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As it turned out, those high school years were only half the story. Once out of his Washington, D.C., neighborhood and in his freshman year at Brown University, Jennings had to fight once again to keep up, ...
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As it turned out, those high school years were only half the story. Once out of his Washington, D.C., neighborhood and in his freshman year at Brown University, Jennings had to fight once again to keep up, understand, and be understood in a mostly white world he knew little of.
Suskind kept in close contact with Jennings after the initial stories and the result is A Hope in the Unseen , a thorough biography of Jennings's drive and rise out of the inner city into the Ivy League and the renewed struggle he faced there.
Though it took an almost preternatural level of ambition to escape the inner city, Jennings didn't do it alone. His mother, Barbara, was a constant motivator and supporter, as were his minister and his chemistry teacher.
This excerpt, from almost the middle of the book, shows Jennings on his first day of college, moving into his dorm room and watching his mother drive away.
On Thursday, June 11, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Ron Suskind, author of A HOPE IN THE UNSEEN.
Ron Suskind: I'm doing great. We are on a book tour, and we are in San Francisco today.
Ron Suskind: I met Cedric in 1994. I was then, like now, The Wall Street Journal senior national affairs writer, and in that job I was searching for a story that I thought might be interesting, and it was about kids learning, or attempting to learn, in war-zone high schools, in some of our blighted urban areas. I had visited schools in tough urban areas, and I was interested in what it would take to learn in that kind of environment. That's sort of a herculean feat. So I went to what is arguably the worst high school in the District of Columbia, one of the worst school systems in country, called Frank Bellou High School. And I met students with top GPAs. But as is often the case, some of the best journalistic endeavors are the ones that are not what you would expect, and here the honor students hid. They would not raise their hands in class or come to awards ceremonies designed to honor them, so my reporting project looked destined for failure. Until one day I was in the principal's office lamenting all this with the principal, about the undercover honors students who wouldn't want me to uncover them, and a kid walked into the office, kind of a gangly, cocky 16-year-old kid, and began arguing ferociously about a grade, saying he was going to fight it, that he deserved an A+ and he was given an A-. And as he walked out, I said, "Who's that?" And the principal said, "That's Cedric Jennings, but stay away from him, he's nothing but trouble. Straight A's but he has a quick tongue, and he is too proud. Gets him into a lot of trouble around here. He's a real target." And I thought about that for a second or two, and I decided I would run up and find where Cedric had gone, and that was four and a half years ago, now, at the beginning of an odd sort of partnership where I have been committed to trying to see the world through his eyes, and see what I could learn from that exercise. Yes, Kris, we are in touch. I talk to Cedric every day or every few days. We see each other often. Our families are friendly, and he is doing fine. He'll be a senior at Brown University in the fall, he has a B average, and he has grown from that gangly 16-year-old that I met to a young man almost 21, of gravity and grace and poise.
Ron Suskind: A reviewer recently on NPR called it a suspense novel with great issues of the country at stake, and all true. The kind of book, the reviewer said, that both illuminates real truths about America, but also a book that you would take to the beach. So, that gets to this interesting issue that you raise. The intention was to marry rigorous, dense reporting, which I have learned over years at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and other publications, with a kind of point-of-view writing, where you see things through the eyes of the characters. In tone, certainly, that will feel more like a novel, and that process of getting to that place was one for me of having to write and rewrite, to figure out how to do it. For years, I have done the more traditional sort of evolved newspaper/magazine feature writing where you sense the presence of the writer as narrator or explainer or person who offers why you ought to read this paragraph, about, for instance, what points or issues are illustrated by the story. In this case, I tried ot go to another step, to a step away from that, and maybe in certain narrative ways beyond that, and I don't do any of that in the book. I don't stand up and say here are the important issues that the book answers or solves, I just let the readers see whatever they see, in the complex and often suspenseful, uplifting, harrowing, funny, and telling journey of Cedric. Especially nowadays in our very fractious political, special-interest, single-issue environment, I feel as though this allows more readers from various camps of our society to join in and embrace a story.
Ron Suskind: I wrote about Cedric in 1994 for The Wall Street Journal, two stories that won the Pulitzer Prize, and then I just talked to him sort of infrequently from the fall of 1994 until the spring of 1995, at which point I found out he got into Brown, and decided that I would try to follow him through his freshman year for a book. From that point, there were all sorts of logistical issues, and access issues, and basic block-and-tackle reporting issues that I had to deal with to make sure by the end of the summer of 1995 that indeed I would be able to really watch him go through Brown in a way that would not affect how his journey would otherwise look if I were not there.
Ron Suskind: At one point, while he was a junior in high school, Cedric was vexed about betting everything, all of the eggs in one basket -- on the dream that he could go to one of the famous Ivy League colleges. What vexed him, specifically, was the idea that these were places he had never even seen before and barely could imagine, and that he might not be accepted up there, up ahead, if he ever managed to make it. And then he might be lost. And a teacher who heard Cedric voice these doubts said to him, "But Cedric, faith is a hope in the unseen." And Cedric and he -- the chemistry teacher Clarence Taylor -- had a funny give-and-take. Cedric knows actually the proper line from Scripture from which that comes, Hebrews 11 1, which is "Now, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." But he kind of liked the botched-up version, and in a way, he kind of pocketed it, and that phrase is what helped propel him across the country from one America to the other, almost like so many immigrants have crossed oceans to come to this land that they could barely imagine. Throughout always figures the unseen as a place, up ahead, where he will be accepted for who he is, judged on his merits, and ultimately, finally comfortable in his skin. A place where he will finally find a home in America.
Ron Suskind: Not at all. He was not involved at all in the writing of the book. His voice is often heard in dialogue, and his thoughts are heard in my representations of what I know he is thinking -- based on rigorous interviews -- at various moments. He did, after the book was written, sit for four days on a couch in my living room with a three-pack of Post-Its and a red pen, marking anything that he did not feel was completely accurate. I made, based on that, a few minor alterations, and then we went to press.
Ron Suskind: Cedric is certainly the main character, comprising about 60 percent of the narrative, and 12 other characters, most prominently his mother and father, along with teachers, friends, and a few odd cameos by Clarence Thomas and the former radical leader of the Weather Underground, Bernadine Dohrn, comprise the rest. Cedric's reaction to the book? Thrilled. He has embraced it, and he goes on tour with me on many events, answering questions, giving his impressions, and in some cases citing passages.
Ron Suskind: For that I really have to defer to Cedric. He's often asked that question, and his response is, "Ron got real real real real real close. Closer than I ever imagined anyone could. He got me 99 percent." And that, I think, heartens me as a writer and as a person. That we can really cross divides with shared understanding, albeit, given often herculean effort.
Ron Suskind: Well, when Cedric arrives at Brown, it is as though he has arrived from another planet. Twenty years or 30 years ago, kids from the ghetto made it to the top colleges with greater regularity than now. As one professor at Brown said to me, "You can make a place like this look like a rainbow without ever having to go, nowadays, to the ghetto." There are plenty of middle-class black and Latino kids to fill the slots, kids who will most probably succeed. Cedric is isolated. He doesn't know basic things because he's never learned them, he's never been exposed to themFaulkner, Hemingway, Winston Churchill, all people from some other country. And beyond being academically overmatched, he is profoundly confused socially by what he sees. Cedric, after all, is a church kid. That's an important reason why he made it. He doesn't smoke or drink or mess around. At Brown, the upwardly mobile black kids or upper-middle-class white kids do all of those things and still ace tests. So Cedric needs to feel his way along in the darkness through much of the year, trying to find common ground, and eventually, and I think hearteningly, he succeeds. And that is part of what at the end is so hopeful about the book. If a kid like Cedric, who is like tens of thousands of kids, who each year are left behind, if he can find common ground with kids from the opposite end of America, then maybe in the end we can become one country, rather than two countries, if that makes any sense.
Ron Suskind: I have come to understand that the reason Cedric's story is resonating so powerfully with readers is that, in some ways, it's the universal story, similar to almost all the great storeis that we have embraced. Like Gulliver, or Gilgamesh, or Hiawatha, a young man leaves his home and journeys into an undiscovered country, and along the way faces enormous obstacles, hurdles, and is tested. And in meeting those tests, he ends up being changed, and he returns home somewhat different from the person who left. And that certainly is what happens to Cedric. And at the same time, it is a quintessentially American story of grit, perseverence, and ingenuity in following one's dreams. In such a story -- sort of a shared national narrative -- I think we can all find a place.
Posted May 25, 2000
I strolled the campus of Cornell University and quickly decided to make it my home for the next four years. Yet I failed to realize the many challenges I will face there as an African-American male. Although I reside in the suburbs, and have been a lone black male in many of my classes, Cedric's struggle has given me great insight to the road I am about to embark upon.This book is passionate, well written, and should be implemented into humanities classes throughout the country. Ron Suskind's biography of Cedric's life has greatly impacted my approach to becoming a great scholar at Cornell University. Because of its impact on my thought process, I recommend this book to anyone who is willing to take an epic journey through the mind of a young-man venturing through the American struggle.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 5, 2000
While I struggled to relate directly to Cedric, in his most difficult situation in an inner city public schools, I found the story most interesting. I especially enjoyed the story, because I live in DC, as did Cedric, yet I have been sheltered from the life that he was forced to live. I never imagined how a few miles away, life could be so drastically different. I never thought about how bad DC public schools might be, even though I attended one for 8 years. While I wasn't able to relate to Cedric and his situation, I found it very interesting how much different DC public schools actually are from one section of the city to another. I would most definetely recommend this book to all readers, and hope that the next person enjoys it aWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 14, 2000
I am a seventeen-year-old senior in high school. I was assigned to read this book in my Social History class along side the study of the history of the SATs. We focused primarily on the first half of the book, where Cedric Jennings is in high school, struggling with SAT scores, applications, etc. This book reads very easily. You gain immediate access to most of the characters, which allows a better insight into Cedric's situation. Although Barbara Jennings (Cedric's mother) is not in the story as much as I thought she should have been, Suskind is able to make his readers understand where she is coming from when she comes down hard on Cedric. I think this book accurately portrays a struggle that many people must face. Cedric was forced to make some tough decisions and was pushed past his limit on more than one occasion, and we are able to see him through each incident through Suskind's writing. It's worth the time to look at this one boy's experience -- there is so much that can be done to improve public schools, the SAT test's fairness, the college application/admission process, how colleges deal with diversity, etc. If we're not aware of how bad these things are getting, nothing will ever get done.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.