The Empire State Building, taken this past October in New York City.
Another year gone.
For most people a triumph is something in the future. It’s always that next thing that’ll take them to a new point in their career. Maybe it’s that car that they’ve always wanted, but could never quite afford. It’s surviving that next medical treatment, or escaping from the office early enough that their children actually see them before bed time.
The strangest thing about triumphs is that people seem to barely remember them after they’ve made them happen. Every once in a while they stare off into the distance and recall that time when everything felt right and they achieved something they always wanted to, but it’s not constantly in the back of their mind.
I don’t do triumph. I’ve never been a guy to stare back at anything I’ve done in a positive light. There is always something that I could have done better. Some piece of the pie I could have thought of differently and truly done something epic. That is, except for one thing I did roughly fifteen years ago.
It was in the fifth grade. I’d always been a modest student. The thought of an education didn’t just bore me. It made me angry. Here were these people who’d gone off to some magical place outside of my turbulent, violence-ridden neighborhood and come back to educate me in ways I didn’t really care about. They’d semi-adopt you for 8 months and then they’d leave and go back to their cozy lives with nice cars, nice houses and dinner parties. I marveled at these teachers’ lives, their personalities and their mannerisms, but I flat out didn’t give a crap about the knowledge they had to share with me.
To be clear, it wasn’t that education was discouraged in my family. No, I wasn’t being trained for life as a field hand or anything. When you have two kids and you didn’t finish high school, clearly there were other things that came first. Chances are that if you ask any African American who grew up in the areas I lived in – we moved a lot – they’d tell you the same thing.
One day during that fifth grade year I went home and decided I’d play their game. I put down the Power Rangers in Space Red Action-Figure with glowing helmet and got to work. I read my history book all night, and when it was time for bed, I kept reading it despite getting stern warnings from my parents to go to bed or risk having all of my books taken.
Richmond Public Schools always had a love-hate relationship when it came to teachers sticking to text books for instruction and so months went by before I ever got the chance to actually use anything in that history book. In the spring of 1998, when John Glenn was making a return to space and Chicago was just as relevant for its sports team as it is now for people being shot in the ass, my fifth grade teacher handed me a test paper on American history. This wasn’t some lame movie. There were no voice overs declaring “I got this.” Instead, something magical happened. I looked down at the test in and knew the answers. Not just some of them. I knew the answer to every single question. They all came out like a burst of fire, an invisible energy that flowed from the tip of my Ticondegra #2 pencil. I signed it “Travis Pope” and took it to my fifth grade teacher Patricia Jackson.
Pat Jackson was an African American teacher in every sense. Forget cardigan sweaters, this woman had a closet full of garb that must have come in a box with a logo featuring a flat landscape and an African elephant. She wasn’t just stern. She was relentless. Did something wrong and she would serve up a hot tin can of verbal ass whopping like you wouldn’t believe. She was generous with her praise and stingy with her respect. In Pat Jackson’s world you were hers to do with however she pleased.
That day in 1998 I handed her back the test she’d handed to me six minutes before. I stood there frozen. I wanted to see her reaction. Her admiration for me finally showing some promise. Here was tangible proof that I wasn’t an idiot. She looked up at me and down at the paper I’d just handed to her. I saw a red pen appear from out of thin air. Checkmarks were made. First there was one correct answer, then two and twenty. All of them were right. Every single one.
Having also deduced that one of her poorest students had managed a perfect score on a test she hadn’t prepared any of them for, she looked at her watch. Jackson’s eyes poked out from underneath her mass of face and African cloth garments. She shook her head as if she was possibly thinking about the amount of time I’d wasted not participating in class for all these months. Instead of vocalizing her amazement, she called out to Sandra to ask how far along she was on the test. When Sandra replied question seven is when I realized things had gone wrong.
In a flash, my desk had been emptied to make sure there were no books open there. Before I knew it, my pockets were empty too, turn inside out by the beast herself. Pat Jackson forced me to stand there under the gaze of every clique and classmate as she interrogated me about my cheating techniques. “You couldn’t have finished this. She’s less than half done. I go with what I know,” she told me. Quickly it escalated into something else. I was escorted from the wall-less classroom that only had chalkboards dividing it from the classrooms of others. Disciplinary referrals were written and my mother was called to the school because I’d become a distraction in the classroom.
At that moment I felt it. The only time I’ve ever been perfectly satisfied with something that I’ve done. Since then, everything else I’ve achieved has felt minor, like little kick-knacks on a to-do list. I wasn’t satisfied about the test – she’d taken off points because I’d forgotten to write my middle initial between my first and last name and robbed me of my perfect score. I’d forced one of these teachers, these champions of extra reading and peddlers of gold stars to take everyone in the room seriously, not just the ones she expected to flourish. I’d gotten a reaction out of someone with my mind and the truth that I’d put on a sheet of notebook paper. Life doesn’t get more magical than that.