Inner City to Ivy League

THERE’S A WALL OF HONOR AT FRANK W. Ballou Senior High, in Washington, D.C. Strange thing, though: nobody wants his name on it. The wall was intended to boost morale among the few students who were thriving in the violent, inner-city school. Unfortunately, anybody whose name shows up there runs a risk of getting beaten up. So Ballou’s principal embarks on an even more ill-advised campaign. He offers rewards to students who get A’s, holding assemblies and presenting $ 100 checks with much pomp in front of a jeering student body. At the outset of Ron Suskind’s A Hope In the Unseen (384 pages. Broadway Books. $ 25), the principal is announcing the name of another winner, Cedric Jennings. No one answers. Cedric’s a smart, proud kid, and at the moment he’s hiding in a chem lab.

Suskind met Cedric in 1994, while on assignment for The Wall Street Journal. Cedric’s father was a heroin addict who abandoned his son before he was even born, later attempting fumbling reconciliations from prison. His mother was a lifesaver, a devout Pentecostal woman who taught her son how to identify crack dealers when he was 5. Suskind wrote two articles about Cedric’s attempt to make it to the Ivy League. The articles — which concluded with a professor’s informing the high schooler that he wasn’t “M.I.T. material” — were so gripping and annihilatingly sad that they won Suskind a Pulitzer Prize. Here, he expands on those pieces, then follows Cedric through a fitful, deeply alienated year at Brown University.

At college, “Hope” flounders. Suskind bogs down in dorm politics that don’t always resonate as deeply as he thinks they do. And although you admire his meticulousness as a journalist, you miss the impassioned advocacy of other writers who have covered the urban poor. Still, Suskind draws wonderfully deft character studies. He clearly admires Cedric but portrays him objectively: as a young man by turns vulnerable, combative, defiant, confused, world-weary, naive. How far inside of Cedric’s mind did Suskind get? “By virtue of him being a white guy, there are things he just couldn’t see,” Cedric said in Brown Alumni Monthly recently. “But . . . Ron came really, really, really, really close.” By the end of the book, you have, too.

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