This week marks thirty (30) years since I became friends with my one-time best friend, Starling Churn (I have permission to use his real name for all things related to Boy At The Window). It was the time of Billy Joel and Christopher Cross, Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” and Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It,” not to mention Earth, Wind & Fire and The Commodores. It was the tail end of fourth grade, the year that I discovered that I really was smart. And weird. And in need of a friend whose interest in the intellectual somewhat matched my own.
I did have other friends, other classmates I talked to or walked home with. Guys with names like Joe and Roger, Demetrius and Anthony, and a few others. None of them wanted to talk about much more than school or games or sports, not that I objected very often. We were all of nine or ten years old, and still figuring ourselves out. Still, much wasn’t the same for me after six weeks of being grounded for running away from home at the end of ’78 and into ’79 (see postings in December ’07 and December ’08). Escaping into World Book Encyclopedia and the world of books helped me in my acceptance of my mother’s second marriage and transform me into an above-average student at the same time. That put me in competition with Starling.
Ours was a friendship that began and ended with a fight, the first one on April 27, the last one, two years later, both on Fridays. In one sense, the reason for our preteen brotherly bond was also a key reason for our two fights. We were fighting over who was the smartest in our school. Silly, immature, nerdy and geekish I know, but all so true.
Our school was William H. Holmes Elementary School, one built in the mid-50s with the best of modern school architecture in mind. The back of the two-story building included a softball field, another field that was often used for flag football, a small asphalt playing area which sometimes subbed as a fifty-yard dash track, and a sloped wooded area that covered nearly a quarter-acre. Next door was the Mount Vernon Board of Education, giving the school immediate access to the district’s offices, if not its resources. This was a truly suburban K-6 school, one that could justify some of my innocence and naivete.
The back lot and wooded area between Holmes and the Board of Education was where we fought after school that April day. I won, between ripping up Starling’s shirt with a nail, punching him in the mouth, and knocking him to the ground. He ran home crying and yelling that I’d cheated in the fight by using a nail to make him look worse off than he actually was. I was just happy that I won, but sad because I had embarrassed him in front of about a dozen or more of our classmates. The following Monday, I called a truce at lunch time, and began a conversation with Starling that would last the next two years.
Starling was the first person of the same age I had ever talked to about politics, race, religion, girls, science, music, math, and war without being made to feel like I was an oddball. I was certain that this was the case for him as well. We talked during playtime before school, we ate our lunches together, hung out during recess, walked home together after school (and sometimes stopping by the neighborhood firehouse to buy locally made twenty-five cent sodas). Our classroom conversations would draw our teachers—especially our sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Bryant—into one philosophical debate after another. We’d even get our other classmates Roger, Eric, Christopher, Anthony and Ronald to participate in our carping sessions. We were two goofy, nerdy tweeners who had yet to discover the need to lighten up. But this was our world, one in which this friendship could take root and grow.
By the time we reached Mrs. Bryant and sixth grade, a good portion of our conversations turned to Christianity. I guess that this was inevitable, given that Starling was the “son of a preacher man,” a Southern Baptist pastor. Starling wanted to see me baptized and saved, an official child of God and brother in Christ. My search was one of truth and God, and if Jesus was the one who could get me there then so be it. I didn’t feel the same sense of urgency for water immersion and John 3:16 as Starling did for me. I preferred our talks about Blondie, Queen, Pink Floyd, this “thing called rap,” Carter versus Reagan and Begin versus Sadat. And I knew that Christianity lay somewhere in my future. At least I thought it did at the time.
Of course, the re-emergence of my stepfather Maurice Washington and the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing put a temporary end to my Christian enlightenment in April ’81. Him and my mother had been separated for about six months (Apparently not separated enough, as she was pregnant with my younger brother Yiscoc, to whom she gave birth in July ’81 — you do the math). During that time, my idiot stepfather had discovered the ways of Yahweh and alleged that he was a changed man. It’s strange what just a couple of changes brought to my life. I lost many of my sixth-grade friends when I showed up to school with a kufi on my head near the end of April.
Starling stopped speaking to me immediately and entirely. We’d recently celebrated—prematurely I might add—Reagan being shot by John Hinckley, Jr. on the last Friday in March. Now our friendship was over. This was what our second fight was about, our friendship, my bizarre religion and my acceptance of it. I guess that Starling at twelve was definitely his father’s son. I could certainly understand Starling’s perspective on this. I’d betrayed him when I came to school and professed that I was a Hebrew-Israelite. Starling had been talking to me for months about becoming a Christian, a Baptist, and now here I was embracing Afrocentric Judaism, similar in many ways to the Nation of Islam and its variants in terms of its racial politics. The practitioners I’d been around tended to see Black Christians as “weak,” out of touch with “their heritage,” and as “worshiping the wrong God.” Starling couldn’t accept this. We ended up in our second and final fight. I was fighting for our friendship, literally. Starling beat me to end it.
I felt betrayed myself. I didn’t understand, at least at the time, why Starling was so upset and angry with me over the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing. He had turned his back on me at a time in which I needed his input the most. I still cared about the same things, thought about the same issues, and wanted someone that I could banter with about music and politics and religion. But given Starling’s background, even back then I realized that he thought that I was well on my way to hell. Starling and I saw ourselves as adults in many ways, so he assumed that I had made a free-will adult decision for becoming a Hebrew-Israelite when I walked into Mrs. Bryant’s class with a kufi on my head. He had no idea how much I was struggling with my mother and stepfather’s decision to make our family a Hebrew-Israelite one.
So I projected the outward appearance of supreme confidence and faith in Jehovah and this slant on the ten Lost Tribes of Israel, to protect myself from being hurt and to see if this whole Hebrew-Israelite thing really was for me. Not a good move going into middle school and the Humanities Program later that year. I had no idea how much worse my life was about to become in the two years between the end of my friendship with Starling and my family’s fall into welfare poverty, bumps, bruises, babies and concussions along the way.
It wasn’t until the end of eighth grade that Starling and I began exchanging Hi’s again. Even then, this was often forced. The only conversation I had with Starling after our fight was at the end of ninth grade, with him letting me know that he was moving with his family down South. Starling Churn left with his family for Wilmington, North Carolina in the summer of ’84, still believing I was well on my way to eternal damnation.
I decided to contact Starling at the end of May ’03. It’d been nineteen years since I’d seen or heard from the man. I ran a Google search and, lo and behold, I found Starling with one try. Apparently Starling Churn’s a rare name, so rare that his name, address, phone number, and affiliation with Mount Vernon’s public schools came up on page one of my search result. It was almost too easy and left me with new questions. Like why was he back in Mount Vernon, what got him into teaching, does he still look the same, and why hasn’t he changed his name yet?
As I sent Starling my well-tailored one-page letter, I realized that I bore him no ill-will at all. It didn’t mean that I felt nothing. The eleven-year-old in me still felt disappointment and some sense of betrayal around the end of our friendship. Yet I also understood with Starling how much time, love, and forgiveness really could heal all wounds. After all, we were only eleven and twelve years old. You’d think that most of us could get over a bad experience that happened to us at eleven. Life and people, though, have taught me otherwise.
When Starling finally responded with a phone call at the beginning of July, it was a pre-Noah high that I’d been riding—my wife was due to give birth to my son almost any day that month. I wondered why it took five weeks for him to call, as well as why now. He called me on my cell in the middle of the workday, so I told him that we needed to talk at another, more convenient time. A couple of weeks later we were on the phone at the end of my workday, talking for the first time in nearly two decades.
We talked for nearly ninety minutes. It was a really good conversation at first. I found out about Starling’s long spiritual journey from traditional Baptist to non-denominational, spirit-filled Christianity. He learned about my conversion to Christianity as well, having assumed I was still a Hebrew-Israelite. I heard this relieved sigh coming out of my receiver, like I was a prodigal son somehow finding my way home. Both of our conversions occurred within a few months of each other in ’84, in his case right after moving to Wilmington, North Carolina.
According to Starling, I was “caught up” in a “cult.” He spoke of his shock in seeing “that hat” on my head when I came to school with my kufi for the first time. I’d “made my decision” regarding my spiritual future, Starling said. His statement made sense in a way. As far as we were concerned, we were both smart enough to make adult-level decisions regardless of the adults around us.
When I thought about what occurred between Starling and me, I realized that we were both extremely arrogant and gave ourselves too much credit for our intellectual abilities. We thought of ourselves as full-blown adults at a time when puberty had yet to kick in. Starling said that “our friendship was probably no different from other adolescent young men” and that “we both were aggressive outspoken young men.” True. But we both were obsessed with assessing our place in the universe, with understanding how we could connect to God, and in making sure that we didn’t die without having a relationship with God. How many tweeners—aside from Scott Stapp, the former lead singer of Creed—spent as much time as we did attempting to access God’s wisdom? It’s this kind of thinking that could just as easily lead someone to drug, alcohol, or even sexual addiction as it could to life as a monk or a priest. The yin and yang of piety and hedonism awaits those of us whenever a parent insists on religion as the answer to all things, without debate and without understanding. Especially when kids are involved and at such an impressionable age.
Starling’s rejection of me because of my “conversion” to the Hebrew-Israelites was as much a sign of him distancing himself from a heathen on his way to hell as anything else. And knowing how seriously Starling and his Baptist family took their relations with God, rejecting me was the only way he could maintain his spiritual cleanliness.
As for Starling, he said that he “didn’t really consider our friendship to have ended, but rather time and distances and our running in different circles precipitated some separation.” This was an interesting spin on what occurred. Didn’t we fight over my conversion? Our friendship’s end wasn’t exactly gradual. I don’t remember having anyone fill the void of “best friend” or even having a good friend for several years after our fight. Nor do I recall Starling and me having reconciled in any way prior to ninth grade, which was when he told me that his family was about to relocate.
Finding out in recent years that Starling had a spiritual reawakening at fourteen after his family had moved to Wilmington, North Carolina only confirms our overblown sense of ourselves and our lack of maturity. Especially around a subject as serious as salvation. Starling has since moved back to Mount Vernon, has married and become a father, is an ordained nondenominational minister and teaches in Mount Vernon’s public schools.
None of this is necessarily surprising. Yet Starling’s road back to Mount Vernon has cost him as well. His spiritual quickening at fourteen flew in the face of his family’s more traditional, non-gifts-of-the-Spirit beliefs. Based on our conversations, Starling and his father have yet to reconcile, and around this issue of religion, it probably won’t occur in this lifetime. It appeared that despite our differences and our different paths, Starling and I might have more in common around our understanding of Christianity now than we did as tweeners.
But when it came time to talk about our friendship’s end, Starling had let me down. I was disappointed that he didn’t feel comfortable enough to discuss what actually happened. As he described my “decision” to become a Hebrew-Israelite, I said, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘decision,’ I mean, come on, we were eleven.” I don’t think he heard me, because he then spoke of the relief that he had sighed of earlier over my becoming Christian. It was as if I was now worthy of his conversation because of my allegiance to the cross.
We continued to talk, to discuss his life as school teacher and ordained preacher. His monologue about the “need to help others,” to help “Black boys stay in school” and “find their way to God” stood out the most for me. It all sounded good. Given our history, it also sounded all too familiar and disturbing.
If I could change anything I did twenty-eight years ago, it would be going to school with a kufi on my head. I would’ve been better off wearing the Star of David than wearing that kufi, especially given my own ambivalence about my family’s bizarre religion. But I learned a lot from that experience. I learned how rare a real friendship is, how hard it is to find in another person acceptance and the ability to embrace new ideas, how difficult it is to overcome the pressures of our peers and the need to be cool in our American world.
Without Starling, I learned most of all how to be a loner, to be true to myself and what I believe, about people, about God, about people who’d become my friends after leaving Mount Vernon. I learned to find my own path, one that accounted for race and religion, academics and athletics, and class and politics, but didn’t let any one dominate my thinking about myself or others. This is hard, but I thank Starling anyway.