When people ask me where I come from and I answer, Waterbury, Connecticut, they often respond with, “Oh…”and then, silence. I read the down-turned frown on their faces, their lack of words the same as when I hear the more direct response, “Ewww, it’s not very nice there….”
I always make sure I don’t leave out Waterbury, because if you just say Connecticut, people think you’re rich and from one of the wealthy towns like Greenwich or Darien, or that you live out in the sticks, and then they say things, like, “Oh, it’s so pretty there…so quiet.”
My, “I’m from Waterbury” is so I gain street cred as coming from the gritty, industrial town, once known as The Brass Capital Of The World. But, like in many other American cities, the factories closed down in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and in the late 90’s, Waterbury was rated as one of the “Ten Worst Places to Live in America” in Places Rated Almanac.
I know the biggest aspect of telling people I’m from Waterbury is to show I come from a place of diversity. I want them to know I attended a high school with a student body that was forty-percent black, instead of one where there were only two or three black students in the entire school. I want people to think I’m cool like that; down like that.
On Facebook, I saw that some of my old high school friends referred to Waterbury as The Dirty Water. To try and find out where the nickname came from, and to ask a few questions to gain a black student’s perspective on going to our alma mater, Wilby High, back in the late 70’s, I called up an old high school friend who still lives in Waterbury, Jay Seay (I know I can’t make Jay “the black spokesperson” for Wilby, though—he was only one of 80 black students out of our senior class of 220 students). Jay was co-captain of Wilby’s basketball team, and is now a high school basketball coach.
“Dirty Water? I think it’s after the Dirty South, like how Southern Rap started and they got that name, and I think a deejay on the radio here might have started it—using the name, The Dirty Water for Waterbury,” Jay offered up.
While I don’t go as far as to tell people I’m from The Dirty Water, I also don’t tell them that I happened to grow up on one of the nicer streets in town. When I asked Jay what he thought about the street I grew up on, he said, “I thought that’s where people that were more educated lived—that they were business owners—not factory workers…”
As I talked more with Jay about his time in high school, all the empathy in the world couldn’t allow me to experience what he would tell me about that night.
“I had a guidance counselor that told me I didn’t need to learn Latin,” Jay said, plainly, his flatness emphasizing, even more, the blow he took some 30 years ago. I felt the sting of the punch, too, as I recalled a similar story told to me by a mutual friend, Arthur “Yogi” Rose.
“Really? Oh no!,” I said, and then hurriedly continued, “Remember when Yogi’s guidance counselor (who was also black) told him that he was aiming too high to apply to Tisch School of the Arts at New York University? She said he might not get in, or get the dance scholarship he needed. And Yogi, told her he was applying, would get in, and would get the scholarship, and—that’s what he did.”
When Jay responded next, I realized I might have sounded like I was challenging him—like saying, why didn’t you do what Yogi did?
“Yes, I remember. And, I don’t know, some people can take things in, and keep going, and others its harder for. I didn’t tell my mother about what the guidance counselor said. She would’ve come down to the school and fought for me. But…I didn’t say anything. I just looked the other way.”
And, here I am, wanting to keep it real, telling everyone I’m from Waterbury, The Dirty Water, and I went to this really diverse high school, and I’m cool like that. But, I didn’t get told I didn’t need to learn Latin. How real is that?