A.B. Davis Middle School, Apology, Class of 1987, Culture, Italian, Mount Vernon High School, Mount Vernon New York, Race
I have a confession to make (as if I haven’t confessed enough the past four years, right?). I owe a few of my former Humanities classmates apologies, though not the kind of apology some of you may expect. For these apologies have nothing to do with what I’ve written on this blog since June ’07. Nor are they about anything I’ve written (or rewritten) to date in the Boy @ The Window manuscript. These apologies are more about my trust and truthfulness, or lack thereof, to specific people at specific moments of time, during my six years of semi-solitude, somewhat self-imposed, I might add.
This particular apology is to a classmate who sat in front of me for most of my classes between 7S and AP US History with Meltzer. For the purposes of this post, let’s call her “M” (I know that some of you will likely figure out who “M” is, but play along anyway, please). M was one of the most curious people I went to school with during those years, which by definition, also made her extremely intelligent. She was part of the Italian crew that seemed to overwhelm me in 7S especially, yet not part of it at the same time.
But I didn’t even know that about M on my first day of seventh grade in ’81. I showed up, white kufi and all, with smiles and a sense of myself that was a combination of naiveté and sheer arrogance that morning. I no sooner sat at my assigned and alphabetically-arranged seat than both Mrs. Sesay and my new classmates of 7S began to ask me questions about my background. M, who sat two seats in front of me, asked, “Have you ever been to Israel?” “Yes, once. I’ve been to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,” I lied. I’d only traveled outside of New York four times, including my fetus travels in ’69. I lied so quickly that I spent the next several minutes thinking about why.
It was the first of my several Christmas Story moments. I was like the character Ralphie, who was forced by his adoring mother to wear a pink bunny suit made by his aunt. Except that he was never made to parade his social suicide clothing all over town and school so that he could bring even more ridicule and scorn his way than his mouth could earn all by itself. There was no one in my circle who could’ve saved me from the ostracism that would follow me because of my kufi.
M’s question let me know immediately that I was in trouble with these Humanities kids. My elementary school classmates would’ve never asked me if I’ve ever been to Israel. M’s question gave me my first indication that I was poor. It made me think, if this whole Hebrew-Israelite thing was so wonderful, then why in five months hadn’t we gone to Israel? Why had we only been to temple once? Why, then, didn’t I have an allowance? M wasn’t the only one who had questions.
I was mad at M, but more angry and disappointed with myself for lying to her. Over the years, I grew bitter and angry with my family as well, about the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing, about kufis and other things. I think that M was the only White person in my classes other than our eventual valedictorian who may have sensed any of this during our Davis years. M, despite the big ’80s hair, Sergio Valente jeans, and constant gum chewing, was not only inquisitive. She had a talent for language that no one I knew in Humanities possessed. I’m sure she worked at it a bit, but still, Italian or not, M picked up the nuances of language faster than any of us, including the kids whose parents and grandparents spoke the language at home.
Unfortunately, she had her own issues in the social pecking order that was Humanities and in the diversity that was Davis and MVHS. She was Italian after all, and as a Humanities student, a nerd by definition. Yet she was attractive and by definition, also needed to be cool. M became this interesting contrast of pop cultural fashion, teenage cool and mostly subtle intellectual prowess, not much different from the main character played by Rob Brown in Finding Forrester. My Italian nemesis A tried, and tried, and tried again with her in those early years of Humanities, only to get shut down time and time again. I loved hearing her tell A to “Shut up!” in her Brooklyn-esque accent on so many occasions.
I thought that M found me both fascinating and puzzling at times, as if I were a science experiment that yielded some surprising results. I was interesting because in many ways I represented the anti-stereotype, a Black kid who wasn’t cool and cared about grades, a Hebrew-Israelite who actually wanted to learn Italian and learn more about Italian culture. This made me an enigma because I was Black, part of a race that many Italians in Mount Vernon distrusted in the early ’80s. The politics of the town around City Hall, the police and fire departments and the Board of Education certainly helped make it so.
We did get into it once after school, about what I don’t remember. I remember calling her a “slut” for something she had said to me. I was picking fights a lot during my months of infatuation with Crush #1, so I didn’t keep a complete scorecard of every argument and every idiotic thing I said. In any case, I apologize. My bad.
But that’s not what I’m apologizing about. Sometime in the middle of eleventh grade in Mrs. Warns English class, we were discussing travels to different parts of the world. M had missed the first three weeks of tenth grade, I think, to spend time in Italy, and was interested in traveling to places like Spain and Mexico, as she was quickly learning Spanish to go with her virtually fluent Italian. When the class conversation turned to me, I admitted that I hadn’t been out of New York State since ’78, and had never left the country. M’s mouth dropped open, as if I’d admitted that my father had tried to get a prostitute for me (which he did the following school year — see my “Secrets and Truths” post, January 2009). Her eyes glared at me, letting me know that she remembered. I stared blankly back at M, not even so much as shrugging my shoulders in response.
So, M, I apologize, and not just for lying. You’re one of only a handful of folks who showed genuine interest in me because of and beyond my kufi during the Humanities years. Yet I didn’t trust that interest at all. I took it as more a passing curiosity than anything else. I never gave either of us a chance to become acquaintances, much less friends. For that, and for calling you a “slut” in seventh grade, I am truly sorry.