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Back in the Day

By TT Clinkscales · June 15th, 2005 · The Alternative

"I never thought I'd grow up so fast, so far/ To know yourself is to let yourself be loved"

-- "Get Me," Everything But The Girl

Back in the summer of 1985, I'd just completed my sophomore year of high school in Asheville, N.C., and was preparing for a six-week summer program at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country.

That fall, I would begin a new life as a boarding student at the McCallie School for Boys in Chattanooga, Tenn., and eventually chart an academic path with the University of Pennsylvania as my final destination.

Another star-gazer, Edmund Evans Perry, walked a few steps ahead of me. Eddie was from Harlem, an honors student who'd impressed those around him with his dreams, his intelligence and his single-minded focus. He'd just graduated from Exeter, had a summer job as an intern with a Wall Street brokerage house and was on his way to Stanford University in the fall.

He was a street-smart kid from the city, the middle child with an intelligent older brother he was surpassing at every interval and a younger sister who would probably never be able to emerge from the shadows cast by her academically gifted brothers. I was the polite Southern boy, the Good Black, the one who quietly and quickly answered every question posed in the classroom and rarely bothered to ask any of my own.

Eddie told the adults who watched over him in that cloistered pre-Ivy world that he wanted to succeed so he could go back to Harlem and make a difference.

He was the darling of his family and his community, the Chosen One who just might transcend the downward spiralling matrix that drained the hopes and dreams of so many others. Like Eddie, I was one of Asheville's neo-strivers.

You grow up fast living so far away from home and with such great expectations -- not just your own but also those of your family and your community that likely contain a complex and complicated mix of pride and scorn brewing in a stew of race and class. And don't forget the naive assumptions of your new peers with their all-too-real spoons more precious than silver and the well-meaning definitions of school and scholarship foundation administrators who hope they're doing the right thing bringing you there.

Eddie and I were inexplicably joined together on June 12, 1985, the night he was shot and killed under questionable circumstances by a plain-clothes NYC police officer. In an instant, he was no longer ahead of me on the path.

I looked for him later that summer while I was at Exeter. I tried to find traces of his time on the campus where he lived and interacted with a collection of peers who probably never truly understood him or where he was from, peers who couldn't fathom how his journey could end this way. Truth be told, initially I couldn't wrap my head around it either, but I had more pressing reasons to figure it all out.

I struggled in the beginning. I held on to Eddie in a bit of a death grip, afraid that if I let go he'd disappear forever. That's a funny way to feel about someone I'd never even met, but I was a sci-fi and fantasy fan of Michael Moorcock and could envision a world where Eddie and I were incarnations of Moorcock's Eternal Champion, a hero who lives throughout time and space simultaneously in various guises and yet at the core exists in one singular identity.

Eventually, after graduating from McCallie, then from Penn, I started asking questions in an effort to escape some of the external expectations from society and the rising generation of Chosen Ones who were prepared to follow us. I asked Eddie, knowing I wouldn't get any answers from him, not directly.

I would never know what happened to him the night he was shot or hear first-hand about his experiences at Exeter or during his semester abroad in Spain or the reports about his more notorious exploits on campus and up in Harlem. But the gaps in what I could find out about him presented the opportunity to create an alternative narrative and helped me set a new course for myself as a writer.

Twenty years later, I continue down the road with the rest of the opening lyric guiding me. To know yourself is to let yourself be loved.

I wonder how well Eddie came to know himself before June 12, 1985. I'm not sure it matters now.

But I can say that he and I have indeed come a long way since then, and there's much love and respect. He remains one of my inspirations, one of my champions, and I'm eternally grateful to him.

TT CLINKSCALES: His column appears here in the third issue of each month.


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