Generation Obama: Pursuing their dreams through four years of hard times

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Mark Warner, who accompanied Obama on his visit to a Virginia high school, as the governor at the time. Warner served as Virginia governor from 2002 to 2006.

From behind her cash register at Bottom Dollar Food, 18-year-old Diamond White quickly sorts shoppers into two groups.

There are Diamond’s Park Place neighbors, struggling to get by in a mostly black community that has been battered by the recession.

“When I get close to $50, let me know,” says a tired-looking woman in a blue shirt and jeans as Diamond rings up her chicken legs, Lucky Charms and other items.

And there are buoyant college students in Norfolk State and Old Dominion sweatshirts, breezing in for soda, beer and endless bags of chips.

They come one after another — neighbor, college student.

Neighbor: “Can you put that to the side? I’ll go to the other store, where they’ll be cheaper.”

College student: “You can keep the change. I don’t need it.”

As high school graduation nears, Diamond’s $7.75-per-hour, six-hour shift at the register offers a subtle lesson in what she hopes to escape and what she hopes to become.

Diamond has been an arrow aimed at college for as long as she can remember. Her parents think she could be the first member of her family to get a degree. Her teachers and counselor at Granby High School have pushed her to sign up for Advanced Placement classes, take the SAT and apply to four-year universities.

Even the president of the United States once challenged her to set the bar high.

Barack Obama was on his way to becoming the first black leader of the nation when he visited Diamond’s freshman leadership class on Sept. 10, 2008. She and two dozen classmates were just starting high school, and Obama’s heady message of hope resonated with many of them.

But in a matter of days, a financial meltdown plunged the country into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression — a crash that would take its toll on Diamond, her parents, and many of her friends and classmates.

Four years later, the president is trying to win a second term, in part, by re-energizing minority voters hit hard by the recession in such swing states as Virginia. And Diamond, whose father has been unemployed on and off for months and whose mother has turned to food banks to help feed six children, is trying to figure out a way to pay for college.

Those financial pressures are never far from Diamond’s mind at Bottom Dollar (which has since been renamed Food Lion), where a customer buying a beer and a bottle of barbecue sauce called the manager over to contest a 41-cent overcharge.

Diamond smiles throughout her shift, charming even the most stressed-out shoppers with her deep dimples, luminous brown eyes and natural warmth. “So what’s for dinner?” she asks an elderly neighbor, putting a smile on the man’s face.

Yet as customers stream through her line, she can’t help wondering which group she’ll be joining come fall: the hoodie-wearing college crowd or the folks trying to scrape by?

On the third day of her freshman year of high school, Diamond bounded off the school bus and headed to the cafeteria for breakfast.

Black curtains had been hung in the hallways. The entrance to the library was closed off. Yellow buses were lined nose to tail in the back lot as a makeshift barrier. “Stay away from the windows,” she was told. Men in dark suits were all over the building. Snipers stood on the roof of the elementary school next door.

Word spread through the hallways: Barack Obama was coming to Granby!

The campaign had chosen the stately brick high school, built in 1939 with three brick arches and a white steeple, as the backdrop for a speech on Obama’s education policy.

Before the candidate delivered a call for merit pay for teachers and more charter-school funding for Granby’s library, he was ushered through a hallway to Ed Allison’s ninth-grade leadership class. His entourage included then-Gov. Mark Warner (D) and a mass of reporters with cameras and boom microphones.

Twenty-five freshmen, including Diamond, gaped.

“Oh, this is a good-looking bunch here,” declared Obama, who was wearing a navy blue suit and tiny flag pin.

He stood in front of the dry-erase board, surveying the 14- and 15-year-olds. Taped to a nearby wall were articles about Obama’s historic presidential bid that Allison had been collecting and posting.

Obama was running hard in Virginia, a state that had not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. He needed a large turnout in Norfolk and the rest of the Hampton Roads area to win. Thus, the visit to Granby, a predominantly African American high school that had worked hard to boost the performance of its low-income students, who made up 60 percent of the 2,000 teens enrolled. It offered the school system’s only International Baccalaureate program, 19 AP classes and freshman leadership seminars — funded by a grant from the federal government — to teach ninth-graders foundational skills: how to make good choices, what responsible behavior looks like, the importance of community service.

Obama took a few questions from Diamond’s classmates.

Clayton Hartley, whose father had been deployed by the Navy for much of his childhood, wanted to know what Obama would do for military families like his.

Others sought more personal advice.

“Nobody ever started from the top, so how did you get to where you’re at?” one ninth-
grader asked.

“How many colleges did you get accepted to, and why did you choose the college you went to?” another inquired.

As he answered, Obama exhorted the ninth-graders to work hard. “You’ve got to internalize the idea that nobody should have higher expectations for you than you do,” he said.

He lingered more than half an hour, shaking hands with each student and laughing as he signed his name on their T-shirts. “I can tell you’re going to do great things,” he told them.

It was a moment of promise at the beginning of a new school year and what would soon be a new presidency.

When Diamond came home from school that day, her younger brothers and sisters crowded around her to ask questions: “What did he say?” “How did he smell?” They knew how Obama looked — like them.

Photos of the visit — one assistant principal took 200 — were posted around Granby, along with clippings from the local newspaper.

But much of that excitement would fade as the Great Recession inflicted its pain on students and their families.

There was quiet, studious NaTanya Spruill, whose single mother was laid off from her medical-billing job two years into Obama’s presidency.

There was Megan Louis, a softball player and ROTC member whose parents divorced after her father lost his job and whose family never regained its footing. “Times are hard,” she said.

There was basketball standout Aubrey Burrus, whose jailed father and frequently absent mother had prompted him to move in with his aunt, a bank teller already struggling to support her own sons.

There was Haley Everton, whose blond hair and pretty smile appeared on the front page of the local newspaper as Obama stood beside her desk. Three and a half years later, when her mother and stepfather were forced to put their house up for a short sale, she would pack up the faded newspaper along with her clothes and move out of her home.

And there was their teacher, Ed Allison, who would go without a raise in the years after Obama’s visit and whose once-booming side business, a fish-fry catering company called Seafood City, was hurt by the bad economy, too.

Allison continued to replay the clip of Obama speaking to his class and voice support for the president. But he warned each new crop of students to work hard. “Folks, the social safety net is getting tighter and tighter,” he said.

Look no further than Granby High, where the freshman leadership seminars showcased for Obama in 2008 have been shelved because of federal budget cuts.

At Diamond’s house, the signs of financial pressure are all over the four-bedroom rental, with its rusting front rails and creaking porch.

Her parents, Kim and Don White, can’t afford an Internet connection for the household computer. Diamond uses the computers at the public library for some of her assignments. No amount of begging has persuaded the Whites to pay for cable TV, either.

Near a framed sign on the wall that reads “Love makes our house a home” is a piece of cardboard taped to the wall above the thermostat. On it is written, “HIGH BILL if moved to ON. Don’t touch! Leave on AUTO . . . Mom.”

Kim, 35, supports the family by working as a debt collector. With the economy down, it is steady but unnerving work.

Debtors regularly curse out Kim. Others threaten to kill themselves. Kim can understand their despair: She and Don, 41, are being chased by debt collectors themselves and rarely answer their phone in order to avoid creditors. The irony of having her own unpaid debts while badgering others to pay up is not lost on Kim.

Her co-workers sometimes quit the job, which pays about $35,000 a year plus bonuses for meeting collection quotas, because they cannot take the demands. But with Don, a printer by trade, mostly out of work, that isn’t possible for Kim.

“Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure on me — whether we stay afloat,” she says. “The last two years have been hard.”

The Whites can see the impact of the recession in their working-class neighborhood, where the rate of foreclosure more than tripled between 2008 and 2011, according to data analysis firm CoreLogic.

The regional unemployment rate among African American men rose from 8.7 percent in 2008 to 10.5 percent in 2010, prompting Norfolk State University’s president, Tony Atwater, to call the situation a “quiet crisis.”

Sometimes Kim joins the long lines at the food bank, where the amount of food distributed to hungry families in Norfolk soared from 4.1 million pounds in 2008 to 5.6 million last year, according to the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia. Kim gets free school supplies at a church giveaway and buys clothes for the children at thrift stores. She has enrolled the family in Medicaid. She clips coupons.

“I can stretch a penny,” she likes to say.

There aren’t enough stretched pennies in the world to pay for Diamond’s college tuition.

When the bills come in, Kim prays and then writes a list of what can be paid and what can not. Rent is at the top of the must-be-paid list. Getting the sputtering transmission on the 12-year-old Ford Windstar repaired is not.

She doesn’t let Diamond take the senior pictures offered at Granby because the packages are too pricey. Months into her senior year, they are still making payments on Diamond’s $385 class ring while other seniors are already sporting their new jewelry.

Kim has begun calling Diamond her “expensive child.” Diamond tries not think about any of it too much. Her senior year, she joins the pep squad and dances around football games in a bright yellow comet mascot’s uniform, looking a lot like a life-size M&M candy. But her job as a cashier often conflicts with the games.

Her family’s financial situation has made it hard for Diamond to get too excited about college, though her counselor, Phyllis Patton, is confident that she’ll qualify for scholarships and grant money.

Diamond, who loves her math and science classes, talks about becoming an orthopedic surgeon. She wants a high-paying career, not a make-ends-meet job. She is getting B’s in AP biology and calculus, among the toughest math and science courses at Granby. She is poised and attentive while studying the electron transport chain and inverse derivatives.

Her focus sometimes prompts teasing from her less ambitious classmates. “What’d you get Diamond? 100?” one asks as test scores are issued in psychology class. But she can’t afford an SAT prep course and doesn’t crack 1500 (out of 2400) on the test. The world of transcripts and college essays is foreign to her.

When it comes to college applications, Patton often finds herself saying to Diamond: “Okay, so when are we going to get that done?”

Diamond reminds Patton of herself. “Because she’s first generation,” says Patton, a black woman from Norfolk who was also the first in her family to go to college.

Diamond applies to colleges almost at random. Miami seems like a nice place to her, so she sends an application to the University of Miami. Patton tells her the University of Mary Washington offers generous financial aid packages, so Diamond applies there. Her boyfriend, Mike Wortherly, 23, a bank teller she met at a dance competition, lives in Woodbridge, which is not too far from Richmond, so she fills out the forms for Virginia Commonwealth University.

She refuses to apply to Old Dominion University, the only college campus she’s set foot on, because it is too close to home. “If I didn’t pick up the phone,” she says, “my dad would just walk up there.”

But as the end of her senior year approaches, Diamond hasn’t heard back from any of the colleges. There’s been a mix-up with her requests to waive the application fees, she and Patton learn. So while her classmates are getting acceptance letters and making plans to go to William and Mary or VCU or Mary Baldwin, she still has no idea where she will go. Or if she can afford it at all. Maybe a less expensive community college would be more realistic.

“Whatever,” she says often as graduation looms.

As Granby’s 476 seniors slip on their royal blue caps and gowns one June afternoon, Diamond’s emotions are swinging. One minute, she giggles with her friends, eating the gummy candies they had snuck into the convocation center at Old Dominion. A few minutes later, she tears up in the processional line, thinking about all of the people she will probably never see again.

Her teachers and counselors file into the cavernous auditorium first. Ed Allison takes his seat, remembering the special bond he shares with these kids. They’ve matured since the day of their brush with history.

Aubrey Burrus, a guard on the school’s basketball team, has shot up 6 inches and gained 35 pounds since freshman year. He wears glinting gold caps on his six front teeth and throws up a peace sign as he accepts his diploma.

At the time of Obama’s visit to Granby, Aubrey wasn’t sure he would make it through high school. Both his parents are dropouts. Now he’s hoping to play basketball for Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black college in Charlotte, or head to a prep school for an extra year of academics.

Next comes Haley Everton, tottering across the stage in sky-high beige heels. Her blond hair is now dyed brown but her career goal remains the same — to be a modern dancer. She will enroll in Tidewater Community College this fall, taking a few classes in dance and Pilates while working part-time to pay her way.

Megan Louis, whose babyface has grown more structured, wears her crisp ROTC uniform and salutes her commanding officer after picking up her diploma. She’s turned down a partial scholarship to William Peace University in Raleigh because, she says, “I don’t want to graduate with loads of debt.” Instead she plans to enlist in the Army or enroll at Tidewater Community College.

NaTanya Spruill, decked out in honor chords and glittering gold eye shadow, follows with a beaming smile on her face. In August, she will begin classes in the accounting program at the University of Richmond on a full scholarship.

Diamond, no longer the quiet, rail-thin girl who entered Granby in 2008, is the last of the group to graduate. Up in Section 113, Kim White breaks down crying as she watches her daughter collect her diploma.

“We did it, baby,” Don says to Kim.

They both graduated from high school, but their oldest son dropped out. Diamond is their first child to finish high school, and they are so proud of her plans to attend college.

“I just want her to have better than what I had,” Kim says later as she lays out the roasted and fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, shrimp salad and homemade cheesecake for Diamond’s graduation party.

It is what Diamond wants too.

She snuggles with her boyfriend under a collapsible backyard gazebo that her mom has splurged on for the party. She says her aspirations haven’t changed since she entered high school, only the route she’ll take to get there.

Her new plan is to move to Woodbridge, where her boyfriend lives, and enroll in classes at Northern Virginia Community College. After two years, she can transfer to a university and then enroll in medical school.

“Community college is cheaper,” Diamond says matter-of-factly.

After watching her parents, friends and neighbors struggle these past four years, she knows it won’t be easy to become the first person in her family to finish college. But she still believes what Obama told her as a ninth-grader: She is going to do great things.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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