Coming of Age: Adolescence in Three Acts

The year was '93, '94, about the year that B.I.G. and Mack dropped/And Illmatic rocked
That's when I came of age. I was 15, 16, going on the rest of my life and trying to figure out my place in this big ol' world. Life was simple then, at least for me; all I had to do was keep my grades up, play ball and keep the bathroom clean. Seems simple enough, but I was also charged with navigating the world as a young Black man with the allure of fast money, faster girls versus the slow route to the American dream through educational attainment. That in itself was a job, so my mom didn't find it necessary for me to work after school like many of my peers; my job was to enjoy life as a teenager.

When I look back now, I realize that I was forced to grow up tremendously over the course of those 18 months, though many of the decisions I made seemed minor at the time. After my freshman year in high school there were changes in many of the people I had known since Kindergarten, life had already started taking its toll on them and school wasn't really an option anymore. So a few of my lifelong friends traded homeroom and the hallways for the block and more than a few young women decided it was time to become women and have children of their own. I wonder if any of them ever look back at this same time frame and wished they made different decisions. I don't know what caused those folks to flow the way they decided to flow, but I knew it wasn't for me; I knew I wanted much more out of life.

It also helps that my core group of friends had aspirations beyond the next five minutes and we kept each other in line. I can't recall ever having a conversation about what we wanted to be when we grew up, just knowing that we wanted to grow up and get there in one piece. By this time Duck and Toby had already gone on to college, the twins and Thomas were juniors, Cory and I were sophomores and though Dave was a few months older than me (the baby of the bunch), he was a freshman. If we knew then that our lives with go in such divergent paths, we may have discussed where we wanted to be a little more than we did. But in a sense, our innocence allowed us to live for the moment, but our exposure to the world at that point prepared us for the minutes that followed.

I've never had to give too much time to my studies and that helped out because there was so much more for me to focus on these days; basketball, hip hop, hanging with the fellas and girls. Kai, Chris and Cory profiled while Dave, Thomas and I played ball, but we all had one thing in common, it was during this time that I became better acquainted with females. I wasn't totally consumed with the young ladies, but they definitely got their share of my attention, being that I had a little extra time on my hands. I had always been a pretty good student and with the exception of math, high school wasn't any different. I won't say much about my time with women back then, but I will admit that it led to a lot of bad habits that I've come face-to-face with over the past year.

The night before I started my sophomore year in high school changed the course of my life forever. My grandmother had been sick for the week prior to school starting and went into the hospital on Labor Day night. They ran test after test as my mom spent day after night with her in the hospital and I stayed home confused about it all. All of my confusion, along with my world, came to a screeching halt when my mom called me that Wednesday night around 10pm and shared news that broke my heart and nearly broke my spirit. Through her tears my mother somehow found the strength to tell me that my grandmother had tested HIV positive.

I don't remember much beyond the tears that lasted the next few hours or how I managed to smile the next morning at school. Damn, I remember a lot of tears through the last 17 years and I'm not sure how I've managed to smile many of the days that have followed. It was a confusing time, an angry time. I was angry at everyone; the doctors, God, the C.I.A., that damn monkey from Africa, but I managed to keep it all bottled and hidden well behind everyday life. I told no one of my agony, I told no one what my family was dealing with and I definitely didn't tell anyone of the disease my grandmother was living with and would eventually die from.

That anger eventually manifested itself in isolation from my family and thanks to my 10th grade English teacher Mr. Horowitz, an outlet. Mr. Horowitz was a young Jewish teacher in a classroom filled with Black and Brown kids, but had an energy and love for the language that made suspect students want to learn a little something. So imagine what his class did for someone who already had a love for reading and writing?

It was in Horowitz's class that I began to grasp Shakespeare, first read "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair, was introduced to Hemingway, further studied the poetry of Langston Hughes and found the motivation to write a book. A creative writing assignment was home to a comment that encouraged me to further develop the idea and for the next three years, I stole away moments to write chapter after chapter of something I called "The Diary of Young Black Man". It wasn't autobiographical, but the lead character mirrored my emotions over the next couple of years as I wrote in my diary.

It's funny that I spent countless hours creating this story, developing these characters, burying my pain and anger, but it all came to a halt on September 11, 1996. A week after I started college I got a phone call all too reminiscent of that call three Septembers prior from my mom. Through her tears my aunt somehow found the strength to tell me that my grandmother had died from the AIDS virus that she contracted who knows when and who knows how. I don't remember much beyond the tears that have lasted the past 14 years, but I do know that day I closed the diary on that young Black man.
At the end of my 10th grade year I did something pretty peculiar for me at the time, I decided not to spend my summer playing ball and shooting the summer breeze with the Bone Boyz. Instead I flew to Atlanta to spend the summer with my grandfather. I was states away from my mom, my family, my friends, my entire way of life and I needed every minute of it. My grandfather was a long distance truck driver, so when I wasn't up for the long rides, I would stay at his apartment with his live-in girlfriend at the time. She was a sweet woman who went out of her way to make me as comfortable as possible and my trip memorable, but she didn't understand what I was dealing with at the time. Hell, I didn't understand what I was dealing with at the time.

She had three sons, each with their feet firmly planted in different parts of the trap and watching them scratch and claw to get by, get high or get bailed out was confirmation enough that the streets weren't me. I spent much of that summer closed in a bedroom, watching BET with a pen a pad. It seemed like Warren G, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Biggie, Method Man, Nas and OutKast were the only videos that played through the summer, but it was all mere background music as I wrote my way towards the future. The time I spent with that notebook put me on intimate terms with the rest of my life, as I started to outline in detail what I wanted to do and how I planned on getting them done. While visiting my great-grandmother in Tampa, Fl on my 16th birthday, I wrote out 25 things I wanted to do before I died, a list I've been making progress on since.

When I returned for my junior year of high school I was a different young man, I let my afro grow uncontrollably and rededicated myself to my schoolwork. I had always been a pretty good student and with the exception of math, my junior year wasn't any different. I also started taking the SAT's repeatedly, obsessed with beating the average scores for the colleges I wanted to apply to during senior year. Any extra cash was spent on buying new books for a growing library, I parked myself at the family computer for hours or behind my bedroom door with the music pumping as I escaped into my mind and went far away from my day-to-day life.

So much had changed, but some things stayed the same. The crew was still thick, but different. Duck stayed in college, Toby eventually came home and joined the Coast Guard, Thomas joined Kai and Chris profiling, Cory moved to Florida, while Dave and I kept playing ball. The NBA dreams had died years prior as I stalled out a few inches above five feet tall, but I figured I was good enough to get to college and if not, I was smart enough to get to college.

Over the course of that last year, I realized the rest of my life wasn't too far away and I needed to make sure I was prepared when I reached it. I'm still preparing, not living for the moment as much, because my innocence has been lost and my exposure to life over the last 32 years has prepared for the minutes following.

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