By Stephen W. Hiemstra
I got angry.
During the fall of my senior year at Parkdale Senior High School, Parkdale decided to begin competing in the It’s Academic show which aired on NBC Channel 4 television in the Washington metro area. To establish the team, the faculty sponsor walked down to the guidance office and asked for the names of the top 15 students in the school. I was not on the list and I got angry. My English teacher was the faculty sponsor and must have heard me complaining about it in class because an open interview was scheduled down at the television studio—anyone who wanted to compete was welcome to attend.
The interview attracted little attention. There were the top 15 students and there was me. The interview consisted of a mock It’s Academic quiz show where the interviewer would pose a question and the first student to raise a hand got to answer the question. No penalty was assigned for an incorrect answer. Because the questions were pretty basic questions about science and other academic subjects, the basic contest was to see who could raise their hand first. As it turned out, I personally answered about 90 percent of the questions posed correctly through fast hand-raising and was invited to join the team.
The other students, all classmates and friends, were livid. My performance made them look pretty stupid and they resented it. The faculty sponsor set up after school meetings to prepare for the show and we started meeting on a regular basis.
About that time, I decided that I wanted to attend Indiana University and my father agreed on one condition—I needed to get a job working nights and weekends to help pay the expense of going to school out of state. Consequently, I began selling children’s shoes at a shop in Capital Plaza Mall.
Selling children’s shoes was more of an education than I bargained for. The shoes were expensive, upscale brands which attracted customers primarily from the District of Columbia. African American women, who could not afford a lot of things in 1971, felt they needed to buy good shoes for their kids. By contrast, local white women in Prince George’s County, like my mom, shopped at discount stores, like K-Mart, for their kids’ shoes, not feeling it necessary to show-off by buying top-of-the-line foot-ware. Honestly, I do not think the shoes were any better. The management seemed aware of this dilemma, but were happy to charge premium prices and to slip ill-fitting shoes on many a foot to keep such status-conscious mothers happy.
Actually, a lot of the things these managers did really bothered me.
It bothered me, for example, that managers refused to let me study while we were sitting around on quiet days. While other employees sat around shooting the breeze, if I took out a book, I was assigned to sort shoes in the back or to watch the store, while the rest of them partied, blowing dope out back. It also bothered me that when President Nixon announced a price freeze on August 15, 1971 to combat inflation, we were immediately assigned to raise the prices on all the shoes in the store. I guess that working in that store bothered me about as much as my studying bothered those managers, who knew they were stuck selling shoes because they neglected their own studies.
I did not earn a lot of money selling children’ shoes, but I missed afternoon practice sessions with the It’s Academic team and was placed on the back up team. Being on the back up team meant that we got to cheer for the regular team when we finally were invited on the show to compete. I loved the competition, in part, because I got to sit next to a friend who I later invited to the prom, but the team lost and lost badly. Just as in the interview, they simply did not understand the rules and complained that the other team cheated, being especially fast button-pushers. Too bad the team’s fastest button-pusher was sidelined!