Before senior year, Jackson had attended a summer program at Stanford University, where he found that astronomers spend little time staring into space. Ever the pragmatist, he decided to study aerospace-engineering, which offered a median salary above $100,000, some reaches into the sky, and held plenty of job opportunities. So at George Washington, Jackson enrolled in 17 credits his first semester. He had calculus, Japanese, chemistry, and two engineering courses. All his life, he'd waited to be here, among the elite.
On the first day of school last fall, Jackson sat in his calculus class among some 15 other students. None were Black. Jackson wore a striped hoodie, jeans, and old blue sneakers. He didn't have money for "first-day" clothes, but he'd grown used to that.
As the teacher's assistant discussed the lesson plan, Jackson thought, "OK, I'm gonna be alright." Much of the material outlined for the first week seemed to be a review of his senior math class. He sat through his chemistry lecture, Japanese, and afterward met up with his roommate, Llewellyn "Xavier" Richie. Richie was the other student on scholarship from Ward 8. He was Black, from a similar background, and the two had hit it off immediately. Around 8 p.m., the two headed to CVS. As they talked about the first day, Jackson got a call. His girlfriend's sister, only in her 30s, lay dying of a heart condition at United Medical Center in Southeast. He and Richie hopped on a train. They offered to spend the night, but Jackson's girlfriend, a senior at Ballou High School, told them to get back to school. Soon, his grandfather would die. Soon after, someone would gun down his cousin.
Within weeks of starting, Jackson dropped his calculus class. When he'd enrolled, he'd copied George Washington's recommended first-semester courses for his major. But the engineering department had made him take a math placement test. He did not do well. He was was supposed to sign up for a lower calculus class, a prerequisite to the one his major required. His first week, he was already behind.
It was around this time that Jackson noticed the other students, at lunch, in halls, in class, staring at him. They eyed the missing wood tassels on his blue winter coat—the only coat he owned—the specks of bleach stains on his pants, sneakers that lacked a name-brand logo. But it wasn't only the eyes. In the dorms, first-year students made friends and Jackson joined along, but whenever someone couldn't remember who sung a certain rap song, everyone looked to Jackson. As if by being Black he knew. Some students called him "Dawg," as in, "What's up, Dawg?"
White students weren't dawgs.
Once in the common room, a friend of a friend told him, "You don't talk like most Black people."
"Like most Black people?" he thought.
He'd sit in his calculus or chemistry class, the professor in midlecture, and he'd sense the eyes pausing on him. He'd quiet his anxious mind and think, "Me being Black is not the most important thing in their lives."