When Velma Wright saw her son Maurice walk across the stage of the D.C. Armory last week, carrying his Eastern High School diploma in his hand, she "felt like my whole heart could just burst." And Velma Wright cried.
Maurice -- tall, broad-shouldered and soft-spoken -- is the very first of the Wrights to graduate from high school. "In my family, none of my brothers and sisters graduated from high school. They all lost interest in school," explained Mrs. Wright, who took the day off from her job at the Navy department to attend the ceremony. She herself had dropped out of school as a teen-ager, and years later earned her high school equivalency diploma.
Maurice Wright was one of over 5,000 teen-agers who graducated from D.C. high schools last week. Some completed the rite of passage in the red velvet-decorated Kennedy Center concert hall, others beneath the stained glass windows of the Washington Cathedral. Some received their diplomas in the staid, spacious setting of Constitution Hall and still others in the bleacher-bordered D.C. armory or in crowded school auditoriums.
Laced throughout the graduations were hundreds of personal and family success stories each a statement about public education in the District of Columbia. Each of these stories is the kind that is so common, yet so often untold. But each is another detail in the portrait of life in Washington today.
Ironically, for many of these families, the hotly debated question of the quality of public education in the District was not a prime issue.
"For people like me, who can't afford to send their children to private schools, the only thing for us is the public schools," said Lewis Randolph, a Southeast resident who has watched six children graduate from the public schools. His son Derrick graduated from H.D. Woodson High School Wednesday.
"It's not a question of whether or not the education they got was good. It's the only thing we have," Randolph said.
For Randolph and the Wrights, the public school system worked.
"I was so proud today," Mrs. Wright said as she searched for her son in the crowd of blue-robed graduates outside the D.C. Armory last Wednesday. "When I think of all the years we struggled this far, with all the problems that come up in a home where there's only one parent . . ."
The Wrights live on Potomac Avenue SE, in a neighborhood where, Mrs. Wright said, "right in front of the house I've seen them smoke [marijuana] and make their transaction . . . I felt my son had really won a battle by graduating from high school. So many things could have turned him around."
Mrs. Wright attributes her son's success to the fact that the family goes to church regularly and that she always "considered myself his friend as well as his mother."
Maurice said he intends to enlist and pursue his education through the military.
Each of the graduations has its own flavor. Eastern's was a relaxed, free-wheeling affair, almost like a family outing with lots of children running around in the armory. Family members munched on potato chips and sipped soda during the ceremony.
Like many Eastern graduates, Maurice says he knows his school has a reputation in the city for drug and academic performance. Like many other students, he says he resents that.
"The teachers will give you a good education if you want it. I sure enough got one."
Like Maurice, Renee Parker, a Roosevelt graduate, found it a particular struggle to get through high school. Seventeen-year-old Renee had to do it while raising her infant daughter.
"I don't really know how I did it. It was hard with the baby. I had to find a babysitter, then find a way to pay the babysitter.In the morning, I had to get the baby up, put on her clothes, then take her over to the babysitter."
Renee, who lives with her father and sister, spent two months out of school in her senior year because she could not find a babysitter she could afford. She began failing in school. Her teachers told her she'd have to take some required courses again in night school, or she would not graduate.
By the third quarter of her senior year, she had brought her average up from straight F's to B's and C's.
"My family, I know, felt I wasn't going to make it. I think they thought maybe I'd return to high school later, or that I'd be a dropout. But this was something I wanted to do and when I'm determined to do something, I'll do it."
"It was just beautiful to see her walk across that stage," said Berrita Parker, Renee's older sister, at the graduation. "We come from a very traditional family. Our family all graduated from high school. It's something we've come to expect."
Renee starts work Monday as a file clerk in Crystal City. The job may last only through the summer, though.
Renee says she would like to go to college eventually, or to take the civil service exam. "I'm not going to stop trying. I'm going to keep on going."
Calvin Huff, another Roosevelt graduate, plays the piano and sounds a lot like Stevie Wonder when he sings. He wrote a song about leaving high school, called "Goodbye Roosevelt," which he performed at the Kennedy Center graduation ceremony.
"It's time that we find our stand as teachers, preachers, doctors, lawyers..
You can't stop us now. We are Rough Riders/Goodbye Roosevelt," he sang. Calvin got two standing ovations from his classmates and others in the graduation audience.
Two of every three D.C. public school graduates go on to college, according to board of education officials. This year, Calvin will be among them. Like most, Calvin is going to the University of the District of Columbia.
He taught himself to play the piano, but didn't think he was college material when he came to Roosevelt. But one of the music teachers there, recognizing his obvious talent, encouraged Calvin to go on to college.
Calvin says if he does well at UDC, then he may attempt to go to Harvard University.
"Everybody says UDC is not that good. But I feel it's going to be as good as Howard some day," said Huff, whose tall husky build makes him easily mistaken for a member of the school's football team. Instead of athletics, Calvin has devoted most of his time to singing in a community gospel choir.
Calvin was one of several Roosevelt graduates who performed at the ceremony, which seemed at times more like a showcase for student vocalists and musicians than a graduation. The ceremony came complete with Kennedy Center ushers, who made sure there was order in the audience.
Calvin's mother, Anna B. Waller, who adopted him when he was a baby, said Calvin, with characteristic modesty, didn't tell her he was performing at the graduation.
Calvin says he will study jazz at UDC and wants to become a professional composer. For the time being, he'll work as a Xerox operator at the Pentagon.
For Joseph Johnson, a shoemaker, the graduation of his third and youngest son from Spingarn High School with several awards and an athletic scholarship to college was the culminnation of the standards he has demanded of this sons and himself over the years.
"Coming from a family of dropouts, I wanted to break that cycle," Johnson said with tears in his eyes as he eyed the leather-covered diploma his son Vincent clutched in his hand.
When Johnson talks about his family he likes to use the term "upward mobility."
Johnson began his career "carrying around a shoe shine box" in his native Charlotte, N.c. nOw he owns his own shoe repair shop in Alexandria.
Over the years, the family left a two-bedroom apartment at 13th and C Streets NE, where "the rats would come in throught the floor," and ended up in a five-bedroom split-level home in Alexandria. Vincent, a popular football player, was allowed to continue going to D.C. schools. The Johnsons said they were satisfied with the education their son received. Vincent will be attending Virginia Tech next fall, majoring in communications.
"Sure, [the public schools] can be improved, but I feel that I have been prepared to do the work in any college in the country," Vincent said. "D.C. public school education has been getting a bum rap. People say the teachers don't teach and the students don't learn. But these people are only talking to the ones who don't want to learn."
Shirell Copeland attended four different high schools before she finally made it from one -- Anacostia in Southeast. All the while she was being shifted from one foster home to another.
For Shirell, who was first placed in foster care at age 7 because of child neglect, graduating from high school meant, "I can go out and do things on my own now. I don't have to depend on anybody else."
Next September, she will attend Wilberforce University in Ohio and major in pre-law. On Friday evening, as she hugged her friends, her sister and her cousins after graduation at Washington Cathedral, the days she thought she would never graduate from high school, she said seemed far away.
"It was hard to come to school smiling because there were always so many problems at home," she said.
But at Anacostia, she says, she found, "the teachers really cared about you and the students cared."
Shirell, 19, has a basic educational opportunity grant to go to college. She wants to be a lawyer and come back to practice in the district and reunite her family -- all eight children.
"I know if I make it," she said, "my family will make it."