The Reality: Daunting difficulties for the children promised college scholarships

Everyone was going inside the church that morning — his mother, his older sister, a stream of friends, relatives and basketball buddies, all of them holding one another and sobbing.

Darone Robinson, 12, refused to get out of his mother’s blue Pontiac Grand Prix. He could not bring himself to walk into that church and see the casket that held the remains of Carlos Yates, his 27-year-old cousin.

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?

Proctor tried to massage expectations, theirs and his own. The help they were giving the Dreamers was making a difference, he told them. But it didn’t mean that the kids would be able to transcend circumstances that were often beyond their control. He knew this from his own family. Of eight children raised by a single mother in Southeast Washington, he and two others had managed to get college degrees; the other five had not.

There were fleeting moments when Proctor felt the same sense of magic that he had when he first met the Dreamers.

At Hyattsville’s annual field day competition, for example, a girl from Jamaica lined up to run in the relay race. Suziann Reid was tall and shy, and many of her Dreamer classmates thought she was odd because she dressed in ankle-length skirts every day, a custom she’d brought with her from Kingston.

On the track that afternoon, Suziann wore one of her skirts. Everyone else wore shorts and T-shirts.

The baton came, and off she went.

“Holy cow!” exclaimed teacher Riley Eaton, watching her powerful stride as she sped around the track, arms pumping like pistons.

No one had seen an eighth-grader run so fast.

The school’s vice principal, a longtime track coach, rushed over to Proctor, urging him to send Suziann to a high school with a great track program.

“Suziann!” the vice principal gushed when he saw her. “You have a gift!”

Most days were not like that.

As eighth grade ended, it was clear that not everyone would make it to college. In fact, not everyone would survive middle school. Already one, Anthony Patrick, a sharp math student who had been named “Most Popular” at Seat Pleasant, had stopped showing up for classes.

Proctor began to alter his definition of success. Back when they were in fifth grade, he was certain that the Dreamers would all go to college. Now, he just hoped that they would grow up to be responsible citizens, that they would be law abiding and employed, that they would stay alive.

The threat of violence was everywhere: at the park, outside the convenience store, on street corners.

One afternoon, Darone and his classmates ran after hearing gunfire as they stepped off the school bus. More than once, he witnessed ugly gang brawls. There were drug dealers in Deanwood Park, selling packets of crack that had names like Angel Death. In seventh grade, Darone’s buddy, Terrell Jackson, showed up for school one day with the back of his satin Seattle Seahawks football jacket shredded with pellet holes. A gunman had shot Terrell in the back while trying to steal his jacket.

Darone’s mother, Rose, a receptionist at the U.S. Forest Service, worried constantly about her son. Darone was smaller than many of his classmates, but he loved to fight. Sometimes his mother made him watch the news, shouting when there was a story about a shooting or a murder: “That’s what’s going to happen to you!”

Once, Rose drove Darone to the Seat Pleasant police station, where, upon her request, a detective locked him in a cell for a half-hour to scare him. When she returned, Rose recalls, he ran to her with “eyes like 50-cent pieces.”

Being a Dreamer was supposed to give Darone a different future from the guys he saw loitering on the streets of Capitol Heights. But staying focused enough to take advantage of the opportunity was challenging. At Northwestern High School, there were temptations everywhere. In the cafeteria, one of Darone’s Seat Pleasant classmates, Jeffery Norris, hosted poker games. At certain times in the hallway, there was a mini-casino, where Darone and another Dreamer buddy, the raucous prankster William Smith, played cards. There were girls, more of them than Darone had ever seen under one roof. Who wanted to sit in class when there was much more fun outside the door?

More than halfway through his freshman year, Darone was failing English and biology. He talked back to his teachers. He skipped classes and then erased the automated phone messages the school left reporting his absences before his mother could hear them.

His mother was summoned to a meeting, where Proctor warned Darone that he could lose his scholarship money.

“Shape up, or you’re not going to make it,” Darone remembers being told.

Rose Johnson glowered at her son. She was a single mother, and she wanted Proctor to do whatever was necessary to get Darone on track. She encouraged Proctor to use physical force.

“Treat him like he’s your son,” she recalls saying. “You can [rough] him up.”

After that meeting, Rose was furious with Darone. She had always bought him what he wanted — Nintendo, new sneakers, winter coats even when she could afford only a shawl for herself — by putting items on layaway.

All that was over. Darone would have to attend summer school and pay for it himself. She bought him a $269 lawn mower, then made him pay her back with the money he earned cutting his neighbors’ grass.

His mother told him he would transfer to Eleanor Roosevelt High School, which was considered the best in Prince George’s County. Darone didn’t want to leave his buddies at Northwestern. His mother told him he had no choice. A change would help, she promised.

“What are you going to make of yourself?” Rose Johnson asked over and over.

As 10th grade began, Darone had no idea.

At Roosevelt, Darone found himself in the same place as some of the Dreamers’ most promising students. Monica McIntyre, a talented cellist, went because of the school’s stellar music program. Wendy Fulgueras, the daughter of a doctor and nurse from the Philippines, dove into her science courses. Suziann Reid went to Roosevelt because of its track team, and she began breaking records and drawing the attention of collegiate coaches at Brown, Princeton and the University of Texas.

The Dreamers were scattered among several high schools. Tiffany Alston, for instance, whose mother had vowed to scrub floors so her daughter could become a lawyer, was at Bladensburg High, where she was a cheerleader and president of her ninth-grade class.

Even in elementary school, Tiffany’s maturity was apparent, her comprehension of the world seemingly more advanced than her peers. Once, when a reporter visited her class during a discussion about the lures of the drug trade, 12-year-old Tiffany asked, “How do you tell a hustler to just say no when he’s making $1,000 a day?”

She was part of a cluster of girls who turned in their homework on time and paid attention in class. While some struggled academically or got into fights, the girls were far less likely to get caught up in violence related to drugs or gangs.

With the girls, the risk was pregnancy — and for good reason. At least three Dreamers became pregnant by the end of high school, including one when she was in ninth grade.

Every student came with a web of problems. One boy, a Cambodian refu­gee, spent long hours caring for his six younger siblings because his mother worked as a convenience store cashier and his father was constantly sick. When was he supposed to do his homework?

Others, like William Smith, clashed with their parents. William hated the way his mother made him dress for school — in slacks, jacket, shirt and tie. He wanted to wear ­T-shirts, sneakers and baggy pants, and not look like he was ready for choir practice. Their fights became so fierce that William moved in with a friend. The friend’s mother was an addict, William says, and required him to supply her with crack in exchange for sleeping in the house.

Jeffery Norris’s mother had married a man he did not like and had two more children. Jeffery felt estranged not just from her but also from Tracy Proctor.

You’re only interested in the stars, Jeffery told him.

Untrue, Proctor replied. But he told Jeffery that he would no longer devote himself to the students uninterested in success. “I’m not wasting my time,” Proctor said.

Jeffery had shot up to 6 feet and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life except play basketball. He had little contact with his father, a high-ranking Prince George’s police officer who had split up with Jeffery’s mom years before. Jeffery was repelled by the other large figure in his life, his grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher at whose church Jeffery grew up playing the drums and organ.

His grandfather had predicted from the pulpit that Jeffery would not live to 18. The preacher was unaware that Jeffery had begun earning pocket money in ninth grade running errands for a drug dealer. By 11th grade, even as he was still playing music at church on Sundays, Jeffery began selling crack cocaine on his own. He paid $75 for a .357 magnum and learned to shoot in the woods near his home.

Jeffery bought the gun for a simple reason: He was afraid of ending up like his Uncle Terry.

Jeffery was 8 when Terry Bostic took him and a few kids to play baseball one afternoon. Rudolph Norris, Jeffery’s cousin and Terry’s stepson, was there, too. As they played, a gang of older boys on bikes rode onto the field and began harassing them.

“Can y’all leave?” Jeffery remembers Terry asking.

The gang rode away. A few minutes later, a short, powerfully built man stormed across the field, grabbed a bat and stepped onto the dugout bench.

Who are you talking to? the man demanded, glaring down at Terry.

We’re just trying to play ball here, Terry answered.

The man swung the bat and hit Terry in the head. He swung and smashed Terry again. Terry collapsed to the ground, and the man ran away, leaving Jeffery and Rudolph in tears. Terry, who was 25, died at a nearby hospital.

Jeffery Norris would not end up like Uncle Terry. He and his .357 magnum would make sure of that.

By senior year at Northwestern, the idea of a college scholarship meant nothing to William Smith.

Every other day, he skipped class or got into a fight. He liked to walk into the woods near the school to smoke weed and drink beer. Outside of school, he was selling crack cocaine and using the money to buy Nikes, designer shirts, sweatsuits and a 30-gauge shotgun. His friends nicknamed him “Wild Child.”

William’s classmates had always adored him. He’d been their class prankster since Seat Pleasant Elementary, making them laugh, for instance, by brandishing a fat roll of bills, only to reveal that the $20 on top was followed by a bunch of ones, perhaps some cardboard and God knows what else. It was William being William again.

When Northwestern moved to expel William, Proctor tried to intervene. He made William meet with school administrators, who came up with a plan: If William attended classes, completed his work and stayed out of fights, he could graduate.

A couple of days later, William told Proctor he was dropping out.

“You have four credits left,” Proctor said.

“I’m just tired of school,” William told him.

Darone Robinson did not like Eleanor Roosevelt High School. He hated the way the assistant principals were constantly telling him to clear out of the hallways and get to class. He missed William Smith and Rudolph Norris, who ended up moving with his mother to North Carolina.

One morning during his junior year, he became involved in a brawl in Roosevelt’s main hall. Several of his friends were expelled.

With them gone, Darone’s grades began to improve. He visited Bowie State University with Proctor and a group of Dreamers, and he liked the big lecture halls, the plush lounge areas, the pretty girls. For the first time, he got a sense of what he could do after high school. He could be like the uncles his mother had always told him about, the ones who went to college.

As senior year unfolded, many of his fellow Dreamers were completing their college plans. Wendy Fulgueras, chosen “Most Likely to Succeed” in sixth grade, had graduated early and gone off to Vassar College. Tiffany Alston knew she wanted to go to the University of Maryland and then to law school. Monica McIntyre planned to study design at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Suziann Reid was off to the University of Texas, which offered her a full scholarship to be on the track team.

Darone had his eye on Syracuse and Morgan State, schools with good football teams. His mother felt a great sense of relief. Something had clicked with her son.

Then, during senior year, he got into another fight, only this time he was caught and the school wanted to expel him. Darone feared losing his scholarship and provoking his mother’s anger. He told her he had not started the fight. He was only trying to protect a friend. Really.

Rose Johnson fought to keep her boy in school. At a meeting of the county’s Board of Education, she and Proctor defended Darone, describing his growing maturity, improving grades and increasing excitement about college. Darone pleaded for another chance. There will be no more trouble, he promised. The board agreed to reinstate him.

In the spring of 1995, with his mother hooting and hollering from the audience, Darone graduated from Roosevelt. At a separate ceremony, the largest contingent of Dreamers, who had gone to Northwestern, got their diplomas at the now-demolished USAir Arena. Afterward, Pollin, Cohen and Proctor congratulated them and their parents in a special VIP room.

In the end, at least 49 of the 59 Dreamers — 83 percent — graduated from high school or got their GEDs, Proctor says, far surpassing Prince George’s overall rate in 1995. Almost half the students enrolled in college, satisfying Pollin, who died in 2009.

“I feel very strongly that this is one of the best ways to break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty,” Pollin told a Washingtonian reporter in 1995.

William Smith was not among the Northwestern graduates. Ten days after they got their diplomas, William went to a nightclub called Rhythms with some friends. He drank Moët and started dancing with a woman, unaware that she was with her boyfriend, who marched over and took a swing at William.

Someone got between them. William drank more champagne, then started dancing again, closing his eyes and feeling the go-go music. When he opened his eyes, he saw a group of men surrounding him. He saw a knife. Someone stabbed him. Then again. Knives seemed to be coming from all angles. William fell.

“Where’s he hit?” William heard someone shout. He could see blood on the floor.

William was flown to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He’d been stabbed 11 times. His left diaphragm and colon were lacerated. His spinal cord was severed.

When he awoke, he saw that he was ensnared in a jumble of tubes. He says he tried to pull the tubes off and get up. He fell on the floor. He could not feel his legs.

“Why can’t I walk, Ma?” William recalls crying.

“William, baby,” his mother said, helping him back into bed. “They say you never gonna walk again.”

The news about William’s stabbing shook Rose Johnson, crystallizing all her fears about what could happen to her own son. It could have been Darone in that wheelchair instead of William.

She still worried about Darone every day, a sense of foreboding so strong sometimes that she would insist that he not go out because she was sure something bad would happen.

By the time Darone departed for Morgan State, Rose felt a sense of relief that her boy had made it to his 18th birthday. She bought him linens and towels, a rug and other things he would need for his dorm room. She was delighted that he was off to a college campus.

Darone reveled in his new surroundings. He loved the “welcome bridge” leading to the handsome clock tower at Morgan’s center, the statue of Frederick Douglass, and the 10,000-seat stadium where the football team played. He was proud to attend a historically black school.

“I can do this,” Darone told himself. He had wanted to become an attorney in fifth grade and was still interested in the law. But he was majoring in information science and systems. Maybe he’d work with computers.

Sophomore year: Here came the old Darone. He missed classes, partied too much and ignored his work. His grades slipped, then slipped some more.

His information science professor, Ali Emdad, ordered Darone to reduce his course load, which would slow his progress toward graduation. Darone was embarrassed. Here’s your opportunity, and you’re dropping the ball again, he told himself.

What Darone did not know was that many of his Dreamer classmates were experiencing their own crises at college. One by one, they began dropping out of Bowie State, and Prince George’s Community College, and Montgomery College.

Lester Mason didn’t last a semester at the University of Maryland, then foundered at Prince George’s Community College. He took his transcript to his parents to show how poorly he had done. He would not be the first Mason to graduate from college, as they had hoped.

“You can do it,” his mother told him.

“No, I can’t,” Lester replied. “And I don’t want to.”

At Morgan, Darone Robinson asked himself whether he was someone who gets some credits or someone who gets a diploma.

Once again, he could not imagine telling his mother that he had failed. Darone understood that he had one option: Work harder. By senior year, his grade point average had climbed above 3.0.

As graduation approached, he made more than one trip to the registrar’s office to make sure he had the credits to graduate. Each time, he discovered he did.

In May 2002, Darone walked across a stage in Morgan’s football stadium to receive his diploma. Out of all the Dreamers, no one’s success seemed more surprising. Here was a kid who had never shown much interest in books. Now here he was, in a cap and gown, a handsome goatee framing his face.

A college graduate.

“That’s my baby!” his mother, Rose, stood and shouted for everyone to hear.

Read the rest of the Seat Pleasant 59 series:

Part I: The Promise

Part III: The Legacy

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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