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Scouting out Universities


Spring break sneaked up on me like a gentle breeze.  I called Jeremy once again just before the break, updating him on what my life had been like since we last spoke.  He said he and Reinhard were preparing to leave New Mexico to head towards Kentucky, and then on to the East Coast.  He didn’t know when they would be back to the LA area.  I felt my aspirations of joining the Jesus Christians dwindling.

I had been invited to attend “Black Senior Weekend” at the University of California at Berkeley, near San Francisco, during the break.  They would fly me up, along with other students invited for the program, and we would experience university life there for a few days.

Jared and Sheila wanted to come along as well.  They insisted that, while I was there I should visit Stanford, which was number two on their uni wish list.  Stanford was much further from Long Beach than the University of Southern California; but people respected Stanford graduates more than Berkeley graduates or USC graduates too, for that matter.  Stanford ranked third in the country in terms of wealth, right behind Harvard and Yale.  Sheila and Jared both liked that.  By this stage, Stanford had also offered me an academic scholarship, and they, too, had invited me for a senior orientation program that same weekend.

We decided that I should ride to the universities with Jared, Sheila, and Josh, and then take the Cal-sponsored flight back with the other senior invites.  I looked forward to a fun trip.

The drive from our house, in Long Beach, to UC Berkeley, in Oakland, took about eight hours.  When we arrived on campus, we saw a bunch of Black bums walking around.  They sported long, shaggy dreads, which hadn’t seen water in years.  Jared went berzerk; he couldn't handle the sight of poverty.

“Aw’, f*** no, hell ‘naw,” Jared kept muttering.  He worked himself up just looking at the campus.  Unlike Stanford or UCLA, which both featured posh, segregated campuses in upper class areas, Cal sat in the heart of the city.  The school was surrounded by poverty, with heaps of homeless people walking around the neighborhood.  This, more than anything else, turned Jared totally off the University of California at Berkeley.

I said goodbye to my folks, then headed in for the start of the program.  We were to be broken up into teams, and introduced to one another for the opening night festivities.  I was looking forward to it.

Several of my high school classmates were there, including the cousin of one of my basketball teammates, and a girl I used to know when I was younger, named Sierra.

The opening ceremony went well.  Everyone was bursting with energy and enthusiasm.  The school had made a strong first impression on me.

I called Jared and Sheila in the morning, and arranged to meet them outside campus.  The program at Cal would not start officially until later that afternoon, so there was some time to go with them to visit Stanford... but just briefly.

Unlike Cal, Stanford was located in a suburb that had been designed specifically for the university.  To call the farm town nice would be an under-statement - it was absolutely beautiful.  Everything oozed wealth.  Comparing Stanford to Cal was like comparing Beverly Hills to Compton.

At Berkeley I had specifically asked to be left alone for the opening ceremony, but we attended the ceremonies at Stanford together, as a family.  In Sheila and Jared’s mind, this was all about “honoring” my parents, i.e. taking them along with me to privileged places that they might not otherwise be able to attend.

We were all given free passes to a lunch buffet, as part of the festivities.  As I walked through the cafeteria, something started to dawn on me.  I saw Whites, Asians, a few Latinos, but only one or two Blacks amongst the entire crowd.  Not very "diverse" as far as I could see.  I started to feel self-conscious about my race.

After lunch, our guide led us on a tour around the campus.  The layout was an architect's dream, featuring a fantastic library, and lots of lush, green hills.  Despite my cynicism, I had to admit: it was beautiful.

We hung around the uni a bit longer after the tour, sight-seeing and people-watching, before I told Sheila I wanted to leave.  I had seen enough to have a good idea about what life would be like there, and I wanted to return to Cal Berkeley before the afternoon activities began.  Sheila and Jared both protested, complaining that I should at least wait for the main ceremony to start.  Eventually, though, they gave up, and we headed back to Berkeley.

I arrived just before the afternoon activities were to begin.  I hung out with some of the friends I had made at the opening ceremony on the previous night, as well as Sierra.  I liked the whole feel of the place.

That night we split into different groups again, and we took the train into San Francisco to do some sight-seeing.

I spent a fair bit of time with a girl who was a part of my team.  She was both attractive, and flirtatious.  My focus was more on her than on “the city”.  It was an exciting evening.

The next day started with another short meeting before we split up into groups again.  I ran into Jordan Wilkes, the son of former basketball star Jamaal Wilkes of the Los Angeles Lakers.  Jordan and I had played basketball together for Belmont Shore when I was sixteen.  At 6’10”, I could hardly miss him on the campus.

I called Sheila at some point, to let her know I was okay, and enjoying myself.  She asked if I wanted to come home with them.  I said no, I wanted to stay until the program ended, and then fly back with the other students on my own.  They left the next morning without me.

I had a lot of fun that evening.  We had an entertainment night, and people performed on stage inside the school’s auditorium.  I especially enjoyed a “crump” battle between two guys in opposing groups.  They did a good job of getting the crowd involved, which added to the excitement.

I headed to the main office in the morning to fill out some paperwork for my scholarship admissions.  They said they could not approve my scholarship until I signed a form registering for the US army.  That news came as a surprise.

After leaving admissions, I went with one of my “big buddies” to see the school’s track coach.  The school had a good track team, well-known for their sprint relays in particular.  One of my classmates at Serra High School, Kimyon Broom, had received a scholarship to run track there starting that fall.

I saw the coach; we chatted briefly.  He said my times so far that year were not fast enough to qualify for a scholarship.  Still, he said if I could shave a few tenths of a second off my times, I might be able to qualify for one of the relay teams the following year.  I liked that part.  In all of this, I was getting swept along to the point where I was forgetting my plans to join the Jesus Christians, and just becoming intoxicated by the excitement of what college life might mean for me personally.

We had a picnic lunch to cap things off that afternoon before preparing for a dance party that evening.  Apart from some lunch-time Valentine’s thing I had gone to earlier in the year, I never went to dances.  You could call me a prude; parties just weren’t my thing.  Still, I considered going to the one that night at Berkeley.  At eighteen, the time had come for me to start stepping out a bit, and trying new things.  I decided to go.

Dark lights and loud music greeted me at the door.  I tried to walk in confidently, like a regular party-goer, but the truth is, I hadn't a clue what to do.

I posted myself against the wall in the back, with some of the other guys at the party, and observed everyone else's actions.  I spotted people going “dumb” to E-40 and T-Pain, getting “krunk”, and “battling” each other in the middle of the dance floor.  But as the music changed, so did the dancing.

All of a sudden, the guys and the girls in the center started engaging in what I could only describe as dry sex.  It shocked me; I started wondering what I had gotten myself into.

Then, before I knew it, a girl from the crowd moved over in front of where I was standing near the wall, and started doing the same thing to me!  Almost instinctively, I found myself following her lead.  The whole thing felt good, but not good, at the same time.

I decided to leave the party early that night.  Something about the whole scene just didn’t feel right.

The next morning I boarded the plane back to L.A., and spotted Sierra.  She had an empty seat directly next to her.  I raced over quickly, and asked if I could sit there for the ride back to L.A.

Sierra was especially nice.  I found her attractive, and smart, but not hands-on or aggressive like some of the other girls I had met that weekend.  She had a good spirit.  We chatted about trivia for a bit, before I asked her a serious question.  I explained that I did not yet have a date for the prom, and wondered if she might be willing to accompany me.  My question was way too soon in the relationship and so it caught her by surprise.

Sierra asked when my prom was.  I told her late May, just one month away.  The prom for her high school, King-Drew, was just a few days after that.

She said she couldn’t go, because she had too much going on that week, and she had not been given enough notice to prepare.  I nodded, and said I understood.

Inside, I'm not sure what I felt.  I was hardly heart-broken, as I hadn’t seen her for years before that weekend at Cal.  I already knew that having waited so late to get a date was risky, and that the odds of her saying yes were slim.  In effect, I got what I deserved; but it was still embarrassing.

The rest of the flight dragged.  Sierra and I sat in an awkward silence, with neither of us knowing what to say.  Nevertheless, I showed no emotion.

When the flight landed, Sierra quickly got her things, and rushed off the plane.  She didn’t even say goodbye.  My question, and my inability to follow it up with small talk, had made things weird between the two of us.  I never heard from her again after that day.

Click here to read Part 13 of Joe's Story

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