I saw the best minds of my generation drop out of school and get their education on the streets, in the schools of hard knocks: in group homes, reform schools, jails, reformatories and prisons. They dropped out of schools that didn’t teach The Pedagogy of the Oppressed; schools that didn’t understand the psyche of The Wretched of the Earth; schools that didn’t challenge; schools that placed a premium on memorization and rote at the expense of thoughtfulness and learning; schools incapable of tapping into the creative energy of these minds descended from minds that were once trained in the greatest institutions of learning on Mother Earth, in Songhai, Ghana, Mali and Timbuktu; schools that taught history that excluded them and their contributions; schools that alienated them; schools that taught cruelty; schools with low ceilings and finite possibilities.
I saw the brightest boys of my generation descend into insanity. They were in the best high schools the City had to offer, but their minds were light-years ahead of the curriculum. We knew they were different, their heads shaped like eggs, but brilliant, not of the world they were relegated. They tutored others in math and science and instead of graffiti wrote formulas on the walls. They were bored in lab so conducted their own experiments, on stray cats and dogs – we saw their remains throughout the projects. They flew homing pigeons from coops on the projects’ rooftops, sent esoteric messages to other egg heads throughout the City’s housing developments. They experimented with mind-altering drugs – Acid, LSD and angel dust. They were our angels, not of the world they were relegated. They leapt off of tall buildings, believing they could fly like their pigeons, and they did, for a brief moment in time, only to crash land in the concrete jungle, their wings crushed and their bodies broken.
I saw the best physical specimens of my generation, the fastest, the strongest, play three sports with effortless grace, not become all Americans. I saw them earn full scholarships to play basketball but drop out of school in their freshman year because they refused to ride the bench behind the starters, when they knew that they ran faster and jumped higher and that they shot hoops with the accuracy of marksmen. So they returned to the streets, their dreams of playing pro basketball dashed on the hardwood floors of colleges eager to exploit their talent; instead they played in the summer leagues, more dazzling than the sun. And when the sun set, not only did the freaks come out – “The Freaks Come Out at Night” – but the gamblers collecting their winnings from the games, the pimps, hustlers, con men and gang members, the whole wide underworld. Then their physical prowess was put to other tests. I saw them outrun cop cars and motorcycles and police dogs. I saw them hurdle five-foot fences, leap from building to building, with cops hot in pursuit, and they seemed to always get away. Before extreme sports were invented, they were pushing their bodies to the outer limits, redefining the use of space. I saw them subway surfing and elevator surfing, engaged in thrills that could kill.
I saw the boldest boys of my generation, those that didn’t die young, graduate from petty to major crimes. It started innocently enough, playing hooky from school, stealing lunch from the bodega, but gradually escalated to shoplifting, burglary, armed robbery and even murder. From juvenile delinquents to juvenile offenders to youthful offenders to adult criminals. In the projects they hunted the rats for sport, with BB guns and bow and arrows; and it turned out that the animals’ remains I saw throughout the projects was not the result of tests of the brilliant egg heads, but the evidence of their torture. They were not only the boldest, but also the most alienated of my generation. They descended into another kind of madness, defined by cruelty. They hated a world that hated them – “The Hate that Hate Produced.” They hated this world of low ceilings and finite possibilities. They hated this world that would deny them their dreams. Thus they ended up in group homes, reform schools, jails, reformatories and prisons. A lawyer would later tell me that all of this was “inevitable,” which made me think of the Watchers, the Watchers from behind Venetian blinds, the projects’ old ones in the know, septuagenarian seers, who predicted that many of my generation wouldn’t amount to anything, that we’d end up in group homes, reform schools, jails, reformatories and prisons, that many of us would not live long, that many of us certainly would not live to see fifty years.
I saw the bravest boys of my generation find their way out of the projects and into basic training. They knew that there was no way they could be all they wanted to be in a housing development with low ceilings and finite possibilities. They went from leaping from building to building to jumping out of airplanes to fight in Granada and Panama. They were honor guards in championship games, those games the best physical specimens of my generation should’ve been playing in. They were in the Marines, in the Army and the Navy. They swaggered down the streets of Spain, ran with the bulls, found cheap thrills in Manila with “our little brown cousins,” redefined what it meant to be a warrior in Japan, fished in Korea and drank beer in Germany and convinced the frauleins that Hitler got it wrong, that these physical specimens were part of the Master Race – you could take them out of the ghetto – none of them came back to the projects. Later, I saw them, military erect, at the funerals of their parents and their younger siblings, casualties of the wars on poverty and crime. We looked at each other, nodding, acknowledging that we were still here, more than survivors, smart, sane, in shape and unbroken – celebrating life.