MAXWELL:  The hard lessons you learn on your own

8/22/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Summer is ending, and with its end comes one of our most important rites of passage: Thousands of teenagers leave home for their freshman year at college.

It is a bittersweet time for most parents _ especially if the child is traveling far away. It is when adults must let go. It is an ambivalent time for many teens, who are thrilled to be on their own but who, deep down, are afraid to face the unknown without the familiar, steady hand of mom and dad.

Do you remember your own day of reckoning, when your folks kissed you, hugged you and sent you into the world? Do you recall that first semester in a new place among perfect strangers, that first year of living on a real budget, the agony of scheduling time for books and booze, the seeming Quixotic task of making sense of career-planning and love.

As vividly as I remember the day John F. Kennedy was killed, I remember that Saturday in August 1963, when my grandparents sent me away to Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. I was to catch the train in Jacksonville. In our 1949 Chevy sedan, we drove on U.S. Highway 17 to East Palatka, where grandmother ordered grandfather to take State Road 207 east through Hastings and Spuds. This was the less direct route.

Immediately, I realized why grandmother had brought me 40 miles out of the way. She was shrewed and constantly thinking and teaching, but, on this day, she was brilliant.

A few miles east of Hastings, we passed potato fields on both sides of the highway, where black men, women and children stooped over and crawled in the rich earth. Muscular black men loaded bags filled with potatoes onto flatbed trucks. I recognized many of the workers. Some of the children were my friends and schoolmates from Crescent City.

Grandmother’s lesson was clear. Just a few days earlier, to earn money for my college clothes, I had worked in these very fields alongside these same people. I, too, had crawled on the ground, grabbed handfuls of potatoes, tossed them into a wire basket and dumped them into burlap bags. I, too, had sweated beneath the Northeast Florida sun. I had drunk the putrid sulfur water from leaky field wells.

Some of my friends recognized our green car, spotted me in the backseat and stopped working, their gazes following our Chevy. They knew I was going to college. Everyone in Crescent City knew. The local newspapers, the daily and the weekly, had made a summerlong big deal of me _ the first kid from all-black Middleton High School to win a college football scholarship.

Grandmother’s lesson? I was to bid permanent farewell to backbreaking, thankless field work and poverty. I was to “make something out of myself.” But I was never to turn my back on farm workers and farm work per se.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, staring at the shirtless, very dark-skinned, tall, skinny boy leaning against the bucking John Deere. I pitied him. He had dropped out of 10th grade.

Upon arriving at Wiley College the next afternoon, I went directly to the gym, where the football players would be housed until classes began in about two weeks and the regular dormitories opened. The non-air-conditioned building reeked of toe jam, jock itch, liniment, sundry medicated powders, old sweat and Lord knows whatever other chemicals and body fluids associated with high-strung football players _ some weighing as much as 300 pounds _ each fighting for a spot on the team.

During our first day on the practice field, I learned a hard lesson in following rules. Pop Long, our head coach, a big man with a big bald head, called me to the sideline: “Come heah, Florida (If you were not from Texas, you were called by the name of your state).” I ran to him as fast as I could. “What’s dat on your finger?” I was wearing my high school class ring, a no-no printed in the rule book mailed to all prospects. “Give it heah,” Pop said. I removed it and handed it to him. No jewelry was permitted on the field.

I expected him to put it in his pocket for safekeeping. Instead, he threw it deep into the woods. In shock, I rejoined the running backs for wind sprints. Then Pop called another player: “Come heah, Arkansas,” a giant tackle who eventually played pro. Well, Arkansas was dumb enough to have been wearing a wrist watch. Into the woods it went.

Pop grabbed the bullhorn from an assistant and told the other players they had 10 minutes to run into the gym and get rid of any contraband. About 25 players dashed inside and returned. Pop Long introduced me to college life, at least college for his players. After that day, I never broke another team rule. And I was on my own.