Youthful Memories: Remembering A Legendary Pair of Struggling FBT’s

Posted: February 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

Note: On the blog, a new day starts at 7 PM Eastern time. Hence the ambiguous 7/8. At first, I was looking into fixing this. Now I kind of like it. And now to the cuts…

Few people deserve lengthy entries. Then there are these two. This post might not be a hit with the casual reader, but I’m waxing nostalgic and shedding my concerns about hit count in an attempt to properly eulogize the facebook deaths of two epic elementary classmates. (Fear not, over 20 cruel hits will be forthcoming in a matter of hours).

I’ve talked about the difficulty involved in cutting future big timers [FBT’s] as well as the challenges that accompany the removal of a struggler. Well a pair of tonight’s cuts fit a rare subcategory that encapsulates both strugglers and FBT’s alike; call them “struggling FBT’s.” Strangely enough, I know each of these individuals from elementary school and can’t think of a single occasion on which I’ve seen either since that time. They both share the same name too. Since I haven’t seen either in quite literally half a lifetime, my recollection of each as a struggling FBT could be wrong, but if their elementary identities and contemporary facebook pages (at least for the first one) can be taken as providing a meaningful glimpse into their identities, I think the term “struggling FBT” should more than suffice.

The first is still sometimes referred to by my mother as the only child she disliked throughout the entirety of my childhood. My own opinion of him vacillated throughout my youth. He was equal parts socially unbearable and sociologically fascinating. I vividly recall him drawing elaborate designs of  fantastical hubber crafts (whatever those are) and talking about things like anti-matter and bioplasma (again, whatever those are). As early as the fifth grade, he partook in  virtually every extracurricular activity one could imagine. Fencing, soccer, the violin, karate; you name, he did it. He was reading books in old English, and openly discussing the excitement of his prospects for world domination. I remember once, he told me “Hitler would have loved you…You have blue eyes and blonde hair.”

That statement perfectly defined his essence: for all his brilliance, he was the most socially clueless child I’ve ever seen.  He could recite Shakespeare on command, but he once accidentally stomped his foot on my mom’s toe and seemed to have no clue that inducing that kind of pain on a classmate’s mother warranted an apology. He’d blow huge snot rockets on the playground without concern for who might be nearby and when the other kids would chuckle, he’d be baffled as to what all the fuss was about, as if spontaneous snot rocketing was merely a function of nature, social norms be damned.

I think his dad was an adjunct professor of economics, but I knew him only for his column on running that appeared in each week’s local paper. His Mom was a French teacher who I recall only as being brutally rigid and having braces later in life. Fast forward almost 13 years and it appears not much has changed. He’s getting a graduate degree in classics at an ivy league school and he majored in Latin, Chinese, and Greek as an undergrad. There’s lots of pictures of him playing rugby, but it still seems like he belongs at a British university in the 19th century. I think I always sort of envied his brilliance as a kid because his interests were so beyond what I even thought about. I was, and probably remain to a fault, an avowed member of this world, lost in social media and the day to day of the news cycle. But this kid was absorbed in a completely different universe, so much so that I’m almost shocked he ever joined facebook in the first place. I guess I didn’t realize that people posted photos of themselves jousting, in medieval-style outfits, but then again, I didn’t think people had the audacity to stomp on my mom’s foot and not be of this world enough to realize it wasn’t socially acceptable. Whether I ever interact with this guy again remains to be seen, but I’ll remember him in great detail for a long, long time. One of a kind, but not one of my 1400+ facebook friends any longer.

The next struggling FBT from elementary school was the first person to teach me an invaluable lesson about race: not all 6’5″ 6th graders who happen to be African American are good at sports.

One of the most formative influences on me during my early years was a towering, older black man named Dennis Jackson. He ran a youth basketball operation year round and taught me lots of lessons on hoops and life. If he were on facebook, I’d friend him in a heartbeat and I’d never cut him. DJ, also known as the sandman, was a larger than life presence in my life from the time I was 7 all the way until I finished high school. From the ages of 8-13 or so, I spent more time with him than any other adult in my life, save my parents. It was through him that I was introduced to probably a solid 50 percent of my current black facebook friends. It’s awkward as a white guy to talk about race dynamics without seeming racist or at least caricaturing, but DJ and crew unflinchingly taught me about race from a different perspective, both seriously and comedically. They also gave me my nickname “Doctor Dre” when I was around seven, right as the real Doctor Dre was beginning to make a name for himself. Full disclosure: that name later evolved into Dre-no-dee, since I apparently preferred playing with the ball in my hands (a lockdown defender I was not). By hanging around Dennis, his son Jamahl, Jamahl’s friends, and countless team and campmates, I came to believe at a young age that pretty much all black people were funny, smooth, socially intelligent, and good at basketball. That was, after all, all I knew.

Except there was one exception to this rule. He was my elementary classmate, the lone black boy in a supposedly progressive, lilly-white elementary school. His mother was one of the nation’s foremost experts on race relations, a professor at a nearby college and today the President of a prestigious institution of higher learning. She was a terrific public speaker and as socially poised as one would expect of a woman of her professional stature.

That grace, however, did not extend to her son. He was awfully nice and awfully bright, but he preferred the quite allure of creating vast lego structures to the bright lights of recess pick-up games on the black top. Though he was the tallest kid in the class by a long shot, he struggled to walk with one foot in front of the other.

I have to admit that if he were white, I probably wouldn’t remember him in such detail. There were plenty of other white kids who were bookish and cried as often as this child. Looking back, I don’t want to search too deeply for symbolism, but it wouldn’t shock me if he were crying because of the misguided expectations of  a class of kids who’d absorbed so much training in the methods of social equality that we couldn’t believe it when our one black classmate was a bit nerdy and standoffish. And if he weren’t fighting for civil rights, he at least had to match our other conception of black identity: basketball brilliance. A black kid didn’t have to vocally affirm what we learned at each year’s MLK Day Assembly, but he did have to be able to shoot the rock. This kid simply had no interest.

Though I’ll never forget his kindness, I’ll also never forget the way he struggled to get from point A to point B and the way he loved computers instead of basketball. I suspect he’ll never notice I de-friended him or even recall that we were friends in the first place.

I like to joke with my black friends that I am “racially transcendent,” that my time around Coach Jackson as a kid combined with my time teaching in the inner-city in New York has given me insight into the black experience. But tonight’s cut will always remind me of the limitations of my perceptions and reenforce the important idea that not all black kids are good at basketball.

In truth, if he was, he probably wouldn’t have gotten cut.

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Comments
  1. Alexis says:

    Yay- Finally one where I know exactly who you are talking about! I have funny memories of both.
    Love the blog.

  2. Joe Stat says:

    I once whitewashed the hell out of 19th century brat while holiday caroling. Kid was such a know-it-all pest!!!!

  3. jessie says:

    gotta second alexis, it’s kind of brilliant to know exactly who you’re talking about. also, you’re funny. nicely done.

  4. Jessye Casale says:

    This made me LOL on NJ transit during rush hour (not an easy task):

    “But this kid was absorbed in a completely different universe, so much so that I’m almost shocked he ever joined facebook in the first place. I guess I didn’t realize that people posted photos of themselves jousting, in medieval-style outfits, but then again, I didn’t think people had the audacity to stomp on my mom’s foot and not be of this world enough to realize it wasn’t socially acceptable.”

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