Senior year of high school. English elective: Logic, Persuasion and Belief. I wrote an essay entitled, “My Rival Is Moving Out Into A Traffic Jam” which my teacher, Mr. Nelson, absolutely loved. I was stunned by the mark he gave me and caught off guard when he lauded my work in front of the whole class. I still have that essay in my archives – 8 yellowing notebook pages of handwritten text. It’s 36(!) years old and I have always known its whereabouts. It has traveled with me from Cleveland to Providence, to Vienna, to DC, then back to Vienna. That means something.
I carry this artifact along with a few other pieces of writing I am especially proud of in an old blue folder. When I tell people that I was a “good student” in high school, what I really mean is that I was a strong writer. It pleased me to be able to wrangle words to get them to say what I wanted. It also pleased me to be have my skill recognized and praised. (Even if by the wrong name: Jeri!) I was an achiever, so the grammar of school made sense to me.
I graduated from an independent day school just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. In our class of 104, there were 6 Black students, 4 boys and two girls. The upper school, previously all male, had been co-ed for about a decade before I arrived. It was a very preppy place and even listed in The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), to the chagrin (and perhaps secret pride) of the administration. When I showed up in 10th grade I was clueless about all that, just noticed a lot of kids walking around in collared shirts and corduroy pants (no jeans allowed).
While I was there I made myself at home: found my place on the track team and in the tech theater crew. In that overwhelmingly white environment I became a keen observer of social patterns because although I had plenty of friends, they were scattered across several different cliques. As a result I had a outsider’s perspective with the benefit of insider informants. As ‘the Black girl’ I wasn’t competing for the same boys as the white girls (or so it was assumed), and among the white (and most of the Black) boys I wasn’t even in the running but I was likable and funny and easy to get along with so I enjoyed a sort of non-threatening popularity that probably in the long run saved me a lot of adolescent grief and drama.
In my all Black neighborhood, I was occasionally referred to as an Oreo – Black on the outside, white on the inside, but that designation never bothered me quite as much as it should have. In my own estimation, it felt like I had learned to make the contrasts work for me. At school and at home my academic inclinations were supported and applauded. If some kids accused me of ‘talking like a white girl’ I could only tell them that my parents talked like that, too. Of necessity I was building up a repertoire of both/and behaviors and attitudes. If I didn’t feel beautiful in the white mainstream sense of the word, I at least felt comfortable in my own skin. I looked like my dad and socialized like my mom. I soaked up the rigor of classical ballet and prized the spontaneity of school sports. I internalized my city neighborhood’s nuances while I learned to move through east side suburbia like a resident. I sang along with the Gap Band and Billy Joel. All these aspects were a part of me. I was and wanted to be many things at once.
Which brings me to the parallel playlists. When I thought about writing this post for the #31DaysIBPOC Challenge, I was flooded with possible ideas. In reading some of the initial posts, I was struck in particular by those stories which reflected on the past; on upbringing and negotiating various social contexts. So I decided to look back, too. And what I found was music. Song and dance offered me an emotional home base; countless spaces for me to rejoice and rage, recover and revive. My youngest son jokes that I have a song for every occasion. He’s not wrong.
Mr. Nelson’s favorite essay involved an analysis of song lyrics of Steely Dan’s My Rival, Billy Joel’s Moving Out and James Taylor’s Traffic Jam as illustrations of social alienation in modern America – all late ’70’s songs that were on heavy rotation on my rinky-dink turntable. Steely Dan is still my favorite band of all time. I feel like I owe half my life to Billy Joel for his song Vienna in which I felt seen and understood at 13. (“Slow down you crazy child/ you’re so ambitious for a juvenile / But then if you’re so smart/ Tell me why are you still so afraid…”) And on the same album as Traffic Jam, James Taylor’s Terra Nova rings in my ears anytime I think about the tension between heading home and staying away. These were my songs by artists who helped me know myself as I muddled through adolescence.
At the same time, I knew well the pleasure and pain of singing Heatwave’s Always and Forever, minus the expectation of having that kind of match up with any boy. The same was true for Gap Band’s Yearning For Your Love and Outstanding. I sang those songs as if my life depended on it – especially in the car driving between the burbs and home. I dreamed of that one special slow dance with a boy who actually knew how to hand dance and would show me the ropes gently and lovingly. Listening to Cleveland’s AM R&B radio station, WJMO, I would go mad dancing to Parliament’s Flashlight, while the Commodore’s Jesus Is Love made me wish I was more religious than I actually was.
Parallel playlists have been my life’s soundtrack. Soulful rhythms followed by pop rock anthems sweeping into sad boy ballads coming around to mellow funk and old school slow jams. All of those tunes belong to me, to the person I’ve become, underscoring my collection of missed wishes and dreams come true. I know the words to all these songs. In singing them, I sing myself in a thousand and one ways.
- This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Joel Garza (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).