Academy for Educational Development, AED, Friendships, Harold I. Meltzer, Interviews, Lumina Foundation, Memoir, Narcissism, Partnerships for College Access and Success, Sacramento CA, Salutatorian, Sam, Vanity, Vanity Project
On this week a decade ago, I began work on Boy @ The Window as a memoir. That sentence sounds so definitive and simple. The fact was, I’d been writing the book in my head for nearly three years, and had been doing interviews and other iterations of what would become Boy @ The Window off and on since the fall of ’89. But the first full week in ’06 marked a clear delineation between all of the hemming and hawing over writing the book and the actual process of interviewing former teachers and classmates. For some, though, I was devoting serious time and resources to what they called a vanity project.
I had already interviewed my late former teacher Harold Meltzer twice in ’02, and had done some reaching out off and on between the spring of ’03 and March ’06. It took a work trip to Indianapolis and then Sacramento for me to actually begin the process for real. The trip was about convincing Lumina Foundation for Education to continue funding the college access and retention initiative I was deputy director of after the end of ’06, as well as for me to take oversight over a grantee’s work in Sacramento. It just so happened that about two weeks before the trip, I learned that one of my former classmates, the salutatorian Sam, lived in Northern California. Despite my qualms, I decided to reach out and see if he’d want to meet up and catch up.
Why qualms? Short of a high school reunion, most folks who were outcasts or (really, in my case) misfits aren’t exactly jumping for joy to see people who helped make them feel that way. Sam for me was someone who made me feel as if I had no business being smart, Black, and male. Whether he meant for me to feel that way or not was irrelevant at the time.
The irony was that by the time I’d last seen Sam — the fourth Friday of June ’89 — I no longer saw him as an arbiter of anything, much less someone to aspire to imitate. I realized from a short three-minute conversation that Sam may have had more identity issues than even I had faced in the previous eight years. That it was also the last time that I’d see nearly all of my classmates (I bumped into Wendy ten minutes earlier on this particular walk) prior to working on Boy @ The Window was also interesting, if not ironic.
That and the large amount of work that a book about myself and the worlds I inhabited — in my own mind, in reality at home, with family, with classmates, and throughout Mount Vernon and New York — was on my mind all week long. This was going to be a daunting task, diving deep into my mindset and my past. Dredging up old feelings and conjuring up old conversations that otherwise would best be forgotten.
And of course, meeting up with folks who were never “friends” or “girlfriends” or even often just friendly to me. There was a reason why I only called them “my classmates” or “acquaintances” when talking with family and my actual friends in the years since high school and Humanities. They had been larger-than-life characters in a very stretched out nightmare of a Harry Potter book.
Even with that, I also knew that I needed to meet up with and interview these folks. If only to provide some catharsis or to put myself in a mindset I had abandoned with the last year of the Reagan era. So when Sam said he was okay with meeting up, I didn’t hesitate, and I didn’t kvetch over it.
We ended up talking for nearly three hours, about much more than Humanities or Mount Vernon High School. It was a pleasant conversation. Mostly because I allowed Sam to do what most people do in those situations. I allowed him the opportunity to spin his story, to put his best foot forward about his experiences and his life in the present. I made a point to only press him with questions on the stuff that was most important to me and to Boy @ The Window. After all, between Meltzer, other interviews I had planned, and my own steel-trap memories, I could note glaring contradictions when it came time to write.
Still, Sam didn’t answer a key question, at least not directly for me. After I answered his question, “What do you think I thought of you?,” I asked him if wanted to correct or add anything to my answer. Sam was the only one I interviewed who dodged the question. That deflection to the burdens of Humanities and high school told me everything I needed to know. It told me that in Sam’s mind, I had been irrelevant, that his occasional put-downs were in fact deliberate.
There are some who have read Boy @ The Window since I put it out in 2013 who’ve said that they found the Humanities and high school parts of the memoir “boring.” I concede that point. Even with interviews and with Facebook, some of my classmates remain either an enigma to me, or more often, there wasn’t much exciting about them as people beyond grinding for A’s to begin with. Ten years ago, I was only beginning to learn this truth.