For so many high-potential high school students, this week represents an interesting, if excruciating privilege. This is traditionally AP Exams Week for this group of students. By the hundreds of thousands, these sophomores, juniors and seniors will sit for three hours at a time to take college-equivalent exams in well over thirty subjects. Theoretically, a student could come out of this week having achieved sophomore standing, with at least 24 credits of college taken care of before throwing their caps in the air at their high school graduation ceremony.
This isn’t about me, at least not directly. It’s about my younger brother Maurice. It was twenty years ago yesterday that he didn’t come home from William H. Holmes Elementary School. It was the beginning of the final month of my mother’s so-called marriage to my now ex-stepfather Maurice. And it was the beginning of a bumpy ride, to say the least.
It happened right after I returned from my second year at Pitt, flush with money but with only about three weeks to look for a summer job. In the meantime, I came home to a pigsty. It was the filthiest I’d ever seen our apartment at 616, not that there was that much to dirty. The entire hallway and foyer had bags full of dirty clothes piled up to wash. Some of the bags had overflowed. There was an endless amount of dust along the washboards of the hallway walls, as if they were in bomber formation. Trash and food were all over the kitchen, and the once-brown carpet in the living room was literally black and gray from Eri’s spills and my stepfather’s feet and oily body. I had steeled myself for the disconnect between my life at Pitt versus 616, but almost nothing could’ve prepared me for that. Boxes of my stuff from Welsford were coming in at the beginning of the week, so I knew it would be impossible to walk into the house if they were stacked in the foyer too. So I did what I always had done, only with some righteous indignation. I sorted two or three bags of clothes, made Darren get our siblings dressed, and went down to Pelham to wash clothes.
Over the next two weeks, that was mostly what I did it seemed, wash pile after pile of dirty clothes. I figured that there were about six weeks of clothes sitting in the hallway and foyer the day I came home. I also cleaned up as much as I could, got my siblings out of the apartment. I didn’t have much help. My mother was taking three courses at Westchester Business Institute that quarter. Darren had taken a job as a courier down in the city with a company that had a weird name, something with Blake in it. He was a foot courier. Darren had neither a license nor a bike. On weekends Darren would just lie around on his bed, or worse, he’d spontaneously jump up and down in his room with a big grin on his face, about what I didn’t know. My stepfather Maurice had gotten a job with the Mount Vernon Sanitation Department in February. He was a garbage man, an irony too delicious for my mother to leave alone. “Of all the jobs out there, ‘garbage’ goes and become’s a garbage man,” she laughed sarcastically on a couple dozen occasions. Their fights were every day now, with constant and open name-calling to boot. It was the worst I’d seen it since before my mother had been beaten up by Maurice seven years before.
So it was that on the tenth of May, with everything going on between my mother and my stepfather, Darren in his own world and my own hands full with my younger siblings that no one noticed that my brother Maurice hadn’t made it home from school. He was almost ten, but he still didn’t have friends he hung out with. I started worrying about an hour after he should’ve been home. I asked Yiscoc, Sarai and Eri if they’d seen him at Holmes during the day. Of course none of them knew anything, a sign that my mother and their father’s willful ignorance of the world around them had penetrated all of their heads. By 7 pm, I was really worried, to the point where I told my stepfather that I thought his son was missing. “Whatcha want me to do about it, look for him?,” he laughed. I was so horrified that I immediately called the cops to report my brother missing.
Just before my mother came home from class, the police called back to report that Maurice had been found, safe and somewhat sound. He was in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and having soiled his clothes from the long and unending walk. I went downstairs to wait for my mother, bumping into our neighbor Helene along the way. She had this “What’s wrong?” look on her face, so I told her what was going on. My mother had made it to the front steps of 616 by then. Within a few minutes, Helene was giving us a ride in one of the Milton limos to pick up Maurice from the police station in Fort Lee. “He must’ve have walked twenty or twenty-five miles,” I said as we merged on the Bronx River Parkway. It turned out it was only somewhere between fifteen and twenty miles. My younger brother somehow figured his way through the Bronx and into Manhattan, taking Route 9 and Broadway through the Bronx, crossed the Broadway Bridge into Manhattan, and followed the signs to the George Washington Bridge. From there Maurice found his way onto the pedestrian path on the upper deck of the mile-long bridge across the Hudson and meandered his way to nearby Fort Lee before the police picked him up. When we finally arrived and saw him, I was really happy that he wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t angry at him, I just wanted to know why. My mother hardly said anything herself. When I asked Maurice, “What were you thinking?,” he said “I don’t want to go home!” That was all he said the whole ride back in Helene’s car. When we got back, we both thanked Helene, and my mother attempted to give her money for the ride, which she didn’t accept.
But it was more than enough, at least for my mother. She laid into my stepfather after we cleaned my brother up, fed him, and sent him to bed. For big Maurice’s part, he just left the house, presumably to carouse with another one of his victims.
My brother Maurice was in fourth-grade Special Ed at the time, labeled as mildly mentally retarded with an IQ of 78. And he was in a way. Holmes and the Mount Vernon Board of Education had no idea that my brother had been physically abused at the ripe old age of six months, beaten by my stepfather because “he was cryin’ too much.” Neglected often while I was in sixth and seventh grade, as my idiot stepfather rarely changed his diapers or fed him during the school day. My brother Maurice’s childhood was a disaster, and with the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing, he might’ve been better off homeless. Years of chaos, poverty, and abuse and lack of food must’ve had some impact on my younger siblings, especially Maurice, as he lived through the worst of it all. Putting him and Yiscoc in Special Ed at five or six years old seemed rash, a cruel punishment for kids barely old enough to understand what was happening. I refused to believe that either of them were actually retarded. Certainly life at 616 had stunted their mental development. Retarded? Sure, if by that they meant that my mother and stepfather never read stories to them, took them places to learn about the world, or even took them to the park to play. That role usually fell on my shoulders.
So I didn’t blame Maurice for running away. He had many reasons to run. It was a watershed moment in a eight-year period of drama and grinding impoverished boredom. Within two months, my stepfather and my mother would be well on their way to divorce, my older brother Darren on his way to moving out. And I would begin my journey away from seeing myself as the surrogate parent to my siblings and surrogate husband to my mother.
This week I was reminded of why Boy At The Window was necessary for me to write, and for others to read. I watched, probably for about the fifteenth or sixteenth time, Finding Forrester. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a coming-of-age movie about finding your own path, even in the midst of racial stereotypes and arrogant affluence, the blending of multiple worlds. With Rob Brown and Sean Connery as the lead actors, it actually is one of the better movies of this decade. But if you’re asking me, it’s among my top five movies since 2000.
What takes Finding Forrester from the vaguely plausible to the real in my book starts with Rob Brown. He played a character in Jamal Wallace that had to have so much more depth to him than most people would think possible. An incredibly smart and withdrawn teenager who hides all of those things when he’s with his friends or in public school somewhere in the Bronx, presumably in or near the South Bronx. A well-developed basketball player who spends at least an equal amount of time keeping a journal of his writings, reading Coleridge and Tolstoy and numerous other literary giants. All of this, and his face for most of the movie is as blank as a clean chalkboard at the beginning of a new school year.
That face. That’s the first thing that I responded to when watching Finding Forrester for the first time in February ’01. It reminded me of my face when I was in high school, especially my last two years at MVHS. I’ve discussed it before. Brown’s character might’ve concealed intelligence and an intellectualism that most academicians would envy with his face. It may have hidden the emotional scars of a father who abandoned him and his family. It certainly kept under wraps the hardships that the character lived with every day at home and in a New York City public school. But that where the similarities end. My face also hid my contempt for the politics — racial, socioeconomic, academic and athletic — that I saw play out every day for the six years I was in Humanities and the four years I was in MVHS. My late teacher and mentor Harold Meltzer said as much to me one day about how he could see the “laughter in my eyes” about all the hypocrisy that was MVHS for me in eleventh and twelve grade.
That wasn’t my only takeaway from Finding Forrester. Sean Connery — who has a tendency to be a bit over the top, and has done more than his share of God-awful movies — really does a great job playing the reclusive writer William Forrester. Having written a bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about life and death and loss and suffering didn’t seem to help Connery’s character, who had spent the better part of five decades scared to experience life again. His life, his world, had gone cold after his brother and parents died within months of each other in the 1950s. His agoraphobia had kept him from recovering from this grand-scale tragedy until Brown’s character shows up in his life.
For most people, the likelihood that a depressed and hermetic White guy would become friends with a sixteen-year-old Black male who guarded his every facial expression and kept his writing and other non-athletic talents a state secret borders on the impossible. Yet I know all too well how the impossible become real. Whether the person’s name is Meltzer, or Lazarus, or Lacey, or any number of unlikely friendships I’ve had over the past quarter century, I’ve learned that age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion are only barriers if we make them such. The most important component of any friendship, or any mentoring relationship, is an intellectual bond that allows folks in the friendship to learn lessons from each other. Without this, all friendships are superficial.
Just as important as the lesson of friendships and difference is the lesson of finding one’s own path. Finding Forrester from the very beginning isn’t a movie about how an elderly White guy helps out a poor and worthless African American boy. Nor is it simply about a Black kid shunning his world for a White one. It’s about finding balance between two worlds that rarely meet outside of sports, entertainment and crime. After Brown’s character is “outed” by high test scores, he’s accepted by one of NYC’s private academies for the destined-to-go-to-an-Ivy-League crowd. Of course, the fact that he’s an excellent basketball player helps him as well. The character Jamal Wallace finds himself very quickly negotiating multiple worlds, all of which he’s in, but not necessarily of.
Obviously I didn’t go to a prep school that I could barely afford to send Noah to now. But being in Humanities classes full of folks from middle class and affluent families within a working-class, working poor and welfare poor school district, and coming home to 616 — the land of ignorance, poverty, abuse and younger siblings — would cause most people’s heads to spin. I could’ve, with some work, used basketball as a vehicle to traverse these worlds, I guess. That wasn’t my way. I became an academic achiever and knew I could write well — but didn’t quite see myself as a writer — long before I realized I had the height and athletic skills necessary to knock down a seventeen-foot jumper. As my so-called MVHS counselor Sylvia Fasulo said about me, “There goes Donald, always daring to be different,” a sarcastic refrain she used more than once.
Finding William Forrester did help Brown’s character find his own way in life. As a writer. As a person with integrity and intelligence. As a whole human being. Still, the character Jamal Wallace possessed all of these traits and used them long before meeting Forrester at the age of sixteen. Brown’s character and his friendship with Forrester gave him access to the career choice he wanted, confidence in the abilities he possessed, and a sense that he had more control over his life than he had dared imagine before. It took me a bit longer to begin to find myself, to make my own way and follow my own path. It’s hard to break away from a past of pain and betrayal with little to guide you. But I did. I had to. And I used every experience and every lesson I could to do so. It helps that a few others were there along the way to help, and for me to help them as well.
“CAPTAIN . . . ZIMBABWE!” was what “A” spontaneously yelled out loud to me one day in Doris Mann’s art class. It was late in the school year that was seventh grade, sometime in the middle of May ’82. I didn’t know where A got the idea for his new nickname for me. All I can remember was that I was wearing the same white shirt I’d worn on the first day of school, only that after about fifteen washes it probably wasn’t as white anymore. Of course I had my white kufi on. I’m sure it needed some washing. I probably needed a haircut, and being the tweener I was, I didn’t exactly wash, clean, grease up and comb out my knotty roots the way I needed to. My best guess was that A took a look at me in class and decided I looked like some primitive African attempting to wear Western-style clothing for the first time, as if I were in some Tarzan film or some other movie with Whites on safari.
It pissed me off to no end that A would say such a thing. What made it worse was that the “Captain Zimbabwe” moniker stuck in the minds of several of my other 7S classmates. A.N., A.Z., A.C., and others from the “Italian Club” picked up on A’s cue and took turns calling me “Captain Zimbabwe” for the rest of the year. I protested as much as I could. I said that they didn’t know what they were talking about. I certainly didn’t like being called it. Among other classmates, my eventual crush #2 and even crush #1 protested on my behalf. But to no avail. Even if they didn’t call me “Captain Zimbabwe” in homeroom or in English or in art class, we all had Italian together, and there weren’t any other non-Italian classmates around who’d step in on my behalf. So for the last month of the year, I’d occasionally have to hear this weird chant of “Captain Zimbabwe” from the Italian Club in Italian class. It was probably the closest, wittiest term they could come up with without calling me a nigger.
What struck me as odd during this latest episode of “Making Fun of Donald” was that it was contained to a specific group of boys in Italian class and that it didn’t spill over into all of 7S. I never understood “Captain Zimbabwe” as anything other than a racial slur. Something that A and company thought that they could get away with because it wasn’t obviously racist, at least to them. They assumed that others in 7S would have their back. Once they realized that other classmates weren’t all that cool with calling me “Captain Zimbabwe,” they were smart enough to just do it in Italian before our teacher—who was usually late—showed up.
Besides the looks of meanness and glee that appeared on A’s and others faces during these rounds of calling out “Captain Zimbabwe,” something else struck me as weird. Of all the folks in our class, I was surprised that A.Z. was involved in this. Not that A.Z. wouldn’t have participated. But given the fact that he was part Black as well as part Italian, it would’ve made sense for him to have sat this one out. That he didn’t was interesting only in understanding how much more he identified more as Italian in Italian class versus how he may have seen himself outside of Italian. He certainly didn’t identify himself as similar to me. I was too weird, too different to be considered “Black” by him. He let me know as much on any number of occasions. That ability to establish different parts of his identity in different settings may have justified A.Z.’s participation in the “Captain Zimbabwe” teases, but I saw it as a betrayal anyway.
A was by far the leader and the most interesting contradiction-of-a-person in what I called the “Italian Club” even before we had an Italian Club in high school. His was a world of cool, at least an updated ’80s Italian version of it. He acted like he was a twelve-year-old John Travolta with blond hair and blue eyes. Or like a younger version of “The Fonz,” Arthur Fonzerelli as played by Henry Winkler on Happy Days, still a hit TV show on ABC by the time we started seventh grade. The way the A.N., A.Z., A.C., J.S. and D.M. spent time with him, you would’ve thought so. The way some of the Italian girls would seem to swoon over him and laugh at his constant banter in class, you would’ve thought A was a future rock star, Billy Idol or something.
But A wasn’t cool, at least not to the rest of us, and certainly not to me. He was a smart ass who didn’t know when to stop making light of folks and their faults. Like the times he’d just go after Brandie Weston about being fat. I don’t remember his multitude of comments, just the fact that he made them. It wasn’t that Brandie didn’t respond. But how often would anyone want to get into a war of words with A, especially since the more you said the more excited he was about saying something even more outrageous or offensive in response? After a few months, I learned to just lodge my own protests but otherwise ignore him. It wasn’t worth the time and effort to yell, complain, plead and threaten A when he went into his Rodney Dangerfield mode. To be a good class comedian, it’s as important to know when to stop as it is to deliver a good joke.
Only A never knew when to stop. A couldn’t just stop with touching a nerve by joking about any fault he noticed about you. Your identity was often a topic to poke fun at, especially if you seemed uncomfortable with it or if you were more than a little different. It wasn’t just me that A went after. The Jewish students got to hear A’s rendition of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” where he’d sing “Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah-nah-nah-nah, Nah-nah-nah-nah, Hey Jew. . . .” One girl in my eighth grade homeroom was a “monkey” and a “baboon,” two references to her West Indian heritage and her au naturale. Although he never said it to the biracial (or at least, allegedly so) in our classes directly, the terms “mixed” and “mutt” were ones that he’d use if they peeved him in any way. It was usually meant for only A.N. to hear, though.
A must’ve fallen in love with the Eddie Murphy film 48 Hours, because every chance he got he sang The Police’s “Roxanne” refrain the same annoying way Eddie Murphy did in the film. I can still remember his “Roooooxxxxanne” yelp as A walked into class on many a morning. A also loved to belt out Devo’s “Whip It” as a subliminal message to some of our Italian female classmates on occasion. In eighth grade, A and A.N. came up with the brilliant “kufis-on-the-half-shell” joke to make fun of my multi-holed hat.
A wasn’t all bad. Whenever students outside of Humanities picked on me and he was around, he came to my defense. There was an incident in eighth grade in which a Black kid snatched my kufi from my head and started to run up the hall with it. The incident occurred as me, A, and D.M. were in the middle of an errand for a teacher. I immediately ran the boy down, knocked him to the floor, dusted off my kufi, and put it back on my head. The boy got up and threatened to beat me up. It was at this point that A intervened, saying that he would “have to take on all of us” if he wanted to fight me.
It could be that by then that A had matured. But that wouldn’t be the whole truth. I think that despite all of his search-and-destroy efforts that A never got over the fact that there were other students—Jewish, Black, Afro-Caribbean, affluent White, Latino, Biracial and female—whom were at least as smart and as witty as he was. Not only wasn’t he the smartest kid in class, he wasn’t the coolest either, certainly not outside his cloistered Italian Club.
A didn’t seem comfortable with the reality of an academically-gifted multicultural classroom until we were in tenth grade. By then, for so many of us, A was an academic afterthought, someone who could be a pain in the ass, but otherwise was somewhat harmless, like a gnat in the summertime heat. I learned to like A only because I saw him more and more as a class clown that likely had larger issues at home than any one of us would ever want to know. I could see it because I could look at my life at 616 and see how little anyone really knew about me as well.
Why didn’t folks come to each other’s defense when A was on the prowl? My best guess was that it was the fear of competition, of giving anyone in Humanities an added advantage. It was a fear, a worry, an anguish that was with most of us every day regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or level of affluence. Perhaps A and his lot could get away with their brand of verbal harassment because the alternative meant sticking your neck out for someone whom you might prefer not to be in competition with in the future. If you were weak enough to knuckle under because A called you a “monkey” or a “brainiac” for a month, then you didn’t deserve to be in Humanities. A program where the ultimate show of strength was your grades. Not to mention your ability to negotiate the social terrain of the in-crowd, the folks from Grimes and Pennington who’d been taking courses together since at least second or fourth grade. If you failed in one, you had a chance to redeem yourself with the other. If you failed at both, you’d likely either drop out of Humanities or fade into the background.
I interviewed A for Boy At The Window in March ’07. Sometimes it’s amazing how much a person can change in two decades. This wasn’t the same person I met in 7S or by the time we graduated high school in ’87. He seemed more humble, more truthful, more accepting of people not like him than the person who spent a month calling me “Captain Zimbabwe” so long ago.
So I asked him about the Captain Zimbabwe taunt and where that came from. “I never called you that!,” A said, likely realizing that he actually did. He’d borrowed the title from one of his older neighborhood friends. That friend had called a mutual friend of theirs “Captain Zimbabwe” because of his dark brown dot in the middle of his Italian forehead, “like the red dot Hindus have,” A explained. “That’s where Captain Zimbabwe came from.” His explanation made me chuckle. It was the first time I admitted to myself how goofy the bigoted joke was. How many kids even knew about Zimbabwe (known as Southern Rhodesia until ’80) when we were growing up, or know about the nation now? I think we both knew how racist the “Captain Zimbabwe” label was, but it still required some level of nerdy wit to coin the title in the first place.
A’s identity issue revolved around being cool, not cool and White or cool and Italian, just cool. That our other Italian classmates gravitated to A because of his coolness reflected as much their insecurities in Humanities as it did A’s. Because he was younger that most of the kids he grew up with in his Mount Vernon enclave near Davis, he was motivated to attract their attention, to be the best jokester and athlete he could be. “The only thing I could do get acceptance was to play baseball,” A said. He learned by seventh grade that “it wasn’t cool to be smart,” especially around Davis’ majority African American student body. Davis’ Black students were “different . . . they were older, bigger, bully types.” With all of us grouped together in Humanities, A thought that it was his obligation to fight the nerd tag. “Back then, of course I thought I was cool” and “a freakin’ know-it-all . . . when I met you in 7S, I knew I could push you around,” he said.
I’m in no way condoning A’s use of “Captain Zimbabwe” toward me, or any of his other Rush Limbaugh-like comments towards my other former classmates for that matter. I’m merely empathizing, if only to understand how different folks from different backgrounds approach a weird and nerdy multicultural environment. The irony is, A’s married to a Puerto Rican (or Nuyorican, I guess) woman and has two kids, and seems to be generally comfortable with other people now. Maybe Humanities contributed to that, maybe it didn’t. The important lesson here is that people can and do change, even if it takes years for them to do so. The “Captain Zimbabwe” episode made me tougher in school, and five years of Humanities may well have made A more sensitive to his own bigotry. Perhaps there’s hope for us all.
This might not be the most pressing question I’ve ever faced, but it’s still an important one. I’ve been playing basketball pretty much year-round since ’92. I’ve played pickup basketball, intramural basketball, basketball with friends, and mostly just shot around, trying to make myself into a mediocre basketball player. At thirty nine, my jump shot range has declined a bit, but I can still make the occasional NBA-range three-point shot. I’ve been working on my mid-range jump shot the past two years, trying to get it consistently around forty percent — without a hand in my face. Even with these caveats, most of my friends — the ones that are in the DC area, that is — refuse to play basketball with me. Their either not interested or see no point playing with someone who’s at least six inches taller than them. Oh well!