The incident with too much rum on New Year’s Eve aside, I entered 1998, the year I would graduate high school,well. And once my last semester of school started at the end of January it was smooth sailing. I had more than enough credits to graduate, so I only took two classes. My first was Contemporary World Problems, headed by one of my favorite teachers.
Mr. Washington, a hazel-eyed deep cinnamon-skinned middle-aged Black man, was always dapper, showing up to class in suspenders daily. He smiled as he introduced us to the works of diverse intellectuals like John Stuart Mill and George James. He was like a father to us and he clearly enjoyed his profession. Whenever I indulged my gift of gab too much and went on a tangent he gently reeled me back in.
“Ms. Danielle, let’s get back to the main topic, shall we”, he’d ask, peering at me over the rim of his glasses.
“Yes sir”, I’d respond as my fellow seniors chuckled, “I’m sorry, I just get carried away at times.”
“I know, it’s your age. But I appreciate your zeal. Now class please return to your handouts. Mr. Strong, please start reading at the top of the page…”
I enjoyed Contemporary World Problems and was an avid reader, so I earned a 4.0 without breaking a sweat. My second class was being a teachers’ assistant, which required so little work that the teacher sometimes let me leave early. When my classes ended around 11am I took the bus to my job at a local drug store, where I worked in the cosmetics department.
I joined the work force at sixteen years old with my Grandma’s blessing and encouragement. I took pride in my ability to hustle for myself, reveling in the fact that I no longer had to ask my Grandma for money every time I wanted something. All of my expenses during my senior year-senior pictures, yearbook, cap and gown and graduation invitations-came out of my pocket. Every two weeks my friend Tisha-who had a hustle of her own working at a department store-joined me at the nail shop, where we luxuriated in getting our acrylic nails filled and our feet pedicured. I wasn’t an adult by law yet, but I already knew that having my money was a necessity.
As the winter ended and the date of our graduation approached the collective anticipation grew. Tisha and I tooled around Seattle in her mom’s white 1994 Mazda Protégé together, singing along to a jam from a new girl group out of Texas called Destiny’s Child:
Soon enough we would finally be done with this stage of life, and I was elated! I wasn’t the meek and unsure of herself girl who walked through the doors in the fall of 1994. The teasing for not having the right clothes, the sting of the colorism, the longing to be part of the “in” crowd-all of it had dissipated by that point. I was good. In May I attended my senior prom solo. Two years prior I’d rather stay home than attend a school formal without a boy on my arm, but by 17 I knew I didn’t require one to be happy. Sure I didn’t have a date, but I refused to miss out on my last dance with my friends because of it!
On the second Friday in June the countdown started! It was senior checkout day! I rose early to do my makeup, sweeping my face with MAC’s Studio Fix Powder Foundation in NW45 and opting for an intense plum Max Factor gloss. I knew that my day would probably involve walking, so I opted for a sporty look. I threw on a fitted white tank top, ankle length fitted black jersey skirt and a close-fitting blue Nike jacket. When I finished dressing I grabbed my purse, told my Grandma I was leaving and walked to the bus stop to head to school.
As we stood in line together no one was thinking of academic matters. We were good to go, and as we waited in line, chattering excitedly among ourselves, someone put on Big Pun’s “Still Not A Player”:
At that point senior check out turned into an impromptu party. I rocked along and recited the beginning of the second verse with my graduating class:
‘I love from Butter Pecan to Blackberry Molass,
I don’t DISCRIMINATE, I regulate every shade of the ass!
Long as you show class, and pass my test…’
By the time the song reached the bridge and the ‘boricua, morena’ chant commenced we had a Soul Train line going. The Vice Principal emerged from his office and told us to chill out. Tisha and I were done, so we went outside to wait for the rest of the clique. The day was still early and we had nothing to do. As more students trickled out Tisha suggested we go out to eat.
“I’m down, but what spot do you have in mind”, I asked her.
“Let’s do Red Robin, they have something for everyone”, Tisha replied.
“Works for me!”
“Aight, bet!” Tisha walked away and corralled everyone we wanted to join us. Within thirty minutes we had our caravan assembled and left school for the restaurant. We reminisced over our past four years together, laughing often as we stuffed our faces.
The following Tuesday we filled the seats at Seattle’s Memorial Stadium, thigh to thigh in Kelly green cap and gown. In between speeches we broke out into the class chant which deeply perturbed my aunts sitting in the audience:
“9-8, 9-8, what you BE? P-I-M-P-I-N-G!”
When the ceremony ended one of my aunts couldn’t wait to interrogate me. She demanded to know why we repeated the chant, and condemned me for not making it into the National Honor Society. I looked at her and thought of the fact that she was so preoccupied me with being negative that she didn’t hug or congratulate me. I couldn’t recall her ever asking me about my grades or volunteering to help. But here she was at my graduation, upset that I didn’t live up to rigorous academic standards that she failed to do damn thing to help me achieve.
There was much I wanted to say to her. But I knew her seniority and status as an elder meant I could never tell her about herself, even if it was warranted. So I smiled and played the dumb, submissive role that I was expected to, refraining from “talking back” and simply nodding in agreement. I may not have been a member of the NHS, and I may have been only seventeen, but I was still more together and mature than a few of her adult children. I hugged and spoke with the rest of my family, then left them to enjoy Grad Night with my class. This was our time, and no one was going to kill my vibe.
The following morning the charter bus that our school PTSA paid for to transport us to and from Grad Night dropped me home around 6am. Our Grad Night as drug and alcohol-free and chaperoned by parents, and it was GREAT! Even those who complained a sober Grad Night would be lame came along, and I think it was the combined energy that made it fun for us all.
I walked in the door, said hello to my Grandma and promptly collapsed in my bed. When I woke up that evening I felt refreshed. My Grandma’s pride in my graduation was more than enough to make up for my aunt’s bad attitude that night. Three days after graduation Grandma would pull me aside and congratulate me again.
“Baby, I’m so proud of you”, she said as tears streamed down her face. Her glee took me off guard initially, but on second thought I understood why. The combination of Jim Crow and poverty meant Grandma ceased school in the Third grade. Sixty-six years later her grandchild officially had more education than she ever would, and she rejoiced in that.
With high school behind me and nothing but work on my immediate agenda I had a lot of free time on my hands. In a month I would reach the magic number of eighteen. I felt invincible standing on the edge of adulthood. Four years prior on his debut album, Illmatic, Nas told my generation that the world was ours. In the summer of 1998 I believed it.