Back in the spring of 1988, they’d all been friends at Seat Pleasant Elementary, part of a class of fifth-graders from some of Prince George’s County’s poorest neighborhoods.
Then, on a May afternoon, they received an unexpected gift that would alter their lives: the promise of a college education, paid for by two wealthy businessmen. Suddenly, the 11-year-olds were part of an ambitious social experiment being tried across the country, one that brought together rich benefactors and needy kids in a largely untested but intimate style of philanthropy aimed at lifting entire families out of poverty.
At Seat Pleasant, the promise generated a wave of publicity and excitement, transforming the fifth-graders into symbols of hope in their own neighborhoods and well beyond. The scholarships gave them a chance to achieve a kind of success that had eluded most of their parents. Yet their good fortune also became a burden that would endure long after they reached adulthood. The questions followed them: What would become of William Smith, Darone Robinson and the rest of the Seat Pleasant 59?
Would they graduate from high school?
Would they make it to college?
What would they make of their gift?
More than 20 years later, the answers are sometimes surprising, sometimes satisfying and sometimes heart-rending. One would become a doctor. One would become a cellist. One would become a UPS driver. One would kill herself. One would kill his father. One would become a politician. One would become a cop. One would become a drug dealer.
On that afternoon in 2010 when they shot hoops, Darone Robinson and Rudolph Norris were long past their school days. Long past the time when they were skinny, restless fifth-graders who counted the minutes to recess and hurled themselves around the Seat Pleasant playground with ferocious glee.
They were grown men now, 33-year-old fathers with all kinds of responsibilities. Darone was working as a Pepco customer service rep, Rudolph as an electrician. Yet they loved sifting through their memories: the girls they admired, the teachers who scared them, the fights they won and lost.
William Smith had been there through all of it. Darone hadn’t seen him in years, but Rudolph had. He knew how to find William, who came to be defined not by his big smile and exuberant laugh, but by a devastating burst of violence.
A few weeks later, Rudolph and Darone drove downtown, to a housing project on a hill near Howard University. They knocked on a glass sliding door overlooking a vacant lot. Moments later, William Smith swept aside a dark blanket that covered the glass and unlocked the door, reaching up from his wheelchair to hug his two old classmates.