Being on campus at Princeton teaching for a few weeks and working with college-ready high school students sometimes takes me back into my past. It’s funny really, realizing that the “best and the brightest” were hardly the best and weren’t quite so bright, even at the time I went to school with them. That’s not to say that the students I’ve had or have now at Princeton or the classmates I graduated with didn’t or don’t have loads of potential. They did and do. It’s more about what can happen when teachers, administrators and parents fill our heads full with delusions of grandeur, with ideas of intellectual greatness based on signs of academic excellence. It’s what can happen when students spend more time trying to keep up with the image of high academic achievement that others have created for them rather than finding their own path, one that allows them to be themselves and to tap into their potential.
I know, I know, some students strive and thrive even with the pressures from their parents, the doting of teachers, and the turning-the-other-way of administrators. I could also be accused of playa hatin’, I suppose. After all, I was far from popular in my glory days of high school, and only found myself in the last two and a half years of college. But that’s just it. Even I had to come to grips with my family’s expectations — especially the lack of them — in high school and college. I needed to find myself in order to be all that I could be in college and in grad school. I needed to make a clean break from the doubters in my life — including of course, my teachers and administrators.
That’s the unfortunate truth I faced in my last two years at Mount Vernon High School. Especially when the class rankings came out a month into our senior year. Out of 545 potential graduates, I was ranked fourteenth. I was a little disappointed because I didn’t crack the top ten, mostly because I knew I needed scholarship money and a good financial aid package to help pay for college, wherever I went. I had already learned that my performance wasn’t good enough for my teachers in eleventh grade. They kept reminding me that I was doing nothing in comparison to the salutatorian in our class, an involved-in-everything Black male. I guess I could’ve argued that they should’ve been comparing me to our Class of ’87 valedictorian, but my teachers saw the second in our class as a much more well-rounded student. At the very least, I knew from the comparisons that the person I was supposed to be more like had a charming way with our teachers.
I saw this particular classmate as more of an enigma than many of the other ones I had done time with in Humanities. I genuinely felt both in awe of and disheartened by his presence in my life during the Humanities years. I thought it was amazing that he was able to do as much as he did. The high school band. The mock trial team. The school newspaper. Our yearbook. An appearance on Phil Donahue! At least he wasn’t a star basketball player too, especially in Mount Vernon.
Yet I saw the results of all of that involvement on his part, and not just in terms of how teachers saw me. As far as teachers were concerned, it was as if I was this classmate’s younger, underachieving brother. But I also saw how the young man occasionally worked his reputation to his advantage, cashing in on his built-up academic capital to give himself more time to work on assignments no one else got a second of overtime to do. I don’t think I ever wanted to be him or become close friends with him, though. Something about his need to be well-liked by our peers and teachers bothered me. So I was happy in more ways than one to see our salutatorian gallop into the sunset with his diploma, a law firm job in Manhattan, and his ticket to Harvard punched some twenty-two years ago.
Something strange happened in the days after the final fight between my mother and ex-stepfather in June ’89 (see my “The Miracle of Divorce” post from earlier this month). It was a week after idiot Maurice had moved out for the last time. Me and my older brother Darren were on our way to my father Jimme’s for money and because Darren was in the process of moving out of 616 — God knows he needed to. Along the way, we bumped into Crush #1, which is a story unto itself, a good one that is. Ten minutes later we bumped into salutatorian off The Avenue and West First, still trekking toward Jimme’s. This surprise meeting trumped my Crush #1 conversation and made a lasting impression on my understanding of myself as a Black male. So much so that I had a long conversation with my late teacher Harold Meltzer about it years later.
When I bumped into the man en route to Jimme’s with Darren, he’d just gotten off work at his summer law firm job in the city, his third summer working there. He was wearing a hideous green-and-white-checkered dress shirt with dark green suspenders and even darker green slacks. Why hideous? Because on a hot and hazy day in late-June ’89, a day in which batting an eyelash required some degree of sweat, the guy was dressed like it was the middle of March. The color scheme didn’t blend at all with his dark chocolate skin, and his face was both greasy and sweaty from a long, hard day. But the biggest shock was his hair. It was conked — or fried as some folks say — ala Miles Davis or Malcolm Little before he became Malcolm X. This was the first thing I noticed, even before the Green Giant getup. Since I was already in a pissy mood, one only mildly moderated by my Crush #1 sighting and conversation, I didn’t outwardly react to it.
I realized as I stood there with Darren talking to my former classmate what had bothered me about him
during all of our years together in Humanities. I had called him an “Oreo Cookie “—Black on the outside, White in the middle — in my head and under my breath on a few occasions during our Humanities years. Yet this sighting and conversation let me know that I was wrong. Sadly, I realized that our salutatorian didn’t have any identity at all. He made himself into whomever others wanted him to be. To his family, he was the mild-mannered and religiously faithful kid who just happened to be smart. To our teachers, he was super-intelligent, an overstretched overachiever whom teachers gave the benefit of the doubt if his assignment was late and he needed an extra day. To many of us, he was the polar opposite of our eventual valedictorian, a talented competitor who was far more worthy of our school’s number one status. I’m sure to a fair number of his Harvard classmates saw him as a marvel, either not “Black” enough or too much of a “credit to his race.”
The person I saw that day wasn’t the confident, take-on-the-world with a-smile-on-his-face person I’d seen in action for six years in Humanities. He was confident enough to attempt to act that way toward me, though. I got the story about how life at Harvard was good, that he was succeeding academically and that he’d found a way to fit in with his mostly White, six-figure and two-comma classmates. He also still intended to go to law school. And though his job at the law firm was difficult, he said that he enjoyed that also. My former classmate must’ve thought that he was talking to the uncultured twelve-year-old I once had been. His utter lack of details about classes, people, majors or professors let me know right away that life for his at America’s preeminent university was somewhere between rocky and a living hell.
My conversation with the person folks thought I should be much more like was a major revelation. It explained why it took until I was a sophomore in college to find my footing. We all had significant identity issues, exaggerated by our competitive conditioning as Humanities students. These weren’t typical teenage struggles over being cool or not. Especially when being cool meant being “Black” or “Italian” or “anti-intellectual” or a “brainiac,” not just “cool” in general. You could say that our grades and ranks—or shunning them as the case might’ve been—were as much a part of our individual identities as being affluent or Jewish or Black. Our salutatorian may well have been an extreme example of this, but he was hardly alone. Everyone in Humanities, even the “cool” cliques within had their share of identity issues to reconcile or struggle with.
My own identity issues were many and varied. In my case, though, I’d been working on reconciling mine since the middle of seventh grade. I realized that the battle I’d been waging for so long came out of my identity crisis, one that started as a spiritual disconnect between being a Hebrew-Israelite and watching my stepfather break every rule in the Talmud while attempting to break me and my mother. That battle didn’t even begin to subside until I decided to embrace myself for who I was, good, bad and ugly. Once I took that proactive step, shooting for the best person I could be and small miracles like real friendships were only a matter of time. It’s a lesson that I hope the high-potential students I’ve taught the past couple of years learn, and learn well.