There weren’t a whole lot of things during my Boy @ The Window years outside of 616 that were worse than the guidance — or the lack thereof — I received from my guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo. She was the ultimate Doubting Thomas, one that would probably make Jesus himself shake his head. It wasn’t just that she never thought that I was up to handling any Humanities or AP course while in high school. It was obvious that Fasulo thought that I wouldn’t amount to anything at all. Some of this, I realize, was about race, gender and class — I was a poor Black male, after all, and she was one of the few people that even knew about the poor part (for worse, not for better). But I also knew, even then, that it was about me. Fasulo didn’t believe in me, as a person or a student. When I figured this out, it made my moments in her office a form of torture only slightly above my wonderful moments with my idiot ex-stepfather.
About a week before the start of of high school, in September ’83, I met Fasulo for the first time, as I had to sign up for my freshman year classes. Meeting her was a sure sign that I hadn’t stopped growing. I towered over the four-foot-nine middle-aged woman. But boy could she smoke up a storm! If any of us nonsmokers who had Fasulo as a counselor picked up lung cancer immediately after high school, we should’ve gotten together to form a class action!
I wondered to myself, almost aloud, why Fasulo was a guidance counselor at MVHS. The woman had an A.B. — as some Ivy Leagues and other pretentious universities still call them — from Vassar. Class of ’49 as a matter of fact. Her diploma was on the wall in her small office, letting every one of her students know that she wasn’t exactly from humble beginnings. My first meeting with her was the first of many conversations — or soliloquies I happened to be present for — about her glory days at Vassar.
For the next three years, I put up with her constant “Are sure about…” questions regarding the classes I took. She didn’t think I could handle five Humanities Level 1 courses in a school year. Then she made me get permission from a teacher I despised to take AP American History even though I had the grades necessary to take it. Her always telling me that this class or that class “might be too hard for you,” as if I were a child with a severe mental disability. Fasulo was a piece of work, and I trusted her about as much as I trust law enforcement when they’ve told me that I “fit the description of” so-and-so when I’ve been stopped for walking while Black.
Fasulo’s favorite phrase for me by the beginning of my senior year was, “There goes Donald, always daring to be different.” It referenced my refusal to join our chapter of the National Honor Society and my insistence on carrying three AP courses and applying to schools like Columbia, Yale and the University of Pittsburgh that year. When it came to helping me work through my preparations for college, Fasulo was about as helpful as redneck would be in giving me directions to my White girlfriend on the White side of a Southern town — if I had one at the time, of course.
It’d be an exaggeration to say that Fasulo had it in for me. Yet she wasn’t exactly helping me with good advice about the quality of the schools I wanted to apply to, whether they had good history or computer science departments, or whether the schools had more than a handful of Blacks attending. These were the questions I wanted her to help me answer. I did almost all of that research myself.
What Fasulo was good at was communicating her low expectations of me. She emphasized “safety schools” over and over again, as if I didn’t stand a chance in heaven of measuring up with the more selective schools. “You need to pick a safety school,” she’d say. Or “SUNY Buffalo’s a good safety school,” she said a fair number of times.What, was she going to get a kick-back from someone at SUNY Buffalo for my enrollment there? Per her constant advice on this, I wasted an application and applied there. But not without insisting that Columbia, Yale, and Pitt would stay on my application list. Pitt, of course, was the one school that didn’t fit and the one that Fasulo shook her head about the most. “They’re out of state!,” she said to me in a bit of exasperation about my choices. I explained that the University of Pittsburgh’s out-of-state tuition was actually less than the in-state tuition of any of the New York State schools, and by a wide margin. Not able to resist, Fasulo responded, “There you go again, daring to be different,” adding a frustrated chuckle.
Because of my research, I also ended up applying to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester and Hobart & William Smith Colleges. Five schools in Upstate New York, two Ivy Leagues, and Pitt. No wonder Fasulo was confused. I hated having Fasulo as my counselor at this critical crossroads. She was condescending, demeaning and chain-smoked up my clothes for my troubles. Most of all, I hated having to reveal things about myself to her that I otherwise wouldn’t have shared. Like my family’s financial situation. Fasulo became only the second person I would tell that we were on welfare, that my father and mother had divorced and that he hadn’t made a child support payment since ’78. I had to talk to her about my role in my family as acting first-born child and my responsibilities. It was necessary and humiliating at the same time.
Despite and not because of Fasulo, things worked out for me in the end. Going to Pitt, meeting the people and the professors I’d become friends and colleagues with, was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. Still, I had one parting shot from her in the middle of my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the holiday season in ’89, and I took time during my time back in Mount Vernon to visit my favorite teacher Harold Meltzer. I had just missed him, but bumped into Fasulo. It was about as fortuitous as having diarrhea and being no where near a toilet or toilet paper.
She asked me where I was in school, and I told her about my considerations for graduate school, law school and the world of work. It was a toss-off sentence, my attempt to end a conversation, not begin one. “Being a lawyer’s hard work,” Fasulo said in response. She then went on to tell me about 70-hour work weeks and billable hours and the bar exam, as if any of this was supposed to be surprising or would somehow scare me. I cut her off, saying “You know, you’re not my counselor anymore, so thanks but no thanks for your advice,” and left her office while she tried to explain her idiotic perspective.
So what’s the lesson here? That we have a strong sense of how to seek wisdom, and from whom, so that we don’t end up going down the wrong rabbit hole in our lives? That short Italian guidance counselors born in the late-1920s have no business advising poor smart Black males? No, the real lesson is that anyone either being paid to advise students or playing that role in some capacity, official or not, has to understand that this isn’t about them, it’s about that student or group of students. When it becomes a way of weeding out students based on some preconception of talent and where that talent fits, that’s when it’s time to seek another job or role, one that doesn’t involve the possibility of damaging someone’s life.