Prelude to “The College”
On April 21st I received my acceptance letter to Amherst College in the mail. I am blown away with elation… and knotted up with with anxiety. The anxiety was almost paralyzing. As I said previously, in looking at my old Journals, I see how horrendous my internal dialogue was. So many of the problems African-Americans, in particular, have are rooted in a negative mind set. No money or social programs can fix this. We have to develop the courage to confront the bug-a-boos of our own psyche and root them out–but more on that later, God-be-willing.
“By going to Amherst, I can totally change my life,” so I write on May 15th. Amherst means (and I am writing this from the perspective of what was going on in mind at the time), that I would be attending classes, engaging in intellectual discussions in the dining commons, and sleeping in the same dorms with some of the brightest kids in America—and also some of the wealthiest. I am a young black guy from Springfield, who at one point looked like he might not finish high school, but would now be going to one of the best colleges in America. How would I manage academically? How would I manage socially? How would I manage with the shame of self-sabotage, flunking out, and wasting my scholarship money–wasting an opportunity of a lifetime? One of things I was confident about at the time was that whatever happened, I will not be the same person after going to Amherst, and that for all practical intents and purposes, could never go back to Springfield. But if I can’t return to Springfield, then who would I be? Where would I go? How would I live with myself after squandering this tremendous opportunity?
In the midst of the anxiety and trepidation, I had a friend from high school who offered a lot of encouragement. She had done very well in high school, attended a prominent liberal arts college in Vermont, and then transferred to Mount Holyoke College, which is an elite women’s college in the “Valley.” She, along with the fishing trips and Valley visits, was instrumental in opening my little mind up beyond the borders of Springfield and the Holyoke Mall. It was one thing to go fish in small Western Massachusetts towns or take day trips up to Northampton or the town of Amherst; it would be an altogether different experience to actually live outside of Springfield and the narrow world I longed to leave. She was my bridge to a vast world beyond what I was accustomed to.
I still had four months left on my pre-College sojourn, however. I was trying to prepare myself the best I could academically for Amherst. I would enter as a Political Science major—although, in my heart, I wanted to be an Economics major, but I was intimidated by the math involved. I was doing a lot of reading at the time. George Orwell, due in particular to the influence of my senior year high school teacher, was still one of my favorite authors. As I was looking through the Journal #6, I see that I had read Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a book about Orwell’s life as a hobo in England and even until today, I can conjure up images of Orwell’s description of his working as a dishwater in a subterranean kitchen of a Parisian hotel. I could relate well after doing double shifts at two different restaurants during the previous winter break. I knew then—clearly—that I didn’t want to be doing such work for the rest of my life.
I decided that I would take a summer class at UMASS. It would be more academically challenging than most of the courses I was taking in community college, and it would help me get me out of Springfield and acclimated to life on campus—and life in the town of Amherst. My Irish crush-friend would also be in Amherst for the summer, and we’d be taking the same course. She had dropped on me four months earlier a large yield nuclear device, or so that’s how I put it in my Journal at the time… she was pregnant (no, I wasn’t and couldn’t have been the father!). She was going to have the child and put the child up for adoption, and then continue going to school. That was heavy… real heavy… heavier than what I could deal with at the time.
I would also be joined at UMASS by “K.” “K” and I had been friends since the time we had lived in the same apartment complex in the Sixteen Acres area of Springfield. Later, we both had moved to Forest Park section of the city, and we went to high school together for a while, until he moved to the Boston area. K. wasn’t the coolest white guy, but he had been my fishing partner. He was my partner with whom I could discuss books, and he had been my partner in our petty pursuits as Springfield youths. He was a kid from a divorced family, and he, like me, was struggling with a lot of issues in trying to find his way in this wide world.
Although I had some “issues” with my crush-friend, overall I had a good time (by those standards) at UMASS that summer. Given I was only taking one class I had plenty of time to do my own reading—-and get anxious about my upcoming arrival to “The College.” That summer, K. and I played lot of tennis—we had monumental matches in the hot sun—and we talked and talked a lot. The “Athens Club” was open almost every night in Brett dorm. We talked about what young guys talk about—aside from the members of the fairer gender—we spoke of social injustice and how we could possibly change the world. We spoke of our plans, our hopes, our aspirations… our fears. Like the scene in This Side of Paradise, where Amory and his friend (I don’t have the book at hand now) rode their bikes for miles one evening chatting about life, we strolled the UMASS campus late into the night trying to make sense of ourselves and our place in the world.
When the session was over, I returned to Swingfield—I mean, Springfield. I was still going to do the “production leader” thing at Burger King, until it was time to go back to Amherst… but this time to “The College.” A Burger King co-worker told me of a job she had in Westfield working with special needs children and teens. It was a camp where we would work for (if I remember correctly) ten day sessions. This was something different—not that I had ever thought I would work with children, and it would beat taking orders at BK. I applied and got the job.
The counselors were an eclectic mix. There was a guy from Wales, a woman and a guy from Scotland, a couple of students from the University Maine. We had the rich, attractive, spoiled, and troubled rich girl from Longmeadow (Longmeadow was the Springfield area’s version of Beverly Hills—I mean that kinda tongue in cheek). The artsy girl from UMASS, whose mother’s home was a refurbished barn with a beautiful view of Mt. Tom—it was all that! (During an internet surf down memory lane recently, I found out that the Mt. Tom ski area is now defunct.) There was the big black kid from the Springfield inner city, whose brother was bound to a wheel chair, the Filipino lifeguard… and the aspiring social worker attending the Elms College who told me about job.
The job was challenging, but the setting was wonderful. On my three “tours of duty,” I had one child with Down’s Syndrome and two autistic kids to take care of. I had to be especially careful when I was within swinging distance one particular camper: he was bigger than I was, and had knocked out a fellow camper in the session before I arrived. I loved the setting of the job the most. I had always loved nature and being out of doors. Although I was born in Newark, NJ and spent my early years in neighboring East Orange, NJ,1 I dreamed of someday living on a farm. We moved to Springfield, MA upon the passing of my grandfather when I was nine. We lived initially in Sixteen Acres, which is at the edge of Springfield.
Sixteen Acres was largely white working class suburbia, but there were also plenty of ponds and streams to fish and many acres of woods to explore. It wasn’t a farm, but it certainly beat the congestion of East Orange. Some of my fondest memories of growing up are going off alone into the woods of Sixteen Acres after snowstorms with my Peterson’s Guide to Animal Tracks, and trying to see what animal footprints I could find and how far I could follow them. With that said, I still had never slept in a tent or spent the night out in the woods.
I loved being out of doors. There, I. Could. Be. Myself. And I didn’t mean this in a selfish or self indulgent manner, but I knew I could not be satisfied with being circumscribed by “blackness.” This had nothing to do with being discontent with my skin color or the texture of my hair, but that I wanted to live my life in a manner that was broader than what was typically deemed “black”—especially, what was deemed “black” by the narrow norms of Springfield. Furthermore, much of black culture is based upon putting on pretenses: you have to dress a certain way; you have to pretend that you can afford things you can’t; you have to pretend you have things you don’t; you have to pretend you are someone you are not. There were just certain things you didn’t do—because “black people didn’t do them.” Out in the woods, however, there was no one around, and I could find a solace there that I couldn’t find anywhere else.
I had struggled with identity issues in my teen years—I wasn’t convinced that being an “N-word” was all I could be, and I certainly wasn’t white. I didn’t feel comfortable in either world, but in the woods, out fishing, I could be myself. I could do what I loved to do, and there was rarely anyone around who could say anything about it. There was no one around to think ill or well of me. I didn’t have to try to keep up with the latest fashion fads or status symbol consumer gadgets that were (and remain to be) seemingly so critical for many a black person’s sense of well-being. My sentiments are aptly expressed on August 12th in Journal #7 on an about to drizzle afternoon somewhere along Route 20: “I’m writing at the bus stop in Westfield—something I thought I’d never do [that is, write outside] because of my peers. I no longer have peers.” I am learning to be myself. I am not going to allow “black conventions” to delimit me.
It was also during that summer that I first ever gave any real consideration to the stars. On one of the last nights of the camp, the aspiring social worker and I laid down in the farm road that formed the border of a flourishing corn field and stared out into the universe. Contemplating the stars and our comparatively minute selves made me start to consider that this human existence must have some deeper reason—and that I had some more significant purpose than merely going to school, getting a degree, and starting a career. I, unknowingly, was entering the incipient stage of a spiritual consciousness. I was beginning to wake up.
In the same August 12th entry, less than three weeks before my arrival at “The College,” I write: “I’ve finally summed up this summer: Jayne Anne Philips, Edie Brickel, bright sun light, and the moths dancing in Tracey’s2 hair. It took me a long time to do it, but it is done.” It had been an incredible summer…. I was growing—maa-shaa’ Allah3—I was growing like the corn in the night.