One morning, Cedric wakes with a plan: he puts on a pair of baggy black pants, a white polo shirt, and white Nikes, along with a black leather jacket and cap. He strolls into Ballou High School and is immediately scolded by the principal for wearing a hat, which is against the rules. Another student laughs with him, recognizing Cedric’s attempt to look cool, and reminds him that he is fine just the way he is. After homeroom, Cedric puts the jacket and hat in his locker, and realizes that he feels relieved not to be wearing them anymore.
Despite his conviction that he does not belong in the Ballou community, Cedric is not immune to the desire to look cool, even for just a few moments. Like many teens, he is trying on different identities, possibly due to his experience at MIT, where he recognized how racially “authentic” he appeared to other black students. He quickly finds, however, that this is not his style.
In his college prep class that afternoon, Cedric notices that has classmates are surprisingly silent, even the ones he considers tough. He realizes the cruelty of the class, where students must look through college admissions guides and fill out applications, despite the fact that few of them will ever go off to college. After his summer at MIT, Cedric is reconsidering his lofty ambitions. He thinks about Reverend Keels, who tutors students wanting higher SAT scores, and who made Cedric feel bad about his 910 score. He had informed Cedric that he will not be getting into any Ivy League colleges with such a low score, regardless of his grades. Cedric recalls Keels mentioning that a student from Ballou once attended Brown University, and decides to request more information from the school.
Now that Cedric is no longer interested in applying to MIT, he must find an option that fits his lofty ambitions, but is still feasible for him, given his low SAT score. He uses the memory of a conversation with a harsh critic—a man who would presumably want Cedric to succeed—and uses his anger and frustration towards this man to help him make a decision about his future. This is a prime example of Cedric’s ability to shake off criticism and use it to his advantage, turning his anger into motivation. It is also thanks to this man that Cedric chooses Brown University.
When Cedric retakes the SAT, his score rises a bit, to 960, but that is still well under the average score for students applying to Ivy League colleges. By this time, he is focused on Brown, with its 22% acceptance rate, strong math program, and relatively large minority population (about 1/3 nonwhite students). He fills out the Brown application, including an essay in which he discusses his background, struggles, and the effort he has made to overcome so many potential obstacles as a young black man in a single-parent household, in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. As he seals the envelope on his application, he asks God for support, noting that if Brown is where he is destined to be, he needs God’s help to get there.
Once again, Cedric feels that his low SAT scores hold him back, but knows that they are only one element of a college application. His sense of openness and honesty about his circumstances and his life goals make for a strong personal essay, and will likely pull at the heartstrings of the admissions counselor at Brown. And once again, just as he did for his MIT application, Cedric relies on his religious faith to carry him the rest of the way. In this moment, it is clear that without his faith, Cedric would have a hard time surviving this process.
Barbara thinks about the day that Cedric bounded out of his room to tell her that he had finished his essay for Brown, and all of the complex feelings that accompanied that announcement for her. It was a long shot, but he just might get in, and then he would leave her all alone. She thinks about the years that she stayed home with her little boy, just so that he could leave her to go to college. She and Cedric go to church, though he sits a few rows away from her. When they get home from church, there is a letter waiting for Cedric from Brown—he got in. Cedric tells his mother that he knew he would get it, although he still looks shocked. Barbara can’t find the right words to say to him.
For Barbara, this college application season is the beginning of a long and painful process of letting go of her son. She has to come to terms with the fact that she has had few experiences that will be helpful to Cedric at this point, and can only rely on her religious education when offering him advice. Like many mothers, she is aware that she helped him get to this place, but her happiness is tinged with regret that she cannot keep him with her.
In the weeks after Cedric receives his acceptance letter, Barbara wonders how she will help him navigate this new world. When Cedric receives his grades and learns that he has gotten a B in physics, both he and Barbara confront his teacher, and she convinces him to give Cedric another exam. He aces the test and the course; when he tells Barbara of their triumph, she lets him know that she will no longer be there to rescue him once he is at Brown. When he asks if Barbara thinks he will lose his identity at Brown, she does not know how to respond, because she has no idea what it will be like there. She gives her son some general advice of the kind that Bishop Long would offer, and he brushes it off.
Barbara has long been Cedric’s protector, and has chosen that identity for herself. Now that he has gotten into Brown and will be leaving the nest, she realizes that she cannot protect him anymore, which is more upsetting to her than it is to Cedric. In addition, she feels more apprehensive about the person he will become, when she is not around to guide him. Their confrontation with the physics teacher marks the last time she will be at his side for this kind of support, and she revels in the joy of it.
In this atmosphere of excitement and insecurity, Cedric is invited to the Supreme Court to meet Chief Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas meets periodically with exceptional black students in the D.C. area, and Cedric was profiled in the Wall Street Journal the previous year, which prompted the invitation. Justice Thomas tells Cedric the story of his St. Jude statue, which he won at a Latin Bee in high school, and which his white classmates would break, over and over, and he would fix, over and over. Decades later, Thomas keeps it to remind himself that he would have glued the statue back together forever, because he was not going to give up or be intimidated by his rich, white classmates.
Cedric’s meeting with Chief Justice Clarence Thomas has a significant impact on the way that Cedric understands the intersection of race and class, though he will not recognize it until well into his first year at Brown. Justice Thomas seems to have a lot in common with Cedric, and sees him as something of a protégé—they are both black men who come from poor backgrounds and have beaten the odds to get ahead in a majority-white society. This is initially an inspiring story to Cedric.
Cedric and Justice Thomas spend hours talking, comparing their struggles to get ahead as poor, black men. But when Cedric tells the justice that he will be attending Brown in the fall, Thomas is not impressed, and tells him that he would have done better to set his sights lower, and that he could “get eaten alive.” He tells Cedric of a friend of his who attended Holy Cross with him but didn’t know who he was, and wound up addicted to drugs and dropping out of the college. He also tells Cedric that he should avoid any racial issues and tell himself “I’m not a black person, I’m just a person.” After a little more advice from Justice Thomas, Cedric begins to feel unsettled, as if he is being prepared for battle, when all he wants to do is study among the best of the best. After three hours of conversation, Cedric is happy to go home.
When Justice Thomas begins to discuss more deeply his feelings about race relations in higher education, he reveals a very conservative side of his character. He advises Cedric to ignore his racial identity as much as possible, which is what Justice Thomas had to do in order to succeed at Holy Cross College. In addition, he portrays racial relations as a kind of battlefield, and strikes fear into Cedric’s heart when he suggest that the boy will be “eaten alive.” Cedric leaves his meeting no more informed about how to succeed in college than when he arrived.
At Ballou’s Awards Ceremony in May, Cedric receives recognition for the many scholarships he has earned to help him pay for Brown. In the program, he notices that while some of his classmates have been accepted to college, very few of them have received any kind of scholarship money, meaning that they likely will not attend. Cedric received offers of scholarship money from a number of colleges, and it puts him on edge to know that many of his classmates are feeling jealous and angry. One boy tells him that he will not last a year at Brown, and later they nearly get into a fight in physics class, the boy punching Cedric before two girls intervene.
All of Cedric’s hard work has paid off, and not only has he been accepted to Brown, his education will be paid for. This is an important issue at Ballou—even for students who are accepted to college, many will not go for financial reasons. But for students who want to attend college, Cedric’s success is frustrating, and highlights the lengths to which a Ballou student must go to be able to actually attend college. These students take their frustrations out on him.
Cedric is preparing his graduation speech, and has already gone through a number of revisions with Mr. Thompson, an English teacher at Ballou. Cedric knows that his speech is spiteful, and that it will anger many of his classmates, but it is genuine. He has another teacher, Ms. Briscoe, look at the speech, which is focused on the concept of “Dreambusters,” or people who have focused on the obstacles rather than helping him achieve his goals. This teacher reminds him that everyone has dreams, like the dream of walking across the stage at graduation, and Cedric realizes that he has been so focused on his own ambitions, which seemed so much bigger and more important, that he has forgotten that others might aspire to something as well.
Cedric considers his graduation speech the perfect opportunity to respond to the students who have been ignoring, teasing, and bullying him for years. Of course, this is not what the administration would like from its graduation speaker, and they try to send him in a more positive direction. For a moment, Cedric reflects on his peers’ high school experiences, but he is too narrowly focused on his own success to be concerned about others’ dreams and ambitions. In addition, he wants to share some of his anger with others.
On the day of graduation, Cedric delivers a speech that stuns the crowd. He talks about the “Dreambusters,” who laughed at him for wanting to attend an Ivy League college, or who tell him he will not last at Brown. He responds that there is nothing he can’t handle, with God’s help. His speech begins to sound like a sermon, as quotes from Scripture make the graduation crowd go wild, like “one big tent revival.” Once the ceremony is over, Cedric is overtaken by classmates and strangers, shaking his hand and congratulating him on his powerful and honest speech. He finally makes his way to his family, where his mother engulfs him in a hug and reminds him that he is still her baby.
Cedric’s speech is even more dramatic than his teachers could have imagined, and somehow rather than angering the crowd, he inspires them. The majority of the graduation attendees are religious, like Barbara, and Cedric’s religious references hit exactly the right notes. The common theme, of course, is the value of faith in God, and rising above temptation to achieve a greater good. This motivational speech makes for a dramatic end to Cedric’s high school experience.