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Heaven on fire!
I’ve never written this column in tears before. I know I am crying because David Mitchell has died. Yet I do not fully know why I am crying. Death calls on you to reckon the measure of your loss; and mine is so unclear, so entangled. But if feels vast.
I do not write often about St Mary’s College, an institution whose enamel-crest ring encircled my finger for 40 years until the edge of the broken ten-carat band sliced into it last year. I denied it to a mugger on a 1980s Brooklyn street, horrified to hear the words its cherished nature pushed out of my mouth, “You don’t have a gun.” St Mary’s is an institution that shaped me irrevocably, yet it is one about which I think I feel a shame and ambivalence. It has never really claimed me. At least not the parts of me I treasure most. I am not one of its successes.
Neither was David. It is the place I met David Mitchell, randomly named Zola (one assumes after the French writer Émile) by a Form Three teacher, my version of the legend goes. It is the place boys like him and Michael and me, and so many others, found each other. St Fairy’s College, in its golden era.
I wrote about its schoolyard in Unfinished Work, a poem where David features, quite unflatteringly:
Ah see Miss Ting
de Zola Hole
de odder day
…in a fete in Brooklyn
Michael, I did not remember him
the queen who ruled our school days
…I am afraid of forgetting
The poem opens re-telling another legend, attributed to Michael, who stops dead as “Buller” sails anonymously through the air of the college’s big yard towards him, swivels, his curtsied “Thank you” turning “maricón” (Spanish cognate of “buller”) into “cimarrón”—a runaway slave, a jamette, uncivil and gone to pasture. It’s about how language gives people and social movements words they do not yet have to reimagine the world, how “rearranging syllables is revolution.”
Michael’s pivot was a poetic device. But in reality, it was David who rearranged my syllables. No, not like that.
By the time we met, though both schoolboys, he was no longer a manchild. One of those brilliant, different East Port-of-Spain boys Tony Garcia would tell you the Concordat was written for, his daily struggles and triumph had turned him into this flamboyantly important being, connected to a world the school’s high walls and fences and my Diamond Vale upbringing were all about closing off.
We were never friends. But he was this powerful and dangerous force in my sheltered childhood to whom I have not calculated what I owe. The first person to tell me, earnestly in the school’s corridor, that I was gay.
David never turned up for A-level exams, the story goes. The telling continues that he became a brilliant fraudster, here and abroad, of a New Jersey party invitation delivered by courier, its picture of him astride a horse, of jailtime.
After the fete where I failed to acknowledge him, we reconnected. He was an Orisha elder, an African tradition that creates roles for boys like him.
David was not a failure, but what haunts me is how T&T and St Mary’s failed him. How easily they might have failed me too. Except for class.
One tribute on the Saints Facebook page says of his death: “Heaven on fire!” I am no longer afraid of forgetting. I remember him sitting in the Pelican Inn parking lot, with Godfrey Sealy, performing a gesture that has sadly gone extinct, signifying on something by removing the imaginary hairpin from his coiffe, opening it loudly with a fingernail against the teeth, to exaggeratedly replace it, lips pursed.
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