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Legacy of hope: Two friends made it cool to be smart at Ballou. But what happened after they left?

Friends Jachin Leatherman and Wayne Nesbit made it cool to be smart at Ballou. But what happened after they left?

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By V. Dion Haynes
Sunday, October 24, 2010

For the first time since graduating as the top two studentsof Ballou Senior High School's Class of 2006, Jachin Leatherman and Wayne Nesbit are rolling through the front doors of their alma mater together.

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They had planned this visit, on a break 18 days before getting their bachelor's degrees, to catch up with former teachers and to tell students it's possible for them, too, to thrive outside Southeast Washington at a mostly white college unencumbered by the decay, neglect and violence they see every day.

But on this warm Monday morning in May, these two longtime best friends are facing the worst of what they left behind: Alonte Sutton, a popular and high-achieving Ballou senior, had been shot to death over the weekend. Leatherman and Nesbit had never met Sutton, but they know firsthand the hurt that his schoolmates feel.

They'd felt it years earlier when they lost J-Rock, then Sherrod, then NuNu and Woosie.

The crush of painful memories takes them back: A somber voice on the intercom summons students to the auditorium. Sobs choke out the "We regret to inform you ..." announcement. Students pour out their emotions to grief counselors. Memorial T-shirts start showing up all over campus.

Eight years ago, Leatherman and Nesbit, now 22, had tried to write a different storyline for Ballou. Both were well-liked football players being raised by single fathers who had passed up offers for their boys to attend elite private schools in favor of Ballou, considered by some to be the worst high school in the city. Their studious boys could be good for the school, and the mostly black environment with nurturing teachers could be good for the boys, the fathers decided individually. The two friends agreed then to compete for the No. 1 spot in their class.

***

In a school better known for its troubles, this was rare: two young black men, both gifted athletes with stellar academic credentials, working as hard for A's in the classroom as they did for wins on the football field -- all in the open while somehow maintaining their popularity. Leatherman and Nesbit made it okay, cool even, to be smart. And by their senior year, many once-ashamed achievers had come out of the closet. This was the change the duo most hoped would last when they left Ballou to become roommates at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Now, after all this time, Leatherman and Nesbit wonder: Did any of what they had tried to leave behind here stick? Or were the forces that had tried to stand in the friends' way -- poverty, apathy, neglect-- insurmountable?

As Leatherman and Nesbit reacclimate themselves to their former school, what they notice most is the melancholy -- the absence of the high-octane energy they remember on a typical school day. Standing among the crowd of strangers is a familiar face, their former assistant football coach Albert Munson.

"What's up, Big Dog?" says Munson, smiling widely. To him, they look mostly the same: Nesbit's dreadlocks, spiky in high school, now flow down his back, while Leatherman still wears his hair in a puffy ponytail. Coach "Money," as he was known back then, teases them as in old times, then grows serious. "I guess you heard what happened," he says, looking down. "There's a lot of stuff going on."

Moments later, the coach and the two friends are standing in the cramped office of Ruth Jones, the school's director of resource development. Jones is beaming. She joined the staff about a year ago, long after Ballou's favorite sons graduated, but she hugs them as if she knows them. She recounts all she has heard. She is delighted to be their tour guide, but, she laments, the excitement will be tempered by the tragedy.


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