1995Feature Writing

Against All Odds

In Rough City School, Top Students Struggle To Learn -- and Escape
Ron Suskind
May 26, 1994

Cedric Jennings Eyes MIT But Obstacles Are Steep;
Failure Rules at Ballou Physics Labs, Death Threats

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 double-locking 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."