Summary of Chapter One: Something to Push Against
It is a February morning in 1994 at Frank W. Ballou all-black High School in the southeast Washington, D. C. ghetto. The students are gathered in the gymnasium to greet the black Mayor, Marion Barry. Sitting in the bleachers are the “crews” or gang members of the area. They are well dressed. The next rank includes the athletes who are few in number. Most of the kids are “duck-and-run adolescents” (p. 2) who avoid eye contact. Out of the 1,389 students, 79 are on the honor roll with at least a “B” average. The school drop-out rate is nearly 50%, and academics are not a priority for these kids. In fact, they are a liability, for the honors students are targets for violence. They rarely show up at assemblies to pick up their $100 checks for straight A’s. The principal reads out the honor names at this assembly with the mayor present: “Cedric Jennings.” Cedric is the only “male honor student who bears the cross with pride, “ (p. 4) yet even he is absent today.
Cedric is a handsome boy, holed up in the chemistry lab, his sanctuary. He is on a computer studying a SAT test for English. He is not by nature a loner “but he finds himself ever more isolated” (p. 5) for fear of the backlash of the other students, because he is devoted to his studies. His chemistry teacher, Clarence Taylor, comes into the lab and scolds him for skipping the assembly. Cedric says he can’t take the pressure. He’ll get his check later. He feels bad for being ashamed of his achievement.
Taylor is Cedric’s mentor since tenth grade. He had been in trouble before that for talking back to teachers, but Taylor encouraged him and gave him extra work. They are now a team, trying to get Cedric into college. Taylor challenges Cedric and advises him that he is in a long distance race; he has to keep on running. He has encouraged him to apply for a summer program at MIT for minority students.
In the hall, students harass him as he slips into Unified Math class, his favorite subject. The only peace Cedric feels is “Knowing the material cold” (p. 9). Math is orderly, unlike his chaotic life. On a test essay, he writes; “The part that most interested me was finding the identity of the trigonometric functions” (p. 9).
At the bus stop, Cedric sees two crack dealers, and he knows they are armed with guns. He goes directly home to his apartment and turns on TV, his only companion for his “secondhand life” (p. 12). His mother, Barbara, is 47 and has sacrificed her whole life for her son. When she comes home from her low-paying job as a clerk at the Department of Agriculture, he goes to the kitchen and cooks dinner for them, then cleans up. Barbara gives him constant pep talks and quotes from the Bible about how he will succeed because he is special. They hear gunshots outside, a usual noise.
The next day the loudspeakers at school announce it is “code blue” and there is total anarchy in the halls, with armed guards everywhere. Cedric goes to the assistant principal and complains that he got a B plus instead of an A from a teacher. He challenges the grade. Cedric is proud of his 4.02 grade point average, tying for first place in the junior class with LaCountiss Spinner. In physics class, Cedric complains the other students are cheating and copying from him. His teacher tells him to get along with other people, but he doesn’t know how to get along with people who hate him. In the hall he is hassled by Phillip Atkins and almost gets in a fight with him. Then Delante Coleman gets up from a crap game in the hall but fortunately doesn’t see Cedric. His nickname is “Head,” and he runs one of the criminal gangs in the neighborhood.
Cedric goes to the cafeteria and meets his friend, LaTisha Williams. She is intelligent but an outcast like Cedric, weighing about 250 pounds. She is good to Cedric and encourages him. As they catch the bus after school he sees one boy pull a gun on another boy, and then he realizes he is not ashamed of his achievements, he is afraid.
Commentary on Chapter One: Something to Push Against
This is a true story with most of the names unchanged, including Cedric Jennings’s identity. It was originally written as articles in the Wall Street Journal in 1994 and 1995, for which Ron Suskind won a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. The book developed out of the articles and is an expanded biography of a boy who fights his way out of the ghetto through education. The tone is objective, that of an observer, but in the third-person limited voice that can represent the point of view of each person fairly, as it is being reported. In this way, Suskind builds up, layer by layer, the pressured life of a ghetto boy and his mother. Suskind had interviewed the students and faculty in Cedric’s life and was able to explain their challenges as well.
Phillip Atkins and Delante Coleman (“Head”) demonstrate the more typical ghetto lives for boys. Cedric is punished by his peers for going against the stream. Atkins, as we find out later, is just as afraid as Cedric and gives in to the pressure, becoming a class clown so he will be accepted. He pretends to be stupid. Coleman becomes rich and successful in a life of crime and drugs, the path that Cedric’s own father chose. At first Cedric assumes he doesn’t go to the assembly to get his award check because he is ashamed of his success. Later, he realizes when he sees the violence all around him, that he is simply “scared to death. That’s something he can live with” (p. 23).
This first chapter acquaints us with the challenges of being an African American in impoverished southeast Washington, D. C. Trying to succeed in this environment is not only difficult, it is dangerous. Already it is apparent that Cedric has something the other students don’t have. He understands that they might not be that different from him. They are also intelligent, but they do not have his pride and joy in academic achievement. Head uses his intelligence to create a crime ring. He is “every bit as driven as Cedric” but they are like “urban black yin and yang” (p. 19). The other students have already gotten the message about where the power lies and have given up, like Phillip. For most of them, it is not the teachers or smart students or even athletes who are the role models. It is the gang members.
Besides Cedric’s innate intelligence and drive, he is also blessed with mentors—his mother, primarily, and then, his chemistry teacher, Clarence Taylor. Later we will meet his pastor, Bishop Long. Without help and protection, Cedric would fail also. Suskind spells out for the reader the fact that education in an inner city school is inferior, even if taken seriously by a student like Cedric. He is in “advanced” classes, but they are not advanced enough to make him competitive with more fortunate middle-class students. Yet Cedric applies to the MIT summer program in hope, based on his straight “A” average.
Cedric’s introverted and reflective character is apparent in his inner questioning and dialogue. He reflects on what he is going through. He is sensitive and shocked by the world around him. Suskind was able to give him this depth because he spent hours every day speaking to him on the phone to get his thoughts on his life. Suskind claims in the “Author’s Note” that he merely interviewed Jennings and did not try to influence him. Jennings as always was “headstrong, introspective, and self-directed” (p. 370).
Another theme is introduced in the character of Mayor Marion Barry who was the black mayor of Washington, D. C. at the time of the story. Barry had been prominent in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, a leader of the African American community. He faced a lot of resistance, including an arrest in 1990 for drug possession. He had to step down as mayor but was re-elected in 1995 and served until 1999. Many felt, as Cedric later states, that Barry had been framed by the police. This is another example of the difficulties facing the black man who would rise to leadership in a white world. Suskind states that the ghetto is “an all-black world: a fully formed, parallel universe to white America” (p. 2). Cedric tries to live in that universe as little as possible. TV becomes his reality. He merely tastes the ghetto violence by listening in fascination to the gross and violent speech around him. By the end of the first chapter the reader understands that Cedric’s escape to a different life is going to be a miracle and wonders how it could possibly happen.