Bitter Truths, Bruce Anthony Jones, Commencement, Daniel P. Resnick, Disillusionment, Graduation, Hard Truths, Joe William Trotter Jr., Lessons Learned, Marc Hopkins, Mary J. Blige, Meritocracy, Michael Jackson, Narcissism, Pitt, Prince, Regis Welch, Self-Discovery, Trust, U2
I can’t believed that I’ve lived long enough to make a quarter-century since my end to undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh! It makes me sound old, at least to the twenty-one year-old I used to be. The one who couldn’t decide between a J.D. and an M.A./Ph.D. program. The person who worried that they would have an MA before their driver’s license. The young ‘in who believed that my advanced degree choices would define my career and life more than anything else.
That person was wise beyond his years, and yet stupid at the same time. He believed in the American meritocracy, in the triumph of hard work, talent, and a Christian faith over every obstacle. He believed that any costs incurred on the path to the MA — and later, the PhD — would be covered in the Bank of a Great Career. He believed, most of all, that professors as advisors and mentors would be there to guide his path every step of the way, the trustworthy individuals that most of them had proven themselves to be.
So much of that belief system was poisoned by the e. coli bacteria of academia and by the leaching lead pipes of American -isms. From my trials at Pitt to my tribulations with Joe Trotter, Dan Resnick, and Bruce Anthony Jones. The fact that my entire nineteen years of teaching, consulting, and nonprofit work has been cobbled together out of necessity and constantly changing circumstances, on which ground has rarely been solid. That after eighteen years and six months of payments, and I’m still a decade or so away from paying off student loans I began borrowing seventeen days after graduating from Mount Vernon High School in ’87.
If I had to talk to my twenty-one year-old self now, I’d say, get the MA in history, then get certified to teach at a high school somewhere. Spend the precious moments not in the classroom reaching high school-age students honing your craft as a writer. Jump headlong into putting down in words your experiences growing up, your times as a Hebrew-Israelite and in Humanities. Get that ms turned into a published work. Work hard at understanding the larger issues and contexts that make America the seething contradiction that it has always been, between racism and freedom, individualism and multiculturalism, social control and narcissism. Then, somewhere between the age of twenty-five and thirty, maybe, go back to school and earn that PhD in history, or in education, and take a few social psychology courses focused on personality disorders along the way.
That is the benefit of 20/10 hindsight (I’d say 20/20, but I still see most things at 20/15, and with warp speed at that!), of course. One big barrier I faced twenty-five years ago is a thorough and excoriating understanding of myself and the life I had to live. I remembered so much of my past that I never questioned the things that I’d forgotten. About abuse, physical and sexual. About deprivation, real and imagined. About people, the layers of yellow onions that most sheepishly are.
Unfortunately, I’d learn the most about what I’d forgotten in my forties, well after most people reconnect with the bitterest parts of their past (if any ever dare to). That I know what I know now is in the category of “better late than never.” Some things, though, I needed to know much sooner than 2014 or 2002. Like my discovery of my ambivalence toward academia. Not teaching or publishing per se. But the idea that I could only be taken seriously by publishing scholarly works that mostly would be read by a few dozen colleagues or when I assigned them to my students. I didn’t figure out how to make my ambivalence work for me until I was thirty-seven, and then, with me at mid-career, fighting to move forward.
The silver lining is, that if it weren’t for my time at Pitt, I simply wouldn’t be here to write these words at all. The pressures and pollutions of this world would’ve killed me. Or worse still, killed my inspirations and aspirations, rendering my imagination, my sense of what makes a just and wise world, dead. I’d be as bitter as a cup of Italian roast coffee mixed with vinegar and raw horseradish.
I’m sure that even among my more successful colleagues — and even more sure among my less successful ones — their journeys since the halcyon times of undergrad and even graduate school have been bittersweet. That is life. Especially in a nation in which others encourage us to have aspirations beyond the stars, a complete contradiction to that cracked concrete-reinforced reality that is America.
But even if all of the remaining highs in my career and life outnumber the lows by ten-to-one (who knows, right?), two truths are clear. One is that most people who experience any depth of success in their lives tend to remember the lulls and ruts more than their moments at the top of the mountains. Two is that without me having climbed that first mountain, the college degree mountain, I would have a story to tell, but would lack the words to tell it. I would still be living vicariously through the music of others, whether U2, Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson (RIP), Prince (RIP), or Mary J. Blige. And for me, at least, as genius as they are — alive and dead — I still need to tell my own story.