On June 9, 1980, amidst the band music and the applause, 473 young men and women strode in turn to the front of the D.C. National Guard Armory to receive their diplomas from H.D. Woodson High School.
They wore red, black and green to symbolize the blood, the skin and the land of black people -- colors chosen when the school in far Northeast Washington opened in 1972. When the ceremony was over, they carried their diplomas--and their dreams--out into the bright sunlight.
But these Woodson Warriors, children of the middle class and children of poverty who made up the first class graduated into the 1980s, were about to discover a world in many ways as bleak as that encountered by any previous graduating class.
This is a progress report on the dreams of youth: a report filled not only with defeats, large and small, but also with some victories and some hopes of success.
The class of 1980 has had to make the difficult adjustments faced by all American teen-agers--starting new jobs, leaving home, entering college or hitting the streets.
But many other problems faced by the Woodson youth are the adjustments of the black and the poor in the nation's capital, where unemployment for black youth is estimated at more than 40 percent -- the highest in the country.
Many Woodson graduates have encountered hard times. Many have dropped out of college because of money problems or poor grades. Some have foundered in a succession of low-paying jobs, while others have lost jobs or found no jobs at all.
For some, the dreams of youth have already been shattered. Others are fading quickly, or at least being deferred, even for some of Woodson's best and brightest:
* Vincent A. Hill II, president of the 1980 senior class and also named "Most Likely to Succeed," wanted a career in fashion design. He has been unemployed for most of the year, however, and has suffered what he calls "a real blow" of having doors closed in his face and career plans postponed.
* Alphonso K. Moses ranked in the top 10 percent of the Woodson class academically, and, a letterman in three sports, was named the Warriors' best athlete. A football scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, often called the black Harvard of the South, was to be his ticket to success. But the scholarship never came through. Moses went to Morehouse anyway and is still a student there. But, he said, because of the financial and academic hardships, his freshman year was the bleakest year of his young life.
* James Gardner worked as a part-time janitor during high school, and has been looking for work since graduation. He has lost three jobs and is now unemployed. "I get angry, but there ain't nothing I can do about it," he said. "I am just one in the crowd looking for the job."
* Charlene Martin graduated from Woodson with skills in typing, operating office machines and food service training. But pregnancy sidetracked her, and she has spent much of the past 18 months on welfare.
* Charity Tyler for 10 years had hopes of becoming a neurosurgeon and had lined up $5,600 in financial aid to attend Mount Ida Junior College in Massachusetts. She dropped out after one year, however, and now works at a parking garage in Rosslyn.
Yet, for other Woodson youths, the dreams are unchanged. The decent jobs, the good grades, the promising careers seem easier to find:
* Harold L. Hickson was accepted at highly competitive Columbia University in New York City and is maintaining a B-plus average there. He declares himself convinced of a bright future as a lawyer.
* Harry White Jr. is well on his way to a career as an audio engineer, thanks to a four year Frederick Douglass scholarship at American University. White also has part-time jobs as a machine-operator at IBM and as a marketing intern at Arista records, and earns $200 a week.
Looking back now, many of more than 20 Woodson graduates interviewed talk with some regret -- regret that they didn't work harder, didn't take the right courses, or didn't get better guidance about how to face a tough future.
How well were these youth of Woodson High prepared for the real world they would face after graduation?
In standardized achievement tests administered in 11th grade, Woodson students generally show only 9th or 10th grade ability and rank between the 25th and 30th percentiles nationally. This means that between 70 and 75 percent of those tested nationally performed better on the test than Woodson students -- and Woodson's results are slightly above average for a D.C. public high school.
Woodson High alone, it should be pointed out, can neither be blamed for the students' failures nor credited with their successes without considering many other factors--the national economy, the students' individual backgrounds, and luck.
Anthony Robinson, now a sophomore communications major at Northeastern University, summed up the role of Woodson High in his successes and setbacks: "I have my theory about public school -- students get out of them what they want to get out of them."
The 1980 Woodson Warriors are trying to gain a toehold in life at a time when the economy is lagging and the federal government is cutting programs that affect virtually all young people:
* Job training programs have been gutted. Five years ago, the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) provided funds to train up to 6,000 impoverished D.C. youths each year. Now it provides enough money to train 320.
* The Reagan administration has proposed cuts in federal tuition aid programs that have been critical to many of the Woodson graduates who made it to college.
* The federal job market, which city job counselors say has provided thousands of entry-level jobs to young blacks in Washington, has shrunk dramatically.
* Finally, there is a growing concern that the nation is no longer as committed as it once was to affirmative action: "I went to college in the 1960s," said Woodson guidance chief Saxon Graham."We were the sit-down generation and I think we paved the way for the kids of the 1970s. We opened some doors. But I wonder if those doors have closed for the kids of the 1980s?"
Despite some setbacks and regrets, many of Woodson's youth are showing a resilience that Woodson principal James W. Curry likes to call "the Woodson Way." He describes it as a spirit of hope and dedication in the face of the overwhelming odds that black teen-agers face in the world outside the high school classroom. This positive spirit of Woodson, he said, is rarely understood by outsiders who stereotype black schools as breeding grounds of defeat.
On a recent schoolday, Curry bounds into his office wearing sneakers, blue jeans, a yellow Woodson T-shirt, a green Woodson warmup jacket, and a broad smile.
It is "Spirit Week" before the Woodson Homecoming and the informal attire he wears is part of the custom. Spirit week is just one of many weapons, as Curry sees it, in the school's battle to motivate and educate.
"We have a tremendous spirit at Woodson High. We call it the Woodson Way. We can't explain it, it's just something we feel," he said.
Woodson High School is named for the late Howard D. Woodson, a black engineer and civic leader who designed government buildings throughout the country and later championed progressive causes in the black community.
It is an eight-story concrete high-rise that looms over a neighborhood of neat brick homes, aging apartment buildings and several tough housing projects. Wedged into a corner of the District and cut off by the Anacostia River, its residents have sometimes called the neighborhood the city's "forgotten section."
Woodson High opened in 1972 at 55th and Eads streets NE and was described as the first high-rise high school in the country. It brought a new look, new equipment, specially recruited new teachers. But most importantly, it brought new hope for a neighborhood that includes many middle-class families but also has some of the city's deepest poverty. Half the students at Woodson qualify for federally subsidized lunches.
Curry, 57, Woodson's first and only principal, grew up poor in Marion, Ala., where, he said, "the white kids rode the bus while the black kids walked." While Curry sees a different America today, he also sees his young graduates facing some of the same deprivation.
"They talk about inalienable rights and the pursuit of happiness and all this," he said. "But it is not really there for these kids. They have to fight every step of the way."
"The whole welfare cycle is here" for many families in far Northeast, Curry said. It "robs people of their initiative," leaving them with "almost like a quasi-slave mentality of hopelessness."
"But we overcome it," he added. "We say that all kids are capable of learning. All kids have some kind of talent."
To find that talent and develop it, the school has 81 teachers and five guidance counselors. (It used to be 91 teachers and eight counselors before cutbacks, Curry said.) Woodson offers a wide range of academic courses from the remedial to the advanced, and scores of vocational and business courses, plus 14 varsity sports, six choirs and bands and numerous clubs.
Curry calls these nonacademic offerings "holders" -- programs that will hold a student's interest in school "so a kid can find something here that he can identify with." Those holders, he said, plus school spirit, are crucial to many students' future success.
Scattered across the country and across the spectrum of jobs and ambitions, the Woodson Warriors talk about their baptism in the post-high school world:
Harold Hickson, the Columbia sophomore, strode into Curry's office recently, wearing a beige three-piece suit, polished brown wingtips and a glow of success. Fresh from Columbia, where he has a B-plus average, Hickson was dispatched to his alma mater to recruit Woodson students for the Ivy League school.
Hickson, 19, was one of the students to benefit from Woodson's "holders" -- stage band, marching band, concert band, photo club, language clubs, plus the school's advanced college-oriented humanities program. With all this, Hickson believes, Woodson gave him a solid, broad education.
"The fact that I am not only able to get into Columbia, but excel, shows you it Woodson has the quality of education that can really prepare you for college." He feels it has also given him the basic tools he'll need to eventually become a successful lawyer.
For Alphonso Moses, Woodson's football, basketball and track star, a bright future suddenly turned cloudy after he arrived at Morehouse College. He never received the scholarship he was counting on to pay at least half the $5,000-plus yearly costs. "I never found out why," he said. "They just said my papers didn't go through."
Strapped for money, Moses, 19, couldn't afford campus housing. He stayed in the dormitory room of a friend, then a dorm basement, then a friend's place off campus. "I was really down. My attitude was very bleak," Moses said.
His pride was injured, his prospects, gloomy. He was ready to drop out, he said. But he didn't because his friends encouraged him to stay and his parents, both employes at the Treasury Department, scraped together the money to keep him in school.
In addition to his money troubles, Moses, a topnotch student at Woodson, got low grades at Morehouse, and it seemed, he said, that his Woodson education was inferior.
"Most of the kids down here have money. Rich black kids, and it seems almost that they had a better education. Most of them went to private schools," he said in a telephone interview. Moses is a C student at Morehouse, "But I think I can do better," he said. "Many other students had everything handed to them on a silver platter, and I had to try harder."
Leaving Woodson was also deeply unsettling for Vincent Hill, who had been something of a big man on campus at Woodson -- honored by his classmates as the most likely to succeed, the most dignified, the best personality, the class president.
But after graduation, he said, he became just another face in the crowd, another frustrated job applicant. He had planned to gain some work experience in fashion or in retailing, and then go on to college to pursue a fashion career.
But it didn't work out. He said he spent the last year living at home, knocking on doors and filling out job applications at department stores, specialty shops and even small tailor shops -- in vain.
"I had a storybook image of the world," said Hill. "Then to find out the world was not all sugar-coated like that, it has really been a shock . . . like somebody turned me around and made me dizzy, because jobs were very hard to come by."
Hill, 19, is living with his mother in Mount Pleasant, and hopes to attend a fashion school in New York or Los Angeles next year, trying to make up for a year he says was wasted.
Ever since she was about eight years old, Charity Tyler said, she told her parents, grandparents and anyone who would listen that she was going to be a doctor. But it took her only one year after Woodson, she said, to realize it was a futile dream.
Tyler, who received mostly Bs at Woodson, said she learned quickly at Mount Ida Junior College that she lacked the dedication to handle college work, let alone medical school.
At first, she said, she was driven. "I was afraid of being another kid on the block who went away to school for a year and never went back," she said. But after much anxiety, she decided to drop out. She came back home to Southeast Washington where she found things even tougher.
"I didn't realize how hard it was till I got out here and started looking for jobs," she said. Prospects brightened when she was accepted for a CETA job that would have paid her while she trained as a construction worker, she said.
But that hope was quickly dashed when CETA officials told her they didn't know whether trainees would be paid, she said. She dropped out and was jobless for several months until she was hired as a cashier at a parking garage.
Now she wants to go to an automotive training school. "I know I won't be at Colonial Parking the rest of my life," she said. "I'm not looking for five houses or six cars. I just want something secure."
Security has been unattainable for James A. Gardner, 21, who has lost three jobs and a lot of hope since leaving Woodson. He has been on the fringe of the job market, landing low-paying jobs and losing them quickly, often for reasons that appear beyond his control.
First, Gardner said, he found a $4.50-an-hour job painting houses for a contractor in Seat Pleasant. But the boss moved to Ohio, offering jobs there to several older workers, but not to Gardner.
Then, he got a $3.90-an-hour job as an orderly at Greater Southeast Community Hospital, but quit after only two months, he said, because he got transferred to the midnight shift and his 1972 Galaxie car broke down.
Jobless and frustrated for several months, Gardner landed a job mixing chemicals at a factory in Northeast Washington. But the firm encountered financial difficulty and just before Thanksgiving, he said, he was laid off. "Last one hired and first one fired," Gardner said.
Gardner said he moved out of his mother's home seven years ago and now shares an apartment with his sister in Southeast. He said he hunts for jobs about three days a week, but is getting discouraged.
"I get angry" about being unemployed, Gardner said. "But there ain't nothing I can do about it. I am just one in the crowd." He said he wishes now he had gotten into a CETA job-training program or a secure government job. But he said both avenues now appear closed.
"Things are tougher than I expected," he said. "Working for companies that move away or go bankrupt."
Gardner said he has friends who've already gone to jail, but adds he does not intend to join them. "I know I just gotta get on up and get on out there and keep trying," he said.
Charlene E. Martin, 19, has also been jobless since graduation, largely because she was sidetracked by pregancy in her senior year at Woodson. She enjoys being a mother to her 14-month-old son, DeShawn, she said, but wishes now she had waited a while for motherhood.
She has received welfare for much of the 18 months since she left high school, she said, and still lives with her family in the Lincoln Heights housing project in Northeast.
Martin's life since Woodson has included a series of missed chances, she said: a civil service test she missed because of illness, a Job Corps training program she quit because she had no day care for her baby, college plans that she has scrapped because of the baby, and many job openings that she says she always seems to apply for a day -- or an hour -- too late.
"I'll be starting a new job on Monday," she said in a recent interview. A few weeks later she reported the job never materialized.
Curry stands near the elevators in a bustling hallway at Woodson, watching students change classes and saying that he believes the deck is stacked against many young people who will graduate from his school.
"There are enemies out there for many of these people," he said. "The whole world is an enemy. There is systematic deprivation. Systematic denial."
Later, after he is told by a reporter about the twists and turns of the class of 1980, Curry said, "On one hand, we do have a lot of youngsters who are making it."
But on the other hand, he added, "a lot of these kids are being denied the upward mobility that they've been promised in America . . . So what happens with many of these kids? I see them hanging out on the street corner and losing hope and dying, really, in a way. You can see it readily."
He is nonetheless encouraged, he said, to hear about youngsters retaining their optimism and a few even talking about the Woodson Way. "You have to overcome," he said, "you have to say there is hope. Once hope is lost, what's the use?"