Looking back, I have to admit to myself that I was a rather unpleasant child. The fifth of six and eight-years younger than the next oldest, I chose to challenge the pecking order with incivility. By the time I was five, I loathed myself. I had become someone I did not want to be.
It’s not easy to change, and often those closest to us won’t let us change. We all get locked into patterns of behavior, action and reaction, offense and retaliation, defiance and punishment. By age five, I had enough of it. So I became someone else—literally, at least for short periods of time.
I needed a disguise and a new name. Somehow I thought that becoming a new person required a new identity—like entering the Federal Witness Relocation Program. I rifled through my toy box in the small room I shared with my two older brothers and found some sunglasses with the lenses missing and a bubble pipe. Perfect! Now for a name . . . Mister Parker. First name “Mister,” last name “Parker.”
I took my new persona into the kitchen for dinner. I corrected my siblings who referred to me as “Kenny” by introducing myself as Mister Parker who was taking Kenny’s place this evening. Mister Parker and I could not have been more different. He was much older, mature, educated, worldly, polite, had excellent table manners, a considerate conversation partner. He was the amalgamation of the best attributes of every adult man I had ever encountered—in life and on TV. Mister Parker became a frequent dinner guest that year of 1962.
I hadn’t thought of Mister Parker for years. At a family reunion, I asked my brothers and sisters if they remembered Mister Parker those 50 years ago. “We LOVED Mister Parker!” they said almost in chorus. “He was so polite, and nice. When he showed up, we knew it was going to be a nice dinner.” They recalled a more elaborate costume complete with oversized fedora and tie—but I’m pretty sure it was just the pipe and lens-less sunglasses. It was Mister Parker’s vibe that made them want to embellish.
Shortly after Mister Parker’s arrival in 1962, we moved from Boston to Baltimore. Mister Parker didn’t handle the move well. Baltimore didn’t understand him. The death of my oldest sister, followed a few years later by my dad, and a few years later my mother’s remarriage, along with puberty and adolescence—Mister Parker’s effect on me faded and the once-unpleasant child grew into an unpleasant teenager.Just like my five-year-old self, my 18-year-old self came to hate what he had become.
In 1976, at age 19, I moved to Frederick, Maryland and came to Frederick Community College. Here was Mister Parker’s chance to reassert himself. No one knew me. I could be anyone I wanted to be.That is the beauty of going to college. We can reinvent ourselves. That is the college’s job—to help us become the best person we can be and the person we want to be.
At college, we learn the skills, gain the knowledge of our world, become immersed in our artistic and literary culture, examine our politics, learn how to have difficult discussions and wrestle with controversy, and have our perceptions challenged. If we have the aptitude and desire, we can become whomever we want. We can have the life we seek. We can be a positive presence in our community and our world. David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College, “This is Water,” made a similar point when he said, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
“That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
True education takes time, and I still work at it every day. But I believe I eventually became Mister Parker. The deed to my house, my college degrees, my passport—they all say “Kenneth Kerr,” but I know they also say “Mister Parker.”