Inner-City Teens Live On A Legacy Of Hope

Back in 2002, two teenagers from the southeastern quadrant of Washington, D.C. made each other a promise: graduate at the top of their high school class. They were both students at troubled Ballou Senior High School, a school that regularly underperformed and saw bouts of violence. Despite the odds, Jachin Leatherman and Wayne Nesbit did just what they set out to do and they changed the minds of their classmates along the way. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Dion Haynes, The Washington Post staff writer who tracked Leatherman and Nesbit from their graduation from high school through to college.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

In every major city across this country, you'll find a high school labeled as troubled: marked by low tests scores and underperforming students, in some cases, plagued by violence. And often, when attention is focused on these schools, it's for these sad and tragic reasons. Ballou High School in Washington D.C. had these problems. In 2006, though, two young men there graduated first and second in their high school class.

In this week's Washington Post Magazine, staff writer Dion Haynes followed Jachin Leatherman and Wayne Nesbit along a journey that would eventually take them to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, the school from which they graduated. And Dion followed them back again to Ballou here in Washington.

We're joined now by Dion Haynes, who wrote the story titled "Legacy of Hope" and by Wayne Nesbit, one of the young men featured in the story.

It's a pleasure to have you both here.

Mr. DION HAYNES (Staff writer, Washington Post): Thanks for having us.

Mr. WAYNE NESBIT: Thanks for having us, yes.

LYDEN: So Dion Haynes, when did you first hear about Jachin and Wayne and decide you might like to follow their story? What struck you?

Mr. HAYNES: Well, it was in 2006. I was working on a project for the Post called "Being A Black Man," and the editor suggested that I check out these two young men who he heard about. When I did spend some time with them at Ballou, it was just kind of an eye-opening experience because I had never quite seen two young men who were as popular as they were. I mean they were just like rock stars that walked down the hallways. People would high-five them and people would come up and hug them and teachers would stop and speak with them. And it really just showed me that they had a tremendous influence and impact on that school.

LYDEN: Hmm. Wayne, let me turn to you. We mentioned at the outset that Ballou wasn't an easy place to get along in. From the perspective of a student, what was it like while you were at Ballou? And did you notice any changes while you were there? And wasn't a student shot around that time in school?

Mr. NESBIT: Yes. During my year, yeah, there was a student shot during this, yes. And I mean that type of stuff, I mean it happened all the time. And it was definitely a hard, you know, seeing that every single day, having to, you know, continue, you know, despite the negativity that happened. But, you know, I had Jachin. I had my father. They really helped me make - get through, you know, that tough situation.

LYDEN: Would you tell us what your father did?

Mr. NESBIT: Well, it was just my brother and my father. And he was always there for us no matter what. If we had a question about the littlest thing to the craziest thing, he was always there for us, and he always told us how important it was for us to get a good education and do the right thing, and he was a, you know, a major impact on our life.

LYDEN: So Dion, what did you discover that made it possible for Jachin and Wayne to influence their peers?

Mr. HAYNES: They were always very smart students. That's sort of what I learned about them, that throughout their school career they were always A students. But, you know, that wasn't really their persona. They came across as just regular students. And I think the biggest part of their personality is the fact that they are fun-loving and I think people are kind of drawn to that.

They were always the most popular students in school, but they used that popularity to influence other students to work hard, to do their homework. And I think the fact that they kind of brought people into their world and they sort of demystified the whole process of being smart, that it really made it more accessible to a lot of students. Because Ballou was really the kind of the place where if you're a smart kid you'll get ostracized and teased.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm talking with Wayne Nesbit and Dion Haynes, a staff writer for The Washington Post, who wrote this week's magazine story about the inspiring life of Wayne and Jachin Leatherman. They both graduated from Ballou High School in D.C. at the top of their class in 2006.

Wayne, you and Jachin wound up going to the College of the Holy Cross, which is in Worcester, Massachusetts. That was a world away from Ballou High School in Southeast D.C. What was that transition like for you?

Mr. NESBIT: In the beginning it was crazy. You know, coming from an area with probably 99 percent African-American, going to a college where it's one percent African-America, maybe less, it was a huge shock. It was a huge change. In the beginning, you know, it was really tough, you know, being the only black person in every class, it was kind of, you know, weird. And, you know, I felt like everybody was looking at me like why is this guy here?

LYDEN: Well, Dion writes in his story that you and your friend had to carve out kind of a different path because you went in partly on athletic scholarships but when that didn't turn out for you, because of injuries and you were no longer one and two, as most kids in high school are no longer the top, top, top in college, how would you say you carved out new areas for yourself?

Mr. NESBIT: It was tough. I was used to being, you know, number one all the time - academics and sports. I was used to that throughout my life, and it was hard. It was really hard in the beginning just being like a regular student, being a regular athlete. And it had - it took a major, you know, toll on my life. I mean it was a point in time that I just, I didn't know what to do and I had to call my dad and, you know, he kept talking to me and he got me through it and I just kept on going. I just realized I could still graduate, I could still be who I am and everything turned out amazing.

LYDEN: Hmm. Dion, you followed them back to Ballou. What have students there learned from their success?

Mr. HAYNES: I guess it was kind of mixed. There were some students they encounter who didn't really quite understand what they were trying to convey in their visit and some students who just - they seemed to kind of tune out and they didn't really want to hear about, you know, you need to work hard and you really need to think about going college. But then they were others...

LYDEN: But aren't there others who have followed in their footsteps?

Mr. HAYNES: Yes, they did encounter other students who were doing well and had set big goals for themselves. I remember one young lady they met when they went into the gym who heard about them and she wanted to know what she could do to follow in their footsteps to be able to make a difference at Ballou as well. And they met other high-achieving students. I think that they were kind of gratified to see that even though Ballou still has a lot of problems, that there is an effort now to improve the school and to really encourage more students to work hard so that they could earn scholarships when they graduate.

LYDEN: So, Dion, what would you say the secret to their success was, perseverance?

Mr. HAYNES: I think it was just confidence in who they are and the fact that they really love their community. They love their family. They love their friends.

LYDEN: And Wayne, you're working now, right?

Mr. NESBIT: That's right.

LYDEN: Congratulations. Wayne Nesbit is an alumni of Ballou High School and the College of the Holy Cross. Dion Haynes is a staff writer for The Washington Post. His piece "Legacy of Hope" appears in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

Gentlemen, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. HAYNES: Thanks for having us.

Mr. NESBIT: Thanks for having us.

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