Early one morning during senior year, Coach Ridley goes to the St. Benedict’s pool, where he finds Robert lifeguarding as usual. Ridley has planned this meeting to ask Robert about his drug use. Ridley gently asks Robert why he’s jeopardizing “his lungs, his mind, his future” with marijuana. To Ridley’s amazement, Robert explodes. He screams at Ridley, “I haven’t had a father since I was seven years old! What makes you think I need one now?”
This is one of the only points in Robert’s high school career when he lets down his guard and reveals the anger he’s been harboring. This makes the scene very important, as it gives us (and Hobbs) a glimpse of the “real” Robert behind all his various “fronts.” The scene also shows how much of a distance there is between Robert and his teachers. Ridley wants to help Robert, but he doesn’t really know how to communicate with him.
Coach Ridley comes to realize the truth: Robert comes from a “difficult family life,” like most of his classmates—but unlike these other classmates, Robert’s grades have prevented his teachers from noticing any problems in his life. A few days later, Ridley meets with Robert to talk strategy for an upcoming water polo game. Robert is his usual calm self. In the game, Robert does well, and Ridley never mentions marijuana to him again.
Robert is a troubled kid, but he doesn’t show any of the usual signs of being troubled: he’s a great leader, a brilliant student, and a talented athlete. In a way, Robert is a victim of his own talent: he’s naturally so high-functioning that he never seems to need to resolve any of his problems (and few other people notice them), and instead buries them deep.
Early in his senior year, Robert is elected “group leader”—essentially, president of his class. Around the same time, Robert spends lots of time with Curtis, whose father has died of cancer recently. This tragedy brings Curtis and Robert even closer together.
Even if Robert finds it hard to open up to his teachers, he opens up to Curtis, one of the few people his own age who knows what he’s going through—they’ve both lost fathers (albeit in very different ways).
Unbeknownst to any of his friends in school, Robert has spent much of the last two years conducting research for Skeet’s legal appeal. Late at night, he reads legal textbooks, trying to find record of a precedent that might help his father’s case. He visits Skeet in prison and goes over his research. In late 1997, Robert helps his father file a petition for post-conviction relief, on the grounds that his father’s right to a speedy public trial was violated. Robert argues that in the three-year delay between arrest and trial, key witnesses, such as the man in whose home Skeet was arrested, died. A judge sides with Robert and Skeet and throws out Skeet’s indictment. More than a decade after his arrest, Skeet is released from jail. He may have to return to jail when the state files a counter-appeal, but the fact that the judge sides with Skeet suggests that Skeet may be released from jail permanently.
Robert works very hard in high school—not only does he succeed athletically and academically, but he also spends long hours trying to help his father. For the time being, the future looks bright for Skeet: with his son’s help, he’s managed to make a convincing argument that his rights were violated. Notice that Robert makes his case not simply by emphasizing the length of time Skeet spent in jail (three years), but by showing how having to wait for this stretch of time seriously damaged the defense’s case. There are plenty of plaintiffs who spend years in prison waiting for their trials—the relevant factor is whether the waiting period interfered with achieving justice.
After the judge throws out Skeet’s indictment, Skeet moves in to Jackie’s house. The house immediately begins to feel crowded. Skeet doesn’t leave the house—he seems nervous about walking through the streets. Jackie is worried that Skeet will be a bad influence on Robert. She sleeps very little, and works long hours to support Robert’s education. The additional stress of having Skeet back is very difficult.
Jackie has always been wary of the influence Skeet has on Robert, and now, she seems especially uncomfortable with their relationship. Jackie has spent so many years sacrificing her needs for her son’s that, very poignantly, she’s finally beginning to slow down.
Robert struggles with having Skeet back in his life. Skeet almost never leaves the house, but he constantly asks Robert where he’s going and what he’s been doing. For years now, Robert has been living as an adult, with total freedom. Now, his father pesters him with nagging questions. In January, the state of New Jersey files a counter-appeal to Skeet’s post-conviction relief ruling. Skeet returns to jail, as he’s known he’ll have to do.
Skeet knew he’d have to go back to jail, so he’s mentally prepared for the return. At this point, however, he’s still optimistic that he’ll win his case and have his indictment thrown out, leaving him a free man.
One spring evening in 1998, Robert and Victor are sharing a joint. Robert has applied to Yale, Penn, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins. Earlier in the day, Robert has learned of his acceptance, full-ride, to Montclair State. Tearfully, Robert admits to Victor that he doesn’t know what he wants to do. He excels at many different subjects, but doesn’t know how to focus his ambitions. In the next two weeks, he’s accepted to Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Penn. However, Robert thinks that he’ll have to attend Montclair in order to avoid accumulating further debts.
Robert experiences a problem that’s common among highly gifted people: he’s good at so many things that he can’t decide which ones he’d like to pursue seriously. The extremely high tuition at Yale and other elite colleges makes Robert think that he’ll have to attend a cheaper school—he loves his mother and doesn’t want to burden her any further than he already has.
In April 1998, the seniors attend their senior banquet. Other attendees include Charles Cawley, the CEO of MBNA. Robert gives the keynote address for the evening, and Cawley is struck by Robert’s confidence. Friar Leahy informs him that Robert carried a near-perfect GPA, got up at forty-thirty every morning to work as a lifeguard, and got into Yale.
Cawley is naturally impressed by Robert’s achievements: he’s won enormous academic success and, furthermore, achieves this success despite having to work hard to support himself and his family.
At the end of the evening, Cawley greets Robert and congratulates him on his success. He says, “You can go to college wherever you want.” Robert thanks Cawley, not entirely sure what this means. But soon, he understands: Cawley has effectively given him a blank check for his college expenses, “no questions asked.” Robert is so overcome that he begins to cry. Friar Leahy later informs him that Cawley has never made an offer like this in the twenty-five years that he’s been a benefactor to St. Benedict’s.
Robert isn’t sure where to go to college. He likes Johns Hopkins, partly because he believes the students have “worked harder and sacrificed more.” On the final date for committing to Hopkins, Jackie is preparing to drop off Robert’s signed documents. But her boss makes her stay. Frantic, she drives to the nearest post office, praying that she’ll be able to get there before midnight. In the end, she arrives ten minutes too late. A few weeks later, Johns Hopkins calls to inform Robert that his folder wasn’t postmarked in time, meaning that Robert has been placed at the end of the waiting list. In the end, Robert opts to go to his second choice, Yale.
Robert chooses to attend Johns Hopkins because it seems like the best combination of elite status and hard-working students (whereas Yale and Penn, presumably, would have a larger number of spoiled, entitled students). Because of Jackie’s intense work schedule, however, Robert ends up attending his second choice—one of the most highly regarded schools in the country, and the world.
Jackie is overjoyed that her son is attending an Ivy League school. She tells all her friends and family the good news. Frances, who’s sick with emphysema, is extremely proud that her grandson has been so successful.
Robert’s success is a cause of celebration for his entire family.
During the summer of 1998, Robert enjoys a “last hurrah” before going off to school. Most of his friends are going to college, with the exception of Julius, who can’t afford college, and is going to work as a lifeguard. Together, the friends drink, smoke, enjoy good food, and fantasize about their futures.
Robert is about to embark on what seems destined to be a great career: he’s going to get an elite degree, which presumably will enable him to do any number of great things with his life.
In August, Robert receives a letter, which begins, “Dear Robert, looks like we’re going to be roommates.” The letter is from Jeff Hobbs, the author of this book.
At this point, we’re introduced to Hobbs, the author and narrator who now becomes a character in the story. Hobbs’s relationship with Robert will be one of the focal points of the book.
A few weeks before starting college, Jeff misses a call from Robert. He calls back, and Jackie picks up the phone. Confused at first, she realizes who’s calling, and puts Robert on. Jeff’s first impressions of Robert are of his deep voice, and long pauses. Jeff learns that Robert went to prep school, played water polo, and enjoys hiking—all of which lead Jeff to conclude that Robert is yet another “well-off and overeducated” Yale student. Jeff comes from a long line of Yale alumni, and both of his siblings went to Yale. His conversation with Robert is short and awkward.
It’s a sign of Hobbs’s privilege and limited life experience that he naturally assumes other Yale students will be more or less like him: prep school educated, wealthy, and familiar with traditionally WASP-y sports such as water polo. Jeff seems to recognize that Robert is black (based on hearing Robert’s voice), but because he makes assumptions about Robert’s class, he doesn’t think that his and Robert’s life experiences are very different.
At the beginning of September, Robert spends a full day visiting his friends before he leaves for Yale. Skeet is still waiting for his post-conviction hearing, so Robert visits him in jail. He also visits his grandparents. Then he packs his things, and Jackie drives him ninety miles to Yale. Robert is quiet on the drive—a little scared of the moment when he’ll have to say goodbye to Jackie.
The chapter ends on a note of uncertainty. Robert is brilliant and hard-working, but he’s about to enter a world very different from the one where he’s spent the first eighteen years of his life.