Growing up in the South Bronx, I didn’t really have any concept of what it would be like to leave and do something. I don’t think I would have left were it not for my half sister Daisy and her husband Norman Wechsler.
I remember spending many nights in their house – a respite from a urban childhood and learning about politics, education and the areas beyond my zip code. I watched my sister as she worked through her masters in the Montessori Method. I ate Chinese food while discussing the events in the Middle East. I watched Children of a Lesser God and fell in love with ASL – starting my path to become a Deaf Education teacher.
Not soon after, my sister would take me on a college visit to Elmira , New York to explore writing. As I made the trip early one morning, we would drive out of the urban streets to long dark roads heading upstate. A couple of hours later we would stop at a McDonalds for breakfast.
We approached the counter and placed an order. I wanted hot cakes. The lady a the counter would tell me that the hot cakes were not ready – if I would go sit down at the table over there, she would bring them to me when they were ready.
I remember feeling this wave of fury overcome me. I remember my fists wrapping themselves ever so tightly – my first impulse wanting to be to attack. I slowly walked over to the table and sat down- my fists still clenched – staring intently back at the lady and waiting. I didn’t understand what I was feeling.
Fight. That’s all I could think.
I remember the lady sweetly bringing my breakfast over to me. I grabbed the breakfast and ate slowly – my anger dissipating. As I ate – I thought to myself “this is the first time anyone in a restaurant ever served me.”
Many years later, I would come up with the best analogy I could for what I was feeling. To me, I felt like an abused dog – waiting for the next hand to come out so I can bite it. As I ate, my anger left – and my world view expanded just a little bit more…
I would get to the college and be met by a man dressed in a suit. I remember wearing this black and yellow polka dot shirt – similar to the rapper Kwame, whom I was a fan of. I remember this man giving me a tour of the facilities pointing out that -this- building was not being used and being remodeled. That building was not being used and was being remodeled. I remember thinking to myself “if none of these buildings are being used , that are we just paying for heating empty buildings? Why is this person in a suit talking to me like he’s doing me a favor? “ Up came the anger. This time, instead of fighting, I thought that this must not be for me- and we left.
After a brief stint of wanting to go to Brooklyn College to study under Allen Ginsberg (in my brain, my master), I remember walking up the escalators to my school and hearing that a representative from the State university of New York at Plattsburgh was there to talk to students. I remember thinking “Pittsburgh? What is this?”
I walked into my guidance counselors office. She always drank coffee and gave me some while she smoked cigarettes out her window. I remember asking her “where’s Plattsburgh?”
She put out her cigarette and went to a map behind her desk. She pointed to the city. “This is where we are. “ she then pointed way north. “And this is where Plattsburgh is. Plattsburgh is over 350 miles due north- straight as the crow flies”
She paused and looked me dead in the eyes.
“It is true furthest place you can go from here. “
That’s all I needed to know. I wanted to go visit.
I remember taking the bus by myself all the way up to Plattsburgh and spending a few days with students there. I remember feeling like I had the time of my life. I was taken to so many places – met so many people- and felt like this could be a home.
When I came back- I tried to put it out of my mind, as I didn’t think I could afford it. I kept making plans for Brooklyn but always kept seeing pamphlets and books on Plattsburgh that I brought back with me. I pined to go there. So – as I stood before the registrar at Brooklyn college , I walked away and decided I was going to work as hard as I could to make the money to go and take financial aid for the rest.
There isn’t a single thing that I didn’t do in Plattsburgh that I did not apply to what I do as a career. My time in Hawkins Hall taught me computers and the VAX – the precursor to the internet. Palkovic classes in creative dramatics taught me how to present. Mark Beatham taught me how to be a teacher. I learned ASL, and pondered the meaning of what I wanted to do in Dr Yardens class. Ann Tracy taught me how to be a betten writer – and Peter Corodimas taught me how to focus what I wanted to say.
I carried all of the experiences through every career I did, and they informed every step i’ve taken – ultimately becoming a Professor at The Newhouse School at Syracuse University.
As I sit in my office and meet with my students, I think of the fear I felt at that McDonalds. I remember how I felt when I was approached by a man in a suit. I remember feeling like I was not met halfway. And – I remember what it felt like to be involved in the work I was doing at Plattsburgh. The more enthusiastic I was – the more those Professors would push me.
Random…. I have a thing about not wanting to wear anything other than a black t shirt and jeans – always have. If I have to think more than ten seconds on what I have to wear I can guarantee a panic attack. If I see a T-shirt I like – I get 30 of them. 20 jeans – no more thinking. There’s too lmuch noise in my head as it is. This simplifies my brain and let’s me focus on the 400 other things rattling about.
But that uniform has meant more to me. When I talk to students – especially Students who come from the same places as I did – I go back to who I was as a kid. I want them to know that a Professor isn’t a suit – it’s an idea. I want them to redefine what they think a teacher should look like and trust the intention most of all.
When I sit in my office and hear a tour come by – I want to be out there to say hello. I want to offer a cookie. I want to sit and talk to the students and wonder what they are thinking. I want to show the parents that this place is more than a building – but a group of people who get excited about the ideas the students bring. That we want to share all of our experience with them and make -them- better through that enthusiasm.
I pile the tour in the office and show them what students are doing because that’s what I would have wanted. I know how important I this time is for the parents and the students – and I want to make sure that I share how committed I am to seeing them succeed.
I got that chance – on the shoulders of teachers and I am a better man for it. I just want to pass that on.