Stumbling Toward Greatness: One Young Black Man's Story, Part 3

Rising from the Ashes: 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 friends at his former high school in Southeast Washington, D.C.  (National Journal)

His failure that first semester overwhelmed him like a sin he needed to confess. But who could he tell?

George Washington has a Multicultural Student Services Center. Jackson had even met an associate director there. He thought about his friends, uncles, former counselors, Ballou High School's band director who thought of him like a son. "I didn't want to disappoint them," Jackson said. "I figured, I'm an adult now. I have to solve my own problems."

About two weeks from fall semester's end, on a gray and snowy day, Jackson's old band director, Darrell Watson, called to ask if he needed groceries. Watson is the type of teacher who students talk to after school. They gather in his band room just to feel part of something. Watson sensed Jackson needed help, so he drove 20 minutes from Ballou to George Washington. On the ride to the grocery store, Jackson said little. As they walked the aisles, and as Watson prodded, the low grades, the thought of quitting, the feelings of failure, all spilled out.

"Why didn't you talk to anyone?" Watson asked.

"I didn't want to disappoint anyone," Jackson said.

"You know what to do," Watson told him. "We talked about your support system. And you have to call on us when you have days like that, because there are going to be days like that."

Near the end of the semester, Jackson reached out to George Rice III, associate director of the Multicultural Student Services Center at George Washington. Rice is Black. And that was important. "It's not to say that other people can't help," Jackson says, "but there are some things they just can't empathize with."

Sitting in his office, Rice told Jackson, "I've been where you've been."

After he talked with Watson and Rice, Jackson called anyone who might have helpful advice. He meditated mornings and nights.

Two days before a calculus midterm his second semester, around 2 p.m., Jackson sat alone at a piano in a room in the basement of the music department. The room was just large enough to fit the piano, and on the wall to his right hung a fire hydrant-red phone--it looked like something from a movie, like the phones Cold War presidents used only in moments of dire emergency.

He set his three-inch-thick, $300 calculus book on the piano keys. He copied the first problem into his notebook.

He studied all night, and set his phone's alarm to remind him to take a break every few hours. The next day he treated himself to cinnamon sugar-covered doughnut holes in the cafeteria, and the crumbs fell onto the open calculus book. He studied late again. Around 1 a.m. he finally climbed into bed.

After his first semester, Jackson accepted that he was a type of foreigner at GW. He decided that if George Washington gave him the scholarship because he was poor and Black, fine, they had their poor Black student. So what? He had a scholarship. If students stared at him, or acted awkwardly because they'd never been around someone like him, "OK," he told himself, "let's move on."

Another change came in the way he viewed friends, his mother, Watson, and former teachers. Growing up had required independence, and now he'd need to rely on help from others. He stopped thinking of how he'd disappoint everyone if he failed, and started looking at them as resources.

As he sat in bed, 20 minutes from home, in some version of an alternate reality, he'd look at a poster with dozens of signatures from friends and family his girlfriend made. "All those people who signed it," he'd think. "All those people care about me."

On the day of the calculus test, Jackson took a seat among some 40 students. At the front, the professor passed around the exams. There were about 20 problems and it counted for 30 percent of his grade. The other students scribbled on the pages, seemingly confident, heads down. Knowing. They stood to pass in their exams and still Jackson worked away.

After he'd finished, Jackson left school and walked down into the metro station and headed toward Southeast to visit his mother, to see his girlfriend, and to talk with Watson.

He sat alone and stared out the window into the black tunnel. He thought he'd gotten a "C" on the test. That didn't bother him. There'd be more tests. More opportunities. He slipped in his earbuds as the train bored into the dark tunnel that led home.

Jackson stepped of the train at the Anacostia stop in Southeast, where a man shouted, "Single, single, single Newports!" He stepped onto a bus where everyone was Black. He left the bus and climbed three flights of stairs to his mom's apartment, where the door still bore a elementary honor-roll sticker he'd won. He talked with his mom about the test. And later about how she'd enrolled to finally get her own diploma. He walked down the stairs and out the door, he cut through the apartment complex where bars covered all the windows. He passed vacant buildings and hopped a chain-link fence, just as he'd done each morning as a kid, when his mother asked her two sons, "What are you?"

In the high school's lobby, Jackson stopped in front of a security guard. He walked through the metal detector. Above, a painting of himself smiled at him.

If you missed them, read part 1 and part 2.