Stumbling Toward Greatness: One Young Black Man's Story, Part 1

Tai'Lon Jackson left his neighborhood in D.C. with a full ride to George Washington University. Then life got complicated.

Tai'Lon Jackson visits his former high school where he was class valedictorian  (National Journal)

On a spring day last year, Tai'Lon Jackson, then a Ballou High School senior, struggled to feign excitement for a surprise pep rally. Though he was in the band, often leading a cheering crowd, that day Jackson was depressed. Earlier that school year he had trounced a cheerleader in the race for senior class president (she promised to change the school lunch menu, while he promised to find ways to fund programs the school couldn't afford). He was on the chess club, the poetry club, and the marching band. He had a 4.2 GPA. But he had not heard from any of the colleges he'd applied to.

Jackson never believed he was the smartest kid at Ballou. He did believe, however, he'd worked the hardest. As a child, he and his mom would stand on the balcony of their red-brick apartment complex and gaze at stars through binoculars because they couldn't afford a telescope. Each morning, as he and his younger brother left for school, his mom's voice echoed into the concrete stairwell:

"What are you?!"

They'd begrudgingly give the expected response.

"Leaders. Not followers!"

His single mother nicknamed him "Professor" for his often precocious thoughts, for his bespectacled, scholarly appearance, and for his odd experiments, like growing mold on food and storing it in the fridge.

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."

Fights in the hallways and cafeteria were common at Ballou. Even in Advanced Placement classes, a teacher might be dealing with 30 students who ranged from an 11th-grade reading level down to a 5th-grade reading level. Teachers burned out quickly, and those who stuck around eventually brittled to hope and sometimes kicked their feet up on the desk to read the paper during class. After seven years at Ballou—which meant she was considered a veteran—Baugher quit last January after a series of panic attacks sent her to the ER.

It can't all be blamed on the school system, though, Baugher said. These kids grow up where unreliability is normal, so they learn to depend on themselves. "The most successful students at Ballou are the ones who are incredibly resilient and are doing things on their own, so there's this mind-set that I'm going to make it, and I'm going to make it on my own."

In the fall, Jackson moved into a dorm at George Washington, a private school where students dress like they're headed to a summer internship at dad's law firm; where more than once, Jackson would overhear students remark, "Oh my God, there are so many black people in D.C."

He would soon discover that getting in was only the first round in a fight for survival.

Continue to Part 2: "Lonely at the Top."

"The most successful students at Ballou are the ones who are incredibly resilient and are doing things on their own, so there's this mind-set that I'm going to make it, and I'm going to make it on my own."--Alli Baugher, former Ballou High School teacher

+ When the new Ballou High School was erected, a painting of Jackson was included in the lobby.