Growing up in a predominately black neighborhood was an interesting experience. I had the chance to interact with a multitude of differing personas, from Jason, a former football player and successful salesman, to Mike, the delinquent who would knock down our mailbox at first opportunity. Generally, it was a fairly nice, peaceful place to live, barring the continuous after-school fights or that one time SWAT raided a local drug lord’s home. Raised by a slightly overprotective African mother, I was always told that my environment and situation was temporary. To not become too comfortable as I was destined for more. And so for the majority of my life, I isolated myself from everyone. I didn’t think close friends were necessary if I wasn’t going to be here long. Here, I came to learn, was something far different than I ever envisioned.
In 8th grade I was in a county-wide gifted (that word just disgusts me) program, and since next school year we were going to high school, we had to apply for admission to high school’s specialty programs. As it was typical for students in the program to be pipelined into an elite university, they typically went to the best high schools in the region. Charter schools. Governor schools. Private schools.
I didn’t particularly care for any of those options. I felt as if there was nothing inherently wrong with my local high school. My sister went to school there, so why should I be different and go to a school in another district?
Unlike my middle school program, the local high school was minority-majority and had everything from children of wealthy local business owners to homeless kids who would sleep under the football bleachers. Most people fell someplace in-between, but it was heavily skewed towards the latter. It wasn't the best place academically, we were ranked in the bottom 5% in the state in terms of college readiness (but we weren't the worst), but it would be a different experience and I would have the chance to meet a different sort of person than existed in my 8th grade program.
Then I met Neal. Neal was an extrovert that loved meeting and talking with anyone. He was a dapper, well-known socialite. The polar opposite of me in every conceivable way. So obviously we instantly connected on an extremely deep level and became best friends. By virtue of his association, I came to know many people. MANY people. Particularly for an introvert. With each additional person that I met, I was granted one more access key to a different person's life, psyche, and perception.
The perspectives they offered stood so stark to my own. Overwhelming at times. I now was beginning to understand the reasoning and theories behind many of the practices I noticed. I began to remove the cobble webs and see the mechanics behind the mindset. Sort of like wearing glasses for the first time. Most appalling is when I was introduced to conspicuous consumption.
I was never into fashion (or actually dressing with any sort of care) before meeting Neal. As I began to slightly care, I began to notice the clothing of those around me. Particularly, how expensive it was. The North Face jackets. Gucci belts. Foamposite shoes. Except they were worn by the same kids who would approach you for your change after a trip to the vending machine so that they could afford lunch. A very different model than how I was raised.
One day during my senior year, the school went into lock-down mode as gunshots were fired in the neighborhood adjacent to the school. As we went into lock-down procedure and everyone in class gathered in one corner, I noticed a commonality. Everyone seemed to act the same. Everyone was relatively calm, but it was a deep, unnatural calm. Past the calm, everyone was deep into the depths of their minds. As I looked around at my classmates, I could not differentiate between the freshmen and the seniors. The rich and the poor. The college bound and prison sentenced. I saw them all as equals. It was as ifthe gravity of the situation reduced everyone to absolute humility and their most basic nature.
The next day at school, everything returned to its normal state – except my perspective. The previous day’s events created an unnaturally level playing field. I had seen equality, so now every difference was noted. As normalcy returned, it exacerbated the different perceptions and paradigms people operated on relative to my own.
Although we rode the same bus to school and physically lived in the same neighborhood, mentally we were thousands of miles apart. My mindset envisioned a future, theirs knew nothing but the present. My mindset saw the can, theirs saw the is. My mindset stayed restless, theirs grew complacent.
Throughout my life, this is the longest that I have ever lived in one place, but the farthest I have ever been.
The Hood, I found, wasn't a place.
The Hood was a mindset.
Me and Neal before going off to college. (I was so frail!)