Today I am thirty years removed from my Mount Vernon High School graduation. Yay me (and 500+ others, I suppose)! But at forty-seven and a half years old, this also means I’m in my late forties, older than the age of many of my teachers on the day I wore my cap and gown on Memorial Field.
What I am still young and old enough to remember is the distance between me and my classmates, acquaintances (since I really didn’t have any friends back then), and family. Putting up a good front, a mostly blank front with an occasional laugh or smile, was what I did in public back then, enough to make it appear I wasn’t an outcast. Except that I was. But it wasn’t just the silent-treatment folks who reminded me that I was nothing and meant nothing to them within days of the MVHS graduation. I felt it, knew it, and wanted to escape it, every single day back in ’87.
There have been at least two high school reunions since Thursday, June 18, 1987. One was in September 1997, way too early to do a get-together from where I sit. Not to mention, I was coming off of three months of post-PhD unemployment, and wouldn’t have wanted to spend money I didn’t have to impress people with whom I could’ve never shared good times a decade earlier. The other was five years ago, a more appropriate frame for a reunion, but it was part of a group of reunions between 1985 and 1989 (or more even). I barely knew half my classmates in the Class of ’87, a couple dozen from ’86, and a few from ’85 and ’88. All together, it would’ve felt like a room full of strangers to me.
But at thirty or more years, would I want to go to a reunion now or in the future? I really don’t know. Part of the problem with reunions is the same problem I had in Humanities and in MVHS. I would have to fit someone’s predetermined mold or role. If I went in as Donald Earl Collins, would anyone actually remember me or acknowledge me as my true self? Could I be Donald Earl Collins the writer or historian or educator? Could I be the disillusioned Christian, the anti-racist American, or the middle-aged athlete who does yoga and can still hit threes despite my IT-band issues? Or, will I just fall into my role as the super-smart but enigmatic loser, the wack-ass weird mofo that scores saw me as three decades ago?
I know one thing my ex-mates wouldn’t see me as — a father (after all, today is Father’s Day). I guarantee you, some of the folks in my class took bets as to whether I was straight, gay, asexual, or if I’d have sex with another human before the Rapture! Yet I’ve been married for more than seventeen years, and a father for almost fourteen. Much longer than I was ever in high school, Humanities, or Mount Vernon’s public schools. This is what makes me old and keeps me young. Family, love, parenting, and making pancakes, bacon, and eggs for Sunday brunch.
The day of graduation in 1987 was a trip in itself, between an 87-year-old graduating with our class, the sudden hugs and immediate ostracisms that occurred, the triple-H evening in polyester in the middle of Memorial Field, and my father’s drunken attendance. It was a clash of White Italian Mount Vernon, Black elite Mount Vernon, and stereotypically ghetto Mount Vernon, with a splash of affluence, Afro-Caribbean, and other Mount Vernons. That’s what made it a strange ceremony, a last look at my hometown’s population as a teenager, good and bad.
There’s someone on Facebook who runs the page “I grew up in Mount Vernon.” My former classmate frequently blocks or admonishes participants for negative posts or negative portrayals of Mount Vernon. His defense: he wants the page to be “a place of positivity.” It’s his page, and he should be able to do what he wants with it (within reason). However, “positivity” is not the same thing as “positive posts only.” You should be able to generally like Mount Vernon and occasionally discuss issues affecting people in town that aren’t positive ones. Like poverty. Like the need for more social justice activism and more political participation. Like the need for a donut shop on par with the former Clover Donuts.
Really, I find this “I grew up in Mount Vernon” Facebook page yet another example of how a privileged group of folk get to frame a conversation for people who can’t or won’t speak for themselves. Middle-class, one-way-thinking, Black respectability politics folk whose Christian ethics blind them to history, racism, poverty, misogyny, homophobia/heterosexism, and other -isms and -obias that affect their neighbors. The page is smug, elitist, and exclusionary. I rarely look at the page, and I’ve posted to it maybe three times in seven or eight years. “I grew up in Mount Vernon” is a reminder that I share little in common with these Mount Vernonites, even as my socioeconomic and educational status has changed over the years.
As a father, though, I am reminded about the need to protect and to nurture, balanced with the need to give my son room to grow and learn. I may not be able to stop a cop from exercising his/her lethal racism with a badge, but I can prepare my son as best I can to be in public anyway. When it comes to Mount Vernon, MVHS, or any future reunion I may decide to attend, maybe, just maybe, my ex-classmates should be as ready to see all sides of me. At least as much as I have granted that their version of Mount Vernon is one that is real for them, if not for me and many others.