Read an Excerpt
Boston University, Fall 1989
MARK MY WORDS, without knowledge you’re all bound for the welfare line or the penitentiary,” said Mr. Giencanna, the instructor for the Introduction to Philosophy class. Nobody was trying to hear him and he proceeded with the daily roll call.
“Mr. Jason Abbott?” Mr. Giencanna called out, fixing his glasses on his hawklike nose.
“Here,” a young man in the rear spoke up.
“Right here,” said another male’s voice.
“Miss Natalie Farmer?”
This time there was no reply.
“Natalie Farmer?” he repeated.
A young man wearing a blue and gray varsity jacket nudged Natalie, who was sitting at her desk, dozing off.
“What?” she said sleepily, and with an attitude.
He nodded toward the instructor. “Roll call. That’s what.”
“I’m here, Mr. Giencanna, sir,” Natalie said, wiping around her mouth.
“Stay with us, please, Miss Farmer,” Mr. Giencanna said. Although he phrased it like a request, Natalie knew by his tone and the piercing look in his eyes that it was, without a doubt, an order.
Mr. Giencanna cleared his throat and continued. “Miss Julacia Johnson?”
Once again, there was no reply. The classroom was silent as everyone looked around to see if there was another student nodding off somewhere. Everyone appeared to be wide awake.
“Perhaps we have another sleeping beauty amongst us,” Mr. Giencanna said sarcastically. “Is there a Miss Julacia Johnson present?”
Still there was no reply.
The welfare line or the penitentiary, he thought. No sooner than his eye looked to call the next name, the lecture hall door came flying open.
“Present,” Laci huffed, as she rushed into the lecture hall with books in hand. The class fell silent to the remarkable presence before them. There, Laci stood, just as beautiful as ever. Her shiny Shirley Temple curls, full of body, fell across the left side of her forehead, tickling her eyebrow. Her moody brown eyes sparked with a hunger for knowledge.
“Sorry I’m late,” Laci said, out of breath as she looked down at her Movado watch, the same one her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. “But I’m here. I made it!”
“And who are you, sir?” Mr. Giencanna looked past her.
“Ah . . . I’m Din—I mean, Daryl . . . Daryl Highsmith. I’m not on the list, sir; I just got accepted last week.”
“Highsmith,” Mr. Giencanna repeated, and wrote it down on his student roster.
Laci and Dink sat next to each other and smiled, as the instructor continued to check the class attendance.
Over the next hour and fifty minutes, Laci wrote vigorously, making key notes of Mr. Giencanna’s lecture. Dink, on the other hand, sat back in his seat stoically, twirling his pencil in between his thumb and forefinger, which distracted Laci momentarily. She looked over at Dink and admired him in his faded denim jacket and jeans, white T-shirt, and dope man Nikes. The faint smell of Obsession tickled her nostrils. Laci’s lingering gaze caught Dink’s attention and he met her stare. Dink winked, blew a quick kiss at her, and turned his focus back on Mr. Giencanna. Laci never thought she’d see this day and was amazed.
“Let me ask all of you something,” Mr. Giencanna spoke seriously, interrupting Laci’s thoughts. He leaned against the podium and adjusted his glasses before speaking again. The class became still; the only sound they heard was the second hand ticking on the clock that hung against the wall. “Everybody has heard the terms good and evil, right?”
“Yes,” every student confirmed in unison.
“So, what do you consider good? And better yet, what do you equate with the word ‘good’?”
“Angels,” a female student called out.
“God,” another student chimed in, keeping with the same theological subject.
“Okay, let’s keep going.” The room became silent as everyone awaited his next question. “What is considered bad, or what do you equate with the word ‘evil’?”
“Um . . . the devil?” someone blurted out.
“Just plain evilness,” another person shouted, “or when someone does something that’s not the norm.”
“What’s considered the norm?” Mr. Giencanna asked with a smile on his face.
After a few seconds of silence, a girl raised her hand. She sat in the same row as Dink and Laci but because the classroom was so large and filled with students, neither could see exactly where she was. “The norm would be what is socially acceptable. Going back to the question you asked earlier about good, bad, and evil, socially speaking, God and angels are good and the devil and evil are bad.”
“Why is that?” Mr. Giencanna asked, now with a mischievous grin on his face.
“Because,” she spoke, “how else could you justify the world being created? The Bible says God created heaven and earth. If it weren’t for Him, none of us would be here.”
Everyone turned to look at the girl while she spoke, then they looked back at the instructor.
“Okay,” Mr. Giencanna adjusted his posture, “I’m glad you mentioned this. By a show of hands, how many of you believe there is such a thing as a devil?” Most students raised their hands. “Why is the devil perceived as a bad thing?” he quizzed again.
“Because,” the same girl answered sharply, this time with an attitude, “that’s just how it is. Haven’t you read the Bible? Damn.”
Students began to whisper amongst themselves, sensing her attitude.
“Well if you read the Bible,” Dink countered out loud, “you would know that the devil was an angel, but did you forget that?”
Students’ necks turned and all eyes focused on him.
Taken aback by the comment, the female student tried to look in the direction of the voice that just called her out. “I know that! The devil is in a different category than God and angels,” she spat back.
“And why do you say that?” Dink continued, leaning forward to look at the girl. “He was the angel of light and was one of the most beautiful angels in heaven.” Laci’s eyes grew wide. She’d never thought Dink knew anything about the Bible. “Just like everyday people, he got full of himself and was kicked out of heaven and sent to earth. Then, and only then, did he become ‘the devil.’ ” Dink used his index and middle fingers to mimic quotation marks.
“Well, the devil is still evil,” the girl barked angrily and turned her lips up in disgust.
“Why? Is it because you were raised to believe that? What proof do you have? The way you’re talking, you’re acting like you know the devil firsthand.”
Some people laughed.
“Well . . .” she stammered, not knowing what to say next.
“Listen to what you’re saying: the devil is evil, but he was an angel, but angels are good. Isn’t that antithetical?” Dink continued to challenge.
This time, the whispers became more audible and filled the air.
“What are you doing?” Laci whispered harshly, looking at Dink. Her face was flushed and her eyes darted around the lecture hall. Dink looked at her and then around the class to see what she was trying to tell him with her eyes. She shook her head in disbelief.
Before bringing his focus back to the instructor, Dink saw something that was so noticeable that he was surprised he didn’t peep it when he walked inside the classroom. The class was predominantly white. Besides him and the girl he challenged, there were only five black students in the class. He could just imagine what the white students were thinking—a black man challenging God’s existence—but that wasn’t the case.
“Quiet down now,” Mr. Giencanna said in an attempt to calm the class. “Quiet down.” His warden-like expression softened when a smile crept across his face. He was glad that he’d chosen a topic that would generate an emotional discussion that would bring him to the point he was about to make. “Now,” he said as he began walking back and forth in front of the podium, “by a show of hands, how many of you have seen either?”
Dink glanced at Laci and wondered what she was thinking at that very moment.
Laci wanted to raise her hand to say that she had seen the devil, but she was confused. Was it the devil himself, or did she witness hell on earth?
“So,” Mr. Giencanna walked around to the microphone that was attached to the podium. He leaned forward to speak, but was interrupted.
“Dude, you trippin’,” a male voice bellowed, irritated with the questioning. The instructor looked in the direction of the voice. “This ain’t no damn religion class. This is Philosophy . . . Philosophy 101 to be exact. You know, an introductory course.”
There were a few people who laughed at the remark, but they were also wondering where the lecture was headed.
“What is your name, young man?” the instructor asked.
“T.J.,” the young man answered as if he should know. Mr. Giencanna’s mouth opened to say something, but Dink spoke first.
“Look, you’re right, this is not a religion class, but what he’s trying to get you to see is this,” Dink sighed heavily. T.J. raised his eyebrow and looked at Dink like he was out of his mind. “Why are we so selective with things we want to see or believe? When he asked the initial question, if we’ve heard of good or evil, you answered with examples that were religion based, which can be very controversial.”
Mr. Giencanna’s eyes beamed at Dink’s revelation. “As a society,” Dink continued, “we tend to believe in things that we’ve been taught to believe, even if we can’t prove their existence, as in religion, or we as a society may have opinions about customs that don’t fall within what we consider the norm, but is it necessarily right or wrong? No. Questions of how people live, their ethics, and their logic is philosophy.”
Chatter filled the air because Dink now had everyone thinking. Mr. Giencanna was smiling so hard, his face looked strained.
“You know, he has a point,” someone confirmed.
“I never looked at it that way,” another person admitted.
Again, everyone looked at Dink, this time in a more accepting manner, but they sneered at T.J. because he just got told.
“Dang, T.J., I know you wished you didn’t open your mouth, huh?” Simone, the girl next to T.J., said.
The class laughed.
“Excellent answer, Mr. Highsmith!” Mr. Giencanna exclaimed enthusiastically, grinning from ear to ear, but ignoring the other student’s comment. “You took the words right out of my mouth.” All eyes were back on him except for T.J.’s, who continued to stare at Dink. T.J. was more pissed than embarrassed.
Dink leaned back in his chair waiting to hear what else the teacher had to say. Within seconds, he felt someone staring at him. He looked to his left and saw T.J. leaning back in his chair, mean-mugging him. In the hood, that was a silent threat, so Dink raised his arms outward in a man-to-man challenge.
“Wassup,” he mouthed. I know this punk don’t wanna fuck with me, Dink thought to himself. He didn’t want to show the straight-up nigga side of him but if he had to, he’d get ’bout it. Wasn’t nothing but a thing.
T.J. turned and looked back at the front of the class. “Yeah, I ain’t think so,” Dink mumbled under his breath.
He didn’t know why T.J. was tripping. Dink was merely trying to explain Mr. Giencanna’s reasoning in a way that other students could understand, and it worked. Dink was used to schooling people in the streets; however, he had to remember that he was no longer in the streets. Having never once thought about higher education, even after scoring a 1440 on his SATs when he was younger, he knew that if he ever had the opportunity to attend college, he had something to contribute to the class, but he would have to understand that everyone was there for the same thing—to learn.
Dink thought momentarily and realized his tone might have been a little harsh, and that he could have embarrassed T.J. That was not his intention, so he made a mental note to holla at him after class.
Dink shook his head, then turned his attention back to the lecture. What he didn’t know was that T.J. wasn’t staring at him. He was looking at Laci.