Robert begins attending Mt. Carmel Elementary School, a Catholic school where most of the students are black or Hispanic. The tuition is expensive, and Jackie knows she’s taking a gamble—hopefully, the school will prove to be a good influence on Robert.
Jackie is so committed to giving her son the best education possible that she’s willing to take this gamble: the potentially high payoff of giving Robert a first-class education justifies the expense.
From the beginning, Robert stands out at Mt. Carmel. He’s a big kid, and he gets straight A’s. However, he’s quiet and sometimes sullen—he spends a lot of time thinking about his father.
Robert is clearly saddened by having a father in jail, but because he gets great grades, his sadness doesn’t raise any red flags among his teachers—as far as they’re concerned, he’s just a great student.
After three years in prison, Skeet proceeds with his trial. The trial itself lasts only one week. Lechliter accuses Skeet of double homicide, and argues that the bullets found in the dead women could only have been fired from Skeet’s gun. He brings in nine police officers, all white, to testify against Skeet. The defense is simple: there are only three witnesses, who essentially just vouch for Skeet’s character.
The racial dynamics of the trial raise questions about he legitimacy of the investigation itself. The prosecution, led and substantiated by white men, has a large budget and produces an overwhelming amount of evidence. The defense, led and substantiated by black witnesses, lacks the resources to make its case very convincingly.
The jurors retire to deliberate. They can’t decide whether to believe Georgianna’s testimony—in particular, they find it odd that Georgianna is so sure the murderer is Skeet, considering she didn’t see his face. The jurors are also uncomfortable with the image of nine white police officers testifying against one black man. In the end they convict Skeet on two counts of murder. Skeet is sentenced to life in prison.
There are significant doubts in the jurors’ minds about the accuracy of Georgianna’s testimony, but they choose to convict Skeet anyway. (Notably, Hobbs doesn’t mention if the jurors are white or black, a detail that seems highly relevant, given some of Hobbs’s points about racial bias during the investigation.)
After the sentence, Skeet is given the opportunity to make a statement. He delivers a long, articulate speech about his innocence. He emphasizes that Georgianna’s testimony isn’t consistent with the positioning of the entrance wounds—a fact he claims was never brought up at trial. Skeet concludes by mentioning his young son, a “straight-A student.”
In many ways, Skeet does a better job than his own public defender: he raises doubts that his lawyer should have raised days ago. But these doubts are too little, too late.
Shortly after Skeet is convicted, Jackie buys Robert a copy of the A volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Jackie is worried that Skeet’s conviction will make Robert even lonelier than he’s been. Unbeknownst to Jackie, Robert hasn’t told his friends at Mt. Carmel anything about his father.
The one constant in Robert’s early life is his mother’s concern for him and for his education. However, Robert continues to hide his feelings about his father, and refuses to share them with his friends.
While Robert is growing up, Newark is going through important changes. One in three people in Newark live below the poverty line, and violent crime is very high. Beginning in 1986, when Sharpe James is elected mayor of Newark, many of the large housing projects of the ‘50s and ‘60s are torn down and replaced with smaller-scale housing. James’s reforms are important for Newark, not only because they improve living conditions for those below the poverty line but because James is a successful black politician and a role model for black youths.
Sharpe James was the mayor of Newark for twenty years, before finally being convicted of fraud and sentenced to jail time. His tenure as mayor is still very controversial, with many praising him for helping impoverished residents and others criticizing him for not doing enough.
Robert is one of the many black youths in Newark who idolizes Sharpe James. In the fifth grade, Robert asks Jackie to take him downtown to listen to James’s speeches. Jackie later says that James is a surrogate father for her son.
In the absence of a father who’s present in his life, Robert turns to other father figures for inspiration.
As Robert grows up, he sees how hard his mother works to put him through school. He begins working odd jobs on weekends to make extra money. Jackie admires her son’s discipline—a quality that she’s always believed is a better symbol of manhood than toughness. But Jackie can also see how angry Robert is, and she worries that some day he’ll take out his anger on his peers.
Robert clearly loves his mother and understands how hard she works for his sake. Jackie, in turn, worships her child and respects him for his hard work, not just for his intelligence. There are plenty of smart, lazy people who never make much of their lives—but Robert, it would seem, isn’t going to be one of those people. However, the passage foreshadows the way that Robert’s sadness and anger will interfere with his success in life.
In school, Robert loves to read. But his greatest passions are math and science. He’s so good at these subjects that his teachers are convinced that he’s cheating on his homework—something that Jackie angrily denies. Robert is particularly irritated that the teachers make him show his work—he tells Jackie that he can work out the answers in his head. Although Robert is showered with praise from his teachers, he rarely seems happy.
Robert seems highly ambitious—he wants to move past the drudgery of showing his work and learn as much as possible as quickly as possible.
Robert faces many challenges while growing up. His good grades lead some students to call him a nerd, but he also excels at football, and understands how important it is to seem tough around the other kids.
Robert quickly learns how to be different things to different people: around his teachers, he’s a model student; around his friends, he’s a tough athlete.
In the seventh grade, Robert makes a new friend—a student named Victor Raymond. Victor’s parents have died of illness, and he lives with his aunt. Robert includes Victor in his football games. Victor notices that Robert is good at fitting in his community, even though he stands out by virtue of his good grades and private school education. At different times of the day, Robert is a good student, a tough athlete, and a loyal, loving son. Robert refers to the process of making himself seem tough and hiding his intelligence as “Newark-proofing” himself.
Victor sees Robert learning how to adjust his behavior to different groups of people, a process that he finds impressive and yet a little frightening. Because he’s so adept at Newark-proofing, Robert continues to conceal his feelings, in particular his feelings about his father’s conviction and arrest.
Jackie and Robert visit Skeet in Trenton State prison. The prison is a frightening place, and Jackie comes to dread bringing her son there. As soon as she leaves the prison with Robert, she feels relief. She notices that visiting Skeet seems to energize Robert. Robert grows up quickly. Before he’s done with middle school, he’s become strong and fast, learned a huge amount of math and science, and developed serious crushes on girls.
By the time he’s in middle school, Robert has gone through more than a lot of people do by the time they’re in their twenties. He’s effectively lost a father, he’s worked a lot, and in general he’s grown up very quickly.
In 1993, Jackie loses her job at the University Hospital. This means that she has no choice but to pull Robert out of Mt. Carmel and send him back to Oakdale. Robert begins giving all of his work earnings to Jackie. Public school is a challenge for Robert, because he has to devote a lot of time to fitting in with his classmates. Jackie learns from Robert that some of the students sell drugs, and she decides that she needs to find a way to send her son to a private high school next year.
Jackie continues to prioritize Robert’s education. She wants to protect him from the influence of drugs and drug culture. In return, Robert seems to recognize how hard his mother works on his behalf, which is why he gives her all his extra money.
Jackie finds a new job in a health care company. The job is a demotion from her previous post, but she makes enough money to send Robert back to Mt. Carmel. Meanwhile, Robert begins drinking and smoking marijuana. Some men in the neighborhood—especially Carl, who Robert considers his “uncle”—know that he’s Skeet’s son and offer him drugs and alcohol all the time.
Evidently, Jackie can’t protect Robert from the influence of his neighborhood forever.
Robert continues to spend a lot of time with his friend Victor Raymond. Victor notices that Robert is very adept at hiding his drinking and drug use from his mother. He’s also a little disturbed by how comfortable Robert is around grown men and women who spend their days drinking and getting high.
Spending time with Skeet’s old friends further trains Robert to “Newark-proof” himself: he can turn his intelligence on and off, concealing and exhibiting it when necessary. Robert’s behavior might suggest a tacit admiration or acceptance for the lifestyles of junkies and alcoholics in the neighborhood.
Robert tells Jackie that he wants to attend St. Benedict’s Prep, a Catholic school with a reputation for sending its students to good colleges. Tuition is high, but Jackie agrees to send him there. Victor is accepted to St. Benedict’s, and though Robert is at first waitlisted (probably because of financial statements on his application, rather than his grades), he’s eventually accepted. Robert and Jackie calculate how much they’ll have to make every week, and Robert assures his mother that he’ll work odd jobs to help her out with the payments.
Two things to notice here. First, Jackie continues to make sacrifices for her son’s sake. But second, notice that Robert is taking a stronger position in deciding his own future: he’s the one who convinces Jackie that she’ll be able to pay for school, not the other way around. Even though he’s barely a teenager, Robert is already a natural leader.