Featured Image: Andy Feliciotti
Today I write this story — this part of my life as a historian. I did not always aspire to be a historian. My career goal early in my adulthood was to become a social worker. I lucked out when I started to date someone who was a licensed social worker. She had gotten her Master’s in Social Work from Howard University a few years before we met. We connected over many things, our shared love for social work, a common passion and similarities in politics, and a mutual interest in my writing.
Back in 2014, I was mainly writing articles about Islam and the history of religion. She came from a Catholic background and was impressed by the way I explained Islam and the nuances of religion. She even came with me to jummah a few times to experience a masjid on a Friday. I remember the first Friday she came with me. It was a cool May afternoon, she wore a scarf around her neck, and as we approached the masjid she loosely tied it around her head.
“Is this right?” she asked, assuming I was an authority on hijab. I nodded my head and told her it was perfect. We walked past the Turkish embassy, the Egyptian Embassy, and the Chinese Embassy. We chatted about politics all the way there and on the way back from the mosque. That night we went out to eat — the name of the restaurant slips my mind — but what I do remember is the conversation we had on the car ride home. I watched her every time we passed under a streetlight and her face came into view. Each time I noticed a different part of her face that was shrouded in darkness but sprang to life under the light every 5 seconds.
We had stopped at a red light somewhere in Chinatown and she told me I was a gifted writer, that I had a way of explaining complex narratives, and that I should look into studying history. She confessed to me that if she could go back to school and do it all over, she would have studied history as an undergrad. Scoffing at the idea of throwing away about two years of social work classes, I dismissed the idea — not so much dismissed as pushed the idea to the back of my mind. How could I support myself being a historian?
A few days later, I was woken out of my sleep by a disturbance outside. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in D.C. right across the street from the Food Stamps building. The line would wrap around the block by 8 am every morning. “I was here first!” someone grunted. I moved to the window, stepping over last night’s clothes and our cat, just to see the disturbance. By the time I got to the window, the disturbance was over and peace reigned over the line. This part of the story is ironic only because as I looked outside, a cab drove by with an advertisement for the University of Maryland Baltimore County on it. I had every plan to transfer there at the end of my associate’s program and study social work. That was the plan. That was my goal.
I was never a good student; I just loved to read and I could memorize a lot of information, line for line, and it would be singed into my brain. I had a professor, Dr. King, that noticed I usually quoted the textbook in my essay exams. During one exam, she stood over my shoulder for the entirety of the period, watching me write, wanting to see if I was indeed a cheater.
Dr. King was a small woman, in her late 70s, but very imposing. She was the type of professor you did not want to disappoint. She pulled something out of students that would allow them to be open and honest with themselves. One day after class, she called me to the front to speak to her. I assumed it was regarding her thinking I was a cheater, but just she looked at me, clasped her hands together, and laughed.
“I stood behind you for half an hour and you did not say one word of it.” She stood up and gathered her briefcase and handed it to me, motioning for me to walk with her.
I told her I assumed she assumed that I was cheating and that is why she was standing there. Apparently, I was very mistaken. She wanted to see if I would get nervous, if I could rattle off these facts with someone standing over my shoulder.
I walked with her to her office and she invited me inside. She opened up to me about her own journey — she had studied history in undergrad but decided to go to Howard for social work. She told me she knows a historian’s writing when she sees it and I write like a historian, not a social worker. Here were those intrusive thoughts again: Me, becoming a historian? History is not a job.
That night, on the way home, I decided to walk around the National Mall. I had no real reason to go, something in me just did not want to go home yet. I wandered aimlessly from monument to monument. From the Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial to the FDR memorial, the FDR memorial to the MLK memorial, the MLK memorial to The Korean War Memorial.
The night had fully set in and I was ignoring calls and texts from my girlfriend asking me where I was. There were no words I could string together to tell her I was having an identity crisis at the World War II memorial and that I would be home as soon as I figured my life out. When the day started, I had my life figured out, I had a plan that I’d worked on and was prepared to follow through with. But the universe, those I love, and even deep down inside, I knew I did not want to do social work for the rest of my life. I had to figure out how to make this transition, I needed to find the courage to do this.
The United States Capitol building is a beautiful building, but at night, something about it is a little different. There is something about the various white-colored lamps illuminating the dome and the windows of the building that inspired me that night. The history of the city I was born and raised in. The history of my family migrating from North Carolina and West Virginia to eventually lay down roots in Washington, DC.
Around 11:30, I turned the key and crept into our tiny one-bedroom apartment. She was on the sofa, with her eyes closed, an episode of Martin creating noise in the background. With all my might I tried not to wake her, then I realized she wasn’t sleeping. She sat up on the sofa and opened her arms to embrace me. I said nothing, but I knew it was safe to cry. So I did. I kicked my shoes off and placed my head in her lap, a safe place, and cried myself to sleep.
The next week I had a meeting with my admissions counselor. When I walked into his office, the first thing I noticed were the papers that were scattered all over his desk. He was on the phone and ushered me in with his hand. We went over student loans, class sizes, and prerequisites. I stopped him before he went too far and told him I wanted to switch my major to history. I wanted to be a historian and a writer. A part of me felt like I had to convince him, so I went into my entire life story and he sat there and listened. He told me he understood and that he would get the paperwork together.
When I left his office, I called my girlfriend and with all my might tried to hold it together, but once again I began to cry. She told me not to worry because she would be there every step of the way.
By the summer of 2014, I was taking two buses from DC to a community college in Germantown for my history prerequisites. Those bus rides were hot and long, but each time I went to class my mind was challenged in ways it wasn’t when I was studying social work. My girlfriend and I broke up and I was healing from that while making this huge transition. A transition I thought she would be there for, but the universe had different plans, a plan that was propelled by my own actions in our relationship.
This was in 2014, which seems like a lifetime ago, but in actuality, six years is not a long time in the grand scheme of things. Last year, I left my house on Capitol Hill for one of my routine jogs and as I rounded a corner at the end of the block, I spotted a familiar figure walking down the steps of a church.
I stopped in my tracks. There was Dr. King, someone who literally changed my entire life, but I had not seen in years.
We made eye contact and she motioned me over to help her down the steps.
“You’re going to take my number down and we are going to catch up,” she told me in that familiar stern voice.
I smiled and waved as she drove off and continued to jog down to the Capitol building, that massive structure that I run to three times a week but walked to in tears six years ago.