I don’t “what if” my past moments nearly as much as I used to, thanks in part to one of my first Twitter conversations six years ago. It was with Blair Kelley, a professor and dean at North Carolina State University. I brought up the fact that I sometimes indulged my students’ “What if…?” scenarios regarding slavery and other issues in US history in order to help them find the truth. She said that this was a waste of time, that “What is…?” is already hard enough for students to understand, much less playing out a “What if…?” to get to a “What is…?”
Kelley was right. Students often play the “What if…?” game to deflect from what actually happened, out of potential pain or discomfort with historical truths, or because their conception of history doesn’t allow for humanity and human nature as significant factors. So I stopped humoring my students in fantasies about the South winning the Civil War or Nazi Germany winning World War II in Europe. It hasn’t made my students any happier, but it has made teaching them easier.
As for my own “What ifs…?,” I still think of a few on occasion. Like what if I had gone to college at Columbia or another elite institution instead of Pitt? Or what if I had possessed the courage to act on my crush on Wendy in seventh grade, or not wear my kufi to school during the Hebrew-Israelite years at all? Those can be very good mental distractions when I’m running a 10K or working on a boring set of revisions to an education piece. But they’re also rather silly distractions, with me knowing full well why I did or didn’t do most things, even knowing my thought process at the time they occurred in ’81, ’82, or ’87.
With this weekend being exactly twenty-eight years since my five days of undergraduate homelessness on Pitt’s campus, I have a real “What if…?” scenario to reconsider. What if I hadn’t bumped into my friend Leandrew, who had told me about the dilapidated fire-trap rowhouse he lived in on Welsford? What if I hadn’t met with my landlord Mr. Fu and gotten my 200-square-foot room with a literal hole in the wall so that two rooms could share a single radiator, all for $140 per month (about $285 in 2016 dollars)? What if I had to spend Labor Day weekend on a closed Pitt campus sleeping on that top floor concrete landing in a Forbes Quadrangle (now Posvar Hall) stairwell, where I had already spent three nights?
The mythical 6th-floor landing I slept on for three days (leading out to the roof), Wesley Posvar Hall, September 29, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).
I already know the answers to these questions. I decided on this after praying about this on Wednesday, August 31 in ’88 while in that stairwell, laying on some of my clothes and my book bag. If I came out of Labor Day weekend without housing, I’d have to take my remaining $300 and go back to New York, to Mount Vernon, to 616. I’d have to drop or withdraw from my courses at Pitt. Maybe, with add-drop still going on, I could have some of my financial aid refunded, after Pitt deducted the $819 I owed them from my freshman year. I could enroll at Fordham or at CUNY’s Hunter College for the Winter/Spring 1989 semester, maybe find work somewhere in the area, and gut it out a few months at 616 with my nonfunctioning family.
I knew then that this was a scenario as ridiculous as Napoleon conquering Russia in the dead of winter. One of the reasons (but not the main reason) I left for the University of Pittsburgh in the first place was to get away from my family, to meet people unlike my Mom, my idiot stepfather, my five siblings at crowded 616, and the asshole Humanities classmates I’d gone to school with every day for the previous six years. I knew I had to have the mental space I needed to find myself, to figure myself out, all in considering whether I even had a future, much less how that future would take shape or how I’d shape myself into a future.
If I had gone with my cockamamie idea, the best case outcome would’ve been me transferring to Hunter or Fordham with my first year’s credits from Pitt, and me making it through a few semesters full-time before becoming a part-time student. I have no idea if I would’ve finished with a degree in history or something else from Hunter or Fordham. But given how exhausted I was each time I went back to Pitt after a summer of paid and familial work, I likely wouldn’t have even considered grad school.
Why? I would’ve been at 616. I would’ve been obligated to help out with everything, from dealing with my idiot stepfather before me and my Mom finally forced him out, to providing food, entertainment, and childcare for my four younger siblings. I know this because during my college years, I did come back to 616 to work each summer and during the holidays. Those additional responsibilities were ones I felt obligated to fulfill until I was in my early thirties, and felt most intense when I had to face my family’s poverty head-on.
Keep in mind, this is the best-case outcome. Most likely, I would have stopped going to school all together after my bout with homelessness. I would’ve found part-time or full-time low-wage work, first to help out, then to find a roach trap somewhere in Mount Vernon or in the Bronx, and been relegated to the torture of “What ifs?” around getting a degree and having a better life. Maybe, just maybe, I would’ve been bumped around enough by that rough life to try again, to seek help from the likes of an ombudsman like Ron Slater or a provost like Jack Daniel. But I barely knew how to seek help when I first went about doing it as a homeless and broke-ass student in ’88. Given my mental makeup back then, it would’ve been a monumental task to trust that much after years of low-wage work and unrelenting poverty at 616.
UCLA education professor (although he is so much more than that) Pedro Noguera reminded me of something I’ve come to disdain in recent years. This idea that philanthropists and researchers can use kids and families as experimental subjects on the issue of “grit” or “resilience” is one I find disgusting. The idea that oppression and inequality can be overcome if you or I simply toughen up, grow a thick outer shell and just push through? The idea that with grit and spit and sweat, anyone can just overcome through sheer will power a lack of preparation, a lack of resources, a lack of access to resources, a lack of connections, and a lack of knowledge? Are you kidding me?
Quaker Instant Grits, Super Family Size, September 4, 2016. (http://soap.com).
I had just about the best academic preparation anyone could have going into college, and I still came within three or four days of dropping out and heading back to 616. I was staring into the abyss of my future. The only grit I knew that would’ve worked for me on August 31, ’88 would’ve been a gigantic box of Quaker’s Instant Grits. And that was assuming I found a place to live in Pittsburgh so I could buy a pot and cook them. I didn’t want to be resilient. I’d always been resilient. But I didn’t call it that. I called it surviving.
And without help, without knowing how to ask for help, without some occasional divine or quantum-level intervention, my grit, resiliency, or survival up to August 31, ’88, wouldn’t have mattered. Philanthropists, educators, and social scientists need to stop asking individuals, families, and communities in poverty to be part of their test of resiliency as if we’re all rats in their maze. They need to start asking all of us not just how we survive, but what we need to succeed. Then again, they shouldn’t even need to ask. It’s not as if this is a “What if…?” The Great Society and War on Poverty efforts in the 1960s haven’t already provided a roadmap. Go study that!