I wish I could say that it was different. I wish I could say that the key to success in my life was crafting plans, developing rubrics, and building out scale models of every step, move, and smile toward achieving Points A, B, and Z on my life-sized to-do list. I wish that life was like being Tom Brady (not really). Or really, like being every White male statue that’s ever stood behind a bruising, blocking, dynamic offensive line in American professional football. One where even a mediocre quarterback like Trent Dilfer or Jim McMahon could stand behind and take as many as ten seconds to find an open receiver for a first down or a long touchdown on their way to a Super Bowl championship.
But, with some notable exceptions, my life, and the successes I’ve garnered in my life, have come from scrambling out of the pocket, usually because my proverbial offensive line couldn’t block the pass rushers in my life. It’s hustlin’ really, but not the kind of hustlin’ that would bring me notoriety. My life has been mostly Joe Montana and Russell Wilson, with occasional periods of Warren Moon half-standing in the pocket and half-scrambling in between.
Graduate school was the one exception that almost ruined me. I took the lesson I learned about keeping my schedule of work, social life (however ill-defined in 1991), and classes and transferred it to my five and a half years of working toward a doctorate. After a straight-A first semester and finishing my master’s in two semesters, I took it as a sign that this drawing up plans and executing them with brutal efficiency was the best way for me.
Keep in mind, I scrambled all through middle school and high school, for all six years I was in my Humanities Program. I scrambled because I had to. I couldn’t make concrete plans to study at 616, to read books by a specific date, to just have a day to myself just to work on me. Not with my abusive ass, idiot stepfather Maurice/Judah/Maurice there. Not with my younger siblings running around. Not with my Mom going through welfare and depression. Not with having to track down my alcoholic father on weekends for work and money.
San Francisco 49er QB Joe Montana scrambling to make a throw, Super Bowl XIX, Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, CA, January 20, 1985. (http://youtube.com).
And yet with all that, I finished 14th in my graduating class of White, Black, Afro-Caribbean, and Latinx hyperachievers. I received scholarship offers from every school I got into (with Columbia withholding only because they couldn’t believe I came from a family of eight with a $16,600 per year income in New York). Scrambling worked, even though it didn’t feel like it at the time.
Which was why I went the other way. And so, for my graduate school years, and the baker’s dozen of years that followed, I stayed in the pocket. I drew up plans like an architect for my career and life, and followed those plans as if I’d gotten them from God him/herself. And the truth was, most of my plans worked to perfection. I earned a two-year master’s degree in one, earned a big-time dissertation fellowship without overwhelming support from my advisor and committee, published articles, presented at conferences, and, once fully immersed in nonprofit work, job after job, promotion after promotion, more publications and teaching opportunities.
Or so I thought. I hadn’t realized that while my 150-PowerPoint-slide gameplan seemed to be working, that I was still scrambling every chance I got, and hustlin’ myself in the process. I only completed my doctorate in November 1996 because I scrambled, and left my advisor little choice but to approve my dissertation. This after lobbying my other committee members, documenting every comment from my advisor on my dissertation going back a full year, and otherwise turning the academic politics of Carnegie Mellon to my favor that summer and fall. That, and having a complete, 505-page manuscript, sealed the deal.
I scrambled for work all the while, went the summer of 1997 without work before hustlin’ my way into nonprofit work by lying about only having a master’s degree that year. I scrambled into my jobs at Presidential Classroom, both of my positions at Academy for Educational Development, and every single teaching position I’ve held since 1998, AU included.
It just took me until 2008 to realize that I wasn’t the figurative pocket passer. I ran myself and those who’ve been there to catch my publishing, teaching, and working passes open. I’ve never had a good offensive line, because America stacks their lines for privileged White men and White women first, second, and third. Sometimes I’ve had to take the proverbial ball to the end zone or for a first down myself, because there hasn’t been anyone else who can help. Sometimes, too, I have to take the hit, also because I don’t know what I don’t know, and I’ve fought against the mantra “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” for most of my 49-plus years on this Earth.
I’ve come to accept that this is my life. I don’t have to like that despite all the article publications, conference and public presentations, grant money raised, students taught, students now in prominent positions themselves, book manuscripts produced, friends made, and so many other measurables, I am a bad six months away from career collapse. And with that, maybe my marriage, my status as a dad, and my health and life would be at risk as well.
But I do not intend to be a contingent faculty member and an older man pretending to be a youngish freelance writer with fresh ideas (with the rare consulting opportunity) for the rest of my most productive working days. Either all this works out, somehow, or I’m driving as the Uber professor/Trader Joe’s stock boy/MCPS bus driver (ala Steven Salaita) down the line. Anyway, Red from Shawshank Redemption put it best. “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” My mantra for the past four and a half years.