Note: This is one of those heavy posts.
When I moved to California, I had spent all of my time in a really small private school, and upon moving, enrolled in a slightly larger private school. At no time in my life had I ever consistently spent lots of time in huge classrooms, and as you can imagine, I had never been around a ton of Black people in school in general, and in class in particular (prior to this, I had NEVER been in a class with another person, and only knew other blacks went to school because I had a brother who was also going to the same school). Once I got to public school, I figured out more about life and expectations than I had ever expected.
One of the things I marveled at was the ability for most students to walk among the crowd totally unnoticed- when you go to a really small school (I had a class of 3 and a class of 4 for a full academic year) going unnoticed is actually impossible. But with so many people, I was enamored with the idea that I could go about my day, totally under the proverbial radar. What I didn’t realize that in a big school, things that made you stand out, either physically (really big and strong, or conversely- under 5’ tall) or intellectually (if you’re the dumbest fucker in class or the kid fucking the curve for the rest of the class) make it virtually impossible to skate through the world un-noticed. So you can imagine a kid, 4’11” tall, and a virtual academic all-star who tended to score among the highest scores in a given class, my ability to go un-noticed was non-existent. I was now the short smart kid that fucked up the curve in Math, Chemistry, History and Spanish (never an off the chart English student, felt the kind of writing I was allowed to do was a tad stifling and the writing I currently do was not only not allowed, but openly shunned and mocked as illegitimate (Fuck yourself, Joan Cone), because it was too much like me and not enough like the King’s English (which if you know me, I never stray too far from, even in a motherfucker laced writing sample).
Coupled with this backdrop, it’s important to remember I’m Black. This had at no point in time ever been realized by me as being anything other than matter of fact (I’m Black, I’m also male, short, right handed- story sometime- and kind of obnoxious). It was only upon entering El Cerrito where it really started to play a role. But initially, it was odd for me just to be around the sheer number of Black people I was around. Coming from a county where you’re the only Black FAMILY and going to schools where there were NO Black people, it’s easy to imagine my image of what Black in America was might have been romanticized. I had my family and really The Cosby Show to refer to (didn’t watch much TV at all, and we didn’t live in an area where it mattered, as there were so few PEOPLE where I lived, it didn’t really matter what you WERE, just that you were). So going to EC meant I now would meet more Black people than I had ever imagined- and there was one overarching theme about the experience- I was told, by ALMOST ALL of the Black kids one of these statements:
“You talk white” or “You talk like a white boy.”
“Why you tryin’ to act white? You ashamed of being Black?”
“Man, you an Oreo.”
I had never HEARD any of these accusations, didn’t know Blacks could ever even be accused of acting “white” much less by other Black people. I didn’t even know the Oreo reference and assumed the kid had seen my lunch snack choice. He laughed and told me it meant “Black on the outside, white on the inside.” Another statement I didn’t understand. If this was how this public school shit was gonna work out, I was probably going to be arrested or killed soon, because this was some bullshit.
So I’m the short, smart Black guy that’s harassed in classes for fucking up a curve here and there, I’m literally the shortest person at the school, I’m a year younger (at least) than the rest of the school (skipped grades earlier in life) and now I’m being demeaned by kids who are raping the English language like Jodie Foster was in The Accused and I have nobody to talk to…this is going to be a shit-tastic experience…
…until I walked into freshman Honors World History class. It was the first place I felt a zone of protection, where nobody wanted to give me heat for being a smart kid. It was in this class where I met Willis Abraham…
…and it was a relatively uneventful meeting. Except that he was in the Honors class. One of the things I noticed is that the school did something called “Tracking” where they try to rank students academically and then, based on that ranking, try to get students of like academic skill sets in the same class- allows for kids that need extra help to get it and kids that need to go faster to do that as well- but it does make these determinations and it’s really hard to get into another track (for example, I transferred from a top-tier private school, but was tracked in “average” classes- until my Mother came in and made them make me take a placement test- was in Honors the next day, so I guess it worked out). By the time kids got to High School, most were locked into tracks, and in the Honors track, there were just not very many Black kids. Willis was one of those kids. But he was, for lack of a better term, a different cat. He just operated to the beat of a different drummer, and was unabashedly indifferent if you were with him or against him, as long has he was doing what he felt was right…this starts by being a smart guy…
…for my first significant block of time at EC, I really didn’t speak out- in class or outside of class. those that know me pretty well can see a world where this not speaking thing was standard operating procedure. I was afraid if I opened my mouth people would find out one of two things, both in diametrical opposition: 1) I was as smart as they thought I was and would never want to talk to me, or 2) I was NOT as smart as they thought I was and they wouldn’t want to ever talk to me- seems like an effective catch-22, which meant I NEVER spoke up, even when I felt I had something positive to contribute. I noticed that in these honors classes, as with my classes at the private school, it seemed that students were free to express themselves, and free to be incorrect and learn from their mistakes. After the negative impression I got from the Black kids at the school (I quickly learned that “white” could be interchanged with the term “educated”- which made me WAY WAY more angry with the Black kids- why in the FUCK do “white” and “educated” get to be interchangeable, and why should my Blackness be fucking questioned as inauthentic because I can string together sentences?) it made me kind of gun-shy about being willing to speak up in class (dare I say- in general). And based on where I was, as much as I liked the white kids in my class, and as much as I didn’t feel any of them even could play the same academic sport as I could, it took ANOTHER BLACK KID being willing to speak up, ask questions, be right and especially BE WRONG and not care as long as he got what he needed, gave me the confidence to begin to speak up myself, which I could never do what I’m doing now (teaching Public Speaking) if I hadn’t gotten that impetus to act from a dude that had NO IDEA of the role he played- at least in that instance…
…over the course of high school, he went from being a Black guy in my class to someone I was proud to consider as a friend. As most of my high school friends were trying to really live the role of HIGH school to it’s fullest (and I can not, in good conscience say that I did not enjoy some of those afternoon/evening/weekends myself), Willis was one of my friends I knew I could rely on to have a good time, but one that involved no alcohol or drugs. In a world of intense peer pressure, and among the kids we were taking classes with it was particularly prevalent- lots of those kids in class came from money, which meant they were more willing and able to throw it around on extra-curricular activities. But hanging out with Willis meant none of that, but it also meant you were going in for a fun-filled adventure. I lived next to a Golf Course for years and had never considered buying blocks of ice and riding down the groomed hills of a golf course. I’d never even considered playing “Capture the Flag” much less in an international airport (adding an extra component-trying not to get arrested while playing- a component I did not see coming- which happened a lot). But there were other times too, just chillin’ at his house, with his moms upstairs, watching Trespass (a great flick if you haven’t caught it, I may have to see if I can catch it on Netflix) and talking about just stupid shit- how as a frosh he was happy to have a girlfriend at UCLA: “man getting a woman here is hard, if you’re not Greek or Troy Aikman…” or about how much scandal there was in the local church: “man that pastor gettin’ on the express elevator to hell…” or just how he just LOVED and EMBRACED what life gave him. You have a car but it’s a 1964 Dodge Dart- you probably bitch and complain about it, talking about how all your friends have better cars and why can’t you get your own car, etc. That’s why you weren’t Willis. He took the Dart and OWNED it. Drove it tough, like you’d drive an Escalade. Spoke of it with pride. Drove with his head high. And after awhile, it became an privilege, even an honor, to ride in the Dart, something ONLY Willis could have pulled off.
It is only in his death that I have gotten to reflect back fondly on the times we spent together. But I never really thought about what that time means to me now, and how it was crucial in shaping the person I ended up becoming. I had a lot of “friends” in high school, some of which I still have, some will even read this- and they may be surprised. I only say that as I was surprised as well. I hadn’t really thought about how what he did help me do what I did. I’m pretty sure I told him this once, when I found him on Facebook (I quickly unfriended him, as I had done what I needed to do, and one of the unfriend mistakes I could take back now). I hope he understands what it meant to me and for me.
And I can say, for sure, I will miss my friend.