Against All Odds: In Rough City School, Top Students Struggle To Learn and Escape Cedric Jennings Eyes mit, But Obstacles Are Steep; Failure Rules at Ballou Physics Labs, Death Threats


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These are the original Wall Street Journal stories by Ron Suskind that won a Pulitzer Prize, chronicling with intimacy and fervor the struggles of an inner city teen trying to get to college. The series led to his book, A Hope in the Unseen.

Against All Odds: In Rough City School, Top Students Struggle To Learn -- and Escape --- Cedric Jennings Eyes MIT, But Obstacles Are Steep; Failure Rules at Ballou --- Physics Labs, Death Threats

By Ron SuskindWall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: May 26, 1994. pg. PAGEA.1


Abstract (Document Summary)

Cedric is one of a handful of honor students at Ballou, where the dropout rate is well into double digits and just 80 students out of more than 1,350 currently boast an average of B or better. They are a lonely lot. Cedric has almost no friends. Tall, gangly and unabashedly ambitious, he is a frequent target in a place where bullies belong to gangs and use guns; his life has been threatened more than once. He eats lunch in a classroom many days, plowing through extra work that he has asked for. "It's the only way I'll be able to compete with kids from other, harder schools," he says.

It has been this way as long as Cedric can remember. When he was a toddler, his mother, Barbara Jennings, reluctantly quit her clerical job and went on welfare for a few years so she could start her boy on a straight and narrow path. She took him to museums, read him books, took him on nature walks. She brought him to church four times each week, and warned him about the drug dealers on the corner. Cedric learned to loathe those dealers -- especially the one who was his father.

The announcer moves on to the next honoree: "Cedric Jennings! Cedric Jennings!" Heads turn expectantly, but Cedric is nowhere to be seen. Someone must have tipped him off, worries Mr. Ballard. "It sends a terrible message," he says, "that doing well here means you better not show your face."


Full Text (4305   words)

Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc May 26, 1994

WASHINGTON -- Recently, a student was shot dead by a classmate during lunch period outside Frank W. Ballou Senior High. It didn't come as much of a surprise to anyone at the school, in this city's most crime-infested ward. Just during the current school year, one boy was hacked by a student with an ax, a girl was badly wounded in a knife fight with another female student, five fires were set by arsonists, and an unidentified body was dumped next to the parking lot.

But all is quiet in the echoing hallways at 7:15 a.m., long before classes start on a spring morning. The only sound comes from the computer lab, where 16-year-old Cedric Jennings is already at work on an extra-credit project, a program to bill patients at a hospital. Later, he will work on his science-fair project, a chemical analysis of acid rain.

He arrives every day this early and often doesn't leave until dark. The high-school junior with the perfect grades has big dreams: He wants to go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Cedric is one of a handful of honor students at Ballou, where the dropout rate is well into double digits and just 80 students out of more than 1,350 currently boast an average of B or better. They are a lonely lot. Cedric has almost no friends. Tall, gangly and unabashedly ambitious, he is a frequent target in a place where bullies belong to gangs and use guns; his life has been threatened more than once. He eats lunch in a classroom many days, plowing through extra work that he has asked for. "It's the only way I'll be able to compete with kids from other, harder schools," he says.

The arduous odyssey of Cedric and other top students shows how the street culture that dominates Ballou drags down anyone who seeks to do well. Just to get an ordinary education -- the kind most teens take for granted -- these students must take extraordinary measures. Much of their academic education must come outside of regular classes altogether: Little gets accomplished during the day in a place where attendance is sporadic, some fellow students read at only a fifth-grade level, and some stay in lower grades for years, leaving hardened, 18-year-old sophomores mixing with new arrivals.

"So much of what goes on here is crowd control," says Mahmood Dorosti, a math teacher. The few top students "have to put themselves on something like an independent-study course to really learn -- which is an awful lot to ask of a teenager."

It has been this way as long as Cedric can remember. When he was a toddler, his mother, Barbara Jennings, reluctantly quit her clerical job and went on welfare for a few years so she could start her boy on a straight and narrow path. She took him to museums, read him books, took him on nature walks. She brought him to church four times each week, and warned him about the drug dealers on the corner. Cedric learned to loathe those dealers -- especially the one who was his father.

Barbara Jennings, now 47, already had two daughters, her first born while she was in high school. Cedric, she vowed, would lead a different life. "You're a special boy," she would tell her son. "You have to see things far from here, far from this place. And someday, you'll get the kind of respect that a real man earns."

Cedric became a latch-key child at the age of five, when his mother went back to work. She filled her boy's head with visions of the Ivy League, bringing him home a Harvard sweat shirt while he was in junior high. Every day after school, after doublelocking the door behind him, he would study, dream of becoming an engineer living in a big house -- and gaze at the dealers just outside his window stashing their cocaine in the alley.

Ballou High, a tired sprawl of '60s-era brick and steel, rises up from a blighted landscape of housing projects and rundown stores. Failure is pervasive here, even seductive. Some 836 sophomores enrolled last September -- and 172 were gone by Thanksgiving. The junior class numbers only 399. The senior class, a paltry 240. "We don't know much about where the dropouts go," says Reginald Ballard, the assistant principal. "Use your imagination. Dead. Jail. Drugs."

On a recent afternoon, a raucous crowd of students fills the gymnasium for an assembly. Administrators here are often forced into bizarre games of cat and mouse with their students, and today is no exception: To lure everyone here, the school has brought in former Washington Mayor Marion Barry, several disk jockeys from a black radio station and a rhythm-and-blues singer.

A major reason for the assembly, though, has been kept a secret: To hand out academic awards to top students. Few of the winners would show up voluntarily to endure the sneers of classmates. When one hapless teen's name is called, a teacher must run to the bleachers and order him down as some in the crowd jeer "Nerd!"

The announcer moves on to the next honoree: "Cedric Jennings! Cedric Jennings!" Heads turn expectantly, but Cedric is nowhere to be seen. Someone must have tipped him off, worries Mr. Ballard. "It sends a terrible message," he says, "that doing well here means you better not show your face."

Cedric, at the moment, is holed up in a chemistry classroom. He often retreats here. It is his private sanctuary, the one place at Ballou where he feels completely safe, and where he spends hours talking with his mentor, chemistry teacher Clarence Taylor. Cedric later will insist he simply didn't know about the assembly -- but he readily admits he hid out during a similar assembly last year even though he was supposed to get a $100 prize: "I just couldn't take it, the abuse."

Mr. Taylor, the teacher, has made Cedric's education something of a personal mission. He gives Cedric extra-credit assignments, like working on a sophisticated computer program that taps into weather satellites. He arranges trips, like a visit with scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He challenges him with impromptu drills; Cedric can reel off all 109 elements of the periodic table by memory in three minutes, 39 seconds.

Most importantly, earlier this year, after Cedric's mother heard about an M.I.T. summer scholarship program for minority high schoolers, Mr. Taylor helped him apply.

Now, Cedric is pinning all of his hopes on getting into the program. Last year, it bootstrapped most of its participants into the M.I.T. freshman class, where the majority performed extremely well. It is Cedric's ticket out of this place, the culmination of everything that he has worked for his whole life.

"You can tell the difference between the ones who have hope and those who don't," says Mr. Taylor. "Cedric has it -- the capacity to hope."


That capacity is fast being drummed out of some others in the dwindling circle of honor students at Ballou. Teachers have a name for what goes on here. The "crab bucket syndrome," they call it: When one crab tries to climb from a bucket, the others pull it back down.

Just take a glance at Phillip Atkins, 17, who was a top student in junior high, but who has let his grades slide into the C range. These days he goes by the nickname "Blunt," street talk for a thick marijuana cigarette, a "personal favorite" he says he enjoys with a "40-ouncer" of beer. He has perfected a dead-eyed stare, a trademark of the gang leaders he admires.

Phillip, now a junior, used to be something of a bookworm. At the housing project where he lives with both parents and his seven siblings, he read voraciously, especially about history. He still likes to read, though he would never tell that to the menacing crowd he hangs around with now.

Being openly smart, as Cedric is, "will make you a target, which is crazy at a place like Ballou," Phillip explains to his 15-year-old sister Alicia and her friend Octavia Hooks, both sophomore honor students, as they drive to apply for a summer-jobs program for disadvantaged youths. "The best way to avoid trouble," he says, "is to never get all the answers right on a test."

Alicia and Octavia nod along. "At least one wrong," Octavia says quietly, almost to herself.


Cedric tries never to get any wrong. His average this year is better than perfect: 4.02, thanks to an A+ in English. He takes the most advanced courses he can, including physics and computer science. "If you're smart, show it," he says. "Don't hide."

At school, though, Cedric's blatant studiousness seems to attract nothing but abuse. When Cedric recently told a girl in his math class that he would tutor her as long as she stopped copying his answers, she responded with physical threats -- possibly to be carried out by a boyfriend. Earlier, one of the school's tougher students stopped him in the hallway and threatened to shoot him.

The police who are permanently stationed at the school say Ballou's code of behavior is much like that of a prison: Someone like Cedric who is "disrespected" and doesn't retaliate is vulnerable.

Worse, Cedric is worried that he is putting himself through all this for nothing. Scores are in, and Cedric has gotten a startling low 750 out of a possible 1600 on his PSATs, the pretest before the Scholastic Aptitude Test that colleges require. He is sure his chances of getting into the M.I.T. program, where average scores are far higher, are scuttled.

He admits that he panicked during the test, racing ahead, often guessing, and finishing early. He vows to do better next time. "I'm going to do better on the real SATs, I've got to," he says, working in Mr. Taylor's room on a computer program that offers drills and practice tests. "I've got no choice."

At his daily SAT Preparation class -- where Cedric is the only one of 17 students to have completed last night's homework -- Cedric leads one group of students in a practice exercise; Phillip leads another. Cedric races through the questions recklessly, ignoring his groupmates, one of whom protests faintly, "He won't let us do any." Phillip and his group don't bother trying. They cheat, looking up answers in the back of the book.

Janet Johns-Gibson, the class teacher, announces that one Ballou student who took the SAT scored a 1050. An unspectacular result almost anyplace else, but here the class swoons in amazement. "Cedric will do better than that," sneers Phillip. "He's such a brain." Cedric winces.


In truth, Cedric may not be the smartest student in his class. In a filthy boys room reeking of urine, Delante Coleman, a 17-year-old junior known as "Head," is describing life at the top. Head is the leader of Trenton Park Crew, a gang, and says he and "about 15 of my boys who back me up" enjoy "fine buggies," including a Lexus, and "money, which we get from wherever." There is a dark side, of course, like the murder last summer of the gang's previous leader, Head's best friend, by a rival thug from across town. The teen was found in his bed with a dozen bullet holes through his body.

But Head still feels invincible. "I'm not one, I'm many," says the 5-foot-3, 140-pound plug of a teenager. "Safety, in this neighborhood, is about being part of a group."

Head's grades are barely passing, in the D range. Yet Christopher Grimm, a physics teacher, knows a secret about Head: As a sophomore, he scored above 12th-grade-level nationally on the math section of a standardized basic-skills test. That's the same score Cedric got.

"How d'you find that out?" barks Head when confronted with this information. "Well, yeah, that's, umm, why I'm so good with money."

For sport, Head and his group like to toy with the "goodies," honor students like Cedric who carry books home and walk alone. "Everyone knows they're trying to be white, get ahead in the white man's world," he says, his voice turning bitter. "In a way, that's a little bit of disrespect to the rest of us."

Phillip tests even better than Head, his two F's in the latest quarter notwithstanding. On the basic-skills test, both he and Cedric hit a combined score -- averaging English, math and other disciplines -- of 12.9, putting both in the top 10% nationwide. But no one seems to pay attention to that, least of all Phillip's teachers, who mostly see him as a class clown. "Thought no one knew that," Phillip says, when a visitor mentions his scores.

Heading over to McDonald's after school, Phillip is joined by his sister Alicia and her friend Octavia, both top students a grade behind him. Over Big Macs and Cokes, the talk shifts to the future. "Well, I'm going to college," says Alicia coolly, staring down Phillip. "And then I'm going to be something like an executive secretary, running an office."

"Yeah, I'm going to college, too," says Phillip, looking away.

"Very funny, you going to college," snaps Alicia. "Get real."

"Well, I am."

"Get a life, Phillip, you got no chance."

"You've got nothing," he says, starting to yell. "Just your books. My life is after school."

"You got no life," she shouts back. "Nothing!"

The table falls silent, and everyone quietly finishes eating. But later, alone, Phillip admits that, no, there won't be any college. He has long since given up on the dreams he used to have when he and his father would spin a globe and talk about traveling the world. "I'm not really sure what happens from here," he says softly, sitting on the stone steps overlooking the track behind the school. "All I know is what I do now. I act stupid."

Phillip of late has become the cruelest of all of Cedric's tormentors. The two got into a scuffle recently -- or at least Phillip decked Cedric, who didn't retaliate. A few days after the McDonald's blowup, Phillip and a friend bump into Cedric. "He thinks he's so smart," Phillip says. "You know, I'm as smart as he is." The friend laughs. He thinks it's a joke.

Cedric is on edge. He should be hearing from M.I.T. about the summer program any day now, and he isn't optimistic. In physics class, he gamely tries to concentrate on his daily worksheet. The worksheet is a core educational tool at Ballou: Attendance is too irregular, and books too scarce, to actually teach many lessons during class, some teachers say. Often, worksheets are just the previous day's homework, and Cedric finishes them quickly.

Today, though, he runs into trouble. Spotting a girl copying his work, he confronts her. The class erupts in catcalls, jeering at Cedric until the teacher removes him from the room. "I put in a lot of hours, a lot of time, to get everything just right," he says, from his exile in an adjoining lab area. "I shouldn't just give it away."

His mentor, Mr. Taylor, urges him to ignore the others. "I tell him he's in a long, harrowing race, a marathon, and he can't listen to what's being yelled at him from the sidelines," he says. "I tell him those people on the sideline are already out of the race."

But Cedric sometimes wishes he was more like those people. Recently, he asked his mother for a pair of extra-baggy, khaki-colored pants -- a style made popular by Snoop Doggy Dogg, the rap star who was charged last year with murder. But "my mother said no way, that it symbolizes things, bad things, and bad people," he reports later, lingering in a stairwell. "I mean, I've gotta live."

Unable to shake his malaise, he wanders the halls after the school day ends, too distracted to concentrate on his usual extra-credit work. "Why am I doing this, working like a maniac?" he asks.

He stretches out his big hands, palms open. "Look at me. I'm not gonna make it. What's the point in even trying?"


Outside Phillip's house in the projects, his father, Israel Atkins, is holding forth on the problem of shooting too high. A lyrically articulate man who conducts prayer sessions at his home on weekends, he gives this advice to his eight children: Hoping for too much in this world can be dangerous.

"I see so many kids around here who are told they can be anything, who then run into almost inevitable disappointment, and all that hope turns into anger," he says one day, a few hours after finishing the night shift at his job cleaning rental cars. "Next thing, they're saying, `See, I got it anyway -- got it my way, by hustling -- the fancy car, the cash.' And then they're lost."

"Set goals so they're attainable, so you can get some security, I tell my kids. Then keep focused on what success is all about: being close to God and appreciating life's simpler virtues."

Mr. Atkins is skeptical about a tentative -- and maybe last -- stab at achievement that Phillip is making: tap dancing. Phillip has taken a course offered at school, and is spending hours practicing for an upcoming show in a small theater at the city's John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. His teacher, trying hard to encourage him, pronounces him "enormously gifted."

At Ballou, teachers desperate to find ways to motivate poor achievers often make such grand pronouncements. They will pick a characteristic and inflate it into a career path. So the hallways are filled with the next Carl Lewis, the next Bill Cosby, the next Michael Jackson.

But to Phillip's father, all this is nonsense. "Tap dancing will not get him a job," he says. It is all, he adds, part of the "problem of kids getting involved in these sorts of things, getting their heads full of all kinds of crazy notions."


As Cedric settles into his chair in history class, the teacher's discussion of the Great Depression echoes across 20 desks -- only one other of which is filled.

But Cedric has other things on his mind. As soon as school is over, he seeks out his chemistry teacher Mr. Taylor. He isn't going to enter a citywide science fair with his acid-rain project after all, he says. What's more, he is withdrawing from a program in which he would link up with a mentor, such as an Environmental Protection Agency employee, to prepare a project on the environment. Last year, Cedric had won third prize with his project on asbestos hazards. Mr. Taylor is at a loss as his star student slips out the door.

"I'm tired, I'm going home," Cedric murmurs. He walks grimly past a stairwell covered with graffiti: "HEAD LIVES."

The path may not get any easier. Not long after Cedric leaves, Joanne Camero, last year's salutatorian, stops by Mr. Taylor's chemistry classroom, looking despondent. Now a freshman at George Washington University, she has realized, she admits, "that the road from here keeps getting steeper."

The skills it took to make it through Ballou -- focusing on nothing but academics, having no social life, and working closely with a few teachers -- left Joanne ill-prepared for college, she says. There, professors are distant figures, and students flit easily from academics to socializing, something she never learned to do.

"I'm already worn out," she says. Her grades are poor and she has few friends. Tentatively, she admits that she is thinking about dropping out and transferring to a less rigorous college.

As she talks about past triumphs in high school, it becomes clear that for many of Ballou's honor students, perfect grades are an attempt to redeem imperfect lives -- lives torn by poverty, by violence, by broken families. In Cedric's case, Mr. Taylor says later, the pursuit of flawless grades is a way to try to force his father to respect him, even to apologize to him. "I tell him it can't be," Mr. Taylor says. "That he must forgive that man that he tries so hard to hate."


Behind a forest of razor wire at Virginia's Lorton Correctional Institution, Cedric Gilliam emerges into a visiting area. At 44 years old, he looks startlingly familiar, an older picture of his son. He has been in prison for nine years, serving a 12- to 36-year sentence for armed robbery.

When Cedric's mother became pregnant, "I told her . . . if you have the baby, you won't be seeing me again," Mr. Gilliam recalls, his voice flat. "So she said she'd have an abortion. But I messed up by not going down to the clinic with her. That was my mistake, you see, and she couldn't go through with it."

For years, Mr. Gilliam refused to publicly acknowledge that Cedric was his son, until his progeny had grown into a boy bearing the same wide, easy grin as his dad. One day, they met at a relative's apartment, in an encounter young Cedric recalls vividly. "And I ran to him and hugged him and said `Daddy.' I just remember that I was so happy."

Not long afterward, Mr. Gilliam went to jail. The two have had infrequent contacts since then. But their relationship, always strained, reached a breaking point last year when a fight ended with Mr. Gilliam threatening his son, "I'll beat the s--- out of you. I'll blow your brains out."

Now, in the spare prison visiting room, Mr. Gilliam says his son has been on his mind constantly since then. "I've dialed the number a hundred times, but I keep hanging up," he says. "I know Cedric doesn't get, you know, that kind of respect from the other guys, and that used to bother me. But now I see all he's accomplished, and I'm proud of him, and I love him. I just don't know how to say it."

"By the time he's ready to say he loves me and all, it will be too late," Cedric says later, angrily. "I'll be gone."


It is a Saturday afternoon, and the Kennedy Center auditorium comes alive with a wailing jazz number as Phillip and four other dancers spin and tap their way flawlessly through a complicated routine. The audience -- about 200 parents, brothers and sisters of the school-aged performers -- applauds wildly.

After the show, he is practically airborne, laughing and strutting in his yellow "Ballou Soul Tappers" T-shirt, looking out at the milling crowd in the lobby.

"You seen my people?" he asks one of his fellow tappers.

"No, haven't," she says.

"Your people here?" he asks, tentatively.

"Sure, my mom's over there," she says, pointing, then turning back to Phillip.

His throat seems to catch, and he shakes his head. "Yeah," he says, "I'll find out where they are, why they couldn't come." He tries to force a smile, but only manages a grimace. "I'll find out later."


Scripture Cathedral, the center of Washington's thriving apostolic Pentecostal community, is a cavernous church, its altar dominated by a 40-foot-tall illuminated cross. Evening services are about to begin, and Cedric's mother searches nervously for her son, scanning the crowd of women in hats and men in bow ties. Finally, he slips into a rear pew, looking haggard.

From the pulpit, the preacher, C.L. Long, announces that tonight, he has a "heavy heart": He had to bury a slain 15-year-old boy just this afternoon. But then he launches into a rousing sermon, and as he speaks, his rolling cadences echo through the sanctuary, bringing the 400 parishioners to their feet.

"When you don't have a dime in your pocket, when you don't have food on your table, if you got troubles, you're in the right place tonight," he shouts, as people yell out hallelujahs, raise their arms high, run through the aisles. Cedric, preoccupied, sits passively. But slowly, he, too, is drawn in and begins clapping.

Then the preacher seems to speak right to him. "Terrible things are happening, you're low, you're tired, you're fighting, you're waiting for your vision to become reality -- you feel you can't wait anymore," the preacher thunders. "Say `I'll be fine tonight 'cause Jesus is with me.' Say it! Say it!"

By now, Cedric is on his feet, the spark back in his eyes. "Yes," he shouts. "Yes."

It is a long service, and by the time mother and son pass the drug dealers -- still standing vigil -- and walk up the crumbling stairs to their apartment, it is approaching midnight.

Ms. Jennings gets the mail. On top of the TV Guide is an orange envelope from the U.S. Treasury: a stub from her automatic savings-bond contribution -- $85 a week, about one-third of her after-tax income -- that she has been putting away for nine years to help pay for Cedric's college. "You don't see it, you don't miss it," she says.

Under the TV Guide is a white envelope.

Cedric grabs it. His hands begin to shake. "My heart is in my throat."

It is from M.I.T.

Fumbling, he rips it open.

"Wait. Wait. `We are pleased to inform you . . .' Oh my God. Oh my God," he begins jumping around the tiny kitchen. Ms. Jennings reaches out to touch him, to share this moment with him -- but he spins out of her reach.

"I can't believe it. I got in," he cries out, holding the letter against his chest, his eyes shut tight. "This is it. My life is about to begin."

(See related letters: "Letters to the Editor: Education Under Seige: A Contrast" -- WSJ June 20, 1994)

Credit: Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal


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Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc May 26, 1994

Alicia Atkins grasps the fake gold necklace at her throat as if it is a talisman, a charm that will ward off the evil spirits lurking all around. The necklace spells out "ERA," and Alicia gave one to each of her five closest girlfriends -- honor students all -- at the start of the school year.

She had gotten the trinkets from a woman at her church, who had picked up a handful at a women's rights rally. But Alicia decided the letters would stand for something else: "That we would be a group of smart girls at Ballou, who'd be sticking together and do well in school, that we would bring about, like, a new era for black people."

Fifteen-year-old Alicia hopes desperately it will protect them. Short, chatty and all dimples behind her big glasses, she is the self-appointed mother figure for this group of sophomores.

Alicia is most protective of 15-year-old Octavia Hooks -- and for good reason. Alicia's home life may be chaotic, with seven siblings including her brother Phillip. But her father has a steady job, her mother is always at home. She is guided by her father's advice to set "attainable" goals; she wants to be an executive secretary with "a house with three bedrooms, a little yard with a swing, where I can walk outside and not be afraid. And when I get it -- and I will -- I'll live there, all by myself."

Octavia's life has no such order. She has lived in two of the city's worst public-housing projects in the past two years. She and her five siblings are from two different fathers -- one a drug addict who was beaten to death, the other an occasional visitor.

In the past year, though, Octavia has emerged as a blazing student. When the other girls get "A's," Octavia brings home the lone "A+." She talks of being an obstetrician. But she is often tired and carries an edge of neediness.

Her physics teacher, Christopher Grimm, is concerned. Mr. Grimm was reluctant last September to accept Octavia into a class of almost all seniors, so he gave her a math-proficiency test, expecting her to fail; she scored 100%. Now he is challenging her at every opportunity, and says her science-fair project -- which uses fireworks and sensors to measure rocket thrust -- was "a cinch for first place." But Octavia didn't show up on the day she was due to fire the rockets, and the project won't be finished in time for the fair. She will only say she had "family business" that day.

"Occy's one of those welfare babies," says Alicia, trying to make it sound like banter. "What they call `at risk.'" But she is worried: Octavia's "mind's been all over the place. . . . Things are going on."

Over fried chicken during lunch period, the talk turns to a 21-year-old man Octavia has been seeing. Alicia has been on tenterhooks, afraid her friend might be pregnant, "and, that'll be it. Her life'll be over." One day she says that "Occy's in denial" and that "I'm going to be the godmother." Octavia angrily denies being pregnant, and later Alicia says she "was mistaken, it was all just a joke."

But in physics class, Octavia bears down on a copy of Parents magazine. She lingers over "10 Essentials for a Safe Nursery." "It must be really hard," she says, pensively, "to make a place absolutely safe for an infant -- so nothing could happen to them."

A few weeks later, long after the science fair, Octavia sits in physics class with her head on the desk. Three feet away, on a table against the wall, dangle two starter fuses for a rocket launcher. Mr. Grimm is beside himself: If she doesn't complete her experiment in a few days, his star student will fail physics for the quarter.

"It's so frustrating," he says. "You see them drowning, and you reach out and say, `Just take my hand.' But they won't. They think they're supposed to drown."

Later, Alicia mentions that she and Octavia, together, came up with the idea of a "new era that we would lead." The necklaces, they both felt, would be a shield to keep them safe. Now, Octavia is the only girl without one. Alicia says she took it back after discovering her friend tried to sell it for $5.

Half-a-mile away, at Octavia's row house, her 36-year-old mother, Michelle Rindgo, sits in her "TAKE ME HOME I'M DRUNK" T-shirt on the couch. Ms. Rindgo reels off mistakes she has made: her first baby at 14, her years on welfare, her attempts, often futile, to keep her children "away from all the other kids who live around here who are going nowhere."

Like many living rooms in the projects, hers is wall-papered with certificates that local schools pass out frantically, honoring small victories, like attendance or citizenship, to build self-esteem. But this shrine offers scant comfort as her daughter grows into womanhood. "She's at the age -- she's a pretty girl -- and I worry," Ms. Rindgo says.

Octavia comes home, and packs clothes for a weekend away. She will be staying at the apartment of her 21-year-old sister, who has three out-of-wedlock babies. As she slips out the door, Ms. Rindgo calls to her: "You still a virgin, baby?"

"Yes, Mama," her daughter calls back. Then she disappears across a landscape of bursting Dumpsters and junked cars.

(See related story: "Against All Odds: In Rough City School, Top Students Struggle To Learn -- and Escape --- Cedric Jennings Eyes MIT, But Obstacles Are Steep; Failure Rules at Ballou --- Physics Labs, Death Threats" -- WSJ May 26, 1994)


Class Struggle: Poor, Black and Smart, An Inner-City Teen Tries to Survive M.I.T. --- Cedric Jennings Triumphed Over Gangs, Violence; Now for the Hard Part --- Relying on Adrenaline, Faith

By Ron SuskindWall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Sep 22, 1994. pg. A.1

Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc Sep 22, 1994

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- In a dormitory lobby, under harsh fluorescent lights, there is a glimpse of the future: A throng of promising minority high schoolers, chatting and laughing, happy and confident.

It is a late June day, and the 51 teenagers have just converged here at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its prestigious minority summer program -- a program that bootstraps most of its participants into M.I.T.'s freshman class. Already, an easy familiarity prevails. A doctor's son from Puerto Rico invites a chemical engineer's son from south Texas to explore nearby Harvard Square. Over near the soda machines, the Hispanic son of two schoolteachers meets a black girl who has the same T-shirt, from an annual minority-leadership convention.

"This is great," he says. "Kind of like we're all on our way up, together."

Maybe. Off to one side, a gangly boy is singing a rap song, mostly to himself. His expression is one of pure joy. Cedric Jennings, the son of a drug dealer and the product of one of Washington's most treacherous neighborhoods, has worked toward this moment for his entire life.

Cedric, whose struggle to excel was chronicled in a May 26 page one article in this newspaper, hails from a square mile of chaos. His apartment building is surrounded by crack dealers, and his high school, Frank W. Ballou Senior High, is at the heart of the highest-crime area in the city. Already this year, four teenagers from his district -- teens who should have been his schoolmates -- were charged in homicides. Another six are dead, murder victims themselves.

For Cedric, M.I.T. has taken on almost mythic proportions. It represents the culmination of everything he has worked for, his ticket to escape poverty. He has staked everything on getting accepted to college here, and at the summer program's end he will find out whether he stands a chance. He doesn't dare think about what will happen if the answer is no.

"This will be the first steps of my path out, out of here, to a whole other world," he had said not long before leaving Washington for the summer program. "I'll be going so far from here, there'll be no looking back."

As Cedric looks around the bustling dormitory lobby on that first day, he finally feels at home, like he belongs. "They arrive here and say, `Wow, I didn't know there were so many like me,'" says William Ramsey, administrative director of M.I.T.'s program. "It gives them a sense . . . that being a smart minority kid is the most normal thing to be."

But they aren't all alike, really, a lesson Cedric is learning all too fast. He is one of only a tiny handful of students from poor backgrounds; most of the rest range from lower-middle-class to affluent. As he settles into chemistry class on the first day, a row of girls, all savvy and composed, amuse themselves by poking fun at "my Washington street-slang," as Cedric tells it later. "You know, the way I talk, slur my words and whatever."

Cedric is often taunted at his nearly all-black high school for "talking white." But now, he is hearing the flawless diction of a different world, of black students from suburbs with neat lawns and high schools that send most graduates off to college.

Other differences soon set him apart. One afternoon, as students talk about missing their families, it becomes clear that almost everyone else has a father at home. Cedric's own father denied paternity for years and has been in jail for almost a decade. And while many of the students have been teased back home for being brainy, Cedric's studiousness has earned him threats from gang members with guns.

Most worrisome, though, is that despite years of asking for extra work after school -- of creating his own independent-study course just to get the basic education that students elsewhere take for granted -- he is woefully far behind. He is overwhelmed by the blistering workload: six-hours each day of intensive classes, study sessions with tutors each night, endless hours more of homework.

Only in calculus, his favorite subject, does he feel sure of himself. He is slipping steadily behind in physics, chemistry, robotics and English.

In the second week of the program, Cedric asks one of the smartest students, who hails from a top-notch public school, for help on some homework. "He said it was `beneath him,'" Cedric murmurs later, barely able to utter the words. "Like, he's so much better than me. Like I'm some kind of inferior human being."

A crowd of students jostles into a dormitory lounge a few evenings later for Chinese food, soda and a rare moment of release from studying. Cliques already have formed, there are whispers of romances, and lunch groups have crystallized, almost always along black or Hispanic lines. But as egg rolls disappear, divides are crossed.

A Hispanic teenager from a middle-class New Mexico neighborhood tries to teach the opening bars of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" to a black youngster, a toll taker's son from Miami. An impeccably-clad black girl from an affluent neighborhood teaches some dance steps to a less privileged one.

Tutors, mostly minority undergraduates at M.I.T. who once went through this program, look on with tight smiles, always watchful. The academic pressure, they know, is rising fast. Midterm exams start this week -- along with all-nighters and panic. Some students will grow depressed; others will get sick from exhaustion. The tutors count heads, to see if anyone looks glum, confused, or strays from the group.

"They're going through so much, that a day here is like a week, so we can't let them be down in the dumps for very long," says Valencia Thomas, a graduate of this program and now a 20-year-old sophomore at nearby Harvard University."Their identities are being challenged, broken up and reformed. Being a minority and a high achiever means you have to carry extra baggage about who you are, and where you belong. That puts them at risk."

Tonight, all the students seem to be happy and accounted for. Almost.

Upstairs, Cedric is lying on his bed with the door closed and lights off, waiting for a miracle, that somehow, he will "be able to keep up with the others."

It is slow in coming.

"It's all about proving yourself, really," he says quietly, sitting up. "I'm trying, you know. It's all I can do is try. But where I start from is so far behind where some other kids are, I have to run twice the distance to catch up."

He is cutting back on calls to his mother, not wanting to tell her that things aren't going so well. Barbara Jennings had raised her boy to believe that he can succeed, that he must. When Cedric was a toddler, she quit her clerical job temporarily and went on welfare so that she could take him to museums, read him books, instill in him the importance of getting an education -- and getting out.

"I know what she'll say: `Don't get down, you can do anything you set your mind to,'" Cedric says. "I'm finding out it's not that simple."

Cedric isn't the only student who is falling behind. Moments later, Neda Ramirez's staccato voice echoes across the dormitory courtyard.

"I am so angry," says the Mexican-American teen, who goes to a rough, mostly Hispanic high school in the Texas border town of Edinburg. "I work so hard at my school -- I have a 102% average -- but I'm realizing the school is so awful it doesn't amount to anything. I don't belong here. My father says, `Learn as much as you can at M.I.T., do your best and accept the consequences.' I said, `Yeah, Dad, but I'm the one who has to deal with the failure.'" By the middle of the third week, the detonations of self-doubt become audible. One morning in physics class, Cedric stands at his desk, walks out into the hallway, and screams.

The physics teacher, Thomas Washington, a black 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate at M.I.T., rushes after him. "I told him, `Cedric, don't be so hard on yourself,'" Mr. Washington recounts later. "I told him that a lot of the material is new to lots of the kids -- just keep at it."

But, days after the incident, Mr. Washington vents his frustration at how the deck is stacked against underprivileged students like Cedric and Neda.

"You have to understand that there's a controversy over who these types of programs should serve," he says, sitting in a sunny foyer one morning after class. "If you only took the kids who need this the most, the ones who somehow excel at terrible schools, who swim upstream but are still far behind academically, you wouldn't get enough eventually accepted to M.I.T. to justify the program."

And so the program ends up serving many students who really don't need it. Certainly, M.I.T.'s program -- like others at many top colleges -- looks very good. More than half its students eventually are offered admission to the freshman class. Those victors, however, are generally students from better schools in better neighborhoods, acknowledges Mr. Ramsey, a black M.I.T. graduate who is the program's administrative director. For some of them, this program is little more than resume padding.

Mr. Ramsey, 68, had hoped it would be different. Seven years ago, when he took over the program, he had "grand plans, to find late bloomers, and deserving kids in tough spots. But it didn't take me three months to realize I'd be putting kids on a suicide dash."

A six-week program like M.I.T.'s, which doesn't offer additional, continuing support, simply can't function if it is filled only with inner-city youths whose educations lag so far behind, he says: "They'd get washed out and everything they believe in would come crashing down on their heads. Listen, we know a lot about suicide rates up here. I'd be raising them."

Perhaps it isn't surprising, then, that while 47% of all black children live in poverty in America, only about a dozen students in this year's M.I.T. program would even be considered lower-middle class, according to Mr. Ramsey. Though one or two of the neediest students like Cedric find their way to the program each year, he adds, they tend to be long shots to make it to the next step, into M.I.T. for college. Those few, though, Mr. Ramsey says, are "cases where you could save lives."

Which is why Cedric, more than perhaps any other student in this year's program, hits a nerve.

"I want to take Cedric by the hand and lead him through the material," says physics instructor Mr. Washington, pensively. "But I resist. The real world's not like that. If he makes it to M.I.T., he won't have someone like me to help him.

"You know, part of it I suppose is our fault," he adds. "We haven't figured out a way to give credit for distance traveled."

So, within the program -- like society beyond it -- a class system is becoming obvious, even to the students. At the top are students like the beautifully dressed Jenica Dover, one of the girls who had found Cedric's diction so amusing. A confident black girl, she attends a mostly white high school in wealthy Newton, Mass. "Some of this stuff is review for me," she says one day, strolling from physics class, where she spent some of the hour giggling with deskmates. "I come from a very good school, and that makes all this pretty manageable."

Cedric, Neda and the few others from poor backgrounds, meanwhile, are left to rely on what has gotten them this far: adrenaline and faith.

On a particularly sour day in mid-July, Cedric's rising doubts seem to overwhelm him. He can't work any harder in calculus, his best subject, yet he still lags behind other students in the class. Physics is becoming a daily nightmare.

Tossing and turning that night, too troubled to sleep, he looks out at the lights of M.I.T., thinking about the sacrifices he has made -- the hours of extra work that he begged for from his teachers, the years focusing so single-mindedly on school that he didn't even have friends. "I thought that night that it wasn't ever going to be enough. That I wouldn't make it to M.I.T.," he says later. "That, all this time, I was just fooling myself."

As the hours passed he fell in and out of sleep. Then he awoke with a jolt, suddenly thinking about Cornelia Cunningham, an elder at the Washington Pentecostal church he attends as often as four times a week with his mother. A surrogate grandmother who had challenged and prodded Cedric since he was a small boy, "Mother Cunningham," as he always called her, had died two weeks before he left for M.I.T.

"I was lying there, and her spirit seemed to come to me, I could hear her voice, right there in my room, saying -- just like always -- `Cedric, you haven't yet begun to fight,'" he recounts. "And the next morning, I woke up and dove into my calculus homework like never before."

The auditorium near M.I.T.'s majestic domed library rings with raucous cheering, as teams prepare their robots for battle. Technically, this is an exercise in ingenuity and teamwork: Each three-student team had been given a box of motors, levers and wheels to design a machine -- mostly little cars with hooks on the front -- to fight against another team's robot over a small soccer ball.

But something has gone awry. The trios, carefully chosen and mixed in past years by the instructors, were self-selected this year by the students. Clearly, the lines were drawn by race. As the elimination rounds begin, Hispanic teams battle against black teams. "PUERTO RICO, PUERTO RICO," comes the chant from the Hispanic side.

Black students whoop as Cedric's team fights into the quarterfinals, only to lose. He stumbles in mock anguish toward the black section, into the arms of several girls who have become his friends. The winner, oddly enough, is a team led by a Caucasian boy from Oklahoma who is here because he is 1/128 Potawatomi Indian. Both camps are muted.

In the final weeks, the explosive issues of race and class that have been simmering since the students arrive break out into the open. It isn't just black vs. Hispanic or poor vs. rich. It is minority vs. white.

At a lunch table, over cold cuts on whole wheat, talk turns to the ultimate insult: "wanting to be white." Jocelyn Truitt, a black girl from a good Maryland high school, says her mother, a college professor, "started early on telling me to ignore the whole `white' thing . . . I've got white friends. People say things, that I'm trading up, selling out, but I don't listen. Let them talk."

Leslie Chavez says she hears it, too, in her largely Hispanic school. "If you get good grades, you're `white.' What, so you shouldn't do that? Thinking that way is a formula for failure."

In an English class discussion later on the same issue, some students say assimilation is the only answer. "The success of whites means they've mapped out the territory for success," says Alfred Fraijo, a cocky Hispanic from Los Angeles. "If you want to move up, and fit in, it will have to be on those terms. There's nothing wrong with aspiring to that -- it's worth the price of success."

Cedric listens carefully, but the arguments for assimilation are foreign to him. He knows few whites; in his world, whites have always been the unseen oppressors. "The charge of `wanting to be white,' where I'm from," Cedric says, "is like treason."

A charge for which he is being called to task, and not just by tough kids in Ballou's hallways. He has had phone conversations over the past few weeks with an old friend from junior high, a boy his age named Torrance Parks, who is trying to convert Cedric to Islam.

"He just says I should stick with my own," says Cedric, "that I'm already betraying my people, leaving them all behind, by coming up to a big white university and all, that even if I'm successful, I'll never be accepted by whites."

Back in Washington, Cedric's mother, a data-input clerk at the Department of Agriculture, is worried. She hopes Cedric will now continue to push forward, to take advantage of scholarships to private prep schools, getting him out of Ballou High for his senior year, "keeping on his path out."

"He needs to get more of what he's getting at M.I.T., more challenging work with nice, hard-working kids -- maybe even white kids," she says. The words of Islam, which she fears might lead toward more radical black separatism, would "mean a retreat from all that." She adds that she asks Torrance: "What can you offer my son other than hate?"

She is increasingly frustrated, yet unable to get her son to discuss the issue. When recruiters from Phillips Exeter Academy come to M.I.T. to talk to the students, Cedric snubs them. "They have to wear jacket and tie there; it's elitist," he says, "It's not for me."

Still, in the past few weeks, Cedric has been inching forward. Perseverance finally seems to be paying off. He has risen to near the top of the group in calculus. He is improving in chemistry, adequate in robotics, and showing some potential in English. Physics remains a sore spot.

He also has found his place here. The clutch of middle- and upper-middle-class black girls who once made fun of him has grown fond of him, fiercely protective of him. One Friday night, when Cedric demurs about joining a Saturday group trip to Cape Cod, the girls press him until he finally admits his reason: He doesn't have a bathing suit.

"So we took him to the mall to pick out some trunks," says Isa Williams, the daughter of two Atlanta college professors. "Because he doesn't have maybe as many friends at home, Cedric has a tendency of closing up when he gets sad, and not turning to other people," she adds. "We want him to know we're there for him."

The next day, on the bus, Cedric, at his buoyant best, leads the group in songs.

Though he doesn't want to say it -- to jinx anything -- by early in the fifth week Cedric is actually feeling a shard of hope. Blackboard scribbles are beginning to make sense, even on the day in late-July when he is thinking only about what will follow classes: a late afternoon meeting with Prof. Trilling, the academic director. This is the meeting Cedric has been waiting for since the moment he arrived, when the professor will assess his progress and -- most important -- his prospects for someday getting accepted into M.I.T.

Cedric, wound tight, gets lost on the way to Prof. Trilling's office, arriving a few minutes late.

Professor Trilling, who is white, ushers the youngster into an office filled with certificates, wide windows, and a dark wood desk. Always conscious of clothes, Cedric tries to break the ice by complimenting Mr. Trilling on his shoes, but the professor doesn't respond, moving right to business.

After a moment, he asks Cedric if he is "thinking about applying and coming to M.I.T."

"Yeah," Cedric says. "I've been wanting to come for years."

"Well, I don't think you're M.I.T. material," the professor says flatly. "Your academic record isn't strong enough."

Cedric, whose average for his junior year was better than perfect, 4.19, thanks to several A+ grades, asks what he means.

The professor explains that Cedric's Scholastic Aptitude Test scores -- he has scored only a 910 out of a possible 1600 -- are about 200 points below what they need to be.

Agitated, Cedric begins insisting that he is willing to work hard, "exceedingly hard," to make it at M.I.T. "He seemed to have this notion that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything," Prof. Trilling recalls haltingly. "That is admirable, but it also can set up for disappointment. And, at the present time, I told him, that just doesn't seem to be enough."

Ending the meeting, the professor jots down names of professors at Howard University, a black college in Washington, and at the University of Maryland. He suggests that Cedric call them, that if Cedric does well at one of those colleges, he might someday be able to transfer to M.I.T.

Cedric's eyes are wide, his temples bulging, his teeth clenched. He doesn't hear Mr. Trilling's words of encouragement; he hears only M.I.T.'s rejection. He takes the piece of paper from the professor, leaves without a word, and walks across campus and to his dorm room. Crumpling up the note, he throws it in the garbage. He skips dinner that night, ignoring the knocks on his locked door from Isa, Jenica and other worried friends. "I thought about everything," he says, "about what a fool I've been."

The next morning, wandering out into the foyer as calculus class ends, he finally blows. "He made me feel so small, this big," he says, almost screaming, as he presses his fingers close. "`Not M.I.T. material' . . . Who is he to tell me that? He doesn't know what I've been through. This is it, right, this is racism. A white guy telling me I can't do it."

Physics class is starting. Cedric slips in, moving, now almost by rote, to the front row -- the place he sits in almost every class he has ever taken.

Isa passes him a note: What happened?

He writes a note back describing the meeting and saying he is thinking of leaving, of just going home. The return missive, now also signed by Jenica and a third friend, tells Cedric he has worked too hard to give up. "You can't just run away," the note says, as Isa recalls later. "You have to stay and prove to them you have what it takes. . . . We all care about you and love you." Cedric folds the note gently and puts it in his pocket.

The hour ends, with a worksheet Cedric is supposed to hand in barely touched. Taking a thick pencil from his bookbag, he scrawls "I AM LOST" across the blank sheet, drops it on the teacher's desk, and disappears into the crowd.

Jenica runs to catch up with him, to commiserate. But it will be difficult for her to fully understand: In her meeting with Prof. Trilling the next day, he encourages her to enroll at M.I.T. She shrugs off the invitation. "Actually," she tells the professor, "I was planning to go to Stanford."


On a sweltering late-summer day, all three air conditioners are blasting in Cedric's cramped apartment in Washington. Cedric is sitting on his bed, piled high with clothes, one of his bags not yet unpacked even though he returned home from Cambridge several weeks ago.

The last days of the M.I.T. program were fitful. Cedric didn't go to the final banquet, where awards are presented, because he didn't want to see Prof. Trilling again. But he made friends in Cambridge, and on the last morning, as vans were loaded for trips to the airport, he hugged and cried like the rest of them.

"I don't think much about it now, about M.I.T.," he says, as a police car speeds by, its siren barely audible over the air conditioners' whir. "Other things are happening. I have plenty to do."

Not really. Most days since returning from New England, he has spent knocking around the tiny, spare apartment, or going to church, or plodding through applications for colleges and scholarships.

The calls from Torrance, who has been joined in his passion for Islam by Cedric's first cousin, have increased. Cedric says he "just listens," and that "it's hard to argue with" Torrance.

But inside the awkward youngster, a storm rages. Not at home on the hustling streets, and ostracized by high-school peers who see his ambition as a sign of "disrespect," Cedric has discovered that the future he so carefully charted may not welcome him either.

Certainly, he will apply to colleges. And his final evaluations from each M.I.T. class turned out better than he -- and perhaps even Prof. Trilling -- thought they would. He showed improvement right through the very last day.

But the experience in Cambridge left Cedric bewildered. Private-school scholarship offers, crucial to help underprivileged students make up for lost years before landing in the swift currents of college, have been passed by, despite his mother's urgings. Instead, Cedric Jennings has decided to return to Ballou High, the place from which he has spent the last three years trying to escape.

"I know this may sound crazy," he says, shaking his head. "But I guess I'm sort of comfortable there, at my school. Comfortable in this place that I hate."


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