"Children's Crusade", 616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Coping Strategies, Historian, Mount Vernon New York, Paul Riggs, Pitt, Re-Discovery, Reinventing the Wheel, Scholar, Self-Discovery, Sting, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, University of Pittsburgh, Western Civilization II, World War I, Writer, Writing
One of the side effects of having lived through the hell of my family struggles at 616 in Mount Vernon, New York between ’81 and ’89 was that I’d forgotten about the person I was before we became Hebrew-Israelites. As great as I am at recalling faces, smells, conversations, exact facts and phrases based on images and songs, I’ve been almost equally as good at blocking out whole sections of my personality. All in an effort to cope with the emotional pain and psychological trauma that is betrayal, abuse and neglect.
I have the unfortunate distinction of having seen myself as a writer in ’81 at the age of eleven, only to take nearly twenty years to see myself that way again. There were a few sign posts in the dark forest of confusion about my calling that I found on my way to getting back on the writing road. One of those sign posts was my teaching assistant and friend during my undergraduate years at the University of Pittsburgh in Paul Riggs.
Paul was the TA for my section of the Western Civilization II course taught by his advisor in Sy Drescher in the Spring semester of ’88. He was a second-year history grad student, a nice looking White guy for a nerd. Already in his mid-twenties with, his blonde-brown hair and around six-feet, Paul was a rarity on campus. So was his class. Paul found a way to do more than ask us a bunch of questions that were meant to quiz us on the textbook. We debated the significance of things like a richer diet and its impact on population growth and the expansion of European imperialism, the connections between Charles Darwin, evolution, and the advent of scientific racism at the end of the nineteenth century, and so many other things that allowed us to connect the dots.
Paul was also the first teacher I had at Pitt who assumed that I could do the work without acting as if I shouldn’t have been in their classroom. It helped that he occasionally indulged me. When our weekly discussion turned to the killing fields that had been northern France and Belgium for the bulk of the four years of World War I, I allowed my imagination to get the better of me. I made a comment that connected the tragedy of deadly trench warfare to a song by Sting called “Children’s Crusade.” I started quoting lyrics, like “virgins with rifles, a game of charade,” “the flower of England, faced down in the mud, and stained in the blood of a whole generation,” and “corpulent generals safe behind lines.”
I related it all to the documents book and Drescher’s lectures on the war that wiped out a generation of
young men in Western Europe. It took me two minutes of class time to draw all of the different connections. Paul, shaking his head at the end, got this incredulous smile on his face. All he said was, “um, you know Sting’s overrated?”
But Paul proved to be much more helpful a year and a half later. By then I was in my junior year at Pitt, no longer living in constant worry that I’d have to return to 616 to bury my mother and press charges against my idiot stepfather. By then, Maurice was my ex-stepfather, and thankfully so. For the first time in eight years, I kept a journal, putting together a series of stories based on my worst experiences at 616, on welfare, with my family, and in Mount Vernon.
All of it made me think about writing a book that looked at the sociological and psychological dimensions of the welfare system, for both recipients and for case managers charged with providing benefits. I wanted to make Westchester County Department of Social Services the centerpiece for such a book. I decided to talk to Paul about all of my ideas, not wanting to give away how personal this issue was for me. Paul asked me the questions that it would take another eleven years to answer. “What kind of writer do you want to be?,” and “How is history related to what you want to write about?,” he asked over the course of our conversation.
I really didn’t know the answers to either question. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to pursue an advanced degree, become a professor, or become a writer. But I knew that I needed to find out.
Still, one thing that I decided to do that would determine most of my career travels over the next decade is to make myself into the semi-dispassionate scholar I knew I needed to become in order to be a better historian, which I presumed would make me a better writer. Only to spend this past decade reconnecting to my emotions and passion, which has made me the writer I once hoped to become.