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Me and My Uncle Sam, June 18, 1987. (Donald Earl Collins).

Today’s date marks a quarter-century since my Class of ’87 marched and graduated from Mount Vernon High School at Mount Vernon’s Memorial Field (see my post “It’s Been Twenty Years…” from June ’07). I guess that the seventeen-year-old version of me would look at me now and say, “Boy you’re old! What happened to you?” And the current me would say, “Life, you pathetic dufus!” in response.

I write this today a tired professor, educator and consultant. Tired from a week of scoring AP World History exams, grading students’ papers from my survey-level US History course, traveling to and from Salt Lake City. Tired from the vicissitudes of life, marriage and parenthood. At least, that’s how I feel sometimes. Most of the time, though, I feel like the person I’ve been for the past twenty-four years, someone who has a real bright present and even brighter future, regardless of how things may look from day-to-day or moment to moment.

That was and wasn’t the case twenty-five years ago. I really only had about three or four things on my mind on that hot and sticky 87-degree Thursday evening. One was about my family. Good, bad, and ugly all at once. My Mom, my idiot stepfather Maurice, my older brother Darren, and all of my younger siblings, and all going to my graduation. Getting myself and my younger brothers and sister ready was no easy task, especially without air conditioning.

Then, my Uncle Sam showed up, a pleasant and unexpected surprise. I hadn’t seen him since October ’84, at the one-time book store on Gramatan Avenue, where I used to buy all of my Barron’s test-prep books for the New York State Regents Exams, SAT, and AP exams. That was the only time I’d seen my mother’s brother since the picnic to end all picnic’s in August ’83 (see my post “Good Times, Good Times…Not” from August ’09). He still looked larger than life, all six-four and 240 of him, despite his bum knees.

Canadian Club bottle and goblet, February 12, 2011. (Craig L. Duncan via Wikipedia). In public domain.

My father Jimme was supposed to show up at 616 before we all left for the ceremony. And he did, just as I was about to pile into a cab with Mom, my sister Sarai, and Uncle Sam. Jimme was three sheets to the wind, liquored up real good, to celebrate my graduation. “Oh no!,” I thought, pretty much keeping my distance from him the entire evening. I already knew that Jimme would embarrass the hell out of me and Mom, not to mention any parent who talked with him.

Thought number two came in all of the folks to whom I said good-bye or good riddance as the ceremony came to a close. After throwing our burgundy and yellow caps in the air, we went over to our now former classmates — who were now friends, lovers, acquaintances, and in some cases, foes — to embrace and hug, to cry and scream and dance and twirl around in the air with. Along the way, A (of “The Legend of ‘Captain Zimbabwe’” post from May ’09) grabbed me and gave me a hug. “You made it, man,” he said. It startled me that he did that. The late Brandie Weston and I hugged, but not before saying, “You’ve changed a lot over the years. You used to be an asshole you know!”

I caught up with Crush #1, giving her a long hug and a mug as a gift. “I’m really going to miss you,” I said. I also gave a mug to H, V (the valedictorian in my post “Valedictorian Burdens” from July ’09), and Crush #2, telling them all that “when you’re drinking coffee late at night and trying to finish a paper, think of me.” When I gave a mug to Crush #1 and embraced her, T apparently was nearby watching the event unfold. I went over to her to say “Good-bye” afterwards. T snorted and raised her nose up in a huff, as if I’d given her the coup de grace (see my post “The Silent Treatment” from June ’10)

But the thought that has stayed with me over the years wasn’t something that I was fully conscious of that day, given all of the excitement that was and is a high school graduation. It had been in my head for more than five years. See, despite having erased much of the stigma that was me being me at twelve in 7S and at 616, I knew that I could never fully be the person I knew I could be while living in Mount Vernon. People think I’m weird now, but at least I know what it is about me that makes some dumb asses act that way about me. The dumb asses who thought that “book learnin'” and listening to “White music” was wack back then were too numerous and too vocal for me to avoid. Especially since some of them were at 616 or my parents.

Grandstand at Memorial Field, Mount Vernon, NY, November 28, 2007. (Anthony22 via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I knew that I had to leave. That’s what I thought about the entire walk home from Memorial Field. And I did walk, alright, for a full hour afterward. If I could’ve, I would’ve walked all the way to Pittsburgh that night, as I knew it wouldn’t get any better for me in Mount Vernon than a high school graduation. I’d already left my first hometown, at least in my head. It would take another fifteen months to confirm it.

When my wife came to Mount Vernon with me for the first time during Christmas ’99, we walked through downtown and The Avenue. After ten minutes, she asked, “Are you sure you weren’t adopted?” Sometimes, looking back, I ask myself the same question.