The Lies of Mr. Smith’s Truth

My Freshmen year at West Mesa High was challenging to say the least. I had not only grown physically, but a rebellious streak took hold, especially in the face of my school teachers and my Evil-Ex-Step-Father. At fourteen years old I certainly felt invincible, and I had the attitude to match. I rarely did any homework, partied at friends’ houses where I often drank, if not very drunk, and I had started smoking cigarettes, Marlboro Reds, specifically. I only partially cared to listen to my teachers. I had gone to a party one December Friday night in 1989, where Matt’s mom was out of town, and since we’d all be getting our report cards in the mail after the weekend, which showed how much we didn’t give a shit about school, we decided to get drunk before we were inevitably grounded. My last year in middle school was a high that I had let go of for falling all the way down to the bottom, and I didn’t give a fuck. I passed my Freshmen year in high school by the skin of my teeth, and the good will of several teachers. I also didn’t fill out my Sophomore class form and when it was just a week away from the start of that school year, I had little to choose from.

English and Math were obviously there, then there was Social Studies and Biology, and a second year of P.E. (Physical Education) since I was on the Track and Field Team, but there were still two electives I had to choose. There were four options: Drama, Band, Electronics I and AutoCAD I. I had no interest in Drama, and there was no way my Evil-Ex-Step-Father was going to pay for band, so I took the latter two, reluctantly. The following Junior and Senior years I followed those classes up with Electronics II, Advanced Electronics, Architecture I and Architecture II. I had fallen in love with building, designing, in both structures and digital pathways. Somehow, I kept forgetting about that accidental discovery of love. I think I finally understand why.

So, here I sit, after about two full weeks of Finals for four classes, with my mental spaces freed up for both blogging (sorry about the wait in-between posts) and time to watch films, and docu-series. So, I sit down after dinner and watch “Who Killed Malcom X?” I’m hooked instantly. I’ve talked about my love of and connection to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but Malcom X equally moves me. How? Malcom X spoke truth to power, similar to Dr. King, but called for action, and to take what was rightfully theirs, dignity, respect, authority, and human rights, away from those who’d oppress, ridicule, debase, and deny the African-American their fundamental human rights. From that, it’s obvious why those in authority, white authority (was there any other then?), saw Malcom X as threat that was “fomenting descent” and “could potentially cause civil disobedience to become riot, or even revolt.” Many Americans recoiled from his words, and even when his name is mentioned, long after his death, people still recoil, either in disgust or fear. Fear makes people do things that would normally be abhorrent, and even shameful. Anyway, before I get too sidetracked, the instructor that taught AutoCAD, which I learned on an ancient 8808, and Architecture, was Mr. Smith. He stood about six feet in height, rail thin, with thick glasses and the stench of stale tobacco. His hair were grey wisps that gently waved as he darted in and out of the class for a smoke. “Don’t smoke in class! Go outside like I do, and don’t even think about coming to class high as a kite. Been there, done that. Trust me. Ever smoked banana skins?” This was how he began every year. “Well, I have, and they taste like shit, so don’t do it! Got it!” Mr. Smith looked as though he was the typical hippie, but now middle aged. Every day to class he wore a white smock, filled with pencils, pens, erasers, and triangles. I learned everything I could about architecture from him, and in his second year class I showed him the crazy houses and offices I’d make out of geometric and parabolic patterns, and when my Senior year was winding down, I had decided that I wanted to go to a university that specialized in architecture. I have forgotten which one, though it could have been UNM or NMSU, and the more I think about it, I think it was NMSU. All I needed was a recommendation from Mr. Smith since he was the only one in the school that taught CAD and Architecture. This was what he said:

“I want to write you that recommendation, but unless you’ve got a slit or you’re secretly brown, you’ll never make it.” At first, I was taken aback by his choice of words. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard white men talk about those different than themselves, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it was the first time in three years I had heard him speak that way. I didn’t know what to say. I’m sure I looked defeated, because he frowned, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Yup. You’ve gotta be a fucking wetback around here to make it anywhere these days. I’m sorry to tell you this, John. You’re one of my best students, but Meagan” (my high school sweetheart who was also an amazing architect student), “has a better shot than you, and that’s because she’s a girl.” I was very impressionable as a teen and young adult, especially when it came to male role models. Unfortunately, they kept letting me down, and revealed just how much institutionalized bigotry and racism they held on to as fact. Though it didn’t make sense to me, I still took him at his word. The very idea that in order for those who are different than you to be acknowledged, treated with dignity, and equality means that those who match the dominant, common denominator lose something in return is a lie. There is nothing lost, aside from the preferential treatment because of someone’s look, ethnicity, gender, religiousness, or orientation. Let me be clear. Yes, I believe that if a man or woman of color and I are in competition for a position, where we are both equally qualified by education and experience, that they should be given extra consideration and be chosen over me for this reason: Mr. Smith was wrong. Since I look and can act the part the straight, white, educated male, with blond hair and blue eyes that are paired with a booming, cheerful, and passionate voice, I will almost always, and at least so far, land on my feet. I, unfortunately, will always have the advantage over a person of color, or a more flamboyant gay man, or a woman, especially when it comes to advancement. It may be far better than what it was for Malcom X or Dr. King, but we’ve got a ways to go, and just to make sure you heard it right this time: Mr. Smith was wrong.