times on a school night, I wanted to get in and out as fast as I could. One day I ran in a hard sprint to the store, only to pull up because something contracted sharply in the back of my right leg. I pulled my hamstring, and boy did it hurt. Idiot me had been running and sprinting for months without stretching.
I didn’t like the slow version of me in the six weeks it took for my hammy to recover. I figured out, though, that if I walked faster, I could get to and from the local stores quickly. Not as quickly as running, but quick enough. I realized that I was a really fast walker, between the long legs and my elongated strides. So I used it everywhere, because I walked everywhere. So what if my idiot classmates laughed when I went into warp at school or to get across town. As far as I was concerned, they’d do that anyway. I made it a bit of a game, because thinking about how much I walked to get to my father’s watering holes every weekend or to get groceries almost every day was depressing beyond words. Once I got my first Walkman in ’86, my walk became a regular fixture through grad school.
I took my show to the ‘Burgh in ’87. Gradually, I learned to use my walk only when necessary, because I occasionally would plow through a crowd and run someone over in the process. The way I spoke, though, took longer to modulate. Some thought that my voice was “sexy,” and said as much. Some thought that it was cute how I would slow down my voice and deliberately choose my words. Which was in direct contradiction to the reality that I was frequently a “tactless wonder,” something my wife has called me about 1,000 times over the years. What I learned about myself by my senior year at Pitt was that I had so many thoughts and feelings running through my head that I couldn’t sort them out. That was why my voice would sound as slow and as deliberate as it did (and sometimes still can). I learned that once I concentrated on sorting out what I was going to say and to anticipate the next thing I would say, my pace, unsurprisingly, picked up.
My walk has had no choice but to slow, as I drive most of the time, have fewer walking options in the DC area, and I’m thirty-nine now. But I can crank it up when necessary, to the chagrin of my jeans and other pants. Over the years, I’ve probably ripped about twenty pairs of jeans and fifteen other slacks in the crotch area because of my warp-drive walk. Maybe if I bought better pants…
Both help define who I am today, and I don’t think that I would trade my voice or walk in for someone else’s, even if it meant sounding like Obama and walking like Denzel (you know, the determined, rounded shoulders walk he does when it’s crunch time in one of his films). I mean, Tiger Woods sounds a bit like me and Cornel West walks like he’s inebriated, and look at them!