For as long as Darone could remember, Carlos had been a basketball god, a record-breaking scorer at George Mason University once seemingly destined for the NBA. When Darone visited Carlos’s family in Reston on weekends, his cousin took him to shoot hoops. Carlos talked about the importance of hard work and education, echoing the message Darone was hearing from two wealthy businessmen who had promised college scholarships to his class at Seat Pleasant Elementary.
For Darone, who had no relationship with his father, Carlos was the next best thing.
Then, on a Sunday in August 1989, as Darone and his mother, Rose Johnson, arrived at their modest brick house in Capitol Heights, his older sister met them at the front door. She was weeping.
Carlos has been shot, she cried. Carlos has been killed.
Darone wouldn’t learn until much later that Carlos had been killed in a drug-related shooting or that he’d been charged in Baltimore with conspiracy to distribute cocaine. His mother didn’t want him to know what the police were saying.
For weeks after the funeral, Darone dialed his cousin’s phone number, hoping, somehow, that Carlos would answer. All he got was a recording of his cousin’s voice.
Pick up the phone, Darone thought. Come on, Carlos.
Finally, he stopped calling.
In the halls of Hyattsville Middle School, where they enrolled that fall, Darone Robinson and his classmates still existed in an exalted bubble. They were the Dreamers, the kids adopted by Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin and his friend Melvin Cohen for an ambitious social experiment, one that had made the students symbols of hope in their neighborhoods and beyond.
Yet, when they left school at 3:15 p.m. every day, when they weren’t lunching with Pollin and Cohen, when they weren’t traveling on their exclusive school bus, the Dreamers returned to communities rife with drugs and gang-related carnage. They went home to mothers, many of them raising families on their own, who were terrified that their children would end up dead or be drawn into gangs or the drug trade.
Already, the giddy promise of that day in 1988, when Pollin and Cohen announced the scholarships, had given way to a more sober sense of what was possible.
Tracy Proctor had been hired by the philanthropists to work with the children every day as the project coordinator, but the role demanded much more. At 25, he was a surrogate father, social worker, fixer, tutor, bouncer, parole officer and chauffeur. Proctor was mentoring 59 Dreamers, and trying to ensure their success was daunting.
Pollin and Cohen had invested $325,000 in the class and would end up spending far more than that on transportation, tutors, field trips and camps. Both men were accustomed to getting returns on their investments, and what they were seeing from the Seat Pleasant 59 wasn’t enough. They became impatient when they learned of low grades and chronic absences. They would ask: Why are we spending so much money if the kids aren’t showing up?