The Sermon on the (Tennis) Court

CLP Eden TournI know we all count our children as a blessing but we are really blessed if the time comes when our children become our teachers; teaching us things about ourselves and how to “be” in the world. Well, let me go on record and say that I am REALLY blessed! Many of you have seen this picture of Clarke on Ruth’s page but let me share the story and lesson behind the picture.

Considering all that she is involved in, Clarke has maintained a solid B+ average for the past couple of years. She is a member of the student council, number 3 seed on the varsity Tennis team at her school (15- 20 hrs per week practicing) and she’s just 15 years old. Let me go on record and say I was doing NONE of that when I was 15 (16,17, 18, 19 or 20)!

This was her first tournament of 2015 and only her 2nd tournament since moving up to the 16yr & under category but in this particular tournament, though she signed up for 16 & under (16&U) there was only one other 16yr old who signed up along with her. So the tournament officials said, “well we can just let you two play your match then you can just play with the 18 & under (18&U) bracket, too”.

Well, the USTA folks gave the “OFFICIAL” official word which said Clarke and the other young lady would have to make a choice: either they stay in the 16&U group, play the one match and whoever won just that one match would take home the trophy OR they could enter the 18&U group and play the tougher competition where the players were much more advanced. In fact, the #1 & #2 seeds in this particular 18&U tournament were High School Seniors who had already been accepted to college and offered full-ride tennis scholarships (they were signing the following week). Clarke knew these two girls because they just happened to also be the #1 & #2 seed at her school where she is the #3 seed. In fact, they were the very reason why Clarke was seeded #3! But there were five other 18 yr olds (and the other 16 yr old) Clarke had never seen and didn’t know standing between her and the 18&U trophy.

So, play one match where there’s a 50% chance of winning the 1st place trophy and 100% of coming home with SOME hardware (though most of it is plastic now) OR play with the much stiffer competition where there is just a slim chance that she would come home with even the 3rd place trophy? After a “quick” call to her coach/ mentor/ grandfather figure/ friend and Godsend to us all, JW Quick, Clarke decided it was better to play the tougher competition and more matches for the experience rather than play one match for the trophy. So she entered the 18&U tournament much to the dismay of the 16 yr old who was now forced to play 18&U or go home. Since Clarke and this girl were the youngest and originally signed up for 16&U, they were paired to play each other first.

Clarke was a little rusty but in a little more than 90 minutes, she got through that match (split sets and a tie breaker) victoriously. She had about the same amount of time to rest and get something to eat before her next match. Now, had Clarke decided to play 16&U, we would have been on our way home with the 1st Place trophy! But Clarke chose to play 18&U.

Her next opponent was the #2 seed who happened to be her teammate from her high school Tennis team. She was an aggressive player, strong and athletic like Clarke and she had a few more years of experience than Clarke. At times like these, we have grown accustomed to hearing and saying, “oh well, anything is possible”, but I knew the likelihood of Clarke’s winning was slim. In fact, we all had just watched this #2 seed obliterate her first opponent in half the time of Clarke’s match without even breaking a sweat. We could only hope that Clarke’s defeat wouldn’t render her feeling distraught or hopeless.

Clarke played some of the best tennis I had seen her play to date. Her serves were fire! Her overhead shots had gotten so much better and her placement was spot on! Passersby and parents of other children who had already lost hung around just to watch the battle of these two titans of tennis (cue theme music from Rocky).

Clarke in Swing

Clarke lost consecutive sets (7-5, 7-5) and most of those games went to multiple deuces or she lost by a point. It was a great match to watch even though Clarke lost. We’ve taught Clarke that losing isn’t the end of the world but how you lose makes all the difference in the world. She was exhausted but Clarke had left all she had on that court. With first and second place now officially out of reach, Clarke was to return on Sunday to vie for 3rd place.

The next morning Clarke could barely move, her entire body ached but she got up and got herself together. Her opponent lost to the #1 seed the day before in split sets and a tie breaker; yet another worthy and more experienced opponent. From the outset of the match it was easy to see that Clarke was stiff and needed some time to work the soreness out of her muscles and the kinks out of her gameplay. On any other day I believe, without a doubt, Clarke would have beaten the young lady but fatigue began to set in midway through the first set. Clarke would lose the first set in a tie breaker.

As the second set began, I was amazed that Clarke still had enough power to serve some untouchable zingers but she had more trouble keeping her forehand in play on this day than the day before. The second set got lopsided early. The score was 4-1 and Clarke seemed to be completely spent; I thought she had given up … but I was wrong. Clarke came back … 4-2 … then 4-3 came quickly. Her opponent won another game and it was 5-3 but then Clarke kept coming, pulling strength from some place deep within her… 5-4 … then 5-5! Her opponent won the last two games for a second set final of 7-5 but it sure wasn’t easy; so now the door had closed on 1st, 2nd and 3rd place trophies for the 18&U tournament.

People could tell Clarke was tired but marveled at her comeback, especially those who had been there a day earlier. They were still talking about Clarke’s grueling match from the day before! She had earned the respect of perfect strangers and imperfect friends.

As we were leaving the manager of the tournament stopped Clarke, shook her hand and said, “You played some great tennis out there and I’m sorry we don’t have any hardware for you to take home after all your hard play in the 18&U tournament…”

“Thanks”, Clarke replied.

“… but technically”, the tournament manger continued, “you did beat the only other person who originally signed up for the 16&U tournament. So that means you won 1st Place in the 16&U group. And, Oh, by the way, and the points you earned playing the 18&U will be applied to your 16&U ranking”.

He picks up the trophy we didn’t know existed and hands it to Clarke. My exhausted, defeated young titan’s face beamed with an outrageous joy that couldn’t be contained. Though she didn’t get what she had hoped to get, her hard work and discipline had gotten her something more than she expected.

The lesson I learned from a 15 year old? Keep pushing. Regardless of how much you practice … no matter how hard you’ve toiled and it doesn’t seem to be working out in your favor … keep pushing. Employ all the gifts God has given you. In this case, quite literally, “the last was  first”… and all the points she lost by not choosing to enter the 16&U tournament were restored for having the courage to take on the bigger, more difficult challenge.

Funny, I never thought I could attend “church” on a tennis court… with my 15 year daughter as the preacher … living The Word right in front of us all. Now, had Clarke decided to play 16&U, we wouldn’t have even been there that day! But Clarke chose to play 18&U and we all were blessed… I hope you were, too.

Cuban. Crisis?

Some may be surprised but I, for one, am not mad at Mark Cuban. I am neither Cuban fan nor detractor but his comments and our reaction to those comments deserve examination. Cuban was open, honest and true to himself. And while we’re being honest, his “crossing the street” statement merely described the behavior of many people – Black, white and other. I agree Cuban’s “hoodie” reference was insensitive at best but he recognized and apologized for it in hindsight. Some will choose to park the focus of their argument here but to do so skirts the issue.

The media will seek to sit Mark Cuban on the same bench with Don Sterling but their game isn’t the same. Both Cuban and Sterling were speaking in a seemingly relaxed and controlled setting. They were under no pressure to say the “right” thing. Cuban spoke his mind and Sterling was obviously out of his. Sterling never expected his words to be heard outside of where they were spoken, while Cuban’s words sought no such confinement.

I do not believe Cuban is racist but he is prejudiced. Which makes him just like the rest of us, although given the background of a number of players on the team he owns, one might think Cuban would be more aware than most of the dangers and fallacy of such broad statements. However, if we really want to work at the eradication of racism, prejudice, bigotry and all things related then we must allow people the space to be honest and to grow. We must sanctify safe spaces where people can speak freely without judgment.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQFs462MvXc

America has been infected with a terminal case of prejudice for a long time; I dare say since it’s inception. It manifests itself as bigotry, racism and all things related. Cuban’s words come from a mind tainted with the residue left by years of the social construction we have come to know as racism; that system of beliefs that values or devalues people on sight. It is an illness that many refuse to recognize as such, especially since the election of Barak Obama to the office of President of the United States. Many believe we now live in a “post-racial society” and I say there is no such animal. Can we ever get there? Prayerfully, but not without doing the work and not without open and honest conversation.

Cuban was direct and honest. I appreciate his honesty because now there is something with which to work; I know what to focus on to correct his thinking or at least to give it pause … and perhaps next time he will think differently when he sees a Black guy in a hoodie or a white guy with a bunch of tats. Cuban described his behavior when he saw certain Black and white folk.

Mark Cuban painted a picture and revealed for us at least two things he considers dangerous or frightening. If we look past how he chose to say it, Cuban’s words reveal his truest concern and the most basic human instinct: self-preservation. How can he stay safe while walking the streets? Well that’s a conversation we all could be interested in, right? Right! But before we have that conversation we need to address the flaws and stereotypes that riddle his (and our) thoughts.

If we continue to attack those who are simply speaking their truths then people will stop speaking altogether. They will harbor their truths internally and those truths will manifest in thoughts that become actions, lies that produce laws and perversions the become policies conceived in fearful minds. Let’s work at meeting folk who are stumbling in the dim light of ignorance and walk with them toward enlightenment.

If we want to help change the world in which we live let’s work at creating safe spaces to be honest without judgment for each who care to understand all; that is, if you truly believe changing the world is a cause worth your while.

Speak Life

Speak LifeJust STOP IT!  Right now … whatever it is … whatever you are doing … whatever you are saying … whatever you are thinking about … in your own life or anyone else’s life that isn’t positive or life affirming … STOP IT!

Here’s why:  “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof. “  (Proverbs 18:21)

 Those of us who believe in a God believe that when God breathed life into us there was some divinity in that breath. Hence, there is some of God in all of us. That is what I define as one’s spirit. And It is that spirit that connects us all to everything else and vice versa … plants, animals, trees, earth, water, stars … and yes, even and especially, each other.

I recently learned of the death of someone I didn’t know but knew of.  We weren’t close at all. I didn’t know if she was married or if she had children or any of that … our “conversations” consisted of nothing more than the pleasantries exchanged in passing. I seem to remember meeting her once and shaking hands as I was exiting an elevator she was preparing to enter.  Suffice it to say, our day- to- day interactions were limited. She worked on her part of the puzzle and I worked on mine. We, together with everyone else we worked with were helping to create the “big picture”.

There is no “big” job or “small” job … there is only “our” job.  In the case of higher education, all of “our” jobs are about creating a safe, healthy, life affirming and capable space for future leaders to be groomed and released to change the world. For those of you in another field, you have your “big picture” and whatever that picture is, be certain discord, chaos, “mean speak” or anything that isn’t life affirming is NOT part of it. But I digress.

With the exception of what I felt to be her spirit when we met, I really hadn’t learned this person well enough to remember anything most would consider substantive. However, I DO remember what helped short circuit my learning was the residue … the remnants of “mean speak” and skepticism concerning the extended period of leave she had taken. But I have come to learn much more about her.

I learned she was strong … much stronger than the mean spirited words spoken about her or those who spoke them. I learned she was a fighter. I learned she had already survived at least one bout with cancer before she came to us and, after a brief respite, she was in the throes of yet another battle with what had become stage 4 cancer. I learned she must have known the type of environment she needed to be in to heal and knew she knew she wasn’t in it … and it was while fighting this battle she found need for an extended period of leave. I learned on the tail end of that leave she suffered a brain hemorrhage and some paralyzation as a result.  She survived all of that and now, little more three years after our meeting at the elevator, I learned she is gone. No more pain … no more fighting … only Glory.

Though I didn’t know her, I felt I had met her spirit. I believe our spirits connected in that brief clasping of hands at the elevator. There was something about her countenance … something that conveyed the divinity that God deposits in us all with that breath. No, it doesn’t always translate as jovial or what many would consider “approachable”; at times, it may be pious or stoic … but however God’s spirit shows up, its energy is unmistakably sure and true.

I believe we all are in possession of that energy. In some, it bursts forth almost daily and you can feel it. You see them and you begin to feel better. In others, the vicissitudes of life seem to have been piled high atop that energy by feeding doubt, sowing seeds of cynicism and speaking words that are indicative of where they are in life or how they feel.  Whether the energy is good or bad, we project that – sometimes knowingly but most times not – onto those we share life with … in our homes … in our places of work … in all of our interactions, we put that energy out into the world.

All that I am saying is, words matter. Be aware. Speak life. Choose to be blessed!

On Words

On Words

 

I have no recollection of when it actually happened. In fact, as far back as I can remember, there was no one “moment” that moved me to this place but, the truth is, I love to write. I suppose that on some subconscious level I was always aware of words and the power they possess.

When I was a child my father would pick me up from school and we would go to the church where his office was housed. His office was full of books. The walls were filled with books that sat upon crude, do-it-yourself shelving that had warped and bowed from the weight of the volumes. The shelves rested upon narrow metal brackets with small slots that were anchored, or sometimes not, to the wall.

On the spaces of the wall that weren’t covered with books were framed pictures and posters of some of the authors whose works sat on the shelves; people who played a significant role not only in my thoughts but also in the progression of human or civil rights around the world: Martin Luther King, Jr., Huey P. Newton, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Parren J. Mitchell, Joseph C. Howard, W.E.B. DuBois, Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah, Dad’s older brother Channing Phillips, Bobby Kennedy, Eldrige Clever, Angela Davis and two relatively famous Harry Anderson prints, “Prince of Peace” and “Christ of the City”.

I remember hating to read because it just seemed to take so long. Invariably, I would end up losing my mind upon finding I was reading the same line over and over again. Invariably, I would end up losing my mind upon finding I was reading the same line over and over again (just messin’ with ya). Ironically, I remember beginning to enjoy writing in the fifth grade . At that stage , Mr. John Schmick, encouraged me to write and to do so creatively without much regard for factual boundary.

I loved the way words would play in my mind. How “united” things could in a moment become “untied”. Just by the shifting of an “i” you could exchange unity for chaos. You had the ability to be “nowhere” or “now here”. Depending on how you choose to use your space, you could convey how you saw yourself in the world. I liked the way some words were virtually self defining in their spelling. For instance, did you ever notice how “evil” is to “live” backwards? Or how well-balanced the word “level” is on either side of the “v”?

I guess I have loved and respected words for most of my life. The power they wield is unsurpassed and I suppose that makes sense … after all, “in the beginning was the Word …”

Letter to a Hurting Friend

I believe Dad wrote this letter to a church member who had recently lost an adult child. I can think of no greater pain than for a parent to outlive their child but it happens every day. Even though our day may be going along smoothly we ought to remain cognizant of the fact that someone, somewhere is suffering. I have left off the recipient’s name and you may notice the letter never mentions the issue or what happened. On the contrary, it is aimed at helping our “Hurting Friend” continue on, in spite of the pain. You or someone you know could be hurting … perhaps these words, written decades ago could speak to you right now.

Take care & be blessed,

WFP

 

 

Dear “Hurting Friend”,

I feel a need to write to you to let you know that though I have not yet been over to talk to you, I still carry you in my daily prayers and thoughts. You have been heavy on my heart and mind, for I have a grasp of understanding of what you are presently going through.

Be ever mindful of the ever present need to keep the situations which life throws at you in their proper context. There is no darkness so black that God’s light cannot and does not penetrate. The danger is that sometimes we become so accustomed to the darkness that we cease to search for the light.

The hurt and agony which I saw in your eyes when you were at church is still clearly imprinted on the screen of my mind. Remember as well, [my friend], that no matter what or how another interprets our existence, you are a child of God, first of all, and as such, you are of immense value to Him. Never let another human or situation rob you of that bit of knowledge!

The “whys” of life cannot always be answered for they are a part of the mystery of existence. There is a certain mystique about life which can only be understood by the creator of life, and that’s where your faith comes in. It’s a matter of trusting your God enough to lay the “whys” at His feet and then go on about the business of living in the assurance He’s got everything under control and that His knowing the “whys” is sufficient!

The alternative is devastating! That is to stop living now and spend the rest of your days trying to piece together a puzzle to which you do not have all the parts, for in every puzzle there are external pieces which God keeps for Himself and places them down when He sees fit! Faith is to live knowing that God will put these pieces together when He sees fit, and knowing further that He does this when it is most advantageous for us for He loves us dearly!

Lastly, do not let other humans bring you down to a level of life which is less than God intended for you. Bitterness, revenge, hatred and the like serve no purpose other than to shrivel one’s soul until it eventually dies and in its dying chains one to a fixed position in the past and hence, all growth and forward movement ceases for one’s purpose in life becomes contradictory to that which God had initially intended for it to be! That life becomes, in the real sense, possessed with demons. It’s a dead end street.

My friend, keep the faith and remember that oft times that which we interpret as “life falling apart at the seams” is not a “breaking down” but rather an “opening up” of life with all kinds of possibilities of unlimited service to God.

May God sustain you in your moment of need – we love you. Take care of that gift which God has given you – LIFE.

Love,

Rev. Phillips

P.S. I will still get around to talk with you.

The Help, The Oscars® & The Questions (Part 1 of 2)

So once again Oscar’s night has come and gone and I’m left with a couple of thoughts that I’d like to share. Since I am apparently hardwired to pick up on certain social vibes from these events it just makes sense to use this space to posit my thoughts.

These events always tend to make a statement about us all. Beneath the hype, glitz and glamour looms evidence of our values, politics and even the fragility of both. We are confronted with things we perhaps thought we believed and still other issues we may have found ourselves ignoring wholeheartedly.

All the buzz this season had been around the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help. I never thought The Help would win Best Picture; movies that deal with race issues –especially Black/White issues – no matter how much critical acclaim or box office success (also rare) never do. Don’t believe me? Check it out and get back to me. Now, let’s move on.

There was much discussion about the strong possibility of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominees, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, respectively, winning two of the big three entertainment awards (Screen Actor’s Guild, Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).  Davis finished the run with only the SAG award for Best Actress while Spencer came away winning all three. She actually won four awards but since Americans tend to ignore what’s happening in other countries I figured it pointless to mention that she also won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for the Best Supporting Actress category.

Those of you who know me or have read me before will not be surprised by this fact but I tend to notice things. Being the social/cultural critic and humorist I am, I feel it’s my duty to bring them to your attention. If you are the type who thinks entertainment is just entertainment, that politics and social critique ought not be comingled then you should probably stop reading. You will no doubt take offense to what I am about to suggest. If you are still reading then I will assume you are, to some degree, interested. Let me offer a couple observations. I don’t suggest these are negative or positive; merely observations … my observations.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Being a lover and student of comedy, I was excited to hear last September that Eddie Murphy was going to host the 84th Annual Academy Awards show. Imagine my surprise when, not three months later, he wasn’t going to host the show. Murphy pulled out after his friend and Tower Heist producer, Brett Ratner, resigned as the producer of the Academy Awards Show after making some pretty raunchy public remarks and topped it off with an anti-gay slur. It stands to reason that Murphy would step down since Ratner is the guy who bought him to the table; but, man, was I upset – relatively speaking, of course. Whatever the case, this highlights an example of politics or “political correctness” coming into play. Eddie Murphy, arguably a very capable host, through no fault of his own, is out and Billy Crystal, also a very capable host, is in. Mind you, I am not agreeing or disagreeing with any of this, I am just… observing.

Now let’s move to the undercurrent of tension surrounding The Help. I read some of the book and listened to most of it as I was often on the road between Washington, DC and Greensboro, NC during that time. Sidebar: If I can find a good unabridged audiobook, preferably read by the author, I can think of no more thought provoking a companion on long drives. If not read by the author, then a well-produced rendering with great voice actors is a wonderful experience. Such was the case with the audiobook version of The Help. In fact, I was first introduced to Octavia Spencer through the audiobook where she first embodied “Minny Jackson” (a well-deserved shout out goes to Bahni Turpin for her portrayal of “Aibileen Clark” on the audiobook). I found the story humorous, mildly disturbing, corny and oversimplified at times, deserving of being told yet entertaining throughout.

Never once did I think, “Why is a white woman telling this story?!” or “Who does she think she is?!” There were those who knocked the book for not being factual and a host of other things the author probably never set out to do. She set out to tell a fictional story her way, loosely based on factual events as a reference point, nestled in a turbulent time in America’s history. Something we all are at liberty to do should we so chose. Would we have felt better if Stockett had sided with the racist white women and told their story and justified their treatment of the domestic workers? Or how would we have felt if the story was ignored altogether? But I digress. Let’s get back to the Awards show.

And the Oscar goes to … Octavia Spencer”, said Christian Bale as he pointed to Ms. Spencer seated just below stage and to his right. A shocked Spencer covers her face with her hands and hugs and kisses cast mates on her way to the retrieve her Oscar. The crowd almost immediately erupts with applause … and … a standing ovation! For the best supporting actress?! Please know that I am taking nothing away from Ms. Spencer’s performance. She was masterful and I believed she was Minny but … a standing ovation for one of the earliest awards in the evening?! Why? Make your your seatbelt is securely fastened, I’m making a hard left turn here using a right-wing writer. I believe, in large part, white guilt is to blame. What is that you ask?

In the fifth chapter of his twenty year old, nationally best-selling book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, conservative author Shelby Steele gave name to a phenomenon most Blacks have experienced and many whites have exhibited – White Guilt. Essentially, Steele asserts that Black American politics is rooted in “challenging” whites or any white power structure with the assumption they are racist until proven otherwise. So-called Black leaders work to keep “the pressure on”, to keep white folk “on the hook” for all of the issues that hold Blacks at a disadvantage. That type of “pressure” causes whites – and to some extent our institutions –  to live under threat of being called or considered racist, thus personally attaching individuals to the shame of America’s cruel and racist past. The need to do, say, advocate for or promote anything to the contrary is driven by what Steele refers to as White Guilt. It can manifest in something as mundane as an extraordinary tip at a restaurant to something all-encompassing like political policy, i.e., the civil rights act of 1964 or even affirmative action programs, according to Steele.

So when people started standing up to join in the ovation, what white person would have wanted to have been caught sitting down when the whole friggin’ room was on their feet applauding and cheering for this little known Black actress from Alabama (Racism Headquarters during the Civil Rights era) who played a maid in Mississippi (Racism Headquarters II)? Spencer wasn’t the first Black to win best supporting actress. Hell, she wasn’t even the first to win Best Supporting Actress for playing a maid. Hattie McDaniel holds both those distinctions from her Oscar win in 1939 … and you know she didn’t get a standing ovation! Fast forward fifty one years to 1990; Whoopie Goldberg wins for best supporting actress – no standing ovation; Jennifer Hudson wins the for the same in 2006 followed by, my homegirl, Mo’Nique in 2009 and neither of them were met with such a rousing standing “o”.

Why not?

Because none of the films for which they won their Oscar had characters that had to suffer racist white people or institutions, directly, for much of the movie in the movie. So, I contend, Steele’s “White Guilt” got a holiday. The only other standing ovation for a Black actress was given to Halle Berry for her 2001 Best Actress win for Monster’s Ball. On that same night Denzel Washington won for Best Actor and as he said during his acceptance remarks the Academy got “two birds with one night”. The first ever Black actress in the Academy’s almost seventy-five year history to win Best Actress and only the second Black actor to win Best Actor? In the same night?! White Guilt was working overtime because they both got a standing ovation that night!

(Continued on March 13, 2012)

Public Thoughts & Private Schools (Part 4 of 4)

(Continued from January 16, 2012)

By the eighth grade, I think, emotionally, I had enough and was ready to go. It had gotten to a point where my day was consumed with trying to discern the motives of others. Did that group of kids really forget that I was going to walk to gym class with them? Or did they just leave me because they didn’t want to walk with the Black kid? Was Mr. “So-and –So” pushing me to uncover and develop gifts or talents that he recognized? Or was he picking on me because I was Black and thus too dumb to be there? My grades had dropped off enough for me to believe the latter and the school to feel comfortable enough to declare me “not Gilman material” which was odd because Gilman was the only school I had ever attended and for the seven years prior, one could safely assume I had been “Gilman material”. That declaration, “not Gilman material”, cut my parents deeply but they didn’t mention it to me until years later.

I remember coming to my father on one particular occasion and expressing my concern about the racial tension I felt I had to endure. We talked but I remember not being totally satisfied with the discussion. I couldn’t put my finger on it but the conversation didn’t seem to help much. It may have stopped the pain, momentarily, closed the wound, at least temporarily, but there was still the ugly scar with which I would have to contend.

As a child I had no idea the fine line my father had to walk. It wasn’t until after he died that I discovered this journal entry and as I read it, I was taken back to that moment and I wept. I wept for him knowing full well he must have wept for me in the aftermath of that moment. And the thought of the strength in his restraint is overwhelming. He was unwilling to project what had been his truth on me … all the while hoping against hope that his reality wouldn’t have to be mine. Aside from the loss of a child, God forbid, there is no greater pain for a parent than the inability to “fix it” for their child. While he had some idea of what I was dealing with I had no idea the bind I was placing him in until I read the following journal entry and prayer:

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my son’s education and motivation or perhaps I should say lack of motivation. I’m torn between him leaving Gilman and not leaving Gilman.

Pooh has bad study habits and lacks discipline. Gilman does not help that situation. I cannot help but think that were he White and I a big contributor, things would be different and they would help us help him develop good study habits.

The racism leaks through in every conference I’ve had at Gilman! It’s not blatant – which makes it even more damaging! The phrase is “Gilman material” – that means preferably WASP!

How does one teach his son pride in being Black and the dangers of White racism without it taking effect in his whole educational process? I want so much for Pooh to be the best possible Christian warrior he can be. It’s an uphill pull! They’ve led him to believe he doesn’t have the brain energy to do the work – when I think of that I get hostile!

I pray God that we correct that and that Pooh will get turned on academically. He’s a fantastic son, bad grades and all – lazy study habits or not. I just pray he clicks on before something happens to me. I’ll die much easier knowing that’s happened.

Hear my prayer O Lord –

Turn not away from me or my son –

Though he seeks not thy help –

Turn to him – make known to him his worth to you – his sonship –

Take him and keep him forever in your presence. Amen.”

EPILOGUE

Though this is just one story, of one student at one school, my purpose here was not to shine a light on the school but rather to lift these young trailblazers. I wanted to create a forum where more stories like these could be told and different experiences shared. Yes, I believe we were trailblazers. No, we didn’t lead marches; we didn’t organize protests or stage sit-ins but we were the children of those who did and we carried their spirit through halls they were never allowed to tread. The sacrifices of our parents’ generation afforded us opportunities they all but demanded we take. We were tramping in an environment they had never experienced and that’s what made us trailblazers. These experiences are the types of things that get swept under the rug or dismissed as part of the coming of age experience we all go through. But I submit this experience, for me, was much more than merely another coming of age story. The fact that it’s been more than forty years since the first day of my private school experience and I am still writing about its effects should prove how large this period loomed in my life; yet I rest assured that things have changed for the better and great strides have been made as now concrete has been laid on the raw trail we blazed.

I have no axe to grind nor any score to settle but issues like these are rarely talked about. You need to know that I have some great friendships that still endure. Some of my closest friends in school (and to this day) were Jewish, Greek and yes, even some folks who would be considered by folks other than themselves, WASPs. They are all over the globe doing great things and if I were to call on them they would remember me and be willing to help. I did sleepovers and parties at their homes, learned about their culture and quirks and my family reciprocated. Though I attended high school and graduated from the New Baltimore City College High School and absolutely loved everybody from my graduating class, I still receive information and invitations to class reunions at Gilman and when I can, I attend. In fact, I plan to attend the thirty year reunion this May.

My parents wanted to give me the best of everything they could afford and often reached beyond what they could afford just for me. I can find no other way to thank them than to continue to grow, learn, teach and love my children enough to afford them every opportunity. I am eternally grateful to them for showing me how to love that much. Education was then and still is such a lifestyle determinant. A private school education has always been a hugely expensive endeavor and an academic leg up. That said, I have grown to count all of my years in private school as extremely valuable though not all of my lessons were academic and while I have no regrets, I cannot tell you how many times I have thought back on those years and the two educations that I received; the academic, paid for my parents and the social, offered freely by immersion and without solicitation.

I am hopeful that this story and others like it will help parents and their children better understand the unintended consequences of their choices regarding education. That is not to say the choice to send your child to a private school is a bad choice. In fact, I could argue, without much real opposition, you will not find greater academic resources or intellectual agility than in private schools. But, parents of minority students, please know there will be “home” work that must be done to reinforce self – esteem and define self-identity. I am sure there are those who will argue that – no matter the school or the child – everyone’s self-esteem and self-identity take hits during the coming of age years. However, I believe these normal struggles are only compounded by issues of race and class; the ever-present, rarely confronted elephants in the room.

Gilman has made great strides and continues to do so. It is only fitting that for all his compassion and hard work that Gilman recognizes Finney’s contributions and legacy by naming an award after him that celebrates the student who distinguishes himself “through his dedication to and practice of those human values necessary to eliminate racism, prejudice, and intolerance”.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention with some level of pride, Gilman’s current Headmaster, John E. Schmick who was my fifth grade teacher. Mr. Schmick was also a product of Gilman graduating twenty years after Finney. Like my father knew that Finney “got” it, I know that Schmick “gets” it. He was not only my homeroom teacher but also my Language Arts teacher. It was in his class where I first remember having good feelings associated with my writing. He would invite us to let our imagination run wild on paper. I remember writing a piece that mentioned most everyone in the class and when I read it aloud. They loved it! Mr. Schmick made it a “treat” and if we finished all of our work early he would allow me to read the story to the class again. He would say, “Wendini, come on up and read that story”. I know Gilman is in good hands and there are probably many schools across the country that are to be commended … but so too are the young trailblazers from all private schools from 1965-1985.