As the band marched that day in the gym to the clackety-clack of drums and blowing horns, an older white man stepped to the lectern. "That's weird," Jackson thought. "Why's the George Washington University mascot beside him?"
"Wait," Jackson thought as the band stopped playing, his trombone still in hand. "I applied for a scholarship to George Washington." He had no idea the impromptu celebration was intended for him.
The man's voice boomed over the mic. "It is my pleasure, my honor," George Washington University President Steven Knapp said from the lectern, "to announce the recipient of the Stephen Joel Trachtenberg scholarship: Mr. Tai'Lon Jackson!"
Jackson's right leg folded as he broke line with the band and stumbled forward.
After local news broadcast that Jackson would receive a full ride to George Washington, a woman in Jackson's building sobbed in front of her TV. He wasn't her child, but hope visited here so rarely.
The Washington, D.C., area where Jackson grew up was labeled one of America's most violent neighborhoods last year. Murder, rape, robbery, and a 1-in-14 chance of being a victim, all just a 10-minute walk from Ballou. Crime frequently spilled into the school; in 2014, two Ballou students and one former student were shot at a bus stop across the street. In January, a 17-year-old student was shot and killed after leaving a basketball game. Ballou is 98 percent black, and 99 percent of students take free and reduced lunches, a measurement of poverty.
Jackson's mother, Hellina Jackson, a woman so cheerful you'd think she'd never wanted for anything in life, became a neighborhood celebrity. Mother of the genius, they called her. And as D.C. schools erected a new Ballou High School that summer—one that looks more like a mall with a glass facade—it included a painting of Jackson in the lobby.
He hangs there in a navy blue band uniform and a smile, black strokes of teenage whiskers, a reminder to students who pass below: That's Tai'Lon Jackson. He did it. Anything is possible.
D.C. Public Schools lists Ballou as a "priority school," meaning it needs "intense support to address overall low student performance." Until the renovations last year, the old building was "falling down around us," said former teacher Alli Baugher. One classroom, Baugher said, had a squirrel's nest in the ceiling; teachers had to buy their own copy paper; they jammed old books under doors because the school didn't supply doorstops, and after years of using a dirty chalkboard, Baugher paid $20 for a shower board that she duct-taped to the wall to double as a whiteboard.
"I remember taking one of my students to a meeting for an organization in D.C., a leadership program at School Without Walls [a magnet high school near George Washington], and it hit him hard," Baugher said, "in the sense that he didn't know how disadvantaged he was. He thought that his experience at Ballou was what was being offered in D.C."