I had planned to write about two poignant incidents that are typical for me and for so many others living in a nation in denial about how we treat each other every single day. About how we make others apologize for us putting them in difficult situations. About our refusal to look ourselves in the mirror — or to look within — in the process of assessing blame and striving for solutions. Then Ted Kennedy passed away the other day, another reminder that America’s greatest days have long passed. Yet millions of those who grew up during the years of Camelot — the good ol’ ’60s — still act as if that decade gives them the right to say and do anything at the expense of others’ thoughts and activities.
My years as a full-fledged adult now number twenty-two. On this day and date, I left 616, Humanities, MVHS, Mount Vernon public schools, Mount Vernon and NYC behind for the first time. Even though I’d call New York City and Grand Central Station “the third armpit of hell” for the next seven years, I had plenty of times during my undergraduate days in which I missed the sights and smells of New York, the constant buzz. Not to mention quality deli meats, good pizza, Clover Donuts, the noise of Subway cars and Metro-North trains. But from the moment I started getting ready, truly ready to go, I had already left these things behind.
It was the last Wednesday in August when I took my five suitcases, Army bag, and two boxes by cab from 616 to 241st. But not before a long and tearful good-bye with my mother, Eri, Sarai, and Maurice. Yiscoc didn’t wake up to say good-bye until I was practically out the door. My stepfather insisted on giving me an extra fifty dollars for my college journey. I thought for a second about turning it down, and decided against it. “This was the least he owed me,” I thought. I felt bad about leaving, especially for Eri, who was just a little more than three years old. Darren and I took my stuff downstairs to the Reliable Taxi cab at five in the morning, got to the Subway stop and met Jimme there. We quietly rode the train to Penn Station on West 34th, where I’d catch the 7:50 am Amtrak for Pittsburgh. Once it was time to catch the train, Darren and Jimme helped with getting all of my stuff on the train, most of which I half-realized I probably wouldn’t need. We hugged, and Jimme actually teared up. This was the second time in a row I’d seen him sober, and he seemed happy for me.
The train ride to Pittsburgh was much longer than I expected. My assumption was that since Philly and Pittsburgh were in the same state that the ride wouldn’t last more than a couple of hours. What I didn’t know was that once we pulled into the City of Brotherly Love that the engineers would have to uncouple the electric engine and connect a diesel one. What I didn’t know was that the trip across the state of Pennsylvania was a long and windy one, with hills and mountains, small towns and tunnels. What I didn’t know was that there would be a boring recording describing the construction of track through the Allegheny Mountains which led to the creation of Horseshoe Lake. I took two naps, listened to five tapes, and with all of that, still had an hour and a half to spare. I ended up talking with a young Catholic priest during that time about the nuances of Christian faith and how Christians often misapply their faith in secular situations.
We pulled in about thirty minutes late, just before 5 pm. I immediately found a phone book and called for a Yellow Cab. I waited, and waited, and waited, all while about six cabs came up and picked up other passengers from my train. I looked at the downtown skyline and thought, “It doesn’t look like a hick town so far.” Yet the cab drivers sure acted like it was. They refused to make eye contact with me, much less pick me up. After an hour, I called Yellow Cab again, this time threatening them with a lawsuit. “If I don’t see a cab real soon, I’m contacting the NAACP and filing a discrimination lawsuit!,” I yelled to the dispatcher over the phone. Within three minutes I got my taxi. I was already beginning to think that Pittsburgh wasn’t my best choice for pursuing higher education.
My first drive through the heart of Pittsburgh reminded me of what people had been saying for years about New York and how great it was. Once we passed through downtown, which took less time than driving through Mount Vernon, we went through these decidedly working-class neighborhoods and Black communities that looked at least they belonged in South Side Mount Vernon. Then we reached the Oakland section of the ’Burgh. School buildings, college dorms that looked like silos, shops and restaurants abounded. Just before we turned left off of Forbes Avenue, I saw it, the Cathedral of Learning, for the first time. I was starting to feel better about my decision.
The driver turned left again, off Atwood and onto Fifth Avenue, then a right onto Lothrop, where, of course, Lothrop Hall was. It was an eleven-story dirty uranium-brown building, where years of coke soot had built up. There were few students or staff around. I went through security, using my high school ID for the last time, and the guard gave me a temporary dorm pass that I could use until I got my Pitt ID. My dorm room was on the third floor. It overlooked a drab and empty yet clean courtyard. I was lucky, since there was a good chance I might’ve ended up with a roommate. The dorm rooms at Lothrop went to one student apiece. I was so exhausted from all of the emotions and stresses of the day. I grabbed some junk food from the vending machine in the lobby, called my mother to tell her I was fine, somehow found the Mets game on my portable radio, and fell asleep in my twin bed.
Despite all that had happened at 616, in Humanities, MVHS and in Mount Vernon, I was homesick the last third of the semester. Not homesick because I missed having my ex-stepfather say, “take that base out of ya voice before I cave ya chest in.” Not homesick because I missed spending my Friday evenings and Saturdays tracking down Jimme at some dive in the Bronx or in Manhattan. I think that I was homesick because I was still reeling from crush #2, which made me realize that I never really had a home in the first place.
It took me a bit longer — about a year or so — to realize that despite the ‘Burgh’s lack of almost anything I’d normally describe as city or city-suburban life, I could still make the place my home. At the very least, the University of Pittsburgh was relatively more diverse, urban, and exciting than compared to the rest of the area. That was the reason I was there, after all. Still, I gave myself the room necessary to criticize the university and the city when I saw fit. But I also took time to look around, to see that whatever else was or wasn’t going on, I was in charge of my life now, and safe from the slights, hurts and abuses of my past.
It’s been a quarter century since I tried out for a sport for the very first time. I went out for MVHS’ junior varsity football team, if you can believe that. I even made the team, which said as much about the talent pool as it did about me. But those tryouts were about so much more than learning how to catch with my left hand or learning a proper blocking technique.
Monday morning during the third week of August at MVHS trying out for football was a new, exciting and scary experience for me. I brought in my signed permission slip, dressed in my too-big Pumas, kufi, t-shirt and shorts and socks and hit the practice field at 8 am. Boy it was hot, at least ninety-five degrees! Both the JV and varsity starters were out there on the practice field warming up, along with MVHS cheerleaders and other female gawkers. One light-skinned brotha they spent a lot of time staring at in infatuation was the future Al B. Sure, the one-album R&B wonder who caught the eye of Quincy Jones. He was Albert Brown then, a year ahead of me and most of us rising tenth-graders. Even the cheerleading classmates I knew were there calling out his name. I thought it was bizarre, but then again, I could kind of understand. There weren’t exactly a whole lot of good-looking guys in Mount Vernon, forget about MVHS. And he was a metrosexual about fifteen years ahead of his time.
Despite all of my fears of embarrassing myself, I found most of the drills surprisingly easy. Then I took part in the wide receiver drills. Since I still couldn’t throw, I didn’t want to press my luck going out for quarterback. The coaches had these one-handed catch drill, where you’d run straight up field for ten of fifteen yards and catch a pass with one hand. On my first duck-footed run, I tripped over my Pumas as I reached out to catch the pass with my right hand, fell to the ground and cut up my right arm in breaking my fall. My kufi fell to the ground as well. Some of the folks on the field laughed, but a couple of players gave them mean looks and they got quiet. I caught the next five passes thrown to me, mostly with my left hand and its two crooked fingers. We were doing two-a-days, which meant breaking for lunch and coming back for two hours or so of afternoon exercises and drills. With no money, I’d go down to the deli near the high school, on New Rochelle Road in Chester Heights, and buy a plain roll or a brownie to keep me going.
By the end of the second day, the coaches had me lined up to see if I was mean enough to block anyone. As skinny and scared as I was, I held my own for five minutes blocking a guy who thought going up against me would be a piece of cake. After that set of practices, the coach talked to a bunch of us individually to tell us their news. In my case, I’d made the team, but they wanted to “bulk me up this year for next year. With your feet and height, you should play offensive line.” Didn’t they look at the physical exam they did the day before? I was six feet and one-half-inch tall and weighed a whopping 151 pounds. If I went to the bathroom, my weight would drop one percent. I didn’t know whose logic was more warped, the coaches or my mother’s. I walked home that day exhausted, hungry, angry and confused.
I had a decision to make. I could fight to make wide receiver, finding a new pair of sneakers along the way. I could do what the coaches wanted and try to get closer to 175. Or I could drop out of the tryouts, which might’ve been what they wanted anyway. Given the level of talent I saw, I doubted this, otherwise why waste the breath stringing me along? What decided it for me was when I came home from tryouts the second day. To think that I could play football, maintain my academic success as a Humanities student, and come home, run errands, help take care of my siblings, wash clothes, go over to Jimme’s, and so much more? I knew I couldn’t do it all, certainly not this year. I didn’t show up the next day. Or the day after that. My feelings were mixed, weighing pros and cons that added up to too much for me to handle. The decision would’ve been easier if I’d made the team as a receiver.
After the fourth and final day of tryouts, I was on my way home from the store, walking up East Prospect when a group of varsity football players spotted me and pulled over. “Why weren’t you at practice, man?,” “You know you made the team, right, man?,” they asked. Not knowing what to say, I said the truth. “There’s too much going on at home for me to play this year.” And no one laughed. A couple of them gave me fives as they took off, telling me to “hang in there” and “See you at school.”
I guess I had a lot to learn about people, as Danny Glover’s character from the movie Silverado might’ve said. Not everyone was out to get me, and some people actually had enough humanity to care if what I wanted to happen in my life actually did. Still, even with that, there were too many other folks in my life, including members of my family, who worked against my goals and needs. They made it hard to trust folks, especially other Black males. I could trust what someone said to me at a specific moment in time.
But I couldn’t trust anyone, not in total. My mother’s mixed signals throughout the year confused me more. Did she really buy me those two-sizes-too-big-Pumas because my feet were big, or because she didn’t want me to play football? I didn’t really know. One thing did happen because of those tryouts, besides me figuring out that I really did have athletic potential. That I needed to try hard not to allow my family to limit me and my options if I could afford to. After those football players went their way, I took my kufi off in public for the first time. If I have to be there for my siblings and Mom, at least I could be there with the courage to stand up for what I didn’t believe in anymore.
The last few weeks haven’t been good for prominent American men of color. First, Skip Gates found himself in hot water with a Cambridge police officer because a neighbor saw Gates force his way into his own home. Second, President Obama commented on it while in the midst of fighting for health care reform, which in turn has stalled in the eyes of the media and in idiotic town hall meetings. Third, Tiger Woods blew a two-shot lead at the PGA Championship, missing at least six make-able birdie putts along the way while also bogeying five times. What’s the world coming to?
Many would describe me as an overachiever. After all, I managed to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in quick succession even though my ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic background made it much more likely that I’d drop out by the ninth grade and serve time in jail. I’ve been writing and teaching and working (full-time for the most part) since ’92, and especially since ’97.
At the same time, I had a number of teachers — just about all of them coming from my Humanities years — who told me in so many words that I was an underachiever. After all, I only graduated fourteenth in my class out of over 500 students, scored a “5” on the AP US History Exam, got into college and was awarded an academic scholarship. So which is it? Was I the overachieving, Tiger Woods-type student who ran over his opponents on the way to a doctorate, or was I the aloof and underperforming Sergio Garcia-type with a ton of talent but nowhere near the resolve to apply or discipline it?
I was both and neither at the same time, an important lesson for those who are in high school and college and yet read my blog anyway. For most of my Humanities years, it would be easy to say that I underachieved, considering the way I had performed in school between fourth and sixth grade. I’d been a straight-A, reading-and-math-at-the-twelfth-grade-level-scoring student before middle school. I remained a high performer, but nothing that made me the incredible standout I was in elementary. Throughout my Humanities years, no less than a dozen teachers complained or sighed to me about my underperformance in their classes. Some of them, like my eighth-grade English teacher and ninth-grade Geometry teacher, practically tried to embarrass me into a better performance, often in front of other students.
It’s true, to the extent that one can say anything is true, that I underperformed. As is well documented here, I spent my Humanities years at war and in chaos at home, between a bizarre religion, my stepfather’s abuse, our slide into welfare poverty, and my mother popping out four kids in a five-year span. It was difficult to impossible to study at 616, especially once my sophomore year of high school rolled around. My choices were studying in study hall, studying at Mount Vernon Public Library (when I had the free time to do so), or applying my unconscious coping mechanisms for home in a way that allowed me to memorize information, if only in a semi-photographic way.
So I did all three, with imaginative memorization being the biggest one of the three. I only had one study hall in tenth grade, one in eleventh, and none in twelfth. After my brother Eri was born, I really didn’t get to run over to the library much to study, with constant runs to the grocery store, Friday evenings and Saturday mornings tracking down my alcoholic father for money, and Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings washing clothes. When I could focus, when I could find moments of clarity at home, I did study. Oftentimes visualizing the classes from the day before, almost word for word in the process. Or when I’d fall asleep, I’d often replay the day’s lessons in my head or even in my dreams. Or a song that I liked or a touchdown throw from Simms to Bavaro would become the way I’d remember a quote from a textbook or a concept for a math problem. That’s how I made it through most of my Humanities years.
I didn’t even study for my AP US History exam. I started reading history for fun when I was nine, and had read forty or so books on World War II alone before I finished sixth grade. Between that and Meltzer’s idiosyncratic teaching methodology, I never saw the need to read the eternally-boring Morison and Commager textbook that year. One of my former classmates said to me, after our class rankings came out at the beginning of our senior year, “the only reason you’re in the top-20’s cuz of history.” That wasn’t true. The only reason I was ranked in the top-twenty was because of History and because I had the power to memorize in semi-photographic and imaginative ways. Though I had A’s in history in ninth and eleventh grade, my grades overall were generally in the high-B range, and with weighting because I took mostly Humanities classes, gave me a pretty good GPA in the end.
But that wasn’t the same as being able to put in the hours to study and study in a vigorous, disciplined manner. That was something I couldn’t do regularly until I went off to college, to Pitt. It was there — once I found myself with sufficient free time for myself — that I would organize my semesters around a calendar telling me what was due for a specific class on a specific date, and then work to meet or beat a deadline accordingly. It was in college that I found a balance between living my life and imagining a better one. It was at the University of Pittsburgh that I had to strike a balance between work, social life and school, and learned how to study again. Combined with what I learned how to do out of necessity during my Humanities years, it was a matter of time before I became an overachiever, at least as defined by teachers and the media.
Still, I think that there are too many cases when we as parents, teachers or even students make assumptions about other students because they don’t sign up for National Honor Society or because they’re not all stressed out about an 87 on an essay exam. I thought one was a bunch of nerd popularity BS meant mostly to pad our records and placate teachers. As for the other, given my circumstances, an 87 was fine. I didn’t have the luxury of only worrying about my grades until college and especially grad school. By then, I had so many different ways to learn material that it made me a bit of a standout.
If there’s any lesson here at all, it’s that other people’s perceptions of your performance are overrated, and too often based on some biased notion of what maximum effort is or isn’t. You have to set your own standards, ones high enough so that when you meet or exceed them, you know you’ve overachieved.
Well, not a babe exactly. And certainly not the “Babe” in the picture above. It was one of my JSA-Princeton students. We were on an extended break during our badly mismanaged and disorganized trip to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and Constitution Center a couple of days before the 4th of July. Here we were with two hours for lunch just two and a half blocks away from activities that would keep any high-potential high school student busy. Instead, we were all sitting in a dilapidated mall eating bad food and with only a handful of things to keep us occupied.
Me being me, I just happened to have a double-sided copy of Boy At The Window in my book bag. I brought it with me to Princeton for some minor editing in my space time. I also had it with me to think through some of the vague comments about my book being “good,” interesting,” and “unique,” but also one with a “quiet” introduction and one that some agents weren’t “enthusiastic” about selling to a publisher. At least, I think that was what was going on with me subconsciously.
So I pulled out the manuscript to edit, for probably the seventh or eighth time since February ’07, and started to read and mark up a couple of things. A change of word order here, an extra comma there, nothing that would raise an eyebrow. Then one of my more inquisitive AP US History students walked by and said, “Hey Dr. Collins, you look bored. Whatcha reading?” After I told him it was my memoir, we talked for a few minutes about books and about being stuck at a mall on a trip that had been screwed up by staff right from the start.
Then I return to Boy At The Window. And then it hit me, right between the eyes! I might’ve been bored anyway, because of the situation and because the book was my book. After all, I had read it several times over. But I had to consider the possibility as raised by this student. What if my introduction was actually boring, quiet, not an attention-grabber? I put Boy At The Window away, and spent the next couple of weeks thinking about how to make my book’s opening less boring, more active. That is, in between teaching in Maryland, at Princeton, consulting, paying bills, and preparing for another summer course.
When the Princeton program ended in mid-July, I already knew what I wanted to do. I crafted a new introduction, moved up a couple of stories from later chapters that would fit that intro, and then placed it at the beginning of the existing manuscript, saying, “Better, much better.” Then I had another epiphany. Since I’d already been rejected by four score and seven agents over the past couple of years anyway, why not take the manuscript I have and just get radical about everything in it? Whatever ideas seem good about revising it, reorganizing it, even renaming it, I should pursue. So I decided to keep the two versions I had (one quiet and unchanged, one with the revamped intro) and create a third one.
This version would have shorter chapters, with me wearing my editor’s hat to see what should be moved, what should be deleted, and what story lines were irrelevant to the story. I also decided to change the name, albeit slightly, from Boy At The Window to Boy @ The Window, a real rad move on my part. Then I got to work, deleting over 50 pages, adding a few new sections, dropping story lines, spreading the wealth of the story around so that it would be louder up front. It took a bit more than two weeks, but I like the way this version looks and reads (not that I didn’t like the earlier one, of course).
For those of you who may be interested, I’ve put a portion of this new version of Boy @ The Window in my Other Writings section of my website. If any of you have any feedback, please post a response or email me. I mean, I don’t want to bore you or think that I’m trying to write an understated book. I promise that whatever you think, you won’t come away thinking that.
I learned a valuable lesson on that awful trip. Revelations come in all shapes and sizes, and from people of all ages and backgrounds. The key is to be ready for them, to be open to them, to seek them. Most of us live our lives as if we’ve learned everything we’ll ever need to know before we’ve turned twenty or twenty-five, the wrong approach to living. Life is a journey. It can only be a good one if we learn to listen to ourselves and to each other along the way.