Cedric Jennings Triumphed Over Gangs, Violence; Now for the Hard Part Relying on Adrenaline, Faith
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.”
(© DOW JONES & CO., INC. REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION)