On May 19, LaJoe and Rochelle prepare a surprise birthday party for Pharoah, who recently mentioned that he has never had one. Excited, the two of them arrange decorations in the apartment. Recently, LaJoe was able to buy bunk beds for her children and new mattresses, on which Lafeyette and Pharoah leave the plastic covering, saying that that will keep them clean. She has also bought new furniture that makes the apartment look more orderly.
Things seem hopeful for the Rivers family, at least temporarily. LaJoe’s improvement of the apartment shows that change and progress is possible. Her shared excitement with Rochelle also demonstrates that not everything at Horner has to be gloomy—under the right circumstances, people can also revel in the joys of special moments.
When Pharoah walks in, he is so surprised to realize that his family has prepared a party for him that he feels nervous and smiles without knowing what to say. He goes to his room, where his mother gives him his gift, a pair of green shorts, and quietly gets ready for the party, trying to take it all in. Lafeyette tells his brother he looks handsome and wishes him happy birthday.
Pharoah’s difficulty to react accordingly to his surprise party demonstrates how unusual such an event is to him. At the same time, his quiet attitude simply emphasizes his tendency to turn inward when he’s overwhelmed. The support of his family is palpable, as everyone seems happy to make this day special for him.
While Lafeyette and Rickey soon leave the party, which disappoints LaJoe, Pharoah spends the party smiling and waiting for Porkchop to come. Porkchop arrives two hours late, having forgotten all about the party. During the party, Dawn arrives with her four children after a fight between drug dealers in her building, which she believed might lead to more violence, but nothing ends up happening.
Pharoah’s constant smile during the party reveals his joy and gratitude in a way that his words might not be able to. The possibility of violence serves as a reminder that, while this party is exciting, it does not eliminate the pervasive dangers of the neighborhood, which can bring catastrophes at any time.
During the next few weeks, Pharoah not only celebrates his birthday, bus is also asked to recite a poem for Suder’s end-of-the-year celebration. LaJoe and Lafeyette come to the assembly, happy and excited for Pharoah. When Pharoah walks onto the stage and begins to recite the poem about the benefits of working hard, he feels nervous but succeeds in reciting it from beginning to end. All of LaJoe’s children receive ribbons for various aspects of academic achievement except for Lafeyette, which makes Pharoah feel bad. The entire day, LaJoe wears her children’s colored ribbons, looking like a war veteran.
This end-of-the-year celebration is an ode to Pharoah’s academic achievements, but it also showcases the hard work he has done to control his stutter and anxiety. Lafeyette’s exclusion from academic rewards signals not a lack of ability, but a reminder of all the stressful events that have kept him from focusing on school during the year. It also highlights Lafeyette’s hidden vulnerability and potential lack of self-confidence.
Pharoah is also chosen to attend a special summer school at the University of Illinois, Project Upward Bound, for minority students to improve their reading and math scores. When the staff asks Pharoah what he wants to be when he grows up, he says that he wants to be a congressman so that he can change rules and put gang members to jail.
Unlike his brother Lafeyette, who has difficulties projecting himself into the future, Pharoah has high ambitions for his own life and for the entire community. While this might not necessarily translate into success, it does give him the hope and motivation necessary to work hard.
These events have led LaJoe’s family to feel renewed hope and energy. Everyone is happy about Pharoah’s summer program, and he is delighted by the university campus, even telling his mother that he wants to go to university there. However, LaJoe is once again confronted to violence when she sees a young boy of Pharoah’s age shoot at rival gang members. Her anger returns, and she tells Lafeyette that she will not let him wear hats or earrings, since these symbols could mistakenly identify him as a gang member.
Given the extremely high percentage of high school dropouts in the neighborhood, Pharoah’s desire not only to graduate from high school but to attend college is truly extraordinary. Meanwhile, LaJoe’s anger at the senselessness of gang violence, in which such young boys are involved, reminds her that violence is largely arbitrary, and that the best way to protect oneself is to take no risks.