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Authors: Gil Scott-Heron

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BOOK: The Last Holiday
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I would be all right when these few days were over and I was back in New York. I didn’t live in Jackson anymore. You can go home again, I thought, but only to visit.


The tinny school P.A. system at Clinton made voices sound like they were talking from the bottom of a well, and I can still remember the principal coming on there as I walked
into history one afternoon in November 1963, still damp from swimming class. He was saying something about a terrible event in Texas. “The president and some other people have been shot . . .
not yet clear about the extent of the injuries . . . awful thing to have happened . . .”

The history teacher was watery-eyed and red-faced, blowing her nose, not saying anything, not taking attendance. I edged sideways around some folks to my seat in the crowded room. Hell, I
thought to myself, this is a real shame. Is my whole high school life going to be this way?

After a while the voice was rising up from the well again.

“May I have your attention, please. I regret to inform you that your president is dead.” There were more words, but our teacher had heard enough. She took a step or two backward and
sat down, waving toward the door. School was over. Somebody had killed the president.

I did not recognize all the implications of a presidential assassination. But I recognized death. This one took over everything. It came into everyone’s house and sat down. It squeezed
into every radio on every station. And every television station had the same pictures at the same time. Pictures of Oswald. Pictures of Johnson, formerly the vice president, being sworn in on an
airplane. Pictures of the governor who got shot. Pictures of Kennedy’s wife. Pictures of the book repository. Empty again. The third floor window. The policeman who arrested Oswald. More
pictures of Oswald, the parkway . . . a replay of the motorcade from the other side of the parkway, opposite the book repository, elevated, squared up on the space where the cars will first appear.
Not a lot of area open because this hill obstructs, and there’s a viaduct with bare-headed men wearing raincoats with what are probably sawed-off Uzis. Glints of chrome and movement, people
turning. The midrange drone of the crowd lining the route rises in volume as the lead car appears and enters a patch of sunshine. People wave and applaud and from inside the applause, distant but
distinct: Crack! Crackcrack! Three shots with the second and third sounding as though they overlap.

Theories, speculation, inquiries, explanations.

Oswald being led in handcuffs off an elevator into a crowded hallway lined with the curious, the furious. There’s a deputy in a white hat who seems disturbed by the glare of the lights and
looks down to his left. The group pushes its way through the taut rows of bystanders, forming a parade-like path for the lawmen and their prisoner. Then an awkward intruder produces a gun and fires
point-blank, belt high. Oswald crumples forward as his assailant is wrestled down.
I’ve just seen a man murdered

When I started the second semester a few weeks later, things did not look good. I walked into my English class at 2:00 p.m. and found a young white chick who looked like a student herself.
Naturally she didn’t look like a Clinton student, but there was an all-girls high school down the parkway and she could have gotten by as an inmate from there. I figured she must be a
temporary replacement or a tutor or someone doing a field project for a sociology class. She was short, wore glasses, had a small voice, and maintained a counterfeit all-business front. If I had
known the Mormons had an off-the-compound work program, I might have pegged her for a missionary.

She did not look like someone who had been destined to pull faculty duty at an institution for eight thousand mostly Black and Latin boys in a joint laid out more like a penitentiary than a
school. On top of everything else, her name was
Nettie Leaf

What I came to enjoy about Miss Leaf was the way she took herself and her classes so seriously. It was far better to have a teacher who cared, about the class, about the material, about you, who
cared about something, than another ho-hum hour of holding on and trying to stay awake. English was not number one among the half-wits at DeWitt Clinton. But it was cool with me. If Miss Leaf
thought English was number one, how could I complain? So I showed up and didn’t fuck with her. Maybe I stood out because I read the damn homework:
The Lottery
by Shirley Jackson and
A Separate Peace
by John Knowles.

That homework was a real clue about Miss Leaf. Wherever she came from, the students might have really been into those stories, but this place was the exact opposite of wherever. I didn’t
ask the other students how they felt about it, but I thought
The Lottery
was justice. For once.
A Separate Peace
was the book that got me to the point where my communications with
Miss Leaf turned into static. I thought the book was white noise about white people; about her, not us. I don’t know why that particular book was the last straw. It was no more irrelevant
than anything else I read in school. At Creston I had read
Great Expectations
and Leon Uris, for crying out loud. I had performed in
The Mikado
without delving into the inherent
racism of either Gilbert or Sullivan, neither of whom had a fan club in the ghetto. But this was not an ethnic protest or part of the “Up with Harlem” movement. Hell, I didn’t
even live in Harlem. And aside from Langston Hughes’s column in
The Chicago Defender,
I wasn’t familiar with a lot of Black literature.

For two or three days in a row

I sat there like I didn’t know

Two or three hours went past

And I didn’t say nothing in class

She thought that I didn’t read it

So when she pushed me about where I was at

I said I could write better than that

And when she said she didn’t believe

I gave her some of my stuff to read.

Miss Leaf apparently liked my writing. Or thought she should. Or something. A few days later Miss Leaf asked me to stay after class. She asked where I came from and what else I had written and
whether I had heard of Fieldston and would I be willing to meet somebody?

The answers were Jackson, Tennessee, a lot of stuff, no, and meet who?

When she explained that Fieldston—not Feelston, as I heard it—was a school, I joked with her: “Is that your auld lang syne?”

Fortunately she got the joke. You had to be very careful about joking with white folks. They took everything, especially themselves, very seriously. And at the same time, they resented a brother
taking himself that same way.

“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “It’s in Riverdale and it’s a private school. I think it would be good for you. What would you think of that?”

What did I think of that? I’d never thought about it. I didn’t think I would be eligible, so I didn’t say anything. But the more I listened to Miss Leaf, the more I thought she
was the type of person people always thought I was: a hick, just off the Trailways bus from some town where the bus stopped at a combination general store–post office three times a week and
who thought everybody on TV had to be
real short
to fit in there. When she suggested a meeting with an old friend of hers who was a teacher at Fieldston, I thought, what the hell? After all,
if I could last a few more months, I might get an A in her class.

Which is how I ended up in a Howard Johnson’s on Fordham Road across from the Bronx Zoo. I had already had a cheeseburger and was dealing with a strawberry sundae, sitting in a booth of
either leather or linoleum, opposite Miss Leaf and a short, sandy-haired man with glasses, named Professor Heller. He was studying me like he wasn’t studying me. I watched him watching me and
tried to watch out. I also took my time with that ice cream. I was enjoying it, which was what they suggested, though I was wondering why they were just having Cokes.

I was getting curious as it went along, though. When Miss Leaf had brought up the possibility of attending Fieldston, I thought she was either kidding or just trying to be nice, which is what
some white folks did when they were kidding. I hadn’t taken the idea of this meeting too seriously. First of all because I didn’t think anybody who was plugged in that well to Fieldston
would be trying to get thirty thugs to pay attention in a last period English class at Clinton. If so, she must have committed some kind of felony for which she was paying penance. Maybe she had to
recruit someone as part of her penalty. But I didn’t see her as a top recruiter any more than I saw Clinton as prime recruiting territory—or anymore than I saw myself as a good recruit.
I was a long shot. How long? How about the odds against a jackass in the Kentucky Derby?

That meant that nothing happening there at HoJo’s was more important than that strawberry sundae. I was in a hell of a position. If I paid too much attention to the sundae, I would ignore
the people who bought it. But if I didn’t stay on it, it would melt, which would be unfortunate and also make it seem as if I didn’t want it. I did.

The meeting had put me between a rock and a hard place at home, too, with my mother. It had been a good move to say I was interested. My mother had heard about the school when she worked at the
library on 231st Street. She knew Fieldston was real, and was a real good school. My uncle, who was real sarcastic, said he didn’t believe in fairy tales unless they included a real fairy. I
got it.

So there we were, me, Miss Leaf, and Professor Heller, whose eyes seemed magnified behind his glasses, flicking a look my way every now and again. The two of them were good friends, and as the
time eased along I went from uncomfortable and irritable to amiable and agreeable. What I figured out halfway through that sundae was that nothing was happening that day. No matter what they said
or thought, unless I said I definitely would not do it, or got smart-alecky. I decided not to ask them whether it was true there were no Black people in Riverdale.

Professor Heller asked questions. He was a nice, soft-spoken gentleman who made me feel a little ashamed of my suspicions. I was looking at him like New Yorkers look at everything, like
it’s fake and he couldn’t possibly be a nice person appreciating my writing.

“And you’re from West Tennessee?” he asked.

“Yeah, Jackson,” I admitted.

“What did you come to New York for?”

“For good.” I was joking, not indignant.

“No, ha, ha. I mean, did your mother have a job opportunity here?”

“She knew she could get a job,” I said. “She’s got her masters.”

The conversation went on with small talk like that.

“And you think you might like Fieldston?”

“I don’t know if I’d like it. I understand it’s a good school.”

“It’s a very good school, with smaller classes and more intensive study, and better college opportunities come from that,” he said. “But you’d have to take an

I decided he could probably take, or at least understand, a joke.

“A physical? I could pass that.”

I had reached the end of my strawberry sundae.

So it was arranged. Sort of. The procedure, whatever it was, that would gain me admission to the Riverdale equivalent of Valhalla would be handled by Professor Heller. I understood this to be a
unique benefit, a lock, a guarantee—or as close to fact as yesterday’s
New York Times
. Like having a high-wire act done for you by Joseph Wallenda. Like getting The Amazing
Kreskin to pick your daily number. The only thing remaining was the mere formality of the admissions test. It was rarely an obstacle, I was told; it was more used like an aptitude test to gauge
what courses I needed to work on. So I went back to completing the year at a school I was now certain I could get out of, DeWitt Clinton, to working on my basketball game at whatever local gym was
open at night, and to picking up whatever work I could on Fordham Road.

Just before the exam, though, I took a sort of field trip to Fieldston to visit the place and audit a couple of classes. I really hated it. You needed to be rich just to drive past their campus,
which resembled a New England college, with all the buildings handsomely connected by walkways and gray stones encircling well-tended lawns. There was enough ivy on the walls to redo the outfield
at Wrigley Field. So when it came time for the test, I took a dive, threw it. The room where I took the test was like a college lecture hall. It was half-full, probably seventy-five people. They
might not have all been trying to get in for free like I was (Miss Leaf had said the tuition was about $2,200 a year) and it seemed unlikely they were all trying to get into the eleventh grade. I
doubted there would be more than a dozen openings in a Fieldston class in five years, unless a bomb was dropped on Wall Street. I spent the full three hours on the English section, but once the
math section started, I gave straight answers on thirty-five or forty questions and left after about an hour.

Two weeks later, the phone rang at our apartment. It was Professor Heller. I hadn’t been expecting a call, figured they’d send a letter. But maybe it was good that the professor
called: I owed him an apology or a thank you. It needed to be something like, “Thank you for the chance I kicked away, sir.” Saying that I could have done better on the test
wouldn’t sound any more convincing to the professor than it sounded rattling around inside my head, and I knew it was true. But if I couldn’t convince myself . . .

“. . . somewhat disappointing test results,” he was saying.

That was a slick way of putting it.

I can’t say I didn’t know how much my mother wanted me to go to Fieldston. I can say that as I listened to Professor Heller, I
I knew how much she wanted it. I
didn’t know again.

“. . . and the committee was not enthusiastic about it. But if you’re willing to meet . . . I need to ask you again, however, if you really want to come here, Gil, because if you
don’t, then we’re wasting our time.”

BOOK: The Last Holiday
7.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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