In the summer of 1994, Robert arrives at St. Benedict’s to begin the “Summer Phase” of school. His new classmates are mostly from impoverished or middle-class families.
Robert will be among other students who come from a similar background to his own.
Robert and his classmates proceed with a full course-load, followed by athletics and group bonding activities. All freshmen are required to memorize the names of every headmaster in the school’s 126-year history. In part, these activities are designed to build spirit. But they’re also intended to cut down on fighting and theft between the students, some of whom think of this behavior as an ordinary part of life.
St. Benedict’s is designed to give its students a first-rate education, a task for which the teachers believe it’s necessary to first train the students to respect and cooperate with one another.
The students are assigned their summer reading, including two books—Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and William Faulkner’s A Light in August—that Robert has already read for fun. However, Robert acquires a reputation for knowing complicated rap lyrics—“a feat that inspired awe in the freshman class.”
Robert is a voracious reader, but his love of language doesn’t alienate him from his classmates. Indeed, his talent with words makes him something of a celebrity, proving that his passion for rap has a “social payoff.”
St. Benedict’s Prep was founded in 1868. For most of the 20th century, it was a school for Newark’s elite white families. But after the Newark riots of 1967, the student body became predominately black. During Robert’s time at St. Benedict’s, the headmaster is a twenty-four-year-old named Friar Edwin Leahy. Leahy believes that he has a duty to provide a good education for working-class people. He raises an astounding five million dollars, making St. Benedict’s one of the best-funded schools in the state.
In a nutshell, St. Benedict’s has the demography of post-1967 Newark but the resources and social cachet of pre-1967 Newark. The faculty is made up of passionate people who sincerely want to help disadvantaged students succeed in life by gaining some self-confidence and going to good schools.
At St Benedict’s, there are fencing, water polo, and chess teams, but no football. Robert and Victor apply to play football for Orange High School. Every day, they catch the six am bus to school, go to school, and then catch a bus to Orange High for football practice. Robert has almost no time for socializing, but he takes pleasure in football practice. Playing for another school allows him to hold the culture of St. Benedict’s at an arm’s length.
In many ways, St. Benedict’s resembles the elite prep schools of New England: the sports, for example, are stereotypically “WASP-y.” Robert’s continued interest in playing football suggests that he doesn’t quite accept the culture at St. Benedict’s, and wants to do the same things he did before going to school there.
By halfway through his freshman year, it’s become clear that Robert is a brilliant student. This surprises some people, who think of him as a tough athlete. Some believe that Robert is a “rich kid” who pretends he’s from “the hood.” This changes after Robert is abruptly pulled from the Orange High football team due to an insurance technicality. Jackie then forces Robert to try out for a St. Benedict’s sports team. After some hesitation, Robert decides to try out for swimming.
Because Robert doesn’t go to Orange High, he doesn’t qualify for insurance; therefore, he has to join a St. Benedict’s sports team.
Robert meets with Wayne Ridley, the St. Benedict’s swim coach, and says that he wants to join the team. However, he admits that he has no idea how to swim. Coach Ridley agrees to teach Robert. To his amazement, Robert learns quickly—so quickly that he makes the swim team and, in the fall of his sophomore year, the water polo team.
Even though Robert has always been a fast learner, his swimming achievement is especially impressive: he goes from not even knowing how to swim to becoming one of the best aquatic athletes in his school.
During his time on the swim team freshman year, Robert makes four close friends. Drew Jewison is from a middle-class suburb outside of Newark. Julius Starkes is an easy-going kid from a poor family in the inner-city. Curtis Gamble is a popular, funny student who lives near Robert. Finally, Tavarus Hester is a talented swimmer who lives with his aunt and grandmother, since his father—a man he idolized—died of cancer. When Robert notices his fellow swimmers’ low GPAs, he suggests that they have weekly study sessions. Over the course of the year, the boys become good friends.
Hobbs suggests some reasons why Robert may have befriended these students: they seem to hail from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, and, furthermore, some of them seem to have gone through similar family tragedies.
At the end of their freshman year, the boys of St. Benedict’s Prep set out on a beloved school ritual: walking the Appalachian Trail to the Delaware Water Gap. By the end of the day, the students are tired but “pumped full of endorphins.”
By the end of their first year, Robert and his friends have begun to embrace their identity as St. Benedict’s students.
The summer after freshman year, Tavarus goes to a summer retreat organized by a wealthy St. Benedict’s alumnus. The retreat is designed for students who come from “troubled” circumstances. Early on in the retreat, Tavarus starts a fistfight with another student. Furious, he calls Robert and complains: apparently, another student made fun of his shoes. Robert laughs and replies, “You’re getting served steak and lobster … and you’re starting shit over some words about shoes? Don’t be such a bitch.”
When Tavarus comes back to school in the fall, Robert notices that he seems calmer and more eager to do well in school. In fact, Tavarus has been impressed by Robert’s intelligence and discipline. Tavarus signs up for extra tutoring, and studies with Robert. He forces himself to think about “the big picture,” as Robert has encouraged him to do: going to college.
Robert’s talent and hard work inspire his friends to try harder. In short, Robert is a natural leader, one who leads by example. He’s highly disciplined (perhaps because of Jackie’s influence), and knows how to swallow his pride and focus on the long-term plan (for now).
During his sophomore year, Robert joins the water polo team with his four friends. Water polo is a popular sport in part because the team gets to travel to other states. On one trip, Robert brings marijuana and brandy, and the friends spend all night drinking and getting high. Afterwards, it becomes clear that Robert is “the guy who could hook you up.” Students ask Robert if he can find them drugs. Initially, Robert refuses.
Although Robert is an excellent student, he clearly enjoys the attention and respect that come with breaking the rules. For the time being, however, this quality isn’t a major flaw so much as a central part of his charisma. And for now, Robert has no desire to become a full-fledged drug dealer, either.
One day, Curtis tells Robert that a big fight is going on between kids from Central High and St. Benedict’s. Traditionally, these two schools have a bitter rivalry. When Robert hears the news, he immediately decides to “take part” in the fight. By the time they join, however, the police have already arrested seven people, and the fight is basically over.
Robert believes that he has a duty to fight alongside his fellow students, even if he doesn’t have a personal stake in the fight. This suggests Robert’s loyalty, his commitment to seeming tough, and, finally, the fact that he’s accepted his identity as a St. Benedict’s student.
In the aftermath of the Central / St. Benedict’s fight, there are rumors that Friar Leahy will resign. Robert and his friends have a private meeting with Leahy in which they beg him not to resign, and claim that they’ll convince the students to stop fighting. Leahy—who was never thinking of resigning—is impressed by Robert’s leadership. He asks Robert to lead the freshmen on their Appalachian Trail hike.
It’s strange that Robert promises to stop the fighting, just a few days after being on the verge of taking part. This suggests the two sides of Robert’s character: a calm, wise leader, but also an impulsive risk-taker.
During the hike, a storm breaks out, and many of the freshmen become scared. Robert stays calm and orders his freshmen to stick together. Moving fast, Robert leads the freshmen down from the mountains, and remembers to call a faculty coordinator to let the school know that his students are okay.
In the fall of Robert’s junior year, a new student named Hrvoje Dundovic comes to St. Benedicts. Hrvoje is originally from Croatia, but his family has settled in East Orange. He’s a talented water polo player, and he loves punk music. Robert and Hrvoje become friends, and remain so for many years.
Robert makes many other friends during his time at St. Benedict’s. Some of his friends, including Hrvoje, are very different from him, but he learns how to embrace these differences.
That fall, the water polo team does well. Robert is one of the top athletes on both the swim team and the water polo team. One reason the water polo does well against other schools is that it’s adept at “talking trash” and intimidating opponents. That year, the team comes close to winning the Mid-Atlantic championships. In school, the teammates begin talking to college guidance counselors. Julius realizes that he could get a full scholarship to a good school like UMass. Robert, meanwhile, has done so well in school that the counselor tells him to apply wherever he wants.
The passage emphasizes Robert’s leadership qualities. By working hard and doing well in school, he’s inspired his friends and admirers to do the same. Robert is on the verge of a major change in his life: he’s done so well in high school that he could go to college almost anywhere he’d like.
At the end of their junior year, Robert and his friends walk to a dance at Columbia High. The dance is boring, and Curtis arranges to walk to a different part down the street. The friends walk out of Columbia High—unaware that dozens of students are following them, in search of a better party. The friends arrive at a dance club, where they get high, dance with beautiful women, and bask in their own confidence. The year is 1997, and Robert and his friends feel that they “rule the city of Newark.”