I Owe My PhD to the Wu-Tang Clan

Originally published on Splinternews.com

In 1994, as a high school freshman, my counselor forced me to attend summer school. He told me that without it, I risked not earning enough credits to be a sophomore. So, at my mother’s insistence, I sat in a classroom making my way through workbooks while a teacher read the local newspaper and various sports magazines. I didn’t learn a single thing that summer besides knowing from whose packet to copy.

Three years later, I didn’t attend summer school even though my counselor again suggested I do so. Instead of being locked away in some windowless school room, I spent those months lifting weights and listening to Wu-Tang Forever.

When the Wu-Tang Clan released their second album, I was 16 and living in El Paso, Texas. I dreamed of being either a professional football player or a boxer. But since it had been decades since colleges offered boxing scholarships, the former became my focus, playing defensive tackle for my high school football team. I thought that if a university awarded me an athletic scholarship, that meant I was smart enough to be in college. But otherwise higher education felt like a waste of time and money.

The summer between my junior and senior year, I desperately clung to my hopes of playing professional football, daydreaming of buying houses for family members. I dedicated myself to lifting weights inside a closed garage that magnified the already unbearable Chihuahuan Desert heat. Sweating profusely, I embraced the discomfort, believing it made me mentally stronger. And as months passed by, I listened constantly to Wu-Tang Forever, turning it down only when my mother—who, despite not being fluent in English, still picked up on their many curse words—stepped into the garage.

Between reps, I made mental notes of things I had never heard of or even familiar names whose history I didn’t fully know. In between sets, I wrote them down, making lists filled with things like Five Percenters, troposphere, thermosphere, stratosphere, Frankie Avalon, and chess pieces. I even looked up Japan, Austria, and Sweden, since apparently people in those countries also listened to Wu-Tang. The following day, I would hear something different, add it to the list, and make more notes. This cycle continued until summer ended and school began.

That summer, Wu-Tang Forever awakened an intellectual curiosity I didn’t know I had. In their words, the Wu-Tang sparked my “braincells to the upmost,” specifically for history. And each day, after showering and cleansing myself from the hot box’s filth, I read over my list and one-by-one looked up each item in an old encyclopedia set, some volumes of which had never even been opened.

My physical strength increased, and after lifting an amount of weight I was particularly proud of, I would yell, “I shitted on your hood kid, I shitted on your hood!”

My father’s formal education ended in Mexico, around the fifth grade, while my mother completed the Mexican equivalent of high school. We had moved to the U.S. in the mid-80s, when my father joined the Army. My mother worked a variety of jobs, from cleaning hotel rooms to working on a factory assembly line. They both earned their GEDs, and though they stressed education, we knew very little when it came to college. When one comes from an uneducated family, education is an abstraction—a rhetorical talking point where everyone acknowledges its value but beyond that, no one knows exactly what it means.

Educated adults told me to take either the SAT or ACT, so I took the cheapest one during my senior year because it was all the same to us. We didn’t know about test prep tutors, and even if we did, we more than likely wouldn’t have been able to afford them. And even though my high school offered college counseling, we were ignorant of everything from applying for scholarships and financial aid, to knowing where to look (in the era before Google) for tuition rates.

I can’t remember which standardized test I took, but I remember that I didn’t do well. But my scores mattered little since I still had football—an obsession that led me to do things like cut out a Heisman Trophy picture and tape it to the garage’s ceiling. That way, whenever I stared at the ceiling while on the downside of a sit-up or during bench presses, I focused on my goal while listening to “A Better Tomorrow,” which further reinforced what I shouldn’t be doing—namely, partying, drinking, smoking, fucking, dreaming, and scheming my life away.

This June marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Wu-Tang Forever. I never played professional football and, frankly, I didn’t even play much my senior year. Like most who end up athletically dissatisfied, I blamed coaches for having their favorites—I wasn’t one of them. After high school, I motivated myself for a few weeks each year, convinced that I could at least play at a lower collegiate level, but nothing ever came of it. I suspect it was because subconsciously I knew I wasn’t good enough. I had dedicated myself entirely to a goal and had failed.

A few times a year, cruel dreams of playing football again, awakened me and left me with a sense of desperation and dissatisfaction with my current lot in life. I worked construction, and though I had once embraced the oppressive heat, I dreaded working outdoors, especially during the Southwestern summers—a different heat from the one Wu-Tang rapped about.

In the last two decades, my appreciation of the album—and the history lessons it taught me—has stuck with me. After finally paying heed to “A Better Tomorrow,” specifically the lyrics about still searching for glory days that never were, I enrolled in El Paso Community College in 2009 and transferred to University of Texas at El Paso the year after. Five years later, Southern Methodist University awarded me a fellowship into their history PhD program, where I’m currently a candidate.

During the summer and a week before my wife and I moved to Dallas, my brother, sister, and I attended the El Paso Texas Showdown Tattoo Festival where Wu-Tang, or at least, three of their members, headlined the day’s event. The RZA, Ghostface Killah, and U-God were visibly older than their pictures within Wu-Tang Forever’s linear notes, which I must have looked at hundreds of times during the summer of 1997.

And because I was 33 by then, I wanted to beat the traffic. My sister, 10 years younger than I, stayed with her friends, while my brother and I walked to the parking lot, thinking the Wu-Tang were on their final song.

As we searched for our car in the breezy, cool desert night, Wu-Tang thanked El Paso and its crowd, which was a fraction of the size they would have performed to at the height of their popularity. Then the unmistakable sounds of “Triumph” began.

And since Wu-Tang is for the children, I selfishly took the song as a symbolic and fitting end to a chapter of my life.