A Hope in The Unseen follows an African-American student named Cedric Jennings as he grows up in a deeply impoverished part of Washington, D.C., and eventually attends the prestigious Brown University. Cedric’s almost herculean leap from inner-city poverty to an Ivy League college is a testament not only to his intellect and ambition, but also to the systems of academic support that helped shepherd him toward success, highlighting that academic success is not just the result of personal effort.
Although the educational system in Cedric’s Washington, D.C., community is financially strapped and underserved in many ways, there are a number of dedicated teachers who are on the lookout for talented students and willing to offer them extra time and attention. As Cedric finds, this support network is essential to academic success. Cedric’s science teacher, Mr. Taylor, invested a lot of time and energy in him, back when Cedric was “a sullen ninth grader who had just been thrown out of biology for talking back to the teacher and needed somewhere to go.” Mr. Taylor saw Cedric’s potential, and gave him more challenging and interesting assignments that helped to develop him into a superior student. Cedric is also part of his high school’s gifted and talented program, which Suskind notes is “in vogue at tough urban schools across the country.” The students in this program take separate and more advanced classes, giving them the opportunity to create a community that is supportive of academic achievement, as well as more of the school’s small pool of resources to help them move on to college. There are smaller sources of support, like Mr. Govan, who runs the computer lab and is willing to come in early to let Cedric get started before the other kids arrive, and Mr. Dorosti, who teaches Cedric computer science on his own time. It is teachers like these who help Cedric climb the ladder of academic success rung by rung, a feat that Cedric could not have achieved without help.
Once Cedric enrolls at Brown, however, the vast majority of those support systems are gone, and he suddenly faces the challenge of a completely new academic atmosphere with no safety net. This, coupled with the differences in class and race that Cedric has to contend with in his first year, create obstacles that are nearly—but not completely—insurmountable for him. Suskind notes that while Brown partakes in affirmative action during this time period—offering admission to less privileged students in the hopes that they will help to diversify the campus—there are few systems in place to support those students once they have arrived on campus. Those students are left to sink or swim, and while there are tutoring and counseling services available to all, students like Cedric are reluctant to take advantage of them for fear of being seen as weak and undeserving of their admission in the first place. While the teachers at Ballou quickly recognized Cedric’s potential and were anxious to help him rise above his circumstances, his professors at Brown are faced with entire classes of high achievers from a variety of backgrounds, and not all of them take much notice of Cedric.
Other students at Brown have taken advantage of support systems that have prepared them well for Ivy League, both academically and socially. Cedric’s friend Chiniqua, for example, comes from a working-class family in New York City but was enrolled in a program called Prep for Prep. Designed to help gifted black and Hispanic children advance academically, the program sent her to an elite prep school in Manhattan from the seventh through twelfth grade, and—more importantly—provided her with regular tutoring and counseling to help her navigate both the intense academics and the vast cultural differences of her new school. Thus, Chiniqua has already developed the social and academic skills that Cedric struggles with during his first year at Brown. Cedric does have the benefit of a patron, Dr. Kolb, who has taken an interest in him and his success in college. He sends Cedric $200 a month, significantly easing the young man’s financial burden; for the most part, however, Dr. Kolb supports Cedric from a distance, offering advice when necessary but rarely intervening. Overall, Cedric comes from a world where many social and economic factors make it difficult to make personal change, and free will seems like a myth. However, he and many of the people around him overcome those seemingly insurmountable obstacles to success. Part of the message of this novel is that the institutional discrimination exists and can make upward mobility incredibly difficult, but not impossible with the support of kind and committed mentors, teachers, and role models.
Academic Support Systems ThemeTracker
Academic Support Systems Quotes in A Hope in the Unseen
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.”