The Legacy: For those promised college scholarships, the gift inspired pride and pain
By Paul Schwartzman,
William Smith heard the knock on the glass and rolled his wheelchair toward the sliding door. He pushed aside the blanket covering the window and saw Rudolph Norris, his old friend from high school, and another man who looked familiar.
Damn, William thought. Darone Robinson. How long had it been since they had seen each other? It was the fall of 2010; high school had ended 15 years earlier.
The men hugged, and Rudolph and Darone stepped into William’s Northwest Washington apartment, the dirty walls covered with posters of Al Pacino as Scarface and President Obama in sunglasses. A Bible sat on a shelf by the front door. The tiled floor was bare to make it easier for William to get around.
The men opened beers and traded memories of those years at Seat Pleasant Elementary and Hyattsville Middle and Northwestern High, the questions about the Dreamers spilling out faster than the answers.
Have you seen Mr. Proctor?
What’s happening with Jeffery?
What about Tiffany?
All of them shared not just a history but a part in an ambitious social experiment. As children, they’d been promised college scholarships to help liberate them from the poverty and crime that too often plagued their families and their Prince George’s County neighborhoods. Now they were in their 30s, old enough to consider what that experiment had accomplished and how it had changed them.
William Smith had run into Rudolph Norris in recent years and knew that he’d been in the Army and was working as an electrician. William described himself as a rap artist and a hustler, making money any way he could. He’d dropped out of high school in his senior year, and his mother used to say that he wouldn’t have ended up paralyzed if he had been more serious about his studies, an assertion that still angers him years later.
“Ma!” he told her. “If you hadn’t been so strict and let me breathe, I wouldn’t have been out there in the ’hood getting involved with all those people.”
William likes to think he will walk again some day. “Gonna get up out of this chair,” he often says, showing friends how he can make his legs move, if ever so slightly. His smile is still easy, but some of his teeth are crooked or missing, and his eyes are bloodshot. On his right biceps is a tattoo of a wheelchair with a dagger plunged through the seat, and the words “Judgement Day.”
Darone had gone the furthest of the three of them, graduating from Morgan State in 2002. He was married and working as a customer service rep at Pepco. He wore suits to the office on days when he had meetings, and he was comfortable in them. But he wanted William to know that he was still the same Darone, no better than anyone else just because he had a diploma and a house and a job.
“Just because a lot of dreams don’t come true, don’t mean you give up,” William said.
He raised his bottle.
“To the Dreamers,” he said. “To the ones who are here.”
The questions followed the Seat Pleasant 59 through elementary, middle and high school: Would they graduate? Would special attention and hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial assistance from two wealthy businessmen help them achieve the kind of success that had eluded their parents?
More than two decades after Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin and his friend Melvin Cohen entered their lives on a May afternoon in 1988, no one asks those questions anymore. No one except the Dreamers themselves, as they ruminate on those years when everything seemed possible.
What had they made of their gift?
The answers are varied and ever changing, as the Dreamers make their way through adulthood. Granted a singular opportunity, they have come to measure themselves by what they have achieved. Or what they have failed to achieve.
Some Dreamers look back with pride and gratitude at what Pollin and Cohen bestowed upon them. Others are haunted by guilt and regret. Everyone remembers. Everyone replays in their minds moments from that period when they were defined by their potential.
Wendy Fulgueras, voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in sixth grade, still has the present Pollin and Cohen gave her when she graduated from Vassar, a leather briefcase with her initials that she has used only a couple of times and stows in a closet. She is now a resident based at a veterans hospital in Hampton, Va., where she uses her married last name, Alband. Her specialty is internal medicine.
At 35, Wendy struggles to remember her Dreamer classmates’ names. She does not know that Monica McIntyre, the girl chosen to thank Pollin and Cohen on the day they announced the scholarships, lives in New Orleans and plays the cello professionally. Or that Dakeeya Parker, who in sixth grade wanted to be an artist, committed suicide in 2004. Or that Dontrell Harrison, who loved to cavort with his classmates at summer camp, killed his father in 2006. Or that Ponloeu Le, a Cambodian refugee, became a Prince George’s cop. Or that, just this year, police burst into William Smith’s apartment and found 77 grams of crack cocaine, 13 grams of marijuana, a digital scale on a nightstand near his bed, and $212 in cash stuffed inside a living room chair.
What Wendy remembers is the call Pollin made on her behalf as she was applying to George Washington University medical school. Her sense of appreciation for Pollin has grown with time. Knowing him, she says, was the closest she ever came to growing up with a rich uncle who could make anything possible. All she had to do, she says, was have the vision for what she hoped to accomplish and put in the work.
Suziann Reid displays the Dreamers’ class photo from Seat Pleasant on a shelf at home. Pollin and Cohen are at the center of the photo, Suziann seated to Cohen’s left, a row in front of Jeffery Norris and two rows ahead of Darone Robinson, William Smith and their idealistic young mentor, Tracy Proctor.
As a track star at the University of Texas at Austin, Suziann won 10 NCAA titles and competed at the World University Games and the Goodwill Games. She knows what it’s like to command a roaring stadium. Yet the magic of that first year with the Dreamers, captured in that class photograph of smiling faces and primly folded hands, still holds her.
Sometimes she finds herself wondering where everyone ended up. Since her retirement from track in 2005, she says her path has been arduous, as she has tried to find a way to turn a master’s degree in business administration into a steady career. Sometimes she thinks about that day when Pollin and Cohen showed up to offer the scholarship. A fairy-tale day, she calls it. The day she says a seed was planted inside her. “A day to compare everything to,” she says.
David Carter, one of the quietest of the Seat Pleasant kids, looks at the same class photo and feels like kicking himself. He started working for UPS when he was 18. Last year, he says, he earned $83,887, including overtime. He loves his route, and he enjoys interacting with the people to whom he delivers packages. But that class photo reminds him that he never got his college diploma. He talks of his regret to his three daughters. His aspirations for them have been shaped by his years as a Dreamer. Although he started college, he didn’t finish; he wants to make sure that his girls do.
Tonya Justice, who’d been working as a shift manager at a Pizza Hut, feels the regret when she lays in bed and watches TV at night. The feeling comes when a debt refinancing ad comes on, for instance, and she thinks about how expensive it is to raise her three kids, especially now that she is unemployed. If only she had stayed at Prince George’s Community College and become a nurse or a physical therapist, as she had planned in middle school. Sometimes, she broods about it when she watches her kids play. I could have done so much better for them, she thinks. I could be better.
For a long time, Jeffery Norris had no regrets about dropping out of Prince George’s Community College in 1996.
Who needed a degree when he could earn as much as $5,000 a day selling crack cocaine from an apartment he used as his headquarters on Eastern Avenue? Business was great. At one point, he says, he accumulated $75,000 in cash, hiding a portion in his grandmother’s attic and another in a hole dug in his mother’s back yard.
He was conscious of not dressing up and drawing attention to his newfound wealth, but he spent money on nightclubs and partying. He traded some crack for a stolen Lexus, then had a friend drive him around because he didn’t have a license.
Jeffery still played the organ at his grandfather’s church on Sundays and had a $10-an-hour job at an office-supply store to provide cover. He never thought about the Dreamers or what he was missing by not going to college. All he cared about was making money, staying alive and staying out of jail.
Then, on June 11, 1997, a police cruiser slowed down as he was walking home from his girlfriend’s apartment. Don’t panic, Jeffery told himself. But he had just smoked pot, and he felt a surge of anxiety. He ran so fast that his untied sneakers flew off his feet. When they caught him, police found an unlicensed pistol, hollow point bullets and a pill bottle containing “13 loose white rocklike substances,” as the police report stated. The rocks tested positive for cocaine.
A year passed. Jeffery kept selling cocaine, showing up at his court hearings, sometimes high, and failing his court-ordered drug tests. On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend in 1998, after smoking PCP and drinking beers, he fell asleep as he drove toward Bowie on Route 50, waking up just as his car was about to rear-end another. He jerked the wheel to the left, and his car rolled over.
When he regained consciousness, Jeffery felt blood spilling down his chest. Shards of glass were stuck in his neck, his face and his hands. Over the next few months, he underwent two surgeries and skin grafts. The glass had come millimeters from severing his jugular vein. On the back of his head, where there should have been hair, was a patch of bare skin the size of a ping-pong ball. Scars would zig and zag across his neck.
As he recovered, Jeffery still faced the possibility of up to 25 years in prison for pleading guilty to drug and weapon charges. Instead, a judge, sympathetic because of the injuries he’d suffered from the accident, sentenced him to 18 months of supervised probation. Jeffery felt lucky. He knew he would have to stop dealing drugs.
But what should he do? And whom could he talk to about his future?
At 21, Jeffery could think of only one person: Tracy Proctor.
In a drawer in his home office, Tracy Proctor keeps a sheet of paper titled “Class of 1995 Final Stats,” a list he once presented to Pollin and Cohen that laid out what he knew about each student they’d adopted at Seat Pleasant. Among its findings: at least 11 of the 59 graduated from four-year colleges; at least three of those 11 attained advanced degrees; at least 12 students completed trade school; six dropped out of high school; what happened to six more remains unknown.
Proctor understands that those numbers are vital to any assessment of the program. He knows that the Dreamers’ high school graduation rate of 83 percent far surpassed Prince George’s overall rate in 1995. He also knows that the vast majority did not finish college, a fact that is true of many Dreamers nationally, according to a summary of several studies by the “I Have a Dream” Foundation.
From New York to Portland to Houston, the Dreamers graduated from high school and enrolled in college in far higher numbers than other students. But they often struggled to finish college.
It was often difficult to predict who would make it and who wouldn’t. One kid who looked hopeless might end up graduating from college, as Darone Robinson did. Another kid who got A’s and scored nearly 1200 on his SAT might drop out, as was the case with Hasani Chapman, one of Darone’s classmates.
What Proctor learned, he says, is that Dreamers’ achievements cannot be defined by a diploma, an attitude that he says Pollin and Cohen eventually embraced. The doctor and the pharmacist are successes, for sure. But so are the UPS driver and the Prince George’s police officer. They may not have college degrees, Proctor says, but they have a sense of purpose and ambition.
Ultimately, Proctor argues, the program’s enduring value lies in the relationships he and his students cultivated over time. His mission, he says, was not to bemoan their failures, but to help his students find alternate paths to success. To say, as he did to Jeffery Norris and others, “Let’s try something different.”
“All we could do was give them the academic help that could make them successful. We could give them options,” he says. “You couldn’t force them.”
Proctor’s hair is flecked with gray now, and he has two children of his own. He mentored two more classes of Dreamers for other benefactors. After 23 years, he no longer collects a paycheck for working with Dreamers. For the first time since he was 24, he is looking for a job.
Although he enjoyed all three of his Dreamer classes, Proctor says he is most sentimental about his first. On the wall of his home office in Upper Marlboro, to the left of his computer, is a framed photograph of that class from 1988, the one that Suziann Reid still likes to look at, the one that her former classmates post on Facebook.
Proctor remains a surrogate father for many of them, attending their graduations and weddings and meeting their children. He was there to help Jeffery Norris chart a future after his accident, sending him to computer training school and enlisting him to help mentor another class of Dreamers.
He was there for Tiffany Alston as she made her way through the University of Maryland. Her mother didn’t have to scrub floors, as she’d once vowed to do to send her daughter to college. Pollin and Cohen paid Tiffany’s undergraduate tuition and helped with some of her law school expenses at the University of the District of Columbia.
She had her own legal practice in 2009 when Pollin died at the age of 85. After Tiffany spoke at his memorial service at Verizon Center, she decided to run for the Maryland House of Delegates. Before declaring her candidacy, she consulted Proctor, who not only urged her to run but pledged to volunteer for her campaign.
On Election Day, Tiffany’s last campaign stops included Seat Pleasant Elementary, where there were voting booths in the cafeteria, the same room where Pollin and Cohen had made the announcement that changed her life 22 years earlier. Above the stage was the same “I Have a Dream” banner, now framed.
The voters who made it to the school that day included Jeffery Norris, who still lives a few blocks away. Back in school, he’d thought of Tiffany as one of the serious students, maybe too serious. Now he saw her name on the ballot as a milestone for all the Dreamers.
One of us has made it, he told himself.
Proctor also celebrated Tiffany’s victory, viewing it as validation for all the work he had put in over the years. Nearly a year later, he was there for Tiffany again, during one of the most difficult moments of her young political career: In September, state prosecutors indicted her on accusations that she used campaign funds to pay for her wedding — a charge that she denies. Last week, she was indicted again, this time on charges that she used taxpayer money to pay the salary of an aide working at her private law firm.
“I don’t know what happened, and I don’t want to get into it,” Proctor says he told her in a phone call in September. “But whatever you need, I support you.”
Proctor never gave up on any of the Dreamers, not even William Smith. If Darone Robinson’s graduation from college surprised him the most, William’s failure to finish high school still makes him the most emotional.
“Four credits short,” Proctor laments. “Such a great kid.”
After William’s stabbing, Proctor helped him move to an apartment in the District. Every so often, Proctor ran into him on the street, once outside a downtown homeless shelter where William was living at the time. William was in his wheelchair, greeting him, as always, with a big smile. Proctor did not have to ask to know he was scraping by, that he was hustling.
William could still get his GED, Proctor says. He could go to trade school. He could still make something of his life. Proctor is willing to help. All William has to do is ask.
On a Sunday morning, Jeffery Norris is at Little Rock Bibleway Church for Christ in Northeast Washington, playing the organ and helping to lift the spirits of the people standing in the pews.
“Who am I?” the preacher shouts, his voice filling the small church. “I’m a child of God!”
Even at the height of his drug-dealing days, Jeffery Norris made it to church on Sundays. Now, he says, he doesn’t sell or use drugs. He is done with all that. He is, he promises, a man redeemed.
Jeffery lives in his grandmother’s house in Capitol Heights. He sits on the couch on a summer afternoon, the TV turned to ESPN, the front door open. His old classmate, Terrell Jackson, who once aspired to play professional basketball and who survived not one but two shootings by the time he was 15, is next to him, their conversation meandering back to their days as Dreamers.
All these years later, Terrell, now 6-foot-5 and working as a waiter, remains bitter that he never got the tryout with the Bullets that he believes he was promised as a kid. He knew a couple of millionaires, he says, and what did he get from it? A few minutes later, he answers his own question.
“I’d be dead without the Dreamers,” he says.
Jeffery Norris says they were too young to appreciate what Pollin and Cohen were offering. “You can’t just throw money. It came too soon,” he says. Now, at 34, he wants to go back to college and get a music degree. He wants to open a barbershop.
The Dreamers’ scholarship money is gone, the last of it spent in 2009. But their ambition, their sense of possibility, remains palpable. They are a work in progress, their story still being written.
Darone Robinson shares the desire to achieve more. He lives in a brick colonial with his wife and two young children in Sun Valley Estates, a neighborhood in Upper Marlboro. Darone is proud of his house, the five bedrooms, the granite kitchen countertops, the two-story foyer, the light pouring in through the window. Not bad for a man who almost got kicked out of high school.
Darone works long hours as a Pepco customer service rep. But he hasn’t given up his ultimate aim, the one he voiced as a fifth-grader at Seat Pleasant.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” a reporter had asked him.
“A lawyer,” he’d replied.
Twenty-two years later, Darone drove to College Park to take the LSAT, the standardized test required for admission to law school. In the next year or two, he hopes to enroll at UDC.
At 34, he no longer wants to defend people accused of crimes, as he did when he was a kid. He wants to be a sports agent. He wants to find the next LeBron James. Ten percent of a $10 million contract is $1 million, he says, enough to make him a millionaire.
Imagine that: Darone Robinson, millionaire. He smiles. He likes the way that sounds.
Read the rest of the Seat Pleasant 59 series: