Decades Later, Did Those Scholarships Pay Off?

In 1988, a group of Maryland fifth-graders received college scholarships from two philanthropists. Now those students are in their 30s and their lives are chronicled in The Washington Post magazine. Host Michel Martin speaks with reporter Paul Schwartzman and one of those students about how the scholarship affected their lives.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, we'd like to talk about two white guys who did more than just talk about poor black kids, but actually did something to help them. Back in the spring of 1988, 59 students in an elementary school just outside of Washington, D.C. gathered with their parents for an announcement that would change their lives.

Two local philanthropists made a pledge to set aside more than $300,000 so that the fifth graders at Seat Pleasant Elementary School could go to college -all of them.

Abe Pollin, the owner of the then Washington Bullets, now the Wizards, and the Washington Capitols and businessman Melvin Cohen came to the school located in the struggling neighborhood to make the promise in person. Parents and students were dumbfounded. Some clapped, some cheered, some thanked God.

Now, those students at Seat Pleasant are in their thirties. Their lives have taken some interesting turns. The Washington Post's Paul Schwartzman has written about the students' journey from that afternoon in 1988 to now and he's with us now.

Also with us, Jeffrey Norris, one of the Seat Pleasant 59. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

PAUL SCHARTZMAN: Thank you.

JEFFREY NORRIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Jeffrey, I just have to ask you, when you walked into that auditorium that day and you heard this, what'd you think? Do you remember?

NORRIS: Slightly. It was a lot of chaos to the point that - of misunderstanding because, you know, when you're coming from what they call a quote-unquote "struggling" neighborhood, it wasn't that much talk about, you know, college. You know, and for that - you know, we knew more about the "I Have A Dream" Martin Luther King speech than we knew about - more about what was happening on that (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: So it was kind of like this abstract idea, like we're going to go to college. So what does that mean? Was it more like that? I mean, you saw the adults reacting, so...

NORRIS: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: And crying, and so you figured it must be something, but you weren't even really sure what that meant.

NORRIS: Yes, I wasn't really sure at the time, you know. It was clueless to me until, you know, you get to - you get further on in life, you know, you start to realize, you know, what was the importance of that day, you know, and unfortunately that I - it took a little longer, but some of us grasped it others - faster than others, you know, but, you know, it's like I said, through time and strength, you know, you still valued what was - what came through the I Have A Dream Foundation.

MARTIN: Paul, pick up the story there, if you would. It's a very interesting story, by the way. It's still unfolding in the pages of the Post right now. Was there a - one of the throughlines was it wasn't enough to just pay the money. It wasn't enough just to say here's this money, right? And how quickly did people realize that it wasn't enough to just say here's this money?

PAUL SCHWARTZMAN: Well, because, I mean, not every family - families didn't have a lot of experience with college, so sort of a standard was being imposed that they weren't necessarily going to gravitate towards. And I think that it just took a lot of time for the thing to evolve, and the kids, you know, developed their own interests. And so in the end a lot of them didn't want to go to college.

I mean, they went to college, and it didn't work out. They really wanted to work with their hands. They wanted to be elevator repairmen or car mechanics, or one guy ended up as a UPS driver, and that's what made sense for him.

And - but they - but this idea that they should be in college was sort of instilled in them, and that's what they have to live with. That's where it becomes sort of a burden because a standard was imposed that they aren't necessarily comfortable with. And so what was interesting for me is that it sort of redefined the idea of success.

What is success? What does it mean to be successful in life? And I came away with thinking that it's not necessarily to get a college diploma. You can do a lot of different things with your life, and it can work out, and you can be - you know, it can be happy.

MARTIN: Jeffrey, what about you? Your life took some turns, some turns, started out rough. I mean, you witnessed your uncle getting beaten to death when you were just eight years old. That has to be traumatic. My children are eight, and I mean just the idea of having them see something like that just makes me want to cry.

And then you wound up having some problems with the law yourself. Before your sentencing hearing, you were involved in an accident, badly injured. The judge decided to give you a break. He gave you a break, right? I mean...

NORRIS: Yes, she did.

MARTIN: She gave you a break. And then something turned for you after that. What do you think it was?

NORRIS: I believe, you know, a spiritual base. So, you know, I believe that it was a time for a change. And, you know, through facing 25 years to life on the charge, I got in - two months before I got to sentencing, I had a slip on 50 going home.

MARTIN: You mean Route 50, it's a route...

NORRIS: Yes, ma'am, Route 50. Yes, ma'am. So it was tragic to the point that after that event, and you know, and you're dealing with the streets, you know, you start thinking first and foremost that I don't want to get locked up with a wound. See, you have to - you know, you're still dealing with what you have to deal with in the streets.

And I didn't want to go in - so you're an easy target. So you could have been easily taken out. You know, so there's all this going through your mind. You're going - you don't ever know how many years you're going to be doing. And then, you know, and then on top of that, you get amnesty(ph), you know, and you have to look at it like it's a higher power somewhere.

You know, it's something, it's an intervention somewhere, not only with, you know, TV shows but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I hear you. So now you are a barber, and you look very nice too, by the way. Your hair is looking sharp. So you must know what you're doing. And you're a minister of music. And Paul raised this whole question of, you know, success. Do you feel you've found it?

NORRIS: I believe I've reached spiritual success, meaning sometimes you have to be grounded with things that is sometimes not - is not explainable. And it's things that we do on a daily basis that comes out to understand that, you know, it's - it's a walk. It's an everyday, daily process. And if you don't - you know, if you don't keep your eyes open, keep your mind open, a lot of things could be more impacted to you because you were never - you know what I'm saying, sometimes you won't be able to, you know what I'm saying, come back on.

MARTIN: Come back on, I hear you. Paul, final thought from you, yeah.

SCHWARTZMAN: What I love about what Jeffrey sort of articulates for all the dreamers is that the story is still being written. And it's really unfolding, and it doesn't end when you're 22. It just goes on and on.

MARTIN: Well, I credit you. But Paul, I did want to ask, since you did kind of pick up the story here, and I must say it's a fascinating and complex story, and I'm excited to read it because I actually remember it. I'm dating myself, but I remember when the announcement was made. What do you think was the - first of all, do you think the gift made a difference? And was there any through line that you could find for whom - which kids it really did make a difference for? I know my grammar is terrible...

SCHWARTZMAN: I think it really made a difference for all of them. There were certain kids that were going to do great anyway, but I think an idea was planted in them that maybe they couldn't execute but they will pass down to their children because they now have this idea of what life can be.

And so if they didn't get through college, or they didn't go to college, they're going to see that their kids go to college, or they're going to put that kind of standard on them, and I think that should be positive.

MARTIN: I did see - did note from the piece - that the girls as a group seemed to do better in terms of the original intent, which is going to college. Is that true? And why is that?

SCHWARTZMAN: Having a daughter myself, I'm sort of getting the idea that girls generally do better in school.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. All right, to be continued, as you told us, the story continues. Paul Schwartzman has written a series looking at some of the 59 students who received scholarships from businessman and philanthropist Abe Pollin back in 1988. Those stories are now in the Washington Post, and you can read them online.

Jeffrey Norris is one of the Seat Pleasant 59. He is now a barber who is working on setting up his own shop. He is also - and good luck with that.

NORRIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And he's also a minister of music at his church, and they were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gentlemen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NORRIS: Thank you.

SCHWARTZMAN: Thank you.

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