The "drums" have pounded his name along 14th and T Streets this week, Julius "Big Reds" Holt, ex-hellraiser formerly ob-noxious, had beat the odds in a game most of them had lost. He strode across the stage this week to get his Cardozo High School diploma "like a soldier," as the dudes say, smile suddenly rimming the edges of his dark-freckled face, big muscles tight beneath the drape of his shiny purple robe.
He was one of the lucky ones because a lot of people helped him buy the ticket off the street where his family lives near the hangouts of the addicts and the prostitutes.
"We kept telling him he could do it if he put his mind to it," recalled John Nunn, his football coach. "I felt very close to him because I'd seen him change."
"I used to do a lot of raunchy things that some people don't know about," Reds said on a recent afternoon. "But I got myself together."
Reds was helped to isolate something at which he was gifted - sports.But his teachers, family and friends helped him avoid the cult of athletics that traps many poor kids who think that athletics rather than education is their ticket out of the ghetto. "We told him his body had to be a tool," said his baseball coach Frazier O'Leary. "We told him he could not forget his brain."
They gave Red self-confidence, the element too often missing in students in small towns and big cities, for schools too often foster the attitude that many kids aren't going to succeed by school standards. The schools spend much energy sorting and classifying kids - the brightest and the dumbest - and the students tend to respond in the way that is expected of them.
Inner city principals say this crisis of academic self-confidence is at the heart of the complex challenge the schools face. "It's the televisions' fault, the newspaper's fault, our own fault," said one Cardozo teacher. "They need to hear positive things about themselves."
Reds was from a family of seven brothers and a sister and grew up around 11th and R Streets NW. His parents were separated. They died in 1972 within a month of one another. At 11, Reds and three younger brothers were left with their stepfather, Willie Terry.
The 1100 block of R Street had been a cohesive lower-middle income neighborhood and Red's memories of life before his mother's death are idyllic - cake and cardplaying in the front yard; his grandmother, Mary Jane Holt, in her own words "the grandmother of the whole block."
Things changed abruptly after his mother died from a brain tumor. "Some nights my father didn't come home. He might go to work on a Friday and not come home. He called, gave us money and food and we had clean clothes, but it was hard to say when he was coming home." His older brother, Bernard Holt, put it differently. "Reds raised our three little brothers."
There is a black tradition, born in the South, that a child belongs to his family, but belongs also to his neighborhood, or his block, and mothering is not confined to the home. So it was that Reds also was mothered by his best friend's mother, Mary Mitchell, who always had advice, a bed or a meal for the boy.
"You're not going to get into any trouble," she counseled him. But she wasn't around all of the time.
The older brothers in the neighborhood had a gang, so the younger brothers followed suit. "We started hanging out, going around on 14th Street where the prostitutes are," Reds says, scuffing his sneakers. "We became real good friends with the prostitutes. They asked us if we were in school. They didn't try to influence us to do anything wrong."
At first, theirs were the universal pranks of adolescence - sneaking into the stadium to see the Redskins - but the evironment made extremes of what seemed like natural progressions, and the penalty was harsh and swift.
"We used to see some things that went on . . .like (the prostitutes) robbing people or busting into tricks' shorts (cars). So when we saw that, we started picking it up, learning how to do it and stuff. We used to play games about seeing how fast it took to get in and out of a trick's short . . .then we started robbing people . . ."
He was arrested when he was in the eighth grade for a crime he said he did not commit. "They told me things would catch up with me though." He was fingerprinted and mugged, his construction worker stepfather doggedly going with him to court, and although the case eventually was thrown out, Reds, to his stepfather's chagrin, had a record.
A year later, the police picked him up on a breaking and entering charge, and though he denied it, he was put on probation. He was seeing a probation officer weekly when he went to Cardozo, the big school on the hill at 13th and Clifton NW, situated among well-kept, slender rowhouses. By now his father had remarried and relocated the family above a restaurant on 14the Street; the old block had become a renovation area.
"After I got locked up," said Reds," I changed. My oldest brother, Bernard, kind of changed me a lot."
Bernard told him, "Our family always told us to do the best we can. I told him we didn't have to be in the dumps always." And Bernard literally tried to knock some sense into Reds' head on a couple of occasions.
But if you are on a course going nowhere, if you come home each night through the junkies to stepparents who care but are educationally limited and admittedly "don't have much to give," how do you turn things around?
Tenth grade was a bummer. Reds was loud and wrong.
He fought. "He was unmotivated," recalls principal Waverley Jones. He treated girls disrespectfully.
One day he went over to Kingman Boys Club and coach Ernie Webster saw his physique and asked him to join the basketball team.
"Listening to Red's story, I thought of the educational innovators who stress that schools must find ways for children to be important everyday - to succeed every day."
Reds was the classic case of disbelief in self gone awry. But because he was athletic, bigger and louder than the rest, he grabbed the brass ring - the attention of Cardozo's teachers and coaches. Men like Frazier O'Leary (baseball), John Junn (football), and Dean of Men Richard Jones (wrestling) "stayed on my back. They said I had to do the work or I couldn't play. Without them I couldn't have made it."
At Cardozo, the teachers counseled him daily to use his time wisely and reminded him that the high school years were fleeting. "I'd talk over family problems with them I brought to school with me sometimes," said Reds. Coach Nunn constantly reminded him that "being loud and wrong wasn't the way to get attention - achievement was." Nunn said he came to see him "once or twice a day."
By eleventh grade, Reds made the honor roll. "I felt good," he said, drawing out his words in a Washington drawl. But when I went up on stage I was holding my head down. People were surprised . . .they were shocked."
Two teachers brought him gifts the next day; it had been a long journey from his lessons by prostitutes to success in school. He was also becoming one of the outstanding athletes in the city. "What turned him around was people who cared about him" said Coach O'Leary. "At least a half dozen people in this building really cared about him."
At Thursday's graduation ceremonies in the cavernous D.C. Armory, Reds' family cheered when they called out Julius "All American" Holt. They cheered again when their tiny, steel-voiced valedictorian Tonya Robinson shouted, "We'll be among W.E.B. DuBois' Talented Tenth, and we will succeed."
DuDois was the turn-of-the-century scholar who said that a talented tenth of college-educated black intellectuals would have to advance blacks and lift up their more oppressed brethren. Martin Luther King advanced the more egalitarian view that neither poverty nor status should affect equality of opportunity.
The Cardozo valedictorian had sounded a note of irony, given the failures of the public schools, for the problems that Reds was able to overcome drown a lot of kids.
Reds was one of the lucky ones; he has succeeded in a limited way because he was the recipient of an enormous amount of time and attention. "You don't really have any time to give them all that individual attention that they need," said Dean Jones. "We should be doing more to bring them up to where they should be."
And if most schools make many kids feel they can't achieve, it is doubly so with inner city schools where the needs are greater and the nation has repeatedly refused to give educators the resources they need. So too many of these students, plagued by the double scourage of poverty and poor educational background, leave school with only a ticket to a deadent street.
Reds was heavily recruited by college football teams and he will go either to Villanova or North Carolina Central. His coach thinks he will need college prep and "he'll need to talk to somebody . . .to keep him in check."
For his prom, Reds got a little help from his friends in renting the car of his dreams - a red Corvette. "He eased into it like it was a Roll Royce," said his stepmother.
But a one-night joy ride is not forever. And how thin the ice on which the poor must skate was brought home with a jolt when Reds' close acquaintance recently was arrested on a charge of shooting and wounding two teenagers during a dance.
"He just didn't listen," said Reds. "It's just in him. I tried to talk to him. He's smart.He'd help me with my math. But he just didn't listen." CAPTION: Picture 1, Julius "Big Reds" Holt adjusts his teammate Norman Rucker's tie prior to graduation ceremonies from Cardozo High School.; Picture 2, Holt strolls through his neighborhood, an area that previously caused him trouble. Photos by Fred Sweets - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Julius "Big Reds" Holt, center, received encouragement from coaches Rick Jones, left, and Frazier O'Leary. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post