One of the many pitfalls of poverty in the midst of striving toward college was that I didn’t do a single formal college visit prior to taking the Amtrak to Pittsburgh in late-August ’87. (Ironic, then, that I’ve been on at least sixty college campuses to teach or lecture, for graduate school, for conferences, talks, interviews and other events in the past quarter-century). The only options for doing any college visits at all while at Mount Vernon High School (NY) were either the schools in the area or to go on the HBCU college visit trips to Howard and Hampton University. I had no interest in applying to an HBCU (which I’ll talk about later), and the prospect of visiting Columbia or NYU never really occurred to me until years later.
But I did have one inadvertent encounter with a college campus prior to arriving at Lothrop Hall on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus in ’87. It was in the fall of ’85. As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:
I discovered something rather interesting about myself toward the end of the year. I understood, maybe for the first time, how much walking and nocturnal self-pleasure had replaced sitting on the radiator at the living room window as my after school and weekend distraction. Walking allowed me to continue to contemplate my future, to make sense of my senseless world. Very early on in my junior year, I went on a Saturday walk straight up Route 22, from East Lincoln and North Columbus. I ended up at Concordia College in Bronxville, a small liberal arts school in the middle of one of the richest towns in America. It was a cloudy and crisp early fall day, those first series of gray days you experience after a long, hot summer. I wore my gray hooded and zippered sweat jacket with my beat-up multi-colored and checkered long-sleeve shirt and some cheap, made-in-Taiwan blue jeans.
Even with that and my tall, Black male self on a mostly White campus, I seemed to blend in. Not a single person looked at me as if I didn’t belong there. Some of the students actually said “Hi” to me, and not that overly enthusiastic greeting, either. I walked across the campus, walked into some of the buildings and walked around some of the empty classrooms. After a bit more wandering around, I ended up at the library. It was surprisingly small, but the books it did have were the kinds I used to like reading. Old and dusty historical texts and subjects of interest only to old writers and historians. I saw students at tables studying or talking softly while studying. Then it dawned on me why the students didn’t automatically assume that I wasn’t a college student. I was dressed like they were, or,I guess, they dressed like me. Sloppy, but not too sloppy. It also dawned on me that you needed a college ID on the campus in case the guards suspected that you weren’t a college student. So I made my way from the campus and trekked back home.
This was my first and only college visit. And though I hadn’t stopped by the admissions office or spoken with a financial aid counselor, my wandering walk gave me much food for thought. The visit reinforced my thinking on what I needed to do in eleventh grade to guarantee both college acceptance and a scholarship. I assumed an academic scholarship, but an athletic one was still in the realm of possibility. I knew, again, that this was my make-or-break year to bring my grades up as far as possible. I had no idea what my class ranking was, but I assumed that I needed to be in the top fifteen or twenty to have my best shot. So I set the largest goal possible – making it to the top ten of my class.
In the back of my mind, I knew even then that I didn’t want to attend a school with any of my classmates or with any reminders of Mount Vernon. So many of my Black classmates were already talking about attending HCBUs or New York area school. I knew that despite their relative maturity as eleventh graders, I didn’t want to be in classroom settings with the Rick James “Party All The Time” set or with White and Black classmates who thought of me as a caricature of a human being or Black male.
That walk to Concordia reminded me of a simple fact. That my path to college was my path, not to be determined by anyone else, and certainly not the people I didn’t even trust with a smile.