Teens Run DC mentoring program perseveres at Cardozo High

Diamond Diggs shows up for running practice at Cardozo High Schoolmost days. Sometimes she arrives, but without her running shoes. Sometimes she goes to practice, then leaves within minutes. It is hard to say when Diamond will decide to go. Or, when she decides not to, why.

Still, the 16-year-old sophomore keeps showing up. On some Saturday mornings, when most of her classmates are sleeping, she rises at 7, when her grandmother reminds her gently: “Diamond, baby, you still going?”

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Teens Run DC, an after-school mentoring program started by a Chevy Chase clinical psychologist, matches adult long-distance runners with students in D.C. high schools. The mentors and students train to run marathons.

Teens Run DC, an after-school mentoring program started by a Chevy Chase clinical psychologist, matches adult long-distance runners with students in D.C. high schools. The mentors and students train to run marathons.

She leaves the apartment in far Northeast Washington with its crushed blue velvet sofas and walls lined with family portraits. Outside, she races down a steep set of stairs to the street. Then Diamond walks four desolate blocks, passing woods and a dead creek, to catch a train. It takes nearly an hour before she arrives at Cardozo, at 13th and Clifton streets NW, to prepare for the National Marathon.

The insistent calls to remind Diamond about practice get on her nerves.

“You calling me is not going to make me come. ... It irritates me, actually,” says Diamond, a girl whose exterior is as tough as her name implies. “Don’t call me and ask me if I’m running. If I’m not there, I am not coming.”

Since September, Diamond has been a part of Teens Run DC, an after-school mentoring program that matches adult long-distance runners with economically disadvantaged teenagers at Cardozo High School. The students at Cardozo had started out strong, but now many aren’t showing up.

So on an afternoon in early February, Benson Forman, the Chevy Chase clinical psychologist who founded and manages Teens Run DC, calls an urgent lunchtime meeting at Cardozo.

“Do you want to be part of the team?” Forman asks, his back against the chalkboard as five students sit in a semicircle of desks before him.

Some questions, he will later reflect, are better left unasked.

When Forman gets to Diamond, she lets his question hang in the air a moment.

“No, I don’t want to be part of the team,” she answers. Then she gets up from her desk and walks out of the classroom.

Forman calls after her, but Diamond keeps going.

***

Two years ago, Forman was reading about a similar running program in Los Angeles when it struck him that he could do the same thing here. A highly regarded psychologist often sought after by private-school parents, he yearned to have an impact beyond his affluent clientele.

“It was time to give back,” says Forman, 57, a harried man with salt-and-pepper hair and wire-rimmed glasses. As a marathon runner, he knew what could be gained by going the distance. And his clinical experience made him feel he understood what a disadvantaged teen might need to overcome obstacles.

Forman believed that running could help the students build self-confidence and self-discipline. The sense of mastery and perseverance would then carry over into the rest of their lives.

In the fall of 2009, Forman launched the program at Wilson High School in Northwest Washington, where it has thrived. He took his idea next to Cardozo, where he met Ebony Dennis Mundy, a clinical psychologist with the city who is based at the school. She was impressed.

“Long-distance running incorporates the idea of accomplishing something you didn’t think you could have accomplished,” Mundy says.

When school started in September, Forman walked Cardozo’s wide, dim hallways, recruiting students with his enthusiasm. He promised running shoes and uniforms. He brought in tuna and turkey sandwiches and red apples.

He matched students with running mentors, young professionals in the city who had discovered Teens Run DC through e-mail group lists for runners. He wanted the students to run, but more than that, he wanted to make the students feel connected to a larger community. “Inner-city kids are so invisible,” Forman says. “What’s really bad is when you are invisible to yourself, you feel, ‘I myself don’t matter.’ ”

But the program at Cardozo proved to be a Sisyphean task. Some Cardozo students signed up, then dropped out. Some would appear an hour late, saying they didn’t know when practice started.

In September, 14 Cardozo students had signed up. By late February, there were eight kids still on the roster, far outnumbered by the program’s 22 mentors.

Then two weeks before the big race on March 26, not one Cardozo student made it to even one of four practice runs. Forman’s enthusiasm was waning. The program had taken time away from his marriage and his job. Coveted appointment times he could have filled with high-paying clients were now dedicated to the uncommitted Cardozo students.

Forman puzzled over how he might better connect with Diamond and the other students. “I’m not a teacher,” he says. “I’m a psychodynamic therapist. My interest is how do we shift the internal world. I’m trying to find the reason they sometimes don’t follow through, trying to find the reason they seem to say, ‘If I don’t show up, it doesn’t matter, because I don’t matter.’ ”

***

Back at Cardozo, Forman hurries to pack what was left of the turkey sandwiches, and he heads into the hallway after Diamond. But she is nowhere to be seen. He races downstairs.

“I had what they call an empathic failure,” Forman explains. “Diamond felt I let her down in that moment.”

He stops in the front office and asks for Diamond’s schedule. He hurries down the hallway. He has a 2 o’clock appointment across town, but his client will have to wait.

He pokes his head in the classroom. The Spanish teacher tells him that Diamond and some of her classmates went downstairs to retrieve new textbooks. Forman waits outside, contemplating what he will say when Diamond returns.

Just then, the door to the staircase opens, and there is Diamond.

“Diamond, can I talk to you?” he asks.

She looks him up and down.

“Diamond,” Forman says, “you and I are friends. I’m on your side. You are soooooo much on the team.”

Diamond backs up.

“When I asked you are you part of the team, it was rhetorical,” Forman says.

Diamond shoots back: “If it was rhetorical, why were you waiting for an answer?”

***

Diamond, tall and self-assured, says she really didn’t know what she was getting into when she joined Teens Run DC. Her teachers advised her to sign up.

The first time out in November, her mentor, Cheryl Kovalsky, 27, a senior health-care analyst, took Diamond and the other students on a three-mile run through the city. Diamond had never run that far. “I felt like stopping, but I kept going for some reason.”

When she runs, sometimes she zones out. “I look straight up in the sky so I can’t see what’s in front of me, so I don’t know how far I’ve been.”

Once, running in the street, “I closed my eyes, and Cheryl was like, ‘Diamond, what are you doing? Watch out.’ ”

“When I am running, I let my imagination go wild,” Diamond says. “I just think about stuff, about relationships. About art. Sometimes I paint stuff in my head. I think about stuff I want to do. Stuff I’ve done. People who get on my nerves.”

Long-distance runners often describe the sensation of freedom that comes with the rhythmic moving of one foot in front of the other, until the body becomes like a machine. Exercise physiologists explain the release of endorphins in the brain that can lift depression and spark a “runner’s high.”

But to Diamond the benefits of running stop with running. “I don’t see advantages elsewhere.”

Could running help with self-esteem or a sense of belonging? She shrugs. “I already have friends,” she says.

Like many teenagers, Diamond often shuts down with adults. But sometimes if you stop asking what she calls “stupid questions,” she’ll reveal something. Like the time she confided that her biggest fear is “random lights in the dark.

“Like a beam of red light. It creeps me out,” she says. “Or shadows from a wall in the dark. I have a great imagination. Stuff gets to me. I think, ‘Is that something looking in the window?’ ”

Diamond dreams of being “anything successful” when she grows up. Maybe, she says, she can do something “with my art,” charcoal and ink drawings of fantastical creatures and caricatures.

Last year, Diamond, an honors student, got into Duke Ellington School of the Arts. It’s unclear why she left. She says the other students were stuck-up. “Diamond was talking too much in class,” says her grandmother Diane Diggs, 54.

Diamond’s parents parted ways when she was young. Her dad still picks her up on weekends. Diamond spent most of her time at her grandmother’s home while her mother worked. Now, Diamond lives with her grandmother most of the time.Occasionally, Diamond stays with her mother, Roxianne Diggs, in Northwest Washington.

“I go where I feel like going at the time,” Diamond says.

She also runs when she wants to.

Most times, she says she is committed, “but if I say no, it will be a lot of attitude, especially from Ben. One time he called and asked, ‘Are you running?’ I said no. He said, ‘We’re here at the track. Be here in 30 minutes.’ I said, ‘Ben, I’m not running.’ I had to repeat myself over and over.”

***

It’s a Monday morning in mid-March, and Forman has returned to Cardozo with tuna sandwiches. He has another plan to get more students to practice. He will meet with them every Monday, establish a constant presence in the school.

“When you have no kids showing up, that is systemic,” he says. “That is a group saying: ‘What does this program mean?’ Kids need to be pursued.”

Forman says he persists because he has a sense of what it’s like to be young and economically deprived. He had been very close to his mother, who grew up the daughter of a single mother on welfare.

Through her, “I know what it is like to be invisible,” he says.

He was raised in Queens, N.Y., with a father who was a successful businessman and a mother who was often anxious about her place in the world. “For my mother, fitting in was a big deal,” Forman says.

“In many ways, of my mother’s children, I was the one who took care of my mother — emotionally. I was her youngest. I was her companion.” Ben became someone who wanted to take care of other people, he says.

When he was 5 or 6, he says, his father would take him to Rockaway Beach on the Atlantic Ocean and walk into the surf, carrying Ben in his arms. “Then he’d let go, and he’d have me swim to shore.”

Forman remembers feeling panic. “When he let go, I would swim until I could touch the sand with my fingers.”

He wants to convey that feeling of persistence in the face of failure to the students at Cardozo. “I see these kids who need to be seen and recognized,” Forman says. “We all want to have somebody to see us and understand us. ”

***

But Forman’s persistence seems to be wearing on Diamond. She’s trying, she says, but there are obstacles that Forman cannot see.

On a Thursday afternoon, Diamond arrives at the track early for practice .

But today, the gate is locked. From the top of the hill, Diamond can see the track below, cool, painted a deep midnight purple. There are two ways into the track: through these gates or through a door inside the school’s basement.

“If you go in through the building,” Diamond says, “then the door locks behind you immediately and you can’t get out.” She is afraid she will get trapped.

She decides to walk up the hill to the school’s main entrance and ask someone to unlock the gate. Inside the school, someone tells her the outside gate is open. She turns and goes back outside. The gate appears to have magically unlocked itself. Then Diamond sees Heather Stoner, an English teacher, down on the track running with another student.

Diamond realizes that she has forgotten her sweats and her running shoes. She descends the stadium stairs to the track and takes off her boots. In her jeans and sock feet, she runs one lap and then another. The twists in her hair flop in the sunlight. Diamond puts her head down, closes her eyes and keeps circling the purple track. Stoner says Diamond is on pace to run an 8:23 mile.

***

The week before the big race Forman is still worried. Will Diamond show up and run? Will Diamond finish?

On the Friday night before the event, Forman gives the students race instructions. Three students will run the half-marathon relay, consisting of two five-mile legs and one three-mile leg. Will Taylor, 15, a 10th-grader, and Diamond are registered to run the half-marathon, 13.1 miles. Everyone who runs will get a medal.

Will is a strong runner. Diamond hasn’t run 13 miles yet. “I’m hopeful,” Forman says.

On the morning of the marathon, Diamond wakes up at 5 in her grandmother’s apartment. By 7, she arrives at the meeting place at RFK Stadium.

At 7:22 a.m., five Cardozo students walk up the hill, blending into a sea of 15,000 runners.

Diamond starts out at a slow, steady pace. She feels good. The weather is cold but sunny. She runs down East Capitol Street. Up Constitution Avenue. Through Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.

But by the nine-mile marker, she is crashing. She slows down. She stops. She doesn’t want to run anymore. A mentor suggests Diamond call her mother and grandmother, who are somewhere ahead on the race course waiting to cheer Diamond on. Diamond tells her grandmother on the phone that she is hungry. Her grandmother promises to bring her a sandwich after she crosses the finish line. Diamond starts running again, with difficulty. She hasn’t run this far. Perhaps it’s too far. But then on 13th Street, Diamond sees her grandmother and mother standing on the side. They are cheering her. As she passes, they run with her for half a block.

“Hey, that’s my baby!” Diane Diggs says.

“My mom, my brother and I were waiting just to see her,” Roxianne Diggs would recall later. “Then we spotted her. It just felt good. ... I’m really proud of my baby.”

A couple of miles ahead, Forman is waiting at the finish line.“‘Where are my kids?” he asks. “ Are they getting here? Are they going to feel strong?”

At about 1 hour 45 minutes, several students from Wilson cross the finish line. A full hour passes, and Will Taylor from Cardozo crosses the finish line.

As the clock turns to 3:07:08, Forman sees Diamond in the crowd of runners on the course. She is not running fast, but she is running.

“There’s Diamond!” Forman yells. “There’s Diamond!”

She crosses the finish line, and he sprints to greet her. He hugs her: “You did it! You did it!”

Diamond looks up at the crowd of Cardozo supporters surging toward her, pulls away from Forman and walks in the opposite direction.

“Did you love it?” a mentor calls after Diamond.

“No,” says Diamond. “I didn’t love it.”

“I feel good mentally,” Diamond says later, smiling faintly. “Physically, my back hurts. ”

Maybe Teens Run DC has changed her. Maybe a bit. She still isn’t quite sure why she showed up when she did. But, and this seems to occur to her as she speaks, “If I hadn’t, I never would have made it.”

Diamond touches the medal around her neck. She’s in it for real now.

“Why quit after all of this?” she says.

DeNeen Brown is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at browndl@washpost.com

 
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