“This is just a crisis….this is not a breakdown…this is not unusual…I feel okay…look at all the pictures…look at how I’m smiling…this is just a crisis…I’m holding on…”
-Paul Oakenfold compiled song “This Is Just a Crisis”
Ben was writing some gibberish across the dry-erase marker board in the guise of stock quotations. His black fingers, while writing, made the marker squeak as he wrote. For a minute, various people in the computer room would pause to take a look at what he was writing, but after briefly turning their attention to it, they could not make it out; or it didn’t interest them, so their attention went back to what they were doing. But I knew Ben from another one of my classes. The blue-black, shiny, bald- headed Ghanaian was always to me one of those welcome “comic-relief” types of classmates; someone who always gave a studious, stressed, yet gifted scholar a perspective on life on the outside of the madness of campus finals. Something about Ben this day was very different though. Contrasting with the blackness of his skin were fingernails that appeared to be painted, like with nail polish, in a pink color.
At first I thought he was being funny, but I remember him rattling on about Payne Webber to another classmate and me; though we paid him half attention, our egos were up our asses about Options valuation and the Black-Scholes pricing model; and the derivatives of our Economics equations and optimization techniques. Whether or not the second derivative test was needed…we were like geeks, but the difference was that we had our groupies. Chicks that would dig us study with us and do the nasty with us for our big heads. Regardless, this was a very competitive and egotistical time, and my current awareness regarding sensitivity and compassion weren’t in force. My life had only three focuses: breakdancing, studying, and fucking.
Around this time everything was going according to my plans. I was making money underground and making good grades in college. I was the poster boy for a book/street smart combination. In the game enough to get what I wanted, but with a plan to parlay those earnings into legitimate enterprise.
Around this time, Jadakiss, one of my favorite rappers, had come out with his first solo album with Nate Dogg on the hook. I was listening to his song “When Kiss is spittin’” driving my brand new, black import car with the black just-under-legal tint, with the 17” platinum phang chrome wheels and armor all on the tires. I was the intelligent renegade, with the mind and the muscle. My ego was primed, and at the time, I felt that anyone who was doing anything that deviated from my expectations/standards about what life was supposed to be was an aberration.
I treated Ben like this. When I saw him frequently in school, I used to look down on him for several reasons. First, I thought he was ugly. Second, I didn’t like the fact that he was African (although my own father was and from a neighboring country), and there was something that bothered me about the distance in between his teeth. They seemed so far apart that if he was smiling with a clenched jaw, one could still pour water down his throat. Third, he never seemed to know what the hell was going on in class. It was like he would follow Mike and me to class, hear the lecture and ask the same questions that were already clearly stated and asked in class. I thought to myself depreciating thoughts: “That’s why they don’t let just anyone into the business program. But BSOS (the school that housed economics) will take anybody…he’ll be a curve filler for sure.” Or “Maybe he should just quit economics and major in art or something in the humanities.”
Mike was different. He would always treat Ben with compassion and sensitivity. When I saw Mike the next time, I mentioned to him what happened about him writing with his fingernails pink:
“Hey Mike, you know something that I saw the other day?” I said chuckling.
“You’ll die laughing!”
“Okayyy…so, what is it?”
“You know African Ben?”
“His fingernails were painted pink! Bwahahaha!!!”
Mike smiled slightly, but then he became serious.
“You know, Ben might not graduate.”
“Seriously. I think that he may be having some sort of breakdown. This happens to some people, especially with cultures that are stringent. All of Ben’s family is counting on him to make something of himself, and he has not been doing well in school.”
When Mike told me this, I didn’t think too much about it. I had the “it sucks for you” mentality. Then, it began to occur to me that Ben was going nuts. The words “breakdown” echoed in my head, and it reminded me of a trance mix by Paul Okenfold with a song in it called “This is just a crisis”.
In retrospect, after several instances of disappointments, and financial and sociological and psychological and emotional challenges, I realized that I was not much different from Ben; that my ego set me up for a fall; and all of my behaviors were destructive and self-loathing. Although I mastered my studies, I didn’t learn what I was supposed to learn about college that life taught me. That people are important. That people are the fabric that keep our society together. And that we must take care of them, because at any moment, we can be one of “those people”. Food for thought.