an interview with ron suskind and cedric jennings      
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photo of cedric jennings

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  In this audio interview, Ron Suskind and Cedric Jennings discuss the sin of pride and how it helped get Cedric into Brown. To play this streaming audio clip you'll need the RealPlayer or RealAudio player, available free from Progressive Networks. The transcript follows below.

Kathy Spinelli: We're in the studio today with Ron Suskind, staff writer for the Wall Street Journal and Cedric Jennings. In 1995 Ron was awarded the Pultizer Prize for feature writing for a two-part series on Cedric who was attending one of the toughest high schools in Washington, DC and determined to study his way out. Fortunately, Ron wanted to expand the articles into a book following Cedric's journey from the inner city to his freshman year at Brown University. Broadway Books will publish the book this spring and it's called A Hope in the Unseen and I welcome here today Ron and Cedric.

Now, you two met when Ron was researching his article for the Wall Street Journal, and I want to ask both of you about your impressions of each other upon your first meeting. So, I'm going to start with Ron...

Ron Suskind: Well, I was a reporter for The Journal and I was walking the halls of Ballou with my pad, and the idea was to talk to honors students, good students trying to learn in this place. I figured there has to be a couple of kids that want to learn. And, you know, the reporting was not going well. Kids were sort of 'what do you want here and what are you after and what do you want us to say.' So, what I realized is the honors students at Ballou didn't want me to notice them or single them out, that many of them were undercover. They didn't raise their hands in classes, they didn't carry books, they didn't want to be noticed because here scholarship was no great honor. And that's where I was when I was in the principal's office on one particular day and this kid walked in. And I think you know who the kid is [laughter] and he starts to argue with the Vice Principal and the Principal who are standing there about some grade in computer science and this and that 'and I tell you I'm going to fight this grade and I have the documents.' And he turns on his heels and walks out. Nothing undercover about him. [laughter] So, I turned to the Principal and Vice Principal and I say 'who was that?' and they said 'Cedric Jennings, but stay away from him, he's nothing but trouble. And I said, 'what do you mean?' And they said, 'Oh he's straight A's, on his way to Valedictorian, but he's too proud. He's too proud and he's got a quick tongue and it gets him in trouble.' And I said, 'Too proud? That's the problem?' and at that moment I thought 'you know maybe I should meet this kid.' So, I followed Cedric up to physics. It was physics, right?

Cedric Jennings: Yes. Well, I had all ready been in class and you just...

RS: Right. Came up to physics class.

KS: So, what did you make of Ron when you met him?

CJ: What did I make of Ron? Well, Ron was this like this little ball of energy. [Laughter] He was a ball of energy and I was just, I mean, I mean, of course from my stand point it was strange for a little white guy coming in saying I want to do this story, ya know, I don't know what was going on in my mind, what to think. I mean, I didn't know what to think, I didn't know if his motive were bad or good but, I was willing to give it a try. And it pretty much started after that. He would come and visit my mom, me and my mom at home. From then on...

KS: You could trust him?

CJ: Yeah. We been cool.

RS: I passed the mom test.

CJ: Ah, yeah.

KS: Then, as Ron decided to start expanding the story he followed you to Brown, but you wanted to keep his presence a secret in a sense...

CJ: Well, it was a mutual... it was mutual.

KS: So, did you ever have to explain like who he was or why he was around or how did you work that out...

CJ: Well, a lot of times I tried not to say anything, so I tried to avoid people so I wouldn't have to explain. But, most of this time he did a good job of explaining himself so people wouldn't come up to me. But, toward the end of the semester people were like wondering what the focus of his research is, who's the focus? And people starting looking at me because they knew we had a relationship before Brown. So, then people...

KS: People were suspicious that the focus was on you...

RS: You know one think that was interesting is you have a lot of reflex achievers, you know, top-of-the-class kind of kids at Brown in this unit and part of what the interest was sort of a Sweepstakes, cause I was looking at was the whole unit that's what certainly I did. And they were all wondering who would step forth as the star because they all felt that they ought to be the star because they all were stars back in high school X or Y. So, when it became clear that Cedric was the star, the center of the book, the main character, I think a lot of them were like, you know, well 'what about me?' And think that's part of what Cedric felt in the middle of the year when they said 'well, why him and not me.' And eventually they figured out why him and not me.

CJ: It's interesting that you say that because to this day people ask me, 'Are you the center of the book -- is it all about you?' And I thought pretty much everyone had figured it out, but to this day and it's been two...three years, people still ask me that. And I still avoid the question.

KS: They say 'is that why that guy was following you?'

CJ: And I still avoid the question. I say, just wait until the book comes out.

RS: It's hard for some high school Valedictorian from some school to realize they he or she is not the center of attention. Because they are high achievers and they assume they are special, too, and they are.

KS: There's a common theme throughout the book and that is pride. And you talked about it in the principal's office, them saying that Cedric is too proud. To Ron, what did you see that in the world that Cedric was coming from.

RS: Well, it wasn't immediately, but after a while I began to understand the many levels of debate on pride. Of course, the first thing I heard was too proud and I said proud, that's not a word that I would have expected. You hear a lot about self-esteem in inner city schools. 'We want to build self-esteem.' But, the difference between self-esteem and pride is something no one really talks about. And at some ways either at Ballou High School or at Cedric's church in a way pride was not embraced. They talk about the sin of pride or 'if you're so proud what does that say about the rest of us, does that say we are less than you are' and these hair-trigger issues in and around pride I saw eventually as a central thread of the book. You know when Cedric went to Brown first semester, and took a lower course out of fear, understandable, looking at these other kids with 1500 SAT scores, having read a thousand books to Cedric's hundred, he was afraid and swallowed his pride and said 'OK I have to take a lower track, pass-fail classes, the lowest course I can get into, just because I want to survive here.' But, around the middle of the year he realized again what got him here was pride, and he was going to go for it and go for classes with grades and said I'm not going to hide my pride or swallow it. I am proud. You know, and that was a key epiphany.

KS: Did this pride help you or hurt you at Brown, or is it as Ron says...

CJ: It helped me because with pride comes confidence. And I would like to say just because you're proud doesn't mean you think you're better than everyone else--like he said before. And that was just a sort of self-confidence for me just having pride in what I'd done and just examining what I'm working for and working toward.

KS: Well, along the way you've worked so hard, do you ever ask yourself, 'why am I doing this?'

CJ: Yes, all the time. Like the last semester at Brown it was just hell. It was just so much work, it wasn't that I couldn't do the work, it was just so much. And like sometimes I was just like I didn't know if I could make it through. And I would always have the attitude that if it was Wednesday of one week, I'll say well you know what by tomorrow at this time I will have finished and I will have moved on. And I just have that attitude toward everything -- just think positive and it will come out okay.

KS: What do both of you want people to take away from this book when they read it?

RS: Well, I think a lot of things resonate in this book -- some of them unsaid. Some of them felt by the reader, I hope. One of the things is that Cedric has a basic kind of hope that I found very affecting when I met him, and I realized that it was closer to my grandfather. Bringing Cedric probably closer to my grandfather than I am -- a sort of a faith that it will work out in this country, the notion in a hope of the unseen. That kind of hope is what brought a lot of people across the ocean to this country. And it's precisely what propels Cedric from one America to the other. A basic faith that in this land he can and will be accepted for who he is, he will be judged on his merits, he can make it here. And when I saw that I said to myself, 'you know, that's something I don't hear a lot, and something I don't feel myself as much as I'd liked to.'

CJ: And I hope that people discover whether they know it or not everyone has faith and everyone exercises faith. Sometimes even without knowing, regardless of religion, or whatever. Everyone exercises to some extent some form of faith in something you can't see. 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for and things not seen.'

RS: That's the original quote from scripture. [laughing] That's the original quote from which the truncated, messed-up 'hope in the unseen' comes from. Where the title comes from, just so you know, is Cedric's dialogue on this very issue about going to a country he's never seen, going to the Ivy League, with a teacher named Clarence Taylor at Ballou high school. And Mr. Taylor is a great guy, but he's always blotching passing from scripture. Cedric corrects him. He says 'Cedric, Faith is the hope in the unseen' and Cedric corrects him. But, in the end, you kind of liked the messed-up version, too.

CJ: You like the messed-up version.

KS: You can take that with you.... Cedric you're going to graduate next year, the class of 1999 from Brown. Everyone is going to ask you this, so let me be the first to ask you, what are your plans?

CJ: Grad school is definitely in the picture. I would like to study education. I'm definitely thinking of studying outside the country if possible. Because I have faith in the unseen, or hope in the unseen that is. What else? I'm also taking a lot of business oriented courses because I'm thinking of maybe owning my own business, having my own business in the future in relation to music or the music industry. There's just so many things I want to do. But, definitely grad school and education. And studying education is definitely the first thing I'll do when I graduate.

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    Photo of Ron Suskind copyright © E.G. Gallagher.