Helaine Schupack has been waiting for Cedric Jennings for almost 20 minutes when he shows up at her office for their first meeting. Her tutoring services cost $40 per hour, but are worth the money as far as Donald Kolb is concerned. Years earlier, she had tutored Kolb’s son, who went on to study at the University of California, Berkeley, and work for Citibank. Kolb has asked her to meet with Cedric Jennings, because he needs a lot of help staying afloat at Brown. When he arrives, Helaine asks him a number of questions to get an idea of any possible learning disabilities, but finds none. She then helps him with some of his writing work—two short essays for his English and education courses, both of which break down her professional detachment from him.
The introduction of Helaine, Cedric’s tutor, highlights the ways in which colleges can sometimes fail students who need help the most. Cedric has had to rely on the skills he developed at Ballou, which were more than enough to succeed at an underperforming school, but are inadequate for his college career at an Ivy League school. With limited services available to help him learn how to learn, Cedric has been sent to an outside tutor. This supports the author’s overall argument that affirmative action is only effective when paired with robust support systems in college.
In his education essay, Cedric writes about his family and how important his academic success has been to his mother, who lost her opportunity to access higher education when she had her daughter at a young age. He also discusses his father’s past, as both a college graduate and a convict. She is taken aback by his desire to succeed, suspecting that everything in his life is riding on his outcomes here at Brown. Helaine knows that at this point, Cedric does not have the kind of dispassionate analytical writing style that Brown expects from its students, but she also suspects that professors will provide him with a lot of leeway based on the inspirational content of his writings—she argues that to “mark him down would be to mark him down as a person,” and that will work in his favor overall.
Despite the many gaps in his academic preparation, Cedric’s compelling narrative and his ability to communicate his values to others has been central to his success up to this point. It has brought him a sense of triumph over his classmates in his graduation speech, it was likely an important element in his Brown application, and now it has captured the heart of his tutor, who is usually very professionally detached from her clients. However, there is a limit to how much value this can offer Cedric over time, as he will need to develop more concrete skills, as well.
The conflict between Rob and Cedric continues, as they each attempt to stand their ground regarding music and television use in their rooms. Cedric comes in and turns on his television to watch one of the many popular talk shows that fill the airwaves in the 1990s; Rob asks him to turn down the volume, but when he leaves to use the bathroom, Cedric takes the opportunity to turn the volume back up again. The two boys begin to wage a war of sound on one another, until the walls begin to shake. Cedric speaks with one of the peer counselors in her unit and they work out a plan for a temporary solution, which involves a pair of $100 earphones for Rob, so that he can study while Cedric watches television.
One of the major difficulties between the roommates is based on Cedric’s television viewing, which once again points to differences in social class. For Cedric, television was a way to escape the poverty and violence around him, and is now connected to a familiar sense of comfort. Rob’s family, on the other hand, had the means to find more enriching activities that relegated television to a minor activity. Once again, their different cultural practices make living together difficult.
Cedric and Zayn go to the mall outside of town, and on their way there, they talk a little about their childhoods. Zayn tells Cedric about the time when he lived in Manhattan with his parents, who were just beginning to come out of hiding. They were suspected of being involved in the robbery of an armored truck, and Zayn’s mother spent a year in jail without being charged for the crime. In the meantime, Zayd went to a public school in Harlem, where he was one of the only white children, and was beaten up by a bully in his class. Cedric wonders how it is possible that Zayd was treated so badly by black children but does not feel any anger towards black people in general now; Zayd responds that he cannot hate everyone for the misdeeds of a few.
This conversation between Zayd and Cedric helps to put Zayd’s interest in black culture into context, as he has lived in Harlem. Yet Cedric is surprised that Zayd has not let some isolated incidents with black children determine his feelings towards black people in general. This, however, is one element of being open-minded—knowing that one person, or even a few, do not represent every member of their race. This also helps to give Zayd depth as a friend, as he shares some elements of his life with Cedric, prompting Cedric to do the same.
Zayd and Cedric come to the conclusion that there are bad people of every race, and Cedric mentions Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court Justice that he met while in high school. He first notes only that Justice Thomas “seems to be upset at a whole lot of people,” and later reveals that he actually met the man. Zayd and Cedric talk about what a strange character the man is, and the fact that he is married to a white woman. Zayd loves having these conversations with Cedric, who is both authentic in his feelings and convinced of the distinctions between right and wrong. Zayd also likes the feeling that he has earned Cedric’s friendship, which makes it feel that much more valuable.
Cedric’s life and search for identity have intersected with another national controversy—this time it is the accusations of sexual harassment that have been brought against Clarence Thomas. As the first black man on the Supreme Court, he is a controversial figure, and some people believe that the accusations are racially motivated. Cedric and Zayd have little concrete information about the case, but use it to find common ground and understand more about each others’ values and beliefs.
Cedric has confided in Zayd about his background, including his father’s incarceration, and while many of their classmates long to know more about Cedric, Zayd keeps it between the two of them. Zayd reciprocates, telling Cedric the stories of his adventures, allowing his quiet friend to live vicariously through him. He tells Cedric about the two girls he’s seeing back home, and how one of them wants to be exclusive, but he has a plan to see both of them in secret. Cedric advises him to choose one and stick by his choice, because trust is something that he must practice, and he is developing a bad habit of betraying trust. Zayd changes the subject, and the two discuss their Thanksgiving plans—Zayd will be back in Chicago with his family, while Cedric will be in Boston with Dr. Korb and his family.
While they have bonded over their musical tastes, Cedric and Zayd have very little in common beyond that. The information they share is drastically different—while Cedric has a complex history that informs his experiences at Brown, Zayd’s life seems to be geared towards fun and adventure, with little to hold him back. In their conversation about Zayd’s hometown girlfriends, Cedric is able to offer profound advice that echoes Barbara’s advice to him before he left home, demonstrating how deeply ingrained those lessons have become for Cedric.
At Dr. Korb’s stately Boston home, Cedric is greeted by more than twenty people who are excited to meet him—he is the guest of honor at this year’s Thanksgiving meal. Korb keeps up with Cedric as much as possible, and in addition to the monthly $200 check, he calls Cedric regularly and sends him notes. They have only met in person once before, when Cedric was at MIT for the summer, and so this is the second time they have met face to face. Korb talks about the sacrifices that Cedric’s mother has made for him throughout her life, especially when he was young and she went on welfare in order to stay home and care for him.
Cedric’s relationship with Dr. Korb is solidified by this Thanksgiving visit, as Cedric is welcomed into the extended family. It is slightly overwhelming for Cedric to be the center of attention, but it is also an important opportunity for him to learn how to interact with people of different classes. Dr. Korb is very supportive of Barbara as well, reiterating the wisdom of staying at home with Cedric during his early years.
After Dr. Korb makes a toast to their special guest, he then encourages Cedric to call Barbara, who reminds him to watch what others around him are doing and simply imitate them. He does just that when he is seated at the table, and after determining that the soup spoon is the large one, he uses it to try the pumpkin soup. When the young people around him ask him about his major, he tells them that he is considering triple majoring in math, computer science, and education, which impresses them all. He feels like an imposter, and has trouble eating because of the knot in his stomach. He is asked over and over if he has had enough to eat, which makes him feel even more uncomfortable.
While everyone is very excited to meet Cedric, he is still relatively uncomfortable socializing with this class of people—he feels that he still doesn’t understand many of their behaviors, and has to work very hard to be as polite as possible. The conversation about academics taps into Cedric’s fear of failure, despite the fact that these people know nothing else about him and only want to see him succeed.
Cedric feels slightly more comfortable after dinner and in conversation with Dr. Korb, who asks about his issues with Rob, how things are going with his tutor Helaine, and how he did on a particular paper he was worried about. He has gained Cedric’s confidence, but then when Korb asks him about the suits he purchased for the young man, Cedric has to lie, not wanting him to know that he returned them almost immediately. As the evening is winding down, Cedric overhears a conversation between Dr. Korb and some other guests, in which Korb describes religious faith as egotism, noting that while Cedric’s faith as admirable, it will not get him where he needs to go, and he must ultimately rely on reason to find his place in the world.
Dr. Korb’s genuine interest in Cedric has nearly chipped away at the boy’s armor, and at this point Cedric has confided in his benefactor more than his own mother. Nonetheless, Dr. Korb’s stance on religion—a conversation not necessarily meant for Cedric’s ears—coincides with Cedric’s increasing doubts about the role of the church in his adult life. This will give Cedric more to think about in terms of the contrast between the unyielding faith that helped bring him to Brown, and the need to examine the world with reason and rationality.
When it is time to go, Dr. Korb gives Cedric a ride to Cambridge, where he will be visiting some friends from his MIT program who are now studying at Harvard. He spends more than a half hour searching for Thayer Hall, and begins to feel anxious—he is spending the night with his friends Mark and Belinda McIntosh, but at the moment, he also has begun to feel homesick after so much time around white people, and is eager to find refuge in the company of other black people. He finds the dorm and is welcomed in by his friends.
This Thanksgiving experience has given Cedric a lot to think about, and while he appreciates the hospitality of Dr. Korb and his family, he longs for the comfort of his own people. It is interesting to note that at Brown, Cedric resists the temptation to surround himself with other black students, but this scene makes it clear that he needs that sense of familiarity and community.
Back at Brown, Professor Tom James is holding office hours to meet with students and discuss final papers and projects. First he meets with Franklin Cruz, a star student who has already learned to embrace his identity as a Latino student, but also to intellectualize it, using it like a coat that he can put on and take off when necessary. He is learning skills that will make him comfortable among the white professionals he will work with after graduating, but spending free time with other Latinos on campus lessens his guilt about assimilating so thoroughly into a white culture. James compares this process to the history of Jewish students at Yale during the 1920s and 30s, who had to drop some of the more orthodox aspects of their religious practices in order to fit in on campus.
The story changes perspective for this scene, giving some insight into a Brown professor’s relationship with his students. Professor James studies education, and therefore has a good deal of experience with the academic structures that help minority students achieve their goals. James seems to support assimilation as the best strategy for advancing in college and afterwards—he is impressed by how much his Latino student is able to transition between two different worlds, “removing” his ethnicity in order to fit in with those around him.
Just as James is getting ready to leave, Cedric knocks on his door and wants to talk. He would like to take James’s fieldwork course in the spring, where he will be able to observe a school in Providence. James approves his plan, and then asks how things are going overall for Cedric. As Cedric talks, James thinks about how different this student is from Franklin Cruz—Cedric is still deeply entrenched in his own identity, and cannot get the kind of intellectual distance from it that would help him succeed at Brown. As Cedric leaves, James sends him along with a few words of encouragement, and spends the rest of the day wondering what else he could have said to make things better.
Importantly, James does not see the variety of ways that students of color can maintain a sense of racial identity without resorting to complete assimilation, but this was a common assumption in the 1990s. Cedric is still looking for a balance between losing his sense of self and being labeled a “poor black student” for the entirety of his college career.