Looking back on when I was a little nappy-headed boy of eight-years-old, I met a young, bespectacled kid named Reggie at Largo-Tibet Elementary School in Savannah, Georgia. He was born in Philadelphia, but bred in the Savannah. My family and I had just arrived from San Bernandino, California. My dad chose 'The Coastal Empire', his and my mom's hometown, as the place where he and my mom would continue raising us kids alongside his final two years in the Air Force as a Chief Master Sergeant. This, until he retired. Dad would complete his term at Warner Robbins Air Force Base which was about three hours from Savannah, where he'd commute every weekend. Mom would hold the fort in our new home with my two siblings and me.
As the only two 'advanced placement', Black kids in the 3rd grade, Reggie and I bonded quickly. In a sea of white faces, we knew we could look at each other for life support and encouragement. Admittedly, Reggie was the difference to have that bond hold because I was a bit withdrawn and to myself, when it came to meeting new people and studying in groups. I did come alive in the classroom and have a way about me when it came time to read or "present", but once the school bell rang to signal the end of the day, I was always happy to rush home and get my homework done, watch a little TV, eat dinner, read a book, watch more TV, and then go to bed. Reggie sometimes liked to come over and - to my young mind - that meant I had to 'entertain' and 'be on'. Truth be told, I learned through Reggie's visits what it looks like to be comfortable in your skin and to just trust that you are enough to have great results show up. Reggie has always shown up as a possibility, even when his own life's circumstances were dim and dire. I came from a household that had mom, dad, and pantries full of food and closets filled with clothing, and not always did I know that - outside of those trappings - I mattered. As I would sometimes comment on what I saw as differences between Reggie and me, my mom would say "That's a good thing because you compliment each other and can learn from those differences". Inside of that, Reggie and I continued to be "the best of friends", though he did leave our elementary school for another. We wouldn't come together as friends again until middle school as I navigated through 'being the only one' (African American) in the advanced classes for the next couple of years (Until Tonja and her family came to town from Macon in 6th grade).
From middle school through to high school, Reggie and I always maintained our closeness. Though we were maturing and developing our interests, we continued to be special friends, again, because he made sure to stay in touch and always reach out. Disparate cliques and contrasting academic trajectories didn't stop Reggie and me from having each other's back. Coupled with a growing comfort with my popularity and how that showed up socially, I began to excel more pointedly into the arts i.e. language, music, drama, media, etc. But I still maintained good grades in science and math. Reggie - on the other hand - was no wallflower and he loved language, but his expertise in advanced science and math were quite impressive. And as he bandied formulas and concepts about, I was usually looking over my head to try and uncover what exactly he was talking about. I didn't always succeed at figuring it out either.
We each graduated high school with many a distinction that reflected what we were individually about. Though I was the graduation speaker and voted "Best All Around" for ALL that I did successfully in school, I can still hear my father's amazement at how much money Reggie was getting in scholarships to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I, on the other hand, was getting much less from Morehouse College, though its glowing distinction for me sparkled through the prism of one of my favorite things, the media - Spike Lee's movie musical "School Daze" and the NBC hit sitcom "A Different World" - both of which captured the entertaining yet intellectual hybrid that historically black colleges and universities (like Morehouse) can represent. And I wanted to be up in that. Moreover, the impressive repository of alums that graduated my school include Lee, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Olympic track star Edwin Moses, Maynard Jackson, Dr. Louis Sullivan, etc. As I saw it, my name would one day be spoken on that impressive list.
Though Reggie was in Cambridge and I was in Atlanta, we still found time to be in touch and maintain the friendship from over the miles. I rememeber when the world-renowned Morehouse College Glee Club went on tour, including a stop in Boston and Cambridge. Reggie came to see us perform, he got to meet my college friends. It was a great reunion.
Once we both completed our under-graduate degrees, we began the serious work of making our dreams come true. For Reggie, there would be more school as "scientists" aren't built in a day. My career as a "journalist" has less academic nuance tied to it, so I managed to land an awesome first and second gig. Out of school, I was a reporter trainee for the #1 station in Atlanta. Then, when I got clear that hard news wasn't what I wanted to wake up to everyday, I was offered a position to help launch "Good Day Atlanta" at a competing station. Through that work as an associate/ features producer, I got the chance to create entertainment content for a morning show, interview a slew of celebrities and newsmakers when they came to town, and be an overall tastemaker for trends in pop culture. And because Reggie decided to further his degree at Georgia Tech (in Atlanta), we again got to reconnect. As adults, our differences were just as compartmental, but somehow we continued to meet in the middle.
One day, not too unlike the little-boy Reggie, who would come over and visit me at my home, he came by my little apartment in Buckhead and shared his vision with me. Over the years, Reggie and I had been Teen Peer Counselors and had done a lot of community outreach. He continued that in college as did I. My thought - in that I had rested and relied on so many mentors to get my career off and running - is that "One day I'll give back to some young journalist in the way that my advisers had done with me". But Reggie's philosophy was "Why not now?".
He knew how to get money from grants. He had experience with non-profit organizations. He was - as always - a visionary. Much like he was able to enroll me in hanging out a little bit longer before I retreated to my homework in 3rd grade, Reggie had convinced me that we - together - could start a summer camp for kids. We would have the program's curriculum reflect our best assets, meaning there would be lots of science and math. And for my contribution, we'd incorporate public speaking, writing, media, and creative expression. Then, much like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney who in their '20s film classics would say "Let's put on a show in the barn!", we thought "Let's bring our friends in to support the effort from their expertise". So, Ern was a money guy. Fresh out of college, he decided to move to Atlanta for work, but this gave him another outlet to use his skills set. Nat could teach math for which she's getting two degrees around that discipline. And Tish can help run the program, given she's preparing to get her masters in Public Health Administration. Dwayne has everybody's back, so why not have him 'have the back' of the program. And on and on. Well, it was a brilliant brainchild that grew into a six-week daycamp housed at Georgia Tech and WE DID IT!!! With Reggie's magic, we got funding. I managed through my connections to get us lots of press and promotional support in the way of in-kind donations. With democracy at the fore, I recall influencing the program's name: "OPTIONS: Image of the Future". And our target student was not an at-risk youth nor an overachiever. This program was for any kid who may have some strengths in math or science, but could afford to tighten up their communication and writing skills. Or, vice versa.
And it was a summer of "infinite possibilities". To manage the two dozen students on a five-day week for six weeks was a lot of work as we were balancing this commitment with our existing work and social calendars. But we really did it. And it was a success. And it pointed out for me that we did not need to wait until we were graying or balding to be a difference for young people. Reggie taught me that.
And though we were impressed with ourselves, we chose not to rest on our laurels. We looked to the summer of 1994 as year two of our prized program for kids. Interestingly, we suffered the sophomore slump and summer: phase 2 did not fare as well. Certain funding fell through. Staffing changed as the friends in our inner-circle had new commitments for their own careers that required we outsource some of the tasks. There were growing pains with that. I had a car accident that put my burgundy mazda protege in the shop and inhibited me from being able to run the necessary errands to keep things on schedule. And then, out of nowhere, my mother died in July of 1994.
And on a high of doing and making things happen, I came crumbling down in the wake of losing her. Everyone showed up for me as they knew how to do (all in different ways), but the emotion of the loss and the stress from managing the balance of the camp, put an unprecedented strain on Reggie and me. By summer's end, we managed to close out the schedule, vow to never work together again, and - for a long time - not even speak to each other. Reggie and Patrick had a breakdown and "OPTIONS: Image of the Future" had left the building... for good.
And for the last twelve years, Reggie and I have been living our lives on separate plains - growing respectably in our own rights. But not in touch. During that time, he got married. Though I met his wife before our falling out, I was not invited to the nuptials. (But through mutual friends, I heard about it). He's since gotten divorced and remarried. I've not met her either. He too has moved a few times since our days in Atlanta. My world began to evolve during this break as I decided to come out of the closet as a gay man. He missed the first run of that and all the fallout there. I moved to New York from Atlanta and continue to build a successful career around my branding as an independent producer/personality/writer. And somewhere in all of that, the time came when Reggie reached out and we were able to heal from the hurt, if only to open up a window for us to stay in touch. Diana Ross once sang that "HOPE is an open window".
And since we've been communicating again, I have found out that Reggie is still very much walking the walk that we presented to the students who participated in "OPTIONS: Image of the Future" over ten years ago. With his future (which is now), Reggie is Dr. Reginald Parker. He is "inventing new organic electronic materials through nanocomposites and molecular assembly". Still, over my head, but I'm certain it's something that's poised to change the world. And I'm building a brand not too unlike the interests from my youth - including this blog which is a part of a purpose-driven campaign called "The Life of Riley: pop culture and possibilities". It's not rocket science, but feedback already is showing me that authenticity, vulnerability, love, and panache can move figurative mountains. And for all we've achieved, there's more to conquer.
Reggie's and my beginnings as children have mirrored our continuation as teenagers have mirrored our adulthood. The mirrors are just bigger. And at some point, we needed separate mirrors. And Reggie and I haven't discussed it and maintain even more differences now than before in our respective lives, but I won't be surprised if the "image" of Reggie's and my future is somehow tied in together. After all, remember what my mom said? "That's a good thing because you compliment each other and can learn from those differences." So, there are angels on our shoulders perhaps guiding that next phase.