In the gymnasium of Frank W. Ballou Senior High School in Washington, D.C., on a cold February morning in 1994, the school principal holds an awards ceremony for the honors students, complete with a visit from D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and DJs from the local hip-hop station. Few of the honors students are present, however, because they fear the jeers and condemnation of their fellow students, few of whom will even graduate from high school. Out of the school’s 1,389 students, about half will transfer or drop out, while only 79 students maintain a B average or higher. Those are the honors students being celebrated at this ceremony—they will each receive a $100 check for their hard work. But for most of those students, even the prize money is hardly worth the threat of ridicule and violence.
A Hope in the Unseen begins with a sweeping view of Cedric Jennings’s world, providing ample proof of how difficult it is for an ambitious young man to rise above his circumstances and succeed academically. The teachers and administrators of Ballou High School care about their students, want them to graduate and attend college, and go to great lengths to stress the value of hard work and academic achievement. The monetary prize for above-average grades is the most recent attempt to honor student achievement (and motivate other students), but as Cedric has learned from experience, this can lead to jealousy and violence.
Academics are a low priority in this inner-city neighborhood, where gang activity rules and many of the young men aspire to join local “crews” and earn money dealing drugs and stealing. High academic achievers are at the very bottom rung of the social ladder, like junior Cedric Jennings, one of the students who has achieved a straight A average. When the principal calls his name, Jennings is nowhere to be found. He is hiding out in the chemistry classroom on the other side of the building, his usual sanctuary from the slings and arrows of high school, studying for the SATs.
While the teachers and administrators at Ballou emphasize the value of academics, the instant gratification of a life of crime—especially drug dealing—is much more enticing to many students. Cedric Jennings is an anomaly in this atmosphere; the fact that the story opens with Cedric hiding out in a classroom studying is a way of emphasizing his total separation from his classmates at Ballou
As Cedric studies his vocabulary words, his chemistry teacher, Mr. Taylor, comes in and informs him that he is disappointed in the boy for not attending the ceremony. Cedric agrees, acknowledging that he should not be ashamed of his hard work. Mr. Taylor replies that Cedric is in a long race, and he simply needs to keep running, regardless of what other people have to say from the sidelines. He then asks about Cedric’s application to a special summer program at MIT; Cedric has already mailed the application, of course. He wants nothing more than to spend six weeks of the summer between his junior and senior year preparing for the academic rigor of an Ivy League college, his greatest dream.
Cedric’s conversation with his chemistry teacher provides important information about Cedric and his motivations throughout the story: he is academically advanced for Ballou, and has very different plans for his future than the students around him. This makes him a pariah in school, but Cedric is determined not to feel ashamed of his ambitions, which is why he is upset with himself for avoiding the awards ceremony. He wants to be able to take pride in his successes, even at Ballou.
Mr. Taylor has been helping Cedric with his application—in fact, he has been deeply invested in Cedric’s academic achievement since they first met when Cedric was a ninth grader, and Mr. Taylor immediately recognized his talent and potential. Since that time, Mr. Taylor has offered Cedric extra credit projects, field trips to museums, and academic competitions with his more talented peers. This has helped Cedric overcome the frustrations of being a gifted student at an underserved school, and allowed him to truly aspire to attend an Ivy League college.
While Cedric is ostracized and ridiculed by his classmates and other people his age in the neighborhood, he is clearly a favorite of many teachers, who go out of their way to help him achieve his dreams. This is a significant boost for Cedric, because without the support and extra work his teachers put in during his high school years, he would not have the resources to get into the college of his dreams.
Cedric is also enrolled in Ballou’s advanced math and science program, which is more challenging than the regular academic curriculum at the high school, but falls within the middle range in comparison with schools in better neighborhoods. And while these classes provide Cedric with some refuge, he is still exposed to violence, gang activity, and other negative influences in his high school and the neighborhood in general. He stays at school until after 5 P.M., when he waits for the city bus next to two crack dealers and gang members. There is little danger of Cedric joining in on any of these illegal activities, but he takes it all in, a curious observer of everything around him.
While Ballou is a place of fear and violence for Cedric when he’s among his classmates, it’s a refuge in his advanced classes and with his favorite teachers. He stays late at school in order to do extra work, of course, but also because it is safer within the walls of the school than it is in his neighborhood, where drug dealers and gang members operate openly, and a straight-laced student like Cedric is not welcome, and at risk of becoming a victim of violence himself.
Cedric enters the apartment he shares with his mother, Barbara—it’s small, and there isn’t always heat, but it is one of the nicest places they’ve lived. Cedric has his own room, complete with his own color television (that his mother finally paid off, at the exorbitant price of $1,500, after three years). Not long after he gets in, Cedric’s mother arrives home from her job at the Department of Agriculture. She asks Cedric to make dinner, and he quickly cooks two plates of beef hash, and they sit down to dinner together. Although they usually sit down in front of separate televisions to eat, tonight they have a chance to catch up with each other.
There is no more important figure in Cedric’s life than his mother, Barbara. She works long hours for little pay, but still manages to provide for her son, allowing him to focus all of his attention on his future and academic success. Cedric’s $1,500 television is a symbol of Barbara’s constant sacrifice for her son; the fact that he cooks and cleans for his mother suggests that he appreciates all she does for him, and desires to support her in some way as well.
Cedric expresses his fear that he will not be accepted to the MIT summer program, and Barbara tells him to pray about it, and to have faith in himself. Barbara’s faith in her son is unwavering. Cedric washes and dries the dishes, listening to the sounds of gunshots in the distance. He and his mother do not talk much about the violence in their neighborhood, but Cedric feels it around him, and uses it as “something to push against” in his life. As he makes his way back to his bedroom for the night, his mother offers him some advice: the race is not for the swift, but for who can endure it. Cedric agrees, but jokes that he still wouldn’t mind being swift, just for once, and have a break from all of the enduring.
This conversation between Cedric and his mother reveals their basic motivations in life: Barbara combats her struggles with faith and prayer, while Cedric takes inspiration from the poverty and violence around him, as something to escape from. As part of her advice, Barbara compares Cedric’s academic work to a race, which is a metaphor that is repeated various times in the story. This engages Cedric’s strong spirit of competition yet still places it in a biblical context.
While Cedric sits in his Advanced Physics class, a Code Blue is announced on the speakers, meaning that students must stay in their classrooms, as there is a disruption in the hallway. Earlier in the morning, there was a trash fire in a downstairs bathroom, and two fights in the hallways. The day had an atmosphere of anarchy, but Cedric was concerned with other things, like making sure that his teachers assigned him the grades he earned. He went to complain about a B in his computer science class, and although the assistant principal agreed to look into it, when Cedric left, the man described him to the principal as “nothing but trouble,” and too proud for his own good.
Cedric’s hard work and ambition are contrasted with the dismal conditions at his school, where disruptions are the norm, and learning is sparse, even in the advanced-level classes. Regardless, Cedric works away and cares about every grade, including a B that he considers unjust. The response from the assistant principal reveals that not all of the Ballou staff are supportive of Cedric’s ambition and—in this case—see it as pride and haughtiness.
While Cedric has every reason to be proud of his accomplishments, like his 4.02 grade point average, there is a strong force at work to pull the exceptional students back down, shaming them for their hard work and intellect, and for not fitting in with the rest of the students. In his computer science class, Cedric breezes through his worksheet until he realizes that there is a girl copying from him, and he yells at her for it. His teacher pulls him out of class and scolds him for yelling at his classmate, arguing that he needs to get along better with others. Cedric thinks about this later, and wonders how he can get along with students who hate him—or who hate what he represents, at the very least.
For all of his ambition and hard work, Cedric will soon find that he has neglected some of the finer social skills. At Ballou, he feels that he has little reason to make friends or maintain any sort of support network with his fellow students. To many of the students, and even some staff, this self-imposed isolation is grating, as it suggests that he thinks he is better than those around him. None of this matters to Cedric at this point, however, because he is singularly focused on forging his path out of Ballou.
As he walks to the cafeteria, Cedric passes by classmates who call him names, like “the amazing nerdboy.” A popular boy named Phillip Atkins begins to taunt him, and as Cedric pushes past, Phillip pretends to start a fight. They stare each other down until Phillip walks away. Cedric finds his friend LaTisha Williams—at five feet, two inches, and 250 pounds, she is a large girl, which makes her an outcast at Ballou, just like Cedric. LaTisha jokes with Cedric and tells the story of how he was trying to flirt with a pretty girl in their class. She notes that he isn’t “a woman’s man,” and Cedric is too annoyed to respond. He worries that she is right, that he is not masculine enough to attract women, though he suspects it is more about his academic success than anything else.
As much as Cedric tries to hide from his classmates, there are times when he is the target of bullying and even violence. This leads him to spend time with another unpopular student, LaTisha. They really have little in common except for their marginalization within the school, and despite their friendship, LaTisha also makes fun of Cedric. She points out what she considers his lack of attractiveness, and he simply accepts that evaluation of his masculinity, based on what he sees around him.
At the end of the school day, Cedric and LaTisha leave together to walk to the bus stop. It is 3:30 P.M., earlier than Cedric usually leaves, and there are more people around than he is used to. At the bus stop, one boy pulls out a gun and points it at another boy’s head. Cedric backs away and flinches at the sight of the gun, but the moment is over quickly, as the boy with the gun runs across the street, and the kids at the bus stop speculate about whether or not the gun was even real. This reminds Cedric of the previous year’s awards ceremony when, after picking up his $100 check, he was accosted by a boy with a gun. Cedric fled to the bathroom, and never saw the boy again or told anyone about it. In this moment, he remembers that fear, and suddenly remembers why he didn’t want to attend the awards ceremony this year.
This final scene of the first chapter reinforces the idea that the threat of violence permeates Cedric’s world, regardless of what he does to avoid being a part of it. These moments are scary but fleeting, and Cedric does manage to insulate himself from actual violence. It is also interesting to note that while earlier in the chapter, Cedric was scolding himself for being too ashamed to attend the awards ceremony; it is clear at the end of the chapter, however, that it was not shame that kept him from accepting his award and money, but fear of violent retaliation.