The surprise was a special incentive to get Ballou Senior High students to work harder in school. Whoever graduated in May with the highest grade point average would receive an all-expense-paid, two-week internship in New York with Russ Communications, co-founded by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.
The surprise was cooked up by D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) and D.C. Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck. While attending a fundraising dinner and auction at Southeastern University a month ago, Catania suggested that Peck bid on one of two Simmons internships and donate it to Ballou. Peck put up $4,000 -- out of her own pocket -- and walked away with the prize.
Needless to say, excitement was in the air at Ballou yesterday as D.C. School Superintendent Clifford A. Janey arrived with Catania and Peck to make the announcement.
A PowerPoint presentation about Simmons's business successes set the stage for the announcement, while confirming rumors the juniors and seniors assembled in the auditorium had heard about the hip-hop mogul having something to do with the school.
"This is only for Ballou," Janey told the students, who were all ears after so much trouble at the Southeast Washington school, including the shooting deaths of two students this year.
Janey added, "And it's a good thing . . . and it's going to provide one of you with an opportunity to go to New York City."
Suddenly, mournful whispers filled the auditorium. "Just one?" someone shouted. Some students slumped into their seats, disappointed.
Principal Daniel Hudson looked on with a stern face. He had chastised some of the students earlier for their behavior. "If you are late, if you don't keep quiet -- even in front of visiting dignitaries -- if you don't give them the respect they deserve, then the good things that we are trying to accomplish here are not going to happen," he had said. "Now, some of you are doing your job. But others are just here."
Nevertheless, there was an important message in the students' reactions. Although offering incentives for study was a noble gesture, motivating these students clearly required more than holding out a single carrot -- no matter how tasty it looked to adults.
One student said she was uneasy with what seemed like an attempt to pit students against one another for the sake of a prize. "We should be trying to help each other get ahead, not trying to get ahead of everybody else," said Alyce McKenzie, 17, who wants to be a doctor and specialize in neonatology. "Besides, why should people have to bribe us with clothes and trips to get an education?"
The internship comes with $500 to buy clothes. "The valedictorian will be able to go on a shopping spree at Phat Farm," Janey said, referring to a store created by Simmons.
Kiesha Middleton, 17, who plans to become an accountant, reacted incredulously. "Phat Farm? What about the girls?" she cried out. "I'm not going wear anything with Phat Farm on it."
Asked why she thought some of her classmates had so quickly lost interest in the internship, Kiesha said: "We already know who's going to win. She's had a 4.0 since ninth grade."
That was Renee Bennaugh, 17, who also holds the school record for reading and has read more than 50 books so far this year. Renee said that she was "inspired" by the prospect of winning the internship but that her study habits were not likely to change because of it. "What motivates me is a chance to better myself," she said. "I get that from my mother. She had me at a young age, and she has always wanted me to be better than her."
Donnell Owens, 17, plans to study business communications in college. He, too, was impressed by the internship, which comes with a $2,500 stipend provided by David Wilmont, a Washington lawyer. "I think the internship lets us know that there is something good out there waiting on us if we work hard," he said.
For other students, however, there appears to be a yearning for something good right now -- and not just for one, but for all.
If Peck, Catania and Wilmont can do what they have done to come up with such an amazing reward, imagine what an entire city could do. But that would require viewing education as a team effort, not unlike, say -- baseball?