I worked hard. Why should I be ashamed? Ashamed to claim credit for something I earned? I hate myself for not going.
Educators have even coined a phrase for it. They call it the crab/bucket syndrome: when one crab tries to climb from the bucket, the others pull it back down. The forces dragging students toward failure—especially those who have crawled farthest up the side—flow through every corner of the school. Inside the bucket, there is little chance for escape.
“Faith is taking the last $10 from your checking account and saying, ‘God, I give this to you, because I have nothing but faith, I live on faith, and I know in my heart that you’ll bring it back to me in ways too grand and too many for me to even imagine.’”
“Hebrews 11:1. ‘The substance of faith is a hope in the unseen.’”
“You’re low, you’re tired, you’re fighting, you’re waiting for your vision to become reality—you feel you can’t wait anymore! […] Say ‘I’ll be fine tonight ‘cause Jesus is with me.’ SAY IT! SAY IT!”
“You sure talk funny, southern, sort of, and you know, slangy.”
“For reeeal? What, like I’m slurring my words or something? […] You mean, I guess, that I talk sort of ‘ghetto.’”
I hope you are as pleased to get this letter as I am to send it to you. You have been admitted to the 232nd class to enter The College of Brown University.
The problem stems from a conundrum he’s thought through a thousand times. Worldly success—the kind of genuine, respect-in-the-community, house-in-the-suburbs achievement that he finds among his neighbors in Mitchelville—has never fit well inside the doors of Scripture. And going to college is a first step on that path away from here.
“I just feel I need to figure out where I stand. I don’t want to get in over my head […] Well, I didn’t come from that good a school and all, a really bad city school.”
“Your identity, I think, should be something that you are proud of. I wouldn’t be proud to say that I had only one leg and I could just barely walk, you know, on one leg. That may be true, but I wouldn’t let it define who I was.”
Cedric, ushered here mostly by adrenaline and faith, realizes he’s now facing a living, breathing, credentialed counterpart to his revered Bishop. Nothing theoretical about it. Around here, nothing is exempt from dissembling questions and critical examination—not even religion itself. He can see Bishop’s one eye, looking through him, and hear the words, “The only true answers lie with God.”
He reminisces for a while and throws out a few light aphorisms before turning bleak and discussing Bosnia and balkanism, victims of wars, and conflicts around the globe. “Unless one wants to lie,” he says […] “I am rarely truly hopeful.”
By now, he understands that Maura knows what to write on her pad and the sleepers will be able to skim the required readings, all of them guided by some mysterious encoded knowledge of history, economics, and education, of culture and social events, that they picked up in school or at home or God knows where.
“Are we doing a services to young people to boost them above their academic level and then not offer the services they need? Because, who really can? Who can offer that sort of enrichment? You can hardly blame the university. It would take years, and money, and a whole different educational track to bring some affirmative action students to a level where they could compete.”
“I am constantly having to play catch-up with guys who’ve spent the past five years speaking three languages, visiting Europe, and reading all the right books. Here, at Brown, they say ‘Don’t worry, you’re all equal, starting on the same footing. Ready, set, go!’ They just don’t get it. Where I come from, people don’t go to France to study. A trip to France is a big deal. I haven’t been reading all the right books since I was twelve and then have some Rhodes Scholar Daddy tell me the rest. I didn’t have that kind of access, access that could empower me.”
It’s exciting to work with a kid who is so devoid of irony, so unguarded. And also terrifying. While it’s not going to be easy to get him where he needs to be academically, Cedric simply can’t afford to fail. He’s got everything—God, mother, faith—riding on making it. The thought makes her short of breath.
“You don’t understand anything, LaTisha. He’s saying you take care of yourself. All right?”
“It don’t matter how you look, Cedric—it’s what’s inside, the spirit in you. That’s what matters, that’s what matters!”
“Listen to me! He’s saying you don’t let yourself go! All right?! You make yourself look as good as you can! You hear me? What I’m telling you—you just don’t let yourself go!”
“You know […] I can tell the ones that will die when they leave here, when they leave this school. I can see them. You look at them hard enough, long enough, and you can tell. You really can.”
“If you’re going to make it here, Cedric, you’ll have to find some distance from yourself and all you’ve been through. The key, I think, is to put your outrage in a place where you can get at it when you need to, but not have it bubble up so much, especially when you’re asked to embrace new ideas or explain what you observe to people who share none of your experiences.”
“Like, no one in the unit knows anything about Keith Sweat. It’s kind of nice, you know. You have to be real. You have to have grown up with it like us, to really know it.”
“I still believe in God, that Jesus is my personal savior, and my friend, and my guide, but I just don’t feel as tied to the church so much anymore. I like coming and all, but, at the same time, I feel like I’m ready to venture out.”