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The Long Journey to Moments of Pride

The Long Journey to Moments of Pride

                       By Jaren Epps

Jaren EppsMy best friend, Jason, and I sit at a table in a ballroom watching a parade of 200 high school students, all one year my senior, march to the microphone. The men wear suits and white gowns drape the women. They announce their names, the colleges they will attend, and waltz to Glory. Chills run through my spine when I see seniors that I know reach the same microphone I will approach next year. Then they become graduates of Jack and Jill, an organization of black families.

This graduation did not resemble the pictures of blackness that once made me ashamed to be black. The mere word “slavery” once frightened me. In fourth grade I covered my ears, refusing to hear class discussions on plantation whipping poles.  I also shook my head or turned off the television when I saw news stories on black criminals. I did not want to be black.

My journey beyond this shame accelerated when a strange hand grabbed me and forced a blindfold around my eyes. Thrown to the cold floor, someone ordered me to get up and I felt chains on my ankles and heavy handcuffs squeezing my wrists. “I’m here to take pictures,” I fretted to myself.  Instead, I walked with 25 young men in discomfort through a wooded area to the sands of the rivershore. I heard an elder scream: “Try doing it again and I will throw you into the river.” Someone must have peeked through the blindfold.  

After trudging through the sand in 98 degree heat in a suit for hours, I heard the crinkle of the leaves and the clink of a metal key. My cuffs dropped to the floor. “Take off your blindfold,” an elder bellowed.  Our surprise simulation of slavery ended. Lifting the fold, I saw my friend Marcus’ black shoes. I found the courage to look up. Rows of benches surrounded a bright campfire. At 14, I graduated from Blue Nile’s Rites of Passage Program, which builds character in black youth.

The program featured movies like Roots, focused on the strength of blacks through the horrors of slavery. I found myself empowered, becoming a history buff. I had been a member of Jack and Jill for years, but I never valued the organization’s alternative narrative of the black experience until I embraced my heritage. There were bigger lessons beyond race in forming friendships through both experiences.  I saw the manifestation of this when my bestfriend, Jason, crumbled into my arms sobbing a couple of years ago. At the age of two, our parents threw us in the pool together to learn how to swim. We hung on to each other, crying. Treading water, we had to sink or swim. We always joked that, despite our floaties, it felt like the worst moment of our lives. We were wrong.

I was 16 when Jason sent the text.  

(3:07) – Bro, I have some really sad news. My brother Steven passed away today.

I couldn’t believe it: the same Steven who taught me to shoot a basketball and snowboard. A Harvard Law grad. Our role model.

My pain compounded in learning Steven committed suicide. In the midst of a huge Valentine’s Day snowstorm, I left boarding school to join Jason’s family.


At home, Jason called me downstairs to play video games. In the middle of
Call of Duty, he broke down weeping in my arms. There was nothing to say. I simply embraced him for as long as he needed, hoping my silence comforted him.  

Undoubtedly, Jack and Jill and Blue Nile strengthened my character in a way that helped me through the moment of a tragic loss. While both imparted an appreciation of my culture, they also conditioned me to see beyond self and value friendship through a challenging moment, a memory that will be with Jason and I when we approach the microphone next year.

 

Jaren Epps, a graduate of The Salisbury School, will be a freshman at Morehouse College in the Fall.

 

Lesson from a Bully

by Marquis Lockett

Death is the only word that could explain the looks on their faces. I wanted to know who died, but was too scared to ask. My father’s Acura in the garage at three o’clock on a weekday was the first clue something wasn’t right. When I walked into the house, a tension slapped me in the face as I noticed my parents’ looks of sorrow. Was it my grandparents? My sister? A close family friend? No. It was my father’s career at Johnson and Johnson that had been put to rest after nineteen years. At this moment I met my first bully: the recession.

My dad’s unemployment threw me into the ring against the heavyweight champion of America: the economy of 2009. My hometown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was the kind of community that shielded you from seeing beyond good schools, large colonial homes, and the renowned reenactment of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. I soon realized that this view of life was not free.

Instead of seeing Public Enemies in the movie theater, I relied on my friends’ descriptions of John Dillinger’s robberies. On hot summer days, I walked passed Rita’s Water Ice with an empty wallet. Worst of all, my parents could no longer afford my trip to Europe as a student ambassador.

Until then, I lived by a common American ethic: work hard and opportunities materialize. I began to question this idea until my grandparents came through at the last minute. They worked for some 120 years combined: Granddaddy as a teacher and my Granny as a U.S Postal worker. To help out, they dipped into their retirement savings and sacrificed a trip they were planning to finance mine.

I traveled to France, Greece, and Italy the summer before my sophomore year. In Italy, I spent three days with the Rossis, an Italian family. I first struggled with the language barrier when I met Arianna Rossi, the family’s teenage daughter. We discovered we both spoke Spanish and communicated through that language. In doing so, we crystallized our commonalities. We both loved hanging out with friends and both confronted the same “he said she said” teenage drama.

The Rossis’ family dinner was always first priority and I learned to “properly” eat pasta. The parents and the kids were not the only ones at the table; Arianna’s grandparents were there as well. Unfortunately, my grandparents live in California so dinner with them every night isn’t an option. However, these moments with the Rossis touched me because I owed this very experience to my grandparents. Living with the Rossis helped me see the cross cultural power of family.

When I returned home, the recession blindsided me once again. My mom announced that my father found a new job and we were moving to Boston in a month. As soon as I heard “moving” I stormed out of the room.

A month passed in a day’s worth of time and I found myself waking up in a small suburb called Hopkinton. I went from a school of more than 3,000 kids to one with barely 1,200 where “wicked” was the most popular word. I no longer heard words from my Bucks County vocabulary: “cool,” “nice,” and “ill.” I also noticed that my Philadelphia Eagles’ jersey triggered frowns in New England Patriot Nation. Once again I was experiencing culture shock but this time in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

In Italy, I learned that speaking a different language did not have to divide people. Using this thought process, football became my vehicle of assimilation into my new school. Like math, football doesn’t change geographically so I dove into the program. It was difficult going from a playoff caliber team in Bucks County to a losing one that had finished 3-8 the previous season. My days with the Rossi family gave me the confidence to search for similarities with my new teammates. I made new friends with new accents and our team improved to a 6-4 record last year. Through my battles with that bully, the recession, I have became a stronger person and learned a lesson. No matter where you are, people are people. With that knowledge, I can succeed anywhere.

Marquis Lockett is a Freshman at Morehouse College and a 2012 graduate of Hopkinton High School in Hopkinton, MA.