A Journey From The Ghetto To The Ivory Tower

A Hope in the Unseen
A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League
By Ron Suskind
Broadway
Paperback, 400 pages
List price: $15.95

Read an excerpt from A Hope in the Unseen.

Susan Jane Gilman

Susan Jane Gilman's latest book is the memoir Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. She is the author of the best-selling Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and Kiss My Tiara. After reading A Hope in the Unseen, Gilman asked Ron Suskind to lunch, during which she proceeded to fawn all over him like a schoolgirl. Francois Bourru hide caption

itoggle caption Francois Bourru

Until I read A Hope in the Unseen, the only celebrity I'd ever stalked was Mick Jagger back in high school. But two decades later, when I finished Ron Suskind's symphonic book about a young man's odyssey from the inner city to the Ivy League, I called in sick to work so that I could read it over again in a single sitting — propped up in bed, phone off the hook, a bowl of cereal disintegrating on my night stand. Then, I tracked down Suskind at the Wall Street Journal and ambushed him.

"Hi. I'm a sycophant. Just give me five minutes," I pleaded. "I'm absolutely floored by your book. Please let me recount the ways to you."

A Hope in the Unseen follows Cedric Jennings — a young black honor student at Washington, D.C.'s Ballou High School, arguably the worst public high school in the country — on his fraught and amazing journey from the crack-ravaged streets of Anacostia through his freshman year at Brown University. Cedric is neither a classic manchild in the promised land nor a reformed drug dealer. He's a geek under siege.

His beginnings, to be sure, are pure ghetto cliche: father in prison for drugs; reckless, immature mother with a predilection for bad men, short skirts and malt liquor; a neighborhood plagued by crack houses and drive-bys.

And yet, when his mother, Barbara, looks down at her miraculous newborn, she pledges: Maybe, if I can save this child, I can save myself, too.

Determined that Cedric will beat the odds, she keeps him on a tight leash. He ping-pongs between a strict Baptist church, a handful of dedicated teachers and his mother's own newfound force of will. After a series of operatic struggles, he finally arrives at Brown. But his story hardly ends there: This gilded world might as well be a foreign country to him.

The mythos of inner-city children surmounting the odds thanks to one inexhaustible teacher or a superhuman single mom is pretty much standard fare these days — particularly given our new president. But what makes Suskind's book so stunning — and such a colossal personal obsession with me — what's made me go out and buy everyone I love a copy with the same fervency that I used to buy them Exile on Mainstreet — is the telling.

Suskind's literary talent is double-barreled. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lived with the Jennings at close range for several years. But he's also a master storyteller with the lyricism of a poet. He gets under the skin and infiltrates the minds of every single character in Cedric's life. So the story is told directly through their eyes. You don't read it, you experience it viscerally, just as they do. You are transported right from the prison cell where Cedric's father paces, to the ravaged classrooms where Cedric's dogged teachers struggle to maintain order, to the basketball shoes of his classmates who are turning bitter and violent with despair.

When Cedric dashes home trying to avoid the neighborhood gangs, your heart pounds along with his. When he arrives at the Brown bookstore, picks up a biography of Winston Churchill, and panics because he doesn't know who Churchill is — and he knows he should know — you share his rocketing anxiety.

Suskind manages to avoid the icky paternalism that privileged white journalists can easily display toward the poor and minorities. He knows better than to treat Cedric as a specimen; rather, he makes sure that we all become him. The book is nonfiction, yet packs the emotional wallop of a great epic novel. And though there's plenty to extrapolate about social injustice, race, class and public education, there's no editorializing either. A Hope in the Unseen trusts that we'll "get it," simply by reading an astonishing story, told one scene at a time, the way that Homer or the troubadours might have done around a campfire. Except that this tale, of course, is true.

It's a book I'd wished I'd written myself. And I'm happy to call Ron Suskind and tell him this any time.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'A Hope in the Unseen'

A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League
By Ron Suskind
Paperback, 400 pages
Broadway
List price: $15.95

The next morning blooms into a radiant, cloudless day, as it ought to be. Freshmen arrive for orientation, ferried by a grand procession of proud parents.

Barbara, tired from the drive, gets a late start and, before long, the day feels harried. It's nearly noon by the time they get to College Hill, a steep slope on top of which Brown sits like a cloud city above the gritty ethnic enclaves, legendary Italian restaurants, and aging factories of Providence. "I wanted to get this all done early. Now look," she says, sitting in the van near the Brown student union as Cedric, looking at a checklist in his orientation packet, slips out to go get his temporary student ID. "Don't be all day, Lavar," she calls after him, all business, "I gotta get back home."

Cedric has drawn a desirable dorm, Andrews Hall. It's a three-story brick horseshoe on the quieter Pembroke side of campus that was renovated over the summer and now boasts fresh carpeting and new paint. From the Andrews parking lot, they unload the van swiftly, with Cedric helping on this end. While Barbara glances tersely at other parents—mostly white, of course—unloading Lexuses and Range Rovers and Volvo wagons, she notices that Cedric seems to be increasingly relaxed—smiling at some of the other incoming freshmen and offering unsolicited greetings.

"These dorms are nice," Barbara notes over her shoulder to Cedric, who is dragging a trunk full of linens behind her across the second-floor hallway carpet. Remembering Cedric's complaints about last summer's dorms, she adds, "And a lot nicer than MIT, ain't it?"

"Lot nicer," he says, almost shouting. "This place is nothing like MIT."

A small paper square taped to the door of room 216 says "Cedric Lavar Jennings and Robert Burton." Cedric fumbles with the key and opens the heavy wooden door.

"Wow," he says.

"Hmmm, very nice," Barbara confirms.

His roommate, Rob, has already been here, settled in and gone. Barbara moves to the empty bed and starts unpacking while Cedric goes back downstairs for the rest. She carefully places a dozen new pairs of underwear, a dozen new pairs of socks, and six new T-shirts (clothes bought with money she didn't have to spare) onto closet shelves, and she begins a ritual that she figures is being repeated at this moment in hundreds of rooms across the campus: a mother making her child's bed for the last time. It's not like Barbara made his bed back home, she muses, but it doesn't matter. She made a thousand beds before she was twenty, and now she meticulously presses flat a fold of sheet, tucking it tight. Cedric returns, carrying his CDs, and crosses the room to check the unfamiliar titles in Rob's collection as Barbara lays the blanket and smoothes it.

With the van unpacked and their stomachs growling, Barbara decides they should walk to one of the dining halls for lunch. Soon, she and Cedric are strolling the campus, through archways and across neatly edged rectangles of thick grass.

While Barbara is delighted that Cedric, so tightly wound yesterday, is now buoyantly bouncing as he walks, an unwanted self-consciousness is welling up inside her. She'd rather not notice the cars other parents are driving, the clothes they're wearing, and the ease with which they move. She knows, of course, that the typical Brown parents probably went to college and on to some professional status that their offspring, by virtue of this Ivy League acceptance, are now bounding toward. Here, it's a day for her to be proud, but she can't help staring at them—these smiling, polished people—and overhearing their jaunty melody of generational succession: a child's footsteps following their own, steps on a path that leads to prosperity's table and a saved seat right next to Mom and Dad.

Barbara, watching Cedric demolish a ham sandwich at the dining hall, tries to figure out what she brings to this place, where she fits. It's her day, too, she resolves, looking across a dining hall filled with effusive, chatty parents and freshmen, though her song is flat and elemental—an old, familiar harmony, really, about sacrifice and denial and a child venturing where the parent never could.

"Really is a whole 'nother world up here," she says quietly across the table as Cedric reaches for her untouched sandwich, barely noticing that she's there. In that instant, she realizes how afraid she is that she might lose him.

It's almost two o'clock when they head back to the dorm. Near the new, soaring brick medical school, Cedric spots a bumper sticker on a parked car: "Your Honor Student Was Beaten Up By My Kid" it says, a play on the honor student bumper stickers that are especially popular in the inner cities.

"That car must be from D.C.," he jokes, and Barbara puts her arm around him as they laugh.

A tall, thin Caucasian girl with hazel-blue eyes, a row of earrings, and a shaved head strolls by. "Isn't that awful," Barbara murmurs to Cedric after the girl passes. "Must be chemotherapy." He nods sympathetically.

A few blocks ahead, passing a lovely Victorian house just north of Andrews dorm, Barbara admires the wide, circular porch and an apple arbor alongside it. "That fruit could feed a lot of hungry people," she says as they walk the last few feet to the dorm. Inside Cedric's room, they're puttering around when the door opens. It's a smallish white boy with dark hair, a faint Van Dyke beard, and sandals.

"You must be Rob," says Cedric with a wide smile.

"You must be Cedric," he echoes back in a soft, cheery voice.

Barbara nods a hello at him and rises from Cedric's bed. She knows that the time has come. In a moment, she and Cedric go down the elevator and outside and begin walking the last block to the van. She doesn't want to lead and senses that he doesn't either, so their pace slows until they're almost weaving—like they're not going anywhere, really. But as he looks down at his feet, she's able to glimpse the side of his face without him knowing. And Barbara Jennings can't help but hear echoes of her earlier self, holding a baby a little too tight, saying, "I'll save you, and me, too."

At the bumper of the van, he looks up.

"You be good, okay?" she says.

"Yeah . . ."

"Come here," she finally says, holding her arms out wide, and the two fall together as she presses her cheek hard against his.

"Trust in God, let Him guide you," she whispers.

"I will, Ma."

They hug for a good, long time. She's not been a mother to show him much physical affection in these latter years. The situation demanded strength. She had to be a father, too, as best she knew how, and maybe that hardened her touch. So, as they pull apart, she finds that her cheeks are flushed. She shakes it off.

"Okay, now," Barbara says. She reaches into the back seat and gives him a Frito-Lay assortment pack, uneaten from the trip. He nods. She gets into the front seat and waves once, and Cedric begins ambling down the hill toward the dorm.

"Wait!" She spots his deodorant in the space between the seats and yells through the open window. He runs the few feet back to get it.

"All right, 'bye," she says, and he turns, briskly walking back to the dorm as she watches him in the rearview. He doesn't look back.

Barbara is quiet as the van eases into gear and drifts onto the quiet street. She told herself she wouldn't cry, so she tries to occupy her eyes, looking at things she passes by. That Victorian would sure be nice, she thinks to herself, heading past the wraparound porch.

But something's wrong. She snaps to attention. The money!

Next thing, she's back in the dorm parking lot and then running up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

The door to room 216 bursts open. "I forgot this," Barbara says, panting, and squeezes three neatly folded twenties into her son's hand. Already, though, the room belongs to Cedric Lavar Jennings, a Brown freshman, and that nice white boy on the other bed. She feels suddenly unsure. Cedric is smiling broadly but like he's looking right through her. "Well, good-bye Lavar," she says simply and slips out. Doesn't hug him this time. She'd think a lot about that later.

It takes a moment for the heavy oak door to swing on its hinge. And when it slams, it's like a thunder clap, leaving her alone with the smell of fresh paint.

Excerpted from A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind Copyright © 1998 by Ron Suskind. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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