Making It: A Miseducation

Illustration after a photograph by Jamel Shabazz

In a place where succeeding means leaving, good grades are fraught with contradictions.

In fourth grade, “making it” did not mean anything to my friends and me. All living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, we knew no one who had “made it.” We knew of people who “made it,” but because “making it” seemed to be predicated on that person no longer being here, in Bed-Stuy, we did not care to know them. “Making it” meant that, to be successful, you had to get out of Bed-Stuy—you had to escape. It did not matter so much where you went after you left (it could even be jail); all that mattered was that you left. This was how success was measured for us: “If you want to be successful, leave. I don’t care where you go but if you’re here, you won’t make it.” It didn’t matter if this was ever actually said because the implications were loud and clear even if unspoken. We did not listen—who wants to be told that what formed them is something they must escape? This was especially true for many of my male friends whose fathers had gone away to “make it,” leaving our mothers to deal with us. We were catastrophes of our fathers’ success. We were what were left behind to remind our mothers that our fathers had been here before they left—and they in turn reminded us of this. “You act just like your father!” This was said whenever any of us had failed to measure up to burdens that were too heavy for us, but ours alone, to carry. Our fathers were able to “make it,” so, it seemed we weren’t allowed to. We accepted this as the price of our mothers’ love.

Fourth grade was the last year I would see my father. I had seen that he was getting ready to make it—he was doing everything in his power to get out. Seeing that, I cared less about being successful. Many of the boys in my class carried the same disposition. We rarely did homework and when we did do it, we did the bare minimum because it was the best way to ensure that we would never be successful. It was the best way to ensure that we would please our mothers by never being like our fathers. We would not leave like they did.

After school we would all go to the basketball courts but very little basketball was ever played. We “shot around” but there was rarely a serious investment into playing because if you were serious about basketball, or anything else for that matter, you did not shoot around. There were about six of us and we were all in the same fourth grade class. James asked, “Is anyone doing their homework?” Everyone gave a look, an excuse, or simply did not answer. Another boy said, “Hell no!” and shot the ball. Everyone laughed, but it was seeing James’s face—who had already been left back a year at school—that made me stop. His face was imprinted with resignation, the same resignation I had seen and felt whenever I looked at my father. It was no longer funny.

“Yo… you’re not going to make it in life.”

Indignation erupted, though I’m not even sure if the other boy was listening to what James said or responding to the instigating mob. Either way, he was tight.

“What the fuck you mean I ain’t gonna make it ­nigga?”

“Son, you just not gonna make it…”

“What the fuck you mean I’m not gonna make it? Like I’m gonna die?”

“I don’t know, I just know you not gonna make it.”

Whatever had been the reason he was held over the first time, James was confronting it in asking us about our homework. And although James couldn’t explain exactly what he meant by telling another 10-year-old that they weren’t going to make it, the conviction in his voice had taught me more about success than I had ever wanted to learn about failure.

We were all told numerous times by everyone we knew that we would not be successful if we didn’t apply ourselves. But what was there to make of success if it meant we couldn’t stay? “Making it” never meant “leave to go get something better and return so you can help here.” It meant, “Get out because there ain’t shit here for you and when you get out, never come back.” Each one of us, told to “make it” by someone who had not made it, were forced to find this admonition suspect. Our friends were here, our families were here, our girlfriends were here, and we were here. Why would we want to leave? As many of us began to understand what was really being said, we began to hate the people who told us to leave—who told us we didn’t belong. In being told to leave, we were being told to emulate the last person we wanted to be reminded of: our fathers. Our fathers’ leaving was the reason we were failures in the first place.

In the last words some boys ever hear from their fathers—“don’t be like me”—we were educated against making it. Even if it meant being a failure, there was something noble in that boy refusing to do his homework. He did not want to be told to leave what he loved—none of us did. We would not leave what we loved as our fathers did—our mothers, our home, even the girls who were not dissimilar to our mothers. There was no “making it” for us. Without understanding too much, we understood enough to know that we had to take care of our mothers because our fathers couldn’t. If our fathers’ success meant our failure then the only thing we could hope to do is not “make it.” Those who wanted to escape got out, but many of us are still here—passing with flying colors. We have not forgiven our fathers for leaving, and I am not sure that we have forgiven our mothers either, or the girls like our mothers, for making us stay.

A story made its way around our school. A boy was asked to read his current events homework in front of the class. He was far from handsome, but his Rocawear and Sean John velour tracksuits complicated the understanding of what made for good looks. I was not there when he read, but it was said that hearing him read in his finery was like watching someone attempt to drive a Lamborghini without ever learning to drive stick—and his attitude towards reading suggested that he would care more about being seen in a nice car than the fact that he couldn’t drive it. The teacher stopped him between shifting and braking and asked him if he had asked for help with his homework. He said that he had.

“Who helped you?”

“My mother.”

As this story filtered its way back to him, his only rebuttal was, “At least my mother keeps me from being a bum-ass nigga like you.”  What else could he say? That his mother cared more about what he wore than if he could read? He damn sure wasn’t going to admit that his mother knew as much as he did about literacy—which was very little. Those of us who cared about his inability to read were far outranked by those who concerned themselves with how many days could go by without him wearing the same outfit. However you dressed it up, the conundrum of success meant an uncomfortable fidelity to your mother who wanted the impossible: succeeding without leaving, the appearance of getting an education, while still learning nothing that might put you in danger of departure.

The conundrum further complicated itself whenever the honor roll lists were published at the end of the marking period. Outside of the Assistant Principal’s office, there was this bulletin board where the honor roll lists went up. And every time, I shuddered. Honor Roll (Silver)—Yahdon Israel. My father had by this time gone on to bigger and better things than us, but being on the honor roll made me the pride of the household where my mother, having lost one partner to success, bragged nevertheless about having a “Straight A student” for a son. This wasn’t entirely true—my A’s were crooked with B’s. But my mother, like the boy she raised, heard what she wanted. “Straight A’s” was what she wanted to hear, so “Straight A’s” was what I told her. She wasn’t alone in this. Everyone’s child was a “Straight A student” despite the fact that those lists peaked at 30 names— and most of those names belonged to girls. The girls, it seemed, were free of the confusing maternal injunction to leave and stay at the same time. And so, I thought, they could succeed without fear of losing themselves and others.

While the good grades seemed to satisfy my mother and teachers, they disappointed me. “You will on to do great things,” many people assured me, “Just watch.”  I was watching—watching how good grades deferred good fortune. How exactly were “great things” being defined? My sneakers weren’t Jordan, my jeans weren’t Rocawear, my shirts weren’t Ralph Lauren, my coats and book bags weren’t North Face, we were still on welfare and Section 8, girls still didn’t like me, we never went on vacation and yet, greatness was being promised to me. While I could read entire passages of a book without any appeals for help, the girls I liked gave their attention to the boys who could barely get through a sentence. “You so stupid, that’s not how you say it, boy—it’s pronounced like this.” Although they used the word stupid, the cadence which carried the word from their mouths to our ears worked like a siren song on our hearts and minds. Something maternal was happening. We were attracted to the benevolence in their voices, and dedicated ourselves to becoming whatever they wanted us to be. When a girl said it right, there was no wrong way to be stupid. But there was a wrong way to be smart, and I learned that being “too smart” disallowed you the opportunity to be “stupid.” When I got called stupid, it usually meant what it was supposed to mean: “Yahdon, you too damn smart to be stupid—you know you’re better than that.”

Deep down I wanted to believe what my mother and teachers said, but there wasn’t a shadow of truth in what they were saying. None of my homework assignments helped me understand why I wasn’t being called “stupid,” why I wasn’t fly, or why being smarter only meant that I’d still be sitting next to someone who couldn’t read the name on the back of their Mitchell & Ness jersey. Since the honor roll couldn’t protect me from being “yauch”—and even exacerbated it in some ways—I no longer cared if my mother said she didn’t want anything lower than an 85. But when it came to applying for high school, she had high hopes for me. Not Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech High but Exeter—an extravagant boarding school for the future somebodies of the world. I remember looking at the brochure my mother handed me. There ain’t one black kid in this whole thing—this was and wasn’t true. There was this one black kid in a mini-afro, blazer, slacks, and tie, smiling too damn hard. I knew a lot of black boys, none of who sported afros, blazers, ties, and smiles. Plus, a suit was the last thing I had seen my father in—I gave the brochure back. “That’s cool, Ma” was all I could offer, but she was tenacious in making sure her son applied to one of the “Ivy Leagues of Secondary Education.”

The “Ivy League” title had been conferred by the woman who interviewed me to see if I was of “Exeter’s pedigree.” All this talk about “academic rigor” and “serious intellectual inquiry” scared me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had read a book, or cared to retain its information when I did. This realization was heavy with consequence. Heaviness considered, I still had no time for it—so I parried anything that might increase my chance of becoming a candidate for a mini-fro, blazer, and a smile. The interviewer had suggested that going to Exeter would put me in a prime position to do “great things”—I had heard that before, no thank you. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get out of this interview if I kept dodging this lady’s questions, so I answered one.

“What are your plans for yourself?”

“To become a football player.”

“Oh… okay, well… what if that doesn’t work?”

“I don’t know, hopefully it will.”

“…okay, well we’ll let you know our decision.”

“Okay, thank you.”

With Exeter out of the way, I could focus on getting the things that really mattered: getting dipped and battered for my senior trip.

We had some complicated ideas about the kind of men our mothers wanted us to be. We knew that our mothers had loved our fathers. We knew that they were hurt by our fathers—but we were too. We tried to understand what was to be done about something we did not do. We knew that we didn’t want to be like our fathers. But we also knew that we’d have to leave eventually. What our mothers wanted, it seemed, was the appearance of success without its consequences.

What you can’t become, you can dress for. On senior trip I counted the days in outfits. For the first day, I wore a Memphis Grizzlies Jason Williams swingman jersey with another fresh pair of white Uptowns. On the second day, Cinderella got her glass slippers and I got my S. Carter Roc-A-Fella Mitchell & Ness throwback jersey. And the third day was a lesson in simplicity: pure white tee. But it was on the second day that one teacher, Dr. Bond—a fiery preacher known in our school for his flamboyant suits, hallway hemlocks, and constant command for us to “pull up our pants”—asked me a question.

“Why do you wear all of this?”

“So girls will like me.”

“Girls don’t like you because of what you wear. They like you because you’re smart, witty, and charming.”

But I knew that I was smart, witty, and charming before wearing “all of this.” The only people who didn’t see this were girls, who sneered at me for being “too smart.” But the clothes, bought with hard work at a supermarket packing bags, reconciled them to my threatening grades. In my throwback, uptowns, gold teeth, and earrings, my words were a little more intelligible: “Oh my God Yahdon, I had no idea you were so funny—you stupid, boy.” As enrapturing as Dr. Bond’s sermon should have been, I had my own gospel. Sure, camels had a better chance of getting through the eye of a needle than I had of getting into heaven with white on white Nikes, but Nikes won the girls’ admiration because they made clear that my heart lay with them and not the honor roll.

How could we, still only boys, navigate the affections of these girls, who loved us in the style of our mothers and in the image of our fathers, beckoning with one hand and waving us away with the other? The clothes could not disguise the contradiction. On the way back home from senior trip, a friend of mine had been listening to the morbid turn my jokes were taking. After I delivered the punchline to a searing self-deprecating joke, Darell looked over and said, “Yo, you’re mad bitter; you aren’t going to get far in life if you keep thinking like that.” His words had penetrated something. It had reminded me of James’s forewarning. But before the warning, the departure of my father, the Rocawear velour suits, the unintended consequences of being on the honor roll, the social promotions, the part-time job, Exeter, or the gold teeth—before the contradictory pleas from women—before any of these notions of success seduced me—I never thought about making it. Now, it’s the only thing I think about.