By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2006; A01
Someone had taken Jachin Leatherman's super-sized calculator, the one he used for AP calculus, and Jachin wanted it back.
In the middle of a sunny winter morning, he chased a classmate down a hallway where, 2 1/2 years ago, some students had scattered droplets of mercury, shutting down Ballou Senior High School for a month.
They raced past another hallway where, in the midst of a school day, a football teammate of Jachin's had been shot and killed.
They went down a stairwell where the everyday echoes include the laughter of another teammate -- a beloved friend -- who had left school one day and was found beaten to death in his home.
Sometimes at Ballou, days can seem tinged with every headline and grim event that has given it a reputation as one of Washington's worst and most dangerous high schools.
But on other days, it's simply a place where a thief turns out to be a giggling girl who has swiped a calculator as a way to flirt with a boy. And a boy who smiles back when he grabs the calculator out of her hand and then saunters off to class joking about the incident with his best friend.
Eighteen days ago, Jachin Leatherman, 18, graduated from Ballou. He was the school's 2006 valedictorian.
His best friend, 18-year-old Wayne Nesbit, also graduated. He was salutatorian.
Jachin and Wayne: They love Ballou.
Four years before, at the end of middle school, both had scholarship offers to an elite private high school in the Maryland suburbs. It was an offer that few from Southeast Washington, where Ballou is located, would refuse.
But both ended up at Ballou because their fathers decided that an all-black inner-city school, rather than a mostly white suburban school, was what they wanted for their sons. They also figured their high-achieving sons were precisely the kind of examples Ballou needed.
It was a decision that both boys agreed with, making a private pact with each other that by the time they graduated from high school, they would have made Ballou a better place to be young, black and male.
"My whole thing is to change the stereotype of people in Southeast," said Wayne, who is tall with thick dreadlocks that flip and fall when he moves his head. "We wanted people to say that good, intelligent, athletic students come out of Ballou."
"I feed off him; he feeds off me," said Jachin, explaining that the two decided to establish themselves as role models by tutoring students and competing to graduate at the top of their class. "If I was by myself, without Wayne, I wouldn't do as good.
"When I met Wayne," added Jachin, who is fair-skinned with long, wavy hair, attributes of his biracial heritage, "we decided we could do this together."
* * *
'A Bullet Filled With Peace'
Ballou is a sprawling circa-1960 school that sits on a hill on a quiet street in Congress Heights, across from a vacant lot where old tires, a mattress and a lamp have been dumped. The school has a large grassy campus with tall shade trees, but no one can use it because it is behind fences.
Instead, the morning collection point for students is at the blue entry doors, where they line up and move single file through a metal detector and into a school that reflects much of the data reported across the country depicting how black males are at the bottom of most academic measurements and experience the worst sociological outcomes.
Statistics show that African American males have the lowest reading and math proficiency levels of any group. The Schott Foundation for Public Education paints a particularly bleak picture: Although black boys represent only 8.7 percent of the nation's public school enrollment, they make up 23 percent of students suspended and 22 percent of those expelled -- the largest for any group. Only 45 percent of black males receive high school diplomas with their freshman-year classmates, compared with 70 percent for white males. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, black male students are overrepresented in special education programs.
Ballou's attempts to counter such outcomes have been sporadic at best; by most measures, it is a troubled school. SAT scores are among the lowest in the city. Only about 9 percent of last year's 10th-graders were proficient in math -- and 3 percent in reading. Because it is unable to meet proficiency levels under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Ballou will be "restructured" over the summer, requiring all teachers to reapply for their jobs with no guarantees that they will be rehired.
Just as telling: When Jachin and Wayne were freshmen, their class had 330 students; four years later, they were part of a graduating class of 130. What happened to the other 200? School officials could account for only about 40 who were part of a program that allowed them to graduate a year early.
Superintendent Clifford B. Janey said there is "full recognition" that Ballou is a low-performing school "evidenced by many indicators over a substantial period of time," including 10th-graders' "single-digit" test scores in reading and math. "The number of students achieving levels of proficiency is outrageously embarrassing," he said. The school "can and will do better."
But even in a low-performing school are reminders of possibilities: the trophy cases just past the metal detector, a bulletin board listing honor roll students, vibrant Advanced Placement classes and one classroom in particular where Jachin, Wayne and 11 others could be found deep in thought one day, wrestling with a lesson not about math or science or anything so pragmatic, but about identity.
The class was AP literature, and the assignment for the 13 students was to write a poem describing their names as a personality, a verse incorporating the five senses. "You can get as wild with it as you want," said Nancy Schwalb, artistic director of the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop, describing the exercise as a "linguistic hologram."
It was an assignment that would be challenging in any high school. For some students, words flowed from mind to page like an uninhibited burst of laughter. For others, it was like extracting an impacted tooth.
Wayne looked for ways to write about being indestructible. He toyed with the phrase "diamonds used to cut titanium." He asked around for other examples. Jachin, meanwhile, started writing quickly. He twisted in his chair and put his head down. He stood, balled up his paper and threw it into the trash. He returned to his desk and started over.
Schwalb, walking around the room, approached Jachin and lingered at his shoulder. "This is terrible; it doesn't make sense," he said, but when she looked at what he had written, she thought otherwise.
She directed him to sit on the stool in front of the room and read his draft to the class.
"My name would be heard coming from afar as if it were police sirens on their way to the biggest and baddest shootout in world history," he began in a cadence he uses mostly out of school, when he is rapping as part of a go-go band.
"My name feels like a brick wrapped in toilet paper being thrown at someone's head," he continued. "When you look at my name too long it burns you as if it was cold as ice. My name smells like a tennis shoe that has never been worn or even laced up. The taste of my name would be like a bullet filled with peace and happiness. My name would simply be Jack."
* * *
Staying With Ballou
Jachin and Wayne had become fast friends on a muggy summer day during football tryouts at Hart Middle School, a few blocks from Ballou, when Wayne accepted Jachin's invitation to go with him to talk to some girls.
Back then, their achievements made them standouts -- Wayne would graduate from Hart as valedictorian and Jachin as salutatorian -- and they wanted to remain standouts in high school.
All through middle school, they had assumed that high school would be Ballou, but then came scholarship offers from DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, which caused tensions and divisions in both boys' already divided families.
Everyone "thought I was crazy to have that boy going to Ballou," said Jachin's father, John Leatherman. A white man who has been married to and divorced twice from black women, Leatherman is a cosmetology teacher at Ballou who once styled the hair of songstresses Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson. He has primary responsibility for Jachin. At Ballou, Leatherman could keep an eye on his son. But he also wanted Jachin to develop an identity as a strong black male, something he thought would have been more difficult at a school where whites make up about 70 percent of the student population.
"I don't like black people who don't like black people," Leatherman said. "I'm not having some yellow mug in my house think he's better than somebody else."
And so a decision was made -- one that Leatherman would second-guess only once in the ensuing years, when he had to call security to deal with a student who had barged into his classroom and was screaming at a girl. As security took the student away, he threatened to come back for Leatherman -- and for Jachin, too -- and after that, Leatherman would include in his daily prayers a wish that "my son will not get shot, not get cut, not get in a fight."
Meanwhile, a similar debate about Ballou vs. DeMatha had erupted in Wayne's home between Wayne's father and grandfather.
Wayne's father, Wayne White, had graduated from Ballou in 1981. Now a single parent raising Wayne and another son, Ricardo, Ballou is where he wanted both of his sons to go, but the patriarch of the family thought differently.
" 'You crazy, why you letting him go to that school?' " White recalled his father admonishing him. "He was mad -- he cursed me out. His whole thing being from Southeast is whenever you have an opportunity when somebody will pay for something for you, you go."
But, like Leatherman, White held firm and stayed firm throughout Wayne's time at Ballou, even when Wayne and Ricardo were walking home from a football game and suddenly found themselves surrounded by 10 neighborhood thugs. As Wayne described that night, "the guy had a shotgun and pointed it at my face. He asked me for my coat."
Coat given, that was the end of it, and as frightening as the experience was, it didn't change White's mind about sending his sons to Ballou.
"A lot of times, our brightest students get taken [by private schools] and don't get to go to Ballou," he said. "They'll take those schools to a higher level while you'll hear negative things about Ballou."
And so a second decision was made.
"Before I got there, my dad said how much of a change I'd be for Ballou. At first, I was like, 'Whatever, blah, blah, blah,' " Wayne said. "But once I got to Ballou, it started making sense to me."
* * *
Leading by Doing
On their first day of high school, Wayne and Jachin met in the cafeteria before classes began and talked about how excited they were by what was ahead. The freedom of high school life. The party atmosphere of Ballou.
Soon, though, they were noticing how many students would show up for school but never go to class. And the closer they paid attention to the classes where students did show up, such as biology, the more they realized how difficult improving Ballou would be.
"People would come to class and didn't do their work. People around us were getting C's and D's -- and they didn't really care," Jachin said. "We realized how much work it would take to get others around us wanting to do good. We realized it was going to be a tough job."
In that first year, they didn't have much effect at all, other than establishing themselves as students with high expectations in a place where low expectations were often viewed as good enough.
In 10th grade, though, when Jachin and Wayne made the football team, things began to change, if ever so slightly. Most of the players were barely making the 2.0 grade-point average necessary to stay on the team, and when the coaches realized they now had two straight-A students in their midst, they used Jachin and Wayne to full advantage.
The coaches established mandatory study sessions at 7:30 in the morning and in the hour between the end of classes and practice, putting Wayne and Jachin in charge. Math, English, social studies -- whatever a player asked about, Wayne or Jachin would help. As the football season continued, they felt they were making progress. Perhaps they couldn't affect a broad spectrum of students, but they could affect their teammates.
But then came a string of setbacks, starting with the mercury spill, which closed Ballou for a month. Students were bused to the Washington Convention Center. Many considered the time away from Ballou a vacation, opting to skip classes altogether.
Shortly after Ballou reopened, a member of the football team, James "J-Rock" Richardson, was shot to death in the hallway near the cafeteria. Not long after that, Sherrod Miller, another football teammate, was found beaten to death in his home.
"Those were some tough days," Jachin said. "People were down." Both young men had left an impression on Jachin and Wayne, particularly Miller, who often would buy the entire basketball team a meal when it won games.
"When he passed," Jachin said, "I thought, 'I got to help people more.' "
In 11th grade, their efforts to help the football team continued full force. Tutoring resumed. Wayne became co-captain of the team. He also became president of the National Honor Society chapter and pushed the players to increase their grade-point averages to 3.0 and to demonstrate leadership qualities so they could be inducted. He and Jachin also encouraged some of the football players to take AP classes, where male students were a rarity.
Could they make a difference? they would ask themselves from time to time. Were they making a difference?
On the football team, Jachin and Wayne were named co-captains by Coach David Venable, who coached them in baseball as well. "Everybody strives to be like them," Venable said of the effect that they had on the other players. When Jachin and Wayne first started at Ballou, he said, "we were losing players on the football team because of grades." Four years later, he said, most players had B and C-plus averages, and some had B-pluses and A's.
In AP literature, teacher Carol Robinson said this year's class of 13 students was the most she'd ever had. Typically, she has eight students, two of them male; this year, six of the 13 were male -- and five were on the football team.
In AP calculus, "I've been teaching this class 10 years, and this is the first time I've had more males [six] than females [three]," Joanne Nelson said. More unusual, she added of the males: "They're basically football players."
In class after class, teacher after teacher agreed that Jachin and Wayne had indeed made a difference. Students did, too, such as Thor Ford-Toomer, a football player who was making C's and D's when Wayne and Jachin befriended him in 10th grade. Over the next two years, he spent so much time at Wayne's house that he began calling Wayne's father "Daddy," and as he finished 12th grade he was an honor roll student who had earned a scholarship to a university in North Carolina.
Others did well, too, proof of which came at a ceremony in May in the Ballou gym. Gold and blue balloons decorated a makeshift stage where Wayne, wearing black dress pants and a striped polo shirt, greeted an audience of more than 200 parents and students. He then introduced the newest inductees into the National Honor Society -- 11 in all, and six of them male.
One was Wayne's brother, Ricardo. Several were football players. And one was Jachin, who will always remember what some of the football players had said in heartbreaking sincerity to the coaches when, three years before, Wayne and Jachin were first introduced as examples:
"They smart. We dumb. We can't get better."
And Jachin's reply: "That's crazy. Anybody can get good grades. Just go to class and do your work."
* * *
Public and Private Gratitude
Best dressed -- Jachin.
So said the senior class in a vote as the end of 12th grade neared.
Best hair -- Jachin.
Class clown -- Jachin.
Best build -- Wayne.
Most attractive -- Jachin.
There has always been a rivalry -- friendly, but a rivalry nonetheless -- since they met in middle school. That time, Wayne was valedictorian and Jachin, salutatorian.
This time, when Jachin was in the school office and overheard a secretary talking about who was whom, he immediately sent Wayne a text message that said, "Wayne, you salutatorian."
"How do you know?" Wayne wrote back.
"Somebody just told me," Jachin answered.
There was no need to ask who was valedictorian.
Twelve days later, at Ballou's graduation ceremony, Wayne spoke first, using his time at the lectern to tell the 130 students that the many trials they had experienced taught them "how to overcome obstacles" and how to "turn setbacks into setups for life."
Then Jachin went to the podium. He chided people who criticize public schools while refusing to "help by becoming tutors." He encouraged his classmates to vote "so outsiders are not determining the fate of our community." He expressed gratitude to Ballou and to his mother.
"But most of all, I want to thank my father because without my father . . ."
"Don't cry, Jack!" a girl shouted from the audience into the silence as Jachin gathered his emotions.
". . . I would not be standing here today."
That was his public moment of thanks. His private one came just before the graduation ceremony began, when all 130 students were lining up.
At the head of the line were the top 10 students in terms of academic achievement -- five of whom were male, the first time in recent memory there were that many.
Now, two of those young men looked at each other, bumped hands and broke into broad smiles.
One more senior-class vote:
Best friends -- Jachin and Wayne, both of whom will be leaving in August for the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where they will room together, play football and resume their contest for valedictorian.