There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m a late bloomer. I came to find myself a teenager in a twenty-one year old’s body twenty years ago, just as I’m a thirty-five year-old in a forty-one-and-a-half year-old’s body now. As the summer of ’91 began to wind down, though, I realized that I needed to go into my first year of grad school at Pitt with some inspiration, with a chip on my shoulder, really.
It didn’t take more than a simple thought to find that inspiration and chip, either. Between working for a bunch of folks at my Western Psych job who still thought that hunting down half-and-half was the extent of my work there on the one hand. And professors like Reid Andrews telling me after I’d received my grad school stipend award letter that I wasn’t “graduate school material” on the other hand. Livid is the minimal word I’d use to describe my mood in the three weeks before the start of my five-and-half-year odyssey. One of doing cartwheels at least three times better than my colleagues to prove that I was as good as anyone.
But I’m jumping ahead of the story here. I found some inspiration from music, as usual, in this case, on one of my daily walks home from work in Oakland to my studio apartment in East Liberty. Still searching for more new music for my ’90s collection, I found a radio station playing Seal’s first big hit, “Crazy.” I’d heard parts of the song before, all during that summer, but never from start to finish. As I reached the end of Ellsworth Avenue, where I’d walk up the steps to a bridge on Highland Avenue, one that went over the train tracks and busway into East Liberty, I heard the lyrics, really for the first time.
“In a sky full of people only some want to fly/Isn’t that crazy
In a world full of people only some want to fly/Isn’t that crazy/Crazy
In a heaven of people there’s only some want to fly/Ain’t that crazy”
And yes, I wanted to fly. Besides, as far as most people were concerned, I was crazy anyway. For wearing that godforsaken kufi to school for three years. For becoming a newborn and sanctimonious Christian after that. For trying out for football, and later, baseball instead of basketball. For listening to Mr. Mister and Tears for Fears and Sting instead of bopping to Run-D.M.C. For walking way too fast, and talking a little too slow. For going off to college out-of-state, to a no-name school no less. For taking a grad course my junior year at Pitt. For deciding to go to grad school in history instead of law school or Black studies.
The list is as long as an introspective Eminem rap sequence, airing every negative ever tossed my way. I was crazy, and still am. But, as far as my first year of grad school was concerned, I made two deals with myself about the process. One was to not compare myself, my abilities, my limitations, to anyone else in the program. The other was to put aside all of my preconceptions about my professors, or the difficult courses ahead, or whether I would complete the master’s degree and move on to the doctoral portion of the program.
I didn’t want to limit myself to what others may have expected of me, or to what I could’ve possibly expected of myself at the time. I didn’t even like my friends saying that “the sky’s the limit,” because I didn’t want to limit myself to the sky. I simply wanted to be crazy enough, humble yet arrogant enough to know my limits, but push the envelope as hard as I could in order to make graduate school work for me.
That kind of thinking affords a very single-minded intensity — to the point of a near-psychotic passion — that leads to excellence, miracles and the exceeding of what may have been your craziest expectations. I know it was that way for me. It had to be. If I’d bought into all that my most hateful Humanities classmates, my mother and ex-stepfather, my father Jimme, my fellow Mount Vernonites and some of my teachers and professors thought of me, who’s knows? I’d likely become a sexually confused and frustrated Black male, a college dropout, wandering from one minimum wage job to another, living alone in a boarding room, as miserable as a character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
I’d become a psychopath, not just crazy enough to believe in myself and the miracles of God in my life. I need to do be a little crazy now, even at this stage of my life. We all need to be a little crazy, not in a Tea Party sense, but much more in an Arab Spring kind of way. After all, “we’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy.”