Tuesday, September 29, 2020

First and Only

 First and Only

J.T. Jefferson

Yesterday I recognized that September 17, 2020, was the twentieth anniversary of one of my many firsts. In fact, it was a first and only. On September 17, 2000, I became the first “person of color” to hike to the top of every mountain over 4,000 feet in the Northeast United States. At that time, there were thought to be 113 such mountains; two others that I have hiked since were added to the total. I shared pictures of myself and others I hiked with on that day on my social media. Looking back at me in the photos was a young and strapping version of myself on Maine’s Redington Mountain. Of the 387 people who had accomplished that feat at that point in time, I was the first and only black man to have done so.

This unique anniversary caused me to think about all of the other firsts I have experienced. I was the first black physical education (PE) teacher for the Ossining, New York public schools; the first and only black PE teacher for the George Washington Elementary School in White Plains, New York; the first and only black athletic director for Yorktown High School in Yorktown Heights, New York; the first and only black director of health, PE & athletics for the Manhasset Public Schools in Manhasset, New York; and the first and only black director of health, PE & athletics for the Enlarged City School District of Middletown in Middletown, New York.

None of the above mentioned pioneering experiences truly surprised me. Ossining Public Schools made a concerted effort to diversify its teaching staff, but they could have surely found a better qualified PE teacher than me. I had no experience, and subsequently learned from the skilled veterans around me. All of the positions that followed I earned by articulating my knowledge and vision clearly. Furthermore, my childhood upbringing in the most diverse place in the world, Queens, New York, made me comfortable in any setting. I was bused to a predominantly Jewish school district beginning in third grade, and before I ever attended school, I began spending summers on a farm in rural St. Lawrence County, New York. Before the age of ten, I was also introduced to an Amish farming community.

There are a slew of other possible firsts that I never actually investigated since my spirit belongs to no race, ethnicity, religion, nation, or political affiliation. However, to complete my stream of thoughts, I might have been the first black gymnastics coach and running coach for the Ossining Public Schools, girls track coach for the Pleasantville Public Schools in Pleasantville, New York, and cross country coach at White Plains High School. 

Lastly, I may have been the first and only black Director of Education for McQuade Children’s Services in New Windsor, New York. That school is now owned and operated by another agency. I know I was not the first “person of color” to complete hiking the 35 Catskill Mountains over 3,500 feet, since I met a Hispanic gentleman on one of those Catskill trails who had completed them long before I did. That being stated, on my 35th birthday, November 3, 2004, I might have become the first black man to have earned my way into the Catskill 3,500 Foot Club.

Although my knees are now worn, and a renowned orthopedic surgeon has suggested I give up hiking, I continue to pursue less lofty hiking badges. On May 25, 2019, I became the 402nd person to officially hike to the peaks of the Lake George 12 (probably the first…), and the Saranac Six will likely round off my hiking career (nowhere near the first…). It is still to be determined how my career path will end. 

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