ANSWER THE QUESTION!
“WHO ARE YOU? WHAT ARE YOU? WHY ARE YOU HERE?” These were good questions and ones that deserved to be answered, but the young intern just starting in the lab was surprised by this interrogation being the first words out of my mouth and she displayed a quite flummoxed expression. Yet only a month later the same young intern paused in the middle of trying to solve a problem and exclaimed, “Who am I? What am I? Why am I here?” Beyond just an inveterate need to get inside people’s heads and plant these phrases that become like mental tapeworms feeding off of every idle moment of introspection; these questions had usefulness regarding reorienting persons when they lose their way. Sometimes the answers are so disappointing that they demand a life course change. For example it might be disappointing to realize that the only reason you are at an elite school is because your parents had lots of money and they could afford to pay someone to take your entrance exams or falsify an athletic resume. In retrospect I was fortunate not to have such parental influence casting aspersion upon my abilities.
Still the same my experience going to college was that the first thing people wanted to know upon meeting me was “Who are you? What are you? Why are you here?” They did not just get in my face and blurt out the questions? No, they were more socially adjusted and asked questions like “Where are you from” and “What is your major?” It was not out of obstructive defiance that I used deflection in conversation to avoid answering these questions, but because I quickly realized that the assumptions people made were much more entertaining and glamorous than my real story. I had rare features that guided my dorm mates in their perceptions; I was a black male with a powerful athletic build. This may not seem so rare but black students were in such short supply when I attended UC Davis that they had to distribute us such that there was one of us on each of the 50 person dorm floors in the high-rise dorms; our blackness was diluted like that 2 percent milk. I soon learned that some of my dorm mates were from communities where black people were even rarer and they had not had the privilege of direct interaction with my demographic. This led to some entertaining presumptions.
I was most entertained by the presumption that I was there on an athletic scholarship. This was entertaining to me because many students did not appreciate that at the time UC Davis was a division II school and did not offer athletic scholarships. The school did recruit athletes and offer preferential admission, but that had no part in why I was there. Although I was captain of my high school wrestling team and had made it to the finals of some of the toughest high school tournaments in the region I had not even shopped my athletic resume to schools or spoken to any coaches prior to my first conversation with UCD wrestling coach Bob Brooks that fall. Instead I did what many did at the time; I took the usual college entrance exams, wrote essays and sent in applications. I applied to five different schools under five different majors. I got into all five and made an arbitrary decision. I will admit that UC Davis having a wrestling team at the time did influence my decision.
As far as taking the usual college entrance exams my mother did not even hint that I should take college entrance exams so she certainly did not pay anyone to take the tests for me or otherwise improve my scores. As a divorced woman trying to raise four children without financial support from my father while battling chronic illness, even paying for college application fees was a strain. Actually when it came time to pay for the tests and my college application fees I did so from the money I earned working summers fixing up houses with my high school football coach Skip Cain. My mother often said I was more likely to end up in jail or shot dead by the police by the time I am 25 than graduate from college. Statistically speaking regarding the prospects of a black male at the time she was correct. I guess one advantage of being “not normal like the other kids” as my mother would often say is that I did not perceive social cues even from my own mother so I went ahead and applied to college. My mother expressed even more skepticism regarding what I stated as my proposed major at UC Davis and what I planned to do with it.
So if my own mother did not see me in that major I could not be mad at the assumptions my dorm mates made. Still it was more fun to conversationally deflect from the direct question and let people guess my major. The top guesses seemed to be rhetoric or music. I suppose rhetoric was a good guess because I was the one manipulating the conversation. Unfortunately, I had not even heard of rhetoric before I attended UC Davis. In the present day given lack of reason or even civility in our public discourse in America, I am saddened that rhetoric is no longer offered as a major and that I did not avail myself of some rhetoric courses while it was.
As far as music goes I wish I had the talent and experience to have been a music major. I was fascinated that the assumption persisted even after my first public performance at UC Davis bombed. I made a bad choice of performing an individual interpretation of a beguine on a cornet. The event was the Mr. Gilmore contest in which I was a competitor. At the end of my performance the host asked with a bemused sense of awe, “Was that your own composition?” That sounds good if you are trying to impress the avant-guarde, but most of the people there were left wondering, “What the heck was that?” What I really should have done is just gone with my tried and true Satchmo impersonation and just played and sang St. Louis Blues like I did the spirit week show in high school. Why didn’t I? For some reason I got caught up in not fitting into a black stereotype and I forgot it was OK to just be entertaining and connect on common ground. I forgot that Louis Armstrong managed to be both a virtuoso and an entertainer who brought disparate cultures together by making his music accessible and fun; ain’t nothing wrong with having a little fun every now-and-again (yes ditch the formal English and speak colloquially). Coincidentally that same quarter I discovered I did have a knack for writing musical counterpoint in my music theory class; music theory was the first class I got an “A” in. I wonder if my life would have been like if I had switched majors?
Instead I went in as a biochemistry and biophysics major and I graduated with the same degree. It was not without some struggle, much of which had nothing to do with academic ability but with trying to resolve issues from childhood. Toward that end during my junior year I left school and took an undergraduate sabbatical (not part of the university syllabus) and worked at Heavenly Valley Ski resort. Lake Tahoe in winter was fun for a while with the ethos being that life was about partying, skiing and the other thing. At some point realizing there was more to life I skied down the mountain and re-enrolled in school. My first quarter back I worked two jobs and paid for my education. I had worked my freshman year even though I had full financial aid. I discovered my freshman year that many of my dorm mates could call home if they ran short on cash, but I was living the opposite reality wherein I would send money home if my mom ran short. When I returned to school it was my mom who called the director of financial aid to advocate for restoration of my financial aid for my senior year. It was an effective call. However I had learned something very valuable in coming back and working two jobs while going to school. I had cemented the answers to the questions. I was one of the few black students at UC Davis, even fewer studying science and one of a handful in my major. I had chosen my major because I had an interest in how the chemistry of the brain played a role in mood, perception and influenced behavior. I was there because I chose to be there and was not compelled by anyone else to be there pursuing that particular course of education. I was there because I was willing to do the work and make the sacrifices to be there.