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

By V. Dion Haynes
Sunday, October 24, 2010; W18

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.

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.

Leatherman and Nesbit shake their heads and take it all in.

"Alonte was just like you. He was on the right track," Jones says. "He had an internship with the City Council. He was popular. He was a student who succeeded against the odds. ..."

***

It was at a table in the cafeteria, beforefirst period on the first day of school in ninth grade, when the two decided to go head-to-head in a four-year competition to become valedictorian of their senior class. At Hart Middle School in Southeast, Nesbit had graduated No. 1 and Leatherman, No. 2. As tight as they were, though, their rivalry had never been cutthroat -- more like that of tennis champs Venus and Serena Williams -- two top-seeded scholars going for the prize, while supporting each other.

If they didn't try to hide their academic achievement, the pair figured, maybe fellow students would see that they didn't have to choose between being cool and smart. And maybe this could help Ballou.

Both boys had heard this kind of idealism their entire lives from their fathers, who made nearly identical decisions to shape their sons into role models: They nurtured a dedication to Southeast, warts and all. They also sacrificed more lucrative jobs to be a constant presence in their sons' lives. Leatherman's father, John, a white man who opted to raise his biracial son with a strong black identity, gave up styling hair to teach cosmetology at Ballou during his son's years there. Wayne White, Nesbit's father, left his job installing TV cable to work as a teacher's aide at nearby Hart Middle School so he could volunteer as a football coach at Ballou.

Nesbit and Leatherman quickly became popular at Ballou. They tutored their teammates and encouraged wayward peers to study. The team's academic performance went up. More players earned spots in the National Honor Society and enrolled in Advanced Placement courses than longtime teachers could remember.

"I feed off him; he feeds off me," Leatherman said in 2006, explaining the friendship. "If I was by myself, without Wayne, I wouldn't do as good."

The Washington Post first shared the friends' story after they graduated, prompting a flood of TV, radio and conference speaking invitations. And many in the audiences wanted to know the same thing Bill Cosby asked when the duo shared a stage with him in the summer of 2006:

"The story that the two of you happen to be telling, it's sort of like the cover of the book," Cosby said. "I want to go inside, and I want you to tell me how you went from division to algebra without stopping, without quitting. I mean how did it happen?"

Nesbit gave credit to his father: "It starts with parents and the people raising you," he replied. He said his father "just stayed on me. He just enforced education." Despite the troubles in Southeast, his father told him: "You've just got to have a one-set mind, make a go and don't let nothing turn you away from it."

***

Holy Cross is a tranquil place of rolling hills and stately buildings. The Catholic liberal arts college, which counts Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas among its alumni, has an Old World feel with its wrought-iron gates, red-brick buildings surrounded by steep staircases and Jesuit cemetery in the middle of the campus.

You can sometimes step from one classroom to the next without seeing one black face. Nesbit, a confident guy, felt uncomfortable at first. "It really hits you in class when you're the only black person," he says. "In my freshman year, it was like, 'I don't want to raise my hand.' "

In his English literature class one day, a white student reading a poem aloud recited the N-word. Though Nesbit knew she was just reading, he felt like dashing out of the room. "People looked at me, like I'm supposed to have a reaction," he says.

Another time, a history teacher called him into her office to interrogate him about a paper he'd turned in. The report was too good. "She said, 'Did you write this? Did you get help?' " recalls Nesbit, an English major who aims to become a sports journalist for ESPN. "They never ask that to a white person. If a black person does super well, they assume you got help or you cheated."

Nesbit swallowed the pain and kept going, determined to let his academic performance speak for him. The thing was, school, too, was now a source of frustration. Instead of being on top, they found the classwork more challenging, and both were struggling for the first time in the classroom and on the field. When times were toughest, Nesbit thought of his father's words: You've just got to have a one-set mind, make a go and don't let nothing turn you away from it.

Leatherman, an art major who wants to be a restaurateur, even contemplated leaving school. It was his sophomore year, and he was having trouble retaining what he'd studied. He couldn't even remember simple conversations. Once, he couldn't fall asleep for two days. A neurologist diagnosed him with post-concussion syndrome, from the cumulative effect of head injuries in high school and college. The doctor suggested he take a year off to avoid permanent damage.

Leatherman sought advice from mentor and family friend Jim Vance, the WRC-TV anchor, who traveled to Massachusetts to catch one of Leatherman's football games and take him to dinner. After discussing his tentative plan to leave, Leatherman said Vance asked bluntly: "Why the hell would you want to do that?"

"He was like, 'How do you feel?' I said I feel okay. I don't want to jeopardize my future. Jim told me, 'No, don't leave. Don't let nobody tell you you can't do what you want to do.' "

Leatherman stayed and recovered after learning to incorporate frequent rest periods into his study sessions.

While Leatherman was recuperating on the sidelines, Nesbit was out with torn ligaments in both shoulders. They recovered, then both hurt their knees.

"It was really painful for me, because I know I was a top recruit for them and they were looking to get a lot from me, and I was looking to contribute to the team," Nesbit says.

Still, they hung on, creating new roles for themselves. They noticed that younger black students on campus looked as shell-shocked as they'd once felt. They made it their business to reach out to those students.

"I didn't know certain plays," Alex Johnson, a 21-year-old junior football player, says while sitting on Leatherman's twin bed in his dorm in April. Leatherman would pull him aside and "explain it better than the playbook."

Other black students on campus say that with Nesbit and Leatherman, they found a place where they could simply hang and be themselves without constantly having to explain their language or their tastes. Quentin Liggins, a 21-year-old graduating senior, recalls starring in video spoofs of Michael Jackson and scary movies, shot by Leatherman and Nesbit. The videos were "our way to creatively express ourselves and highlight a part of our culture that was near and dear to us," Liggins says.

***

Leatherman's and Nesbit's jaws drop when Ruth Jones, their Ballou tour guide, escorts them inside the school's new library. The alums are clearly impressed: Apple computers line the tables by a wall. Old books, many of which had been in circulation since the school opened about five decades ago, have been replaced.

Principal Rahman Branch joins them as they head into the gym. It, too, has had a makeover: bright new white paint on the walls and a new floor with the school's logo. A student wearing a gold Lady Knights basketball uniform asks Branch about the two visitors. When Branch rattles off a few of their accomplishments, the girl recalls reading about them in the newspaper. "I want to make a difference," she adds.

She sticks out her hand to Nesbit. "I'm Tanisha. What school do you go to?"

"Holy Cross," Nesbit replies.

"What was one of the changes you made at Ballou?"

"We started mentoring people and helped them out and letting people know that academics are important," he says. "It started catching on. Everybody started realizing the importance of it."

"What advice would you give me?"

"You got to start with yourself," Nesbit says. "Once everything is straight, you can use what you did to help others."

Later, Jones escorts the duo to the third-floor freshman academy to address a class of 10 boys.

"I'm Jachin, and I was valedictorian, and this is Wayne. He was salutatorian," Leatherman says, standing in front of the class. "We played football. That helped us stay focused. It was a good thing to get into. You have a place to go after school instead of being in the streets, where you can get into trouble. Stay in school and keep your grades up."

Nesbit chimes in: "The No. 1 thing is your academics. Even if you want to be a rapper, you have to be able to know what you're talking about. You've got to have an education. You've got to take it seriously. College will be the funnest time of your life. The only way to get there is to get good grades now."

One boy asks about football, then the questions dry up. Blank faces stare back at the speakers. Leatherman and Nesbit wrap up their remarks and leave, disappointed that their main point about studying was lost.

***

"JACHIN! JACHIN!"

The familiar baritone cuts through the noise of thousands gathered at the Holy Cross stadium on this late May afternoon. Leatherman is in a long line of students in caps and gowns, inching across the football field. His puffy ponytail sticks out of his black cap, and a sash made of African print covers his black gown. He scans the crowd to connect with the voice. Leatherman had heard the same chant countless times at his Ballou games. He knew even before he found the face: Dad was there again for this important day, college graduation.

John Leatherman, 69, sits in the front row on hard metal bleachers. He has not lost his distinct Santa Claus look from his Ballou days: a round white man with white hair and a thick white beard. But debilitated by strokes, he now uses a cane. He retired from Ballou and works as a private security guard. Seated next to him are his former brother-in-law, and a few rows back are his former wife, Uwana Collins, their two daughters, two granddaughters and her mother.

At Ballou, John Leatherman worried that his son would become another teenage murder victim. At Holy Cross, he worried that his son wouldn't fit in with the white students. Now, he worries that his boy won't find a good job in the dismal economy. "They say we don't have enough black boys getting degrees," John Leatherman says, still speaking in the cadence of his days as a preacher. "He did it. Now, he needs someone to come to his aid. He's graduating on the 28th and needs to be working on the 29th!"

White, Nesbit's dad, arrives wearing a black suit. He hugs Leatherman's relatives and takes his seat several rows behind the family. White was once evicted after he used his rent money to pay for prom and a graduation trip for Nesbit and his older brother, Ricardo. But things are looking up for White, who moved to Manassas and developed his own business, selling motivational DVDs.

Leatherman's name is announced. He strolls across the stage to accept his diploma, and hears his father's chant in the distance: "JACHIN! JACHIN! JACHIN!"

As Nesbit's name is called, his name also is chanted. This is the third graduation the best friends have shared, John Leatherman notes. The two didn't finish at the top this time. No matter, John Leatherman says. They made it through.

***

Jachin Leatherman looks uncomfortable, shifting from leg to leg as he scans the room full of teenagers and parents amid the bundles of blue and gold balloons. Dressed in a blue pinstriped suit, he finally spots Ruth Jones, the Ballou administrator who invited him and Nesbit to this reception at a blue-chip law firm to speak to 21 high achievers in Ballou's Class of 2010. But Leatherman is solo. When he strolls across the room to greet Jones, he explains that Nesbit is working at a temporary telemarketing job.

Jones gives him a rundown of the program and encourages him to mingle with the students over the next half-hour. But he feels sweaty in the suit, and wishes Nesbit were at his side. How would he relate to these students, he wondered: as the Ballou Jachin -- or as the big brother who just graduated from college? Would the students dismiss him as an irrelevant old head, like those ninth-graders at Ballou?

He walks to a corner, grasping the blue folder containing his speech, and stands alone, uncharacteristically solemn. Moments later, he is standing before the room full of strangers. He puts down his speech and takes a breath.

"When I received a call from Ms. Jones some days ago asking me to speak here tonight, I was overwhelmed," he says, looking up from his script. "My only question was, 'What will I say?'"

Tell them how you made your way from Southeast to the head of the class at Ballou to a college graduate, he says Jones told him. And that's what he does, looking more relaxed as he eases into his story. "It was a big deal for a male to graduate from Ballou as the valedictorian because for many years previous, the female students were the only ones academically inclined," he says.

Heads nod in agreement. It was such a big deal, he says, that commentator Tavis Smiley interviewed them on his radio show. "It is beyond exciting to me to know that these students here will have the same opportunity as I have had," he tells them. The crowd applauds, and Leatherman steps aside, greatly relieved.

But for Leatherman, the evening is about to get even better.

Jones and principal Branch talk about the "New Ballou," a campaign to transform the school into a place of high academic achievement. They discuss a $600,000 gift, made last year by an anonymous donor, for scholarships. The school already has made several leaps forward, Jones says: There has been at least one male among the top two students in every graduating class since Leatherman and Nesbit left.

Leatherman's face breaks into a wide smile. He feels like a proud big brother when Jones enlists him to hand out $5,000 awards to five scholars and $1,250 to 16 others. He notices that half of the recipients are males. Among them is Jonathan Parrott, a bulky football player who is said to be just as proud of his academic achievements as his athletic ones.

Like Nesbit and Leatherman, Parrott opted for Ballou over other high schools with better reputations.

By the end of the program, Leatherman is practically giddy. He puts the events of the evening on a continuous loop in his mind as he walks out of the room. He can hardly wait to give the rundown to Nesbit.

***

In the months since then, Leatherman and Nesbit began full-time work outside their fields. Leatherman is in a management training program at Rite-Aid; Nesbit is in a management training program at Enterprise car rental.

***

V. Dion Haynes is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at haynesd@washpost.com.

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