Show art from SyFy’s 12 Monkeys (the home of alternative timelines), March 2016. (http://syfy.com).
Mother’s Day Week 1997 was one of triumph, betrayal, and deep self-reflection, helping to shape my last two decades. On that fateful Sunday, I finished preparing my transparencies for the overhead projector that I would need to use for my job talk on multiculturalism, race, and education at Teachers College the next day. My then-girlfriend Angelia came over around 1 pm, helped me pack as we talked about the job, my research, her missing me for the next few days, and my wishing I could take her with me to New York. Then we called a cab, went out to Pittsburgh International Airport, and I boarded my 6 pm flight bound for La Guardia.
The next day, that second Monday in May 1997, went well despite barely six hours of sleep (a typical night for me now). I met with Teachers College faculty, graduate students, a department chair, an assistant dean, and the dean. I gave my all-important job talk, fielded questions, and otherwise felt that I brought my heat in this potentially life-changing interview. By 4 pm, it was over, I was exhausted, but I was more than content. I figured I made myself a tough out at worst, and gave myself a real chance at this assistant professor job at best.
I spent the night in Manhattan at the Hotel Beacon, and ordered room service, instead of going out to Barnes & Noble or Tower Records. I had to rest up before going to see my family at their temporary apartment in Yonkers. Refreshed and with my old blank-faced-Donald mask on, I checked out and took the 1 train up to Van Cortlandt, then the Bee-Line bus into Yonkers, where my Mom and younger siblings had been living for a year and a half.
My sister Sarai (1983-2010) in Mom’s cap-and-gown, May 14, 1997. (Donald Earl Collins).
Tuesday was Mom’s graduation day from Westchester Business Institute. After ten years of on-and-off-again enrollment, Mom had finished her associate’s degree in accounting. I was really happy for her. That day from 10 am on was about getting Mom and Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai, and Eri cleaned up and ready for the long bus trip up Broadway to White Plains, Westchester County Center, and hundreds of other WBI graduates. Of all of us, I think my sister Sarai had the best time. After Mom tossed her cap in the air (and caught it), Sarai begged to put on Mom’s graduation digs. My fourteen-year-old sister walked around for the rest of the night as if she had graduated from college!
Wednesday was a difficult day. I had a noon-ish flight to catch out of La Guardia back to the ‘Burgh, as my own PhD graduation was four days away. Though Mom and I agreed that I didn’t have the funds to fly her out and put her up in Pittsburgh, I didn’t agree that my teenager siblings (all between nearly eighteen and thirteen at this point) couldn’t watch over themselves for two or three days. “Are you kiddin’?,” Mom said when I suggested this, and added, “the kids would tear this mutha up while I’m gone.”
But then, as I was getting packed up to do the Bee-Line Bus, 1 train to Times Square, Shuttle to Grand Central, and cab to LGA, Mom said something that made me happy we decided she wouldn’t be at my graduation. “You know, you were in school so long, you could’ve had another high school diploma.” The scorn with which she said it, it was like someone suddenly stabbed me in the stomach. It was the first time I truly saw Mom’s vanity, possibly even, her jealousy. After I said my goodbyes, promising my brother Maurice that I’d come to his Mount Vernon High School graduation in June, Mom’s sentence of sneering envy was all I thought about on the trip back.
“Maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t invite your mom,” Angelia said after I told her about Mom and her brooding behavior Wednesday evening. “But, this means she will have never seen me at any graduation, seen where I’ve lived the past ten years, seen how hard I worked,” I cried. Angelia got up from her dining room table, walked around to my side, sat in my lap, and gave me a hug. I’m so glad she didn’t let go, and let me cry myself out on her shoulder and chest for a few minutes.
I woke up in Angelia’s bed Thursday morning, having slept past 9 am. It was the most sleep I’d had in five days. I was remarkably refreshed. I rarely stayed over at Angelia’s because the back of her third-floor flat was practically an urban wildlife reserve, between the raccoons, squirrels, pigeons, cardinals, blue jays, rabbits, and the occasional deer. Not this morning. They seemed to know I needed not to hear them that morning.
The next three days were a blur. I ran around Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon and Pitt saying formal goodbyes to a few colleagues and former professors, something I wouldn’t have had time for if Mom had been in Pittsburgh with me. Angelia and I spend most of Saturday with her mommy, and then with my friend Laurell, Laurell’s sister Naomi, and their charge Archie. It would be the only time anyone from my Humanities days would witness me graduate with one of my Pittsburgh degrees.
That Sunday, May 18, was going to be a scorcher of a day. I was to be on stage as part of the tent-revival-as-graduation ceremony at CMU (as they did for all the PhD graduates). But there was no way I’d wear a full suit. So I compromised. I put on a shirt and tie under my gown, wore my baggy basketball shorts for bottoms, and put on shoes and dress socks to complete this goofy yet comfortable picture. I marched across the stage and shook Peter Stearns‘ hand, as he was the dean of humanities and social sciences at CMU then. Too bad I didn’t say what I thought about his fast food approach to teaching and learning to him in that moment.
But, after that first ceremony, the individual and group pictures, a bunch of folks had to leave. Laurell, Naomi, and Archie had to get back to Virginia for yet another week of school — that’s what happens between two school teachers and an eighth-grader for graduation attendees. My friends Ed and James had errands to run, and Angelia’s mom had some church-related affairs to get to. So, for the moment, it was just me and Angelia, walking from CMU to The University Club, by Pitt’s Thackeray Hall.
We get there, in this quiet room, with seven burgundy diploma holders, sitting on a table that staff had covered in this dark blue velvet cloth. My now former advisor, Joe Trotter, arrived a few minutes later. I’d only seen him once in the six months since he finally approved my dissertation, ending what had been a two-year ordeal of betrayal, slights, and threats while writing my 505-page tome. Yet, all I was thinking was, “Why are we doing the departmental ceremony in a building in the middle of Pitt’s campus?”
CMU leather diploma album, May 17, 2017. (Donald Earl Collins).
Steve Schlossman, the history department chair, was this ceremony’s emcee. He introduced each of us, our research, any awards we may have won, and our dissertation advisors, all as he handed us our doctorates. I was second on the list to go up and receive my diploma, shake hands with Schlossman and Trotter. I did say a few words, mostly about hard work and perseverance. “With God and faith, and of course, my girlfriend Angelia, even though that word ‘girlfriend’ hardly defines who you are to me, I wouldn’t be standing here right now. Thank you.” That was how I ended my three-and-a-half minute speech.
There was a small reception afterward, and like most CMU ceremonies I’d been a part of since 1993, this one was nearly blindly boring. Except that my friend James did show up and gave me a pat on the back and a handshake. Except that my dear friend and mentor Barbara Lazarus came and gave me a big hug. Except that Angelia had insisted on taking pictures of me from the time I got up to get my degree until the moment we left.
We were out around 6:30 pm. It had rained and poured, as thunderstorms had rolled through during the second ceremony. I wish Mom could’ve been there, seen what I had seen, felt what I was feeling. But, knowing what I knew now, the personal triumph that this graduation day was couldn’t be diminished. I had long since stopped living for what Mom wanted me to be — a sounding board, a babysitter, an extra source of income. For the first time, I no longer felt guilt about not going back to New York after my undergraduate years at Pitt, ready to bail my family out of poverty on a $25,000-a-year salary. For the first time, I realize Mom’s burdens were never mine to carry.