616, Class of 1987, Coolness, Culture, Mount Vernon High School, Mount Vernon New York, Pop Culture, Race, Silent Treatment, The Roots, Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health
Right after the MVHS graduation ceremony at Memorial Field in June ’87, it started. I’d walk down the street to the store, and bump into one of my suddenly former classmates, say “Hi,” and get no response at all. The few times I bumped into a certain Ms. Red Bone, she’d stare straight at me, then straight through me, all as I said “Hi.” She just kept on walking, as if I had phased out of our space-time continuum into a parallel universe. By the beginning of August, I honestly thought that these people, my classmates for so long, were showing their true colors. They just didn’t like me, not me because I’d been a Hebrew-Israelite or me because I was poor or me because I listened to Mr. Mister. It was all about me, something within me that they detested.
“You can’t pay any attention to that. They’re all just jealous,” my new friend E (see “The Power of E” posting from August ’08) said when I told her about the ghost treatment over lunch one day. She and I worked for General Foods in Tarrytown that summer.
“Of what? Of me?,” I asked in disbelief.
“It’s because you’re not trying to be anybody except yourself,” she said.
“That’s a good theory,” I thought, but I didn’t really believe it. E was fully in my corner, and much more obvious about it than anyone else.
This pattern of treatment had only occurred two other times. Once was in sixth grade, after I came to Holmes with my kufi for the first time. My best friend Starling stopped talking to me, and refused to even acknowledge my presence for nearly two weeks before our second and last fight. The other was earlier in my senior year, in the weeks after the final class rankings were posted. Some in the Class of ’87 were upset with me because I was ranked fourteenth in our class. Three of them responded by not talking to me at all. They’d walk by me in the hallways, looked at and through me, and kept going without so much as a nod. That went on from mid-December through the beginning of March.
The Black “Party All The Time” folks in my class, the popular and dapper folks, snickered whenever they saw me. So I guess that they decided that to acknowledge me after graduation would me contaminating themselves with the knowledge that I was still alive, still figuring things out, still not cool enough to be bothered with.
Three years later, I bumped into one of these folks on my way home from my summer job with Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health in White Plains. I was walking home to 616 on East Lincoln, having just gotten off the 41 Beeline Express. It was after 6:30, and I was beat from another day of database work and my research preparations for my senior year at Pitt. Coming in the opposite direction toward North Columbus was a party-all-the-timer, a popular, slightly light-skinned dude named J. Since I assumed that he would walk by me as if I were thin air, I started to walk by him as if he weren’t there.
Surprisingly, J stopped me and said, “Hi, Donald.” He said that he needed to talk to me, to tell me that the path that I walked in high school, while weird, was a better path than the one that he was on. He told me about his mind-bending experiences at Howard, about his dropping out and need to take care of some serious emotional and mental health issues. After a year of work at Pitt and in Westchester County, I could tell, too.
At first, I was taken aback. I mean, this was a guy who laughed at me for nearly six years, who’d never lowered himself to so much as to give me a thumbs-up while in school. Now J was sharing the most intimate of details about his life with me? I asked him, “Why are you telling me this?” Among the other things he said, the thing that stuck with me was, “Because you’re true to yourself.” I gave him a handshake, and wished him well.
That was nearly twenty years ago. I guess that J and others were under a lot of pressure — peer pressure, girl pressure, family pressures — to be cool, to be successful, to be something other than themselves. None of this justified how they treated me back then. Nor does it justify how any of them may see me now. I’m just glad the only silent treatment I get now is from my wife when I’ve taken a joke too far. At least I know that she’ll talk to me again, eventually.