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In high school, Damon Williams and Rachel Rusch couldn’t have been more different.Williams was a rotund black student at almost 100 percent African-American H.D. Woodson Senior High.He and his mother had lived in the same apartment near Benning Road and East Capitol Street for 17 years. Across town, Rusch, a Woodrow Wilson Senior High student, was a self-described “little white girl who did theater and grew up in this great neighborhood in Upper Northwest.”
Despite their differences, Williams and Rusch had at least one thing in common: They each graduated as valedictorian of their respective classes.Along the way, they enjoyed the spoils that befall high-achieving scholars, culminating with acceptances to the colleges of their choice, George Washington University, on a full-ride scholarship, for Williams and Yale University for Rusch.
But that’s when their stories, chronicled in newspaper clippings and their senior yearbooks, stop.For all the attention heaped upon the valedictorians, school officials know precious little about what happened to Williams, Rusch, and their valedictory cohorts once they finished their graduation speeches. The assumption is that they walked off into the sunset of elite colleges, their entree into worlds of comfort and privilege.
Each year, the D.C. public-school system (DCPS) graduates approximately 2,700 high-school students, 17 of them valedictorians.Tracking them down isn’t easy.Few schools have recorded their valedictorians on anything more permanent than an incomplete file of old graduation-ceremony programs.Figuring out who the valedictorian was 10 years ago would require digging up old transcripts, say many school administrators. One even says it would require recalculating GPAs. Check with the DCPS office, say the schools. The DCPS office says it would never keep such information—check with the schools. The alumni associations for graduates within the past 10 to 15 years aren’t very active.
“Ha!” laughs Alex Wilson, Wilson Senior High director of academic development, when asked if the school could provide a list of valedictorians from 1990 on.“Forget it.”
An assistant principal at Dunbar Senior High chuckles that she “couldn’t even remember the valedictorian from last year.”
Madeline Ruffin, the senior counselor at Spingarn Senior High, tries to explain:“Once they graduate, we don’t have any further contact with them.”
The lack of information may not be just another example of DCPS dysfunction, however.Washington schools tend to downplay the naming of the valedictorian, and until the graduation ceremony, few students know or care who it is, except for the dozen or so vested in the outcome.After all, reminds Wilson, success in high school isn’t limited to graduating with the most impressive weighted grade-point average.“I don’t think it helps us to track just the valedictorian,” he says.“What would I do with that other than be not surprised at their success?”
But winning valedictorian guarantees only one thing: winning valedictorian. The experiences of the top students diverge after high school as quickly as they once intersected.
Rusch followed the expected trajectory, graduating from Yale cum laude with distinction in her major, working for a couple of years in New York City, and returning to Yale for her doctorate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism, where she is in her fourth year and couldn’t be happier.
Williams had a much more difficult transition.High school had consisted of achieving one prescribed benchmark after another, but in college, with no one guiding him and no clear next goal, Williams had little idea what he wanted to do. Despite becoming the first in his family to graduate from college, he was an unspectacular student at GWU.
After GWU, Williams moved back in with his mother and worked for a hospitality-services company, regularly clocking 18-hour days because he always thought he should be doing more.But the long hours started to wear on him, and one day, he simply collapsed.Heeding his doctor’s advice, Williams quit the job on Feb. 14, 2002, and sought counseling.“People assume that once you get to be valedictorian, it’s smooth sailing,” he says. “But I didn’t really figure out what I wanted to do until after college.I thought it was going to be easier.”
Over the next couple of years, Williams endured two long stretches of unemployment before landing his current job as a marketing-and-communications specialist for a nonprofit in the District. He has since learned to deal with the pressure better, but the “recovering workaholic” still has work to do. “I don’t think I’ll ever completely get over the hump and say that even if I don’t make it, I’ll be happy with my effort,” he says.
Williams pushed himself so hard in high school for one reason. “I just didn’t want to be forgotten,” he says. “I wanted people to look at me and say, ‘There’s Damon—he’s doing something with his life.’”
The following capsules chronicle the lives of eight D.C. public-school valedictorians who graduated in either 1995 or 1996.
Shani-Jinaki Whipple, School Without Walls ’95
Elena Whipple was never close with her first daughter, Tanya. She was only 17 when Tanya came along, and the young mother went to work just three months after giving birth. Elena was angry and frustrated with juggling a child, college, and a job, and though she did her best, she and Tanya eventually had a falling-out, and they now rarely speak to each other. Elena allows that her daughter might have resented her for not having spent more time with her. “We’re really not that close anymore at all,” says Elena. “I prayed that it would work, but it didn’t, so I just let it go. I felt I’d done my part in reaching out to her.”
Twenty-one years after Elena had Tanya, she—with her second husband Earl—got another chance. The first thing Elena, then 38 and living in Annapolis, thought after giving birth to her daughter Shani-Jinaki was This little computer is going to be programmed right. “I knew exactly what to do with this one,” says Elena. “You make your mistakes and you correct them. I was very blessed, indeed I was, with Shani-Jinaki, to do it all over again. I decided with this child, I was going to give her all of me. And I did.”
Elena worked only nights, after Shani-Jinaki was asleep. Before Shani-Jinaki started school, Elena plopped her on the living-room floor every day in front of a big chalkboard and taught her the alphabet, math, and Swahili. Shani-Jinaki could read at age 3 and write at 4. Elena took Shani-Jinaki to the Smithsonian museums so often that when the girl visited them on school field trips, she already knew them inside out. Except for recurring ear infections, Shani-Jinaki was progressing just as Elena had envisioned.
Then, during a summer on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, 6-year-old Shani-Jinaki began running a high fever. Elena called her pediatrician, who told them to come in immediately. A rheumatologist subsequently diagnosed Shani-Jinaki with lupus.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease. Victims of lupus don’t die from the disease itself but rather succumb to any of a number of complications, most often kidney failure, heart disease, or infections. Sometimes it goes into remission, but when it flares up, it attacks indiscriminately. Shani-Jinaki suffered from epilepsy, painful inflammation of her joints, scleroderma (hardening of her skin), and sclerodactyl (curling of her fingers and toes). She underwent experimental chemotherapy in seventh grade and again in ninth grade. She started dialysis when her diseased kidneys began to fail. Every two to four hours, Shani-Jinaki took Flexeril, OxyContin, Dilaudid, Roxicodone, and prednisone, which caused her to swell like a sausage. Shani-Jinaki had three sets of clothes in different sizes because her weight fluctuated so much from the medications and chemotherapy.
The Whipples moved to Lusby, Md., when Shani-Jinaki was in fifth grade. Unhappy with the Calvert County schools, Elena obtained a waiver from DCPS to enroll her daughter in School Without Walls when it was time for high school. She and Shani-Jinaki commuted from Lusby to D.C. until a friend found them a basement apartment on Capitol Hill, where they lived until Shani-Jinaki graduated. After the ninth grade chemotherapy treatment, the lupus remained in remission. Shani-Jinaki was even well enough to be a cheerleader for a while. In the car, the two talked about everything—school, church, boys, becoming a lady. “Those were the golden years,” says Elena.
But the lupus returned during Shani-Jinaki’s senior year. The car rides increasingly ended at the hospital, not home, and during the trips, Shani-Jinaki was too weak to do anything but sleep. Despite all the school she missed, she still managed to win valedictorian and a partial scholarship to Sweet Briar College, which she chose because of its renowned equestrian program. She had started riding lessons when the family moved to Lusby, cleaning the neighborhood stables and caring for the horses in exchange for instruction. She loved her horses, wallpapering her room with pictures of them.
Shani-Jinaki lasted at Sweet Briar for a few weeks before she became ill again, forcing her into a dizzying string of college transfers, from Sweet Briar to Wellesley College to Southern Maryland Community College to D.C.’s Trinity College and finally back to the community college, which had since become the College of Southern Maryland.
Eventually, Shani-Jinaki needed a kidney transplant. About two weeks after she received a new kidney, Shani-Jinaki became ill again with a fungal infection. She fought it off but never truly recovered. She died of complications of lupus at home on Nov. 2, 2003, with her cats and family beside her. She was 26.
Elena now runs Shani-Jinaki’s Closet, an “upscale resale” shop in St. Leonard, Md. All proceeds from the store go to a scholarship Elena has set up at the College of Southern Maryland in her daughter’s name. Shani-Jinaki’s absence becomes even more pronounced during prom season, when the high schoolers come in looking for dresses. “This goes on in her name,” she says of the store, sighing. “It keeps me functioning, helps me live my life with her beside me. But the last two years, it’s been hard.”
Elena keeps reminders of her daughter all around her. She still has the list of Shani-Jinaki’s medications, dosages, and dosage times in her day planner, and she still wears her Sweet Briar College Mom sweatshirt.
Thanks to Elena, Shani-Jinaki read anything she could get her hands on: Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis, history books, biographies. She devoured the Harry Potter series; books one through five still sit in a row on a shelf in the Whipples’ library. Fans of the series will get to see the culmination of Harry’s Hogwarts career, but in the Whipple house, he will always remain in his fifth year, 15 years old forever.
Azunna Anyanwu, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School ’96
As the firstborn son of Nigerian immigrants, the pressure to succeed weighed the most on Azunna Anyanwu. His father always made sure Anyanwu remembered just how much the family expected from him. And in keeping with their culture, such conversations tended to be one-way. The only thing not expected from him, it seemed, was his own opinion. “My father has this philosophy of the firstborn being a barometer for how well the siblings will do,” explains Anyanwu. “I didn’t like to hear that, and I still don’t sometimes, but on some level I understand that.”
The family returned to Nigeria when Anyanwu was 6 years old and stayed until he began high school. In sixth grade, at his Nigerian school, Anyanwu received a nine out of 10 on a math quiz. Nigeria still used corporal punishment, and students who didn’t do well got caned across the backside; Anyanwu was surprised to find himself in line for a caning. That was one of two times in his life that he had been hit, and it made an impression—for some reason, teachers expected nothing less than perfection from him.
Returning to the States offered no reprieve. In his first year at Banneker, he received a 94 on a quiz. He was happy with the grade, but his teacher told him to knock it off. “I don’t know why you’re smiling,” the teacher said. “You could do so much better.” Of course, the teacher spared Anyanwu the rod, but his tongue-lashing made the same point. “I was like, What’s up with these people?” says Anyanwu.
Banneker was an oasis compared to the other schools that Anyanwu visited as a member of the Banneker tennis and basketball teams. He and his teammates found their bus windows broken out after one game at Anacostia Senior High School. One day, they would get crushed by the Wilson tennis team; another day, they would show up at some other school and have no one to play. At Banneker, they left their backpacks in the hallways, and if someone had something stolen, the principal would get on the intercom and tell that person to return it. On game nights, when other schools came in to play at Banneker, the principal made another announcement: Put your things in your lockers.
“I loved Banneker,” says Anyanwu. “I felt like every single teacher cared about me whether or not I was in their class.”
As the Banneker valedictorian, Anyanwu didn’t categorize his college choices into reaches and safeties and good fits. He applied to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins and got into all of them. He never considered the possibility of getting rejected. He liked Johns Hopkins; his parents told him he was going to Harvard, even tricking him into visiting Cambridge by changing his plane ticket at the last minute. The trip worked, and he wound up at Harvard, where one of the first people he met was “a little white girl from California” who asked him, with equal parts awe and confusion when she learned where he was from, “How did you make it here?”
For as long as he could remember, Anyanwu’s parents had told him he was going to be a doctor. But on his first day on campus, he marched over to Emerson Hall and wrote down computer science as his No. 1, 2, and 3 choices for a major. Free from his parental yoke, he stayed up having all-night drunken conversations with his hallmates. He realized that even at Harvard, there were going to be C students, and he might well be one of them. To his surprise, he was OK with that.
Then, after three semesters at Harvard, he quit. The tech boom was in full swing in 1998, and even with only a year and a half of college, he landed a job as a software developer. For the next (very lucrative) year, he lived at home and worked. “I was ready for school, but I wasn’t,” he says. “I knew it was important, and I knew I had to do it, but in that moment, it just didn’t feel important.”
A maternal guilt trip sent him back to Cambridge, and he graduated with the class of 2001. A consulting firm offered him a job but then rescinded it in the fall because of “deteriorating business conditions.” He caught on with another company that kept him around a few months, at a significant pay cut, until it was bought out and everyone in the D.C. office was laid off. It took him almost half a year to find another job, which involved another pay cut. His parents were heartbroken. They had believed that a Harvard education would automatically vault their son into elite circles and guarantee him his pick of jobs for life. “I never would have expected that, not coming out of Harvard, or with the way things were in the late 1990s,” says Anyanwu of being unemployed. “It was very humbling.”
Since then, he has earned a master’s degree in computer science from Johns Hopkins and now works as a tech consultant with a Big Five firm. He bought a house in 2003, in Takoma Park, about 10 minutes from his parents. “High school was completely sheltered,” he says. “It’s so not the real world. Not that college is, either, but it’s closer. I’ve subsequently had conversations with people about how the further up you go, the less important school becomes, and it’s all about experience.”
Michael Katherine Haynie, Wilson ’96
When Wilson Senior High graduate Michael Katherine Haynie arrived at Harvard University, she was surprised at the strange looks she got from classmates when they found out she had attended a public high school in D.C. It happened so often that she quickly developed a set of talking points in defense of public schools. Any time she heard them being disparaged, she jumped into the argument. For company, she sought out other public-school graduates. One of them was Banneker valedictorian Anyanwu, who helped her when her computer acted up and watched ER with her on Thursdays.
As an only child growing up in Palisades, Haynie cultivated a group of friends who defected to private schools after junior high. Her parents asked if she wanted to go as well, but Haynie insisted on going to Wilson, her neighborhood school. “Private school is not the real world,” she told her parents.
At Wilson, Haynie didn’t participate in any of the school’s celebrated academies, opting out of the Wilson International Studies Program because it wouldn’t allow her to take Latin as her primary language. (“That was my attempt at teenage rebellion,” she says.) For most of her first two years, Haynie took a lot of general courses, and it showed in her social group. She says she was one of three people in her circle of friends who would identify themselves as white. That changed as she moved into more-intensive classes. “When we started getting into AP classes, the non-Caucasians were fewer and they were from my exact same socioeconomic class,” she recalls.
Despite Wilson’s reputation, getting a good education there still required a certain amount of initiative. When Haynie was placed in an AP biology class that she didn’t think was going to challenge her, she camped out in the guidance office and raised all kinds of hell until she got into the class with the teacher she wanted. She went through three guidance counselors during her stay at Wilson, and learning to successfully navigate a bureaucracy was just as valuable to her as anything she studied in class. “D.C. public schools, they don’t necessarily set you up to succeed,” says Haynie. “You have to fight for it. No one’s going to sit next to you and plan things for the rest of your life. I would have sunk like a rock at Harvard if I hadn’t been used to dealing with that.”
Unlike other District high schools, Wilson didn’t use metal detectors then, but it wasn’t immune to violence.Late in Haynie’s senior year, she was sitting on the school’s side steps with a few friends from the crew team when two men approached them with a gun and demanded their money. The men scuffled with the boys in the group and took Haynie’s watch. “The police came and it was a big deal,” she says, “but I was like, ‘You know, I lived.’”
Haynie was one of three valedictorians at Wilson in 1996, along with her good friends Rachel Rusch and Allison Harris. Harris was on top, but the differences in grade-point average were so negligible that the school decided not to split hairs. “That was great, except people had to sit though three speeches,” laughs Haynie. “No one should have to sit through a speech written by a 17-year-old.”
Haynie studied archaeology at Harvard and worked as an archaeologist for a few years, including a stint with the National Park Service, covering the New England region. But she tired of all the traveling and solitary work and now manages a staff of 10 at the help desk of a software company in Boston. “One of the jokes about archaeology is it’s the last refuge for lone wolfs and cowboys,” Haynie explains. “I still love archaeology, but I think it was a slight miscalculation. I really missed talking to people.”
Haynie never wishes she had gone to a private high school, even if it might have meant avoiding a mugging. “Our society has violent things happening, and it’s counterproductive to lock your kids up,” she says. “Of course, I’m not a parent yet and my view might change, but I’m a big proponent of the public-school system, and I’d like to see time and money invested to fix it, instead of people who have the time and money taking their kids elsewhere. I think it’s stupid not to try. Public education is one of the best things this country has going for it.”
Jamehl Lillie-Holland, Dunbar Senior High School ’96
When Jamehl Lillie-Holland told her parents in ninth grade that she wanted to go to Dunbar Senior High School, they were a little skeptical. Her family came from a long line of graduate-degree holders, and her parents figured she belonged at a Wilson or a Banneker. But those were the schools where Lillie-Holland’s middle-school classmates were headed, and frankly, she was tired of them. She convinced her parents to let her enter Dunbar’s pre-engineering program.
While at Dunbar, Lillie-Holland was especially active in the young women’s organization, helping the homeless and attending etiquette classes. “Some of the kids really needed [etiquette training], because they didn’t get it at home,” says Arline Catchings, now in her third decade as a Dunbar guidance counselor. “But Jamehl really didn’t need instruction. She had a sound parental foundation. She was a dynamite young lady.”
During her senior year, Lillie-Holland took three classes at Dunbar and two math classes at George Washington University, was a flag girl in the marching band and a member of the choir, and worked part-time at the Gap. “I actually enjoyed high school quite a bit,” she says. “It was a great environment. I mean, I was working at the Gap while all my friends were doing school. How cool is that?”
As Dunbar’s valedictorian, Lillie-Holland won full-ride scholarships to both GWU and Howard University, and choosing GWU was a difficult decision. Though she knows going to Howard might not have been a better experience, she can’t help feeling a twinge of envy when she talks with friends who went to historically African-American universities. “I felt some odd sense that those who could function in a ‘white’ school should,” she explains. “I thought I could be successful at GW.”
At GWU, Lillie-Holland studied civil engineering, though she didn’t earn the same honors as she did as a high schooler. “In college, I was probably an average student,” she says. “I graduated with a 2.99, which pissed me off because I was working my ass off to get above a 3.0.”
She hasn’t been back to Dunbar since graduating, but she remains involved with her alma mater. Four years ago, she started a scholarship with a Dunbar classmate, Derrick Stevenson, who also attended GWU. Stevenson’s uncle was the Dunbar building engineer, and when he passed away, Lillie-Holland contacted Stevenson about starting a scholarship in his uncle’s name. Each year, the pair gives $600 out of their own pockets to help two college-bound Dunbar students defray the costs of textbooks. “She didn’t just graduate and go about her business,” says Catchings. “She’s giving back to the school to give back to the students. That’s something alumni classes do, but not often individuals. That’s just the type of person she is. More people need to be like that.”
Lillie-Holland has few regrets about attending Dunbar over the more prestigious schools in D.C.’s system. “I was aware that Dunbar wasn’t viewed to be as good as a Banneker, and I’m sure a lot of those kids were smart, but it didn’t seem to be for me,” she says. “I always viewed Dunbar as just as good, especially with the pre-engineering program. I got a good education.”
Always tall for her age, Lillie-Holland played basketball in junior high school but not at Dunbar, because she wanted to grow her fingernails and hair and “look cute” so she could become a model. She put together a portfolio and snagged a few unpaid freelance gigs, but her career never quite took off.
Now she works as a construction manager and wears Timberlands and a hard hat to work, a far cry from the haute couture she once dreamed of sashaying down the runway, though she says she does her best to wear skirts and heels on the weekends.
“That was my career aspiration: to be a model,” she laughs. “And look at where it got me.”
Ifeanyi Mbanefo, Calvin Coolidge Senior High School ’95
In high school, Ifeanyi Mbanefo never worried about his health. Born in Nigeria, Mbanefo was too busy adjusting to the food, the weather, and the culture when he came to America in 1992, before his sophomore year of high school. To keep from being homesick, he dove into his studies; excelling at school gave him a sense of identity in his adopted country. When he wasn’t studying, he played for the Coolidge soccer team and ran for the track team.
All the hard work paid off when Georgetown University offered Mbanefo a seat in its freshman class, along with a generous financial-aid package. In June 1995, he proudly posed for local newspapers and delighted in seeing his name and achievements listed with all the other valedictorians.
More than a decade later, things have changed. Mbanefo lasted two years at Georgetown before dropping out due to a “mental illness,” as he calls it. As a student, he had spread himself too thin for too long. He overloaded on credits, and he stayed up late and skipped meals to finish all the reading and write all the papers. He started losing weight, and his grades suffered. Eventually, Mbanefo checked himself into the student health center. “When you’re valedictorian, you feel like you have to accomplish everything, and it got to me,” says Mbanefo.
Mbanefo’s father picked him up from the health center and took him to a hospital, where he stayed for four months, working with doctors and psychiatrists. When he was discharged from the hospital, he moved back in with his family in Brightwood. “I guess you could call it a breakdown,” says Mbanefo. “But it wasn’t sudden. It was slow and cumulative. It was because of the pressure and stress I had to deal with.”
The recovery took almost two years, and Mbanefo spent most of it reading and thinking about what he was going to do next. He worked at the Library of Congress for a couple of years, to pay off his school loans. He then enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia to study respiratory therapy but stopped going last year after realizing that he didn’t have the stomach for the invasive procedures it required.
Mbanefo’s younger sister was also a Coolidge valedictorian, in 1997. She suffered a similar post-Coolidge breakdown but managed to graduate from Cheyney University in 2001. Mbanefo doubts that any of this would have happened had his family stayed in Nigeria. “It’s a different culture and a different lifestyle,” he says of coming to the United States. “It seems like I had to make adjustments. Things I would normally do, I couldn’t do them. I just had to change myself.”
Mbanefo intends to go back to school eventually, but not anytime soon. Though he has recently ceased taking medication, he has more work to do in finding the happy medium between doing everything and doing nothing. He admits that he still has to remind himself to take it easy. “When I was younger, I was one-minded,” he says. “I think that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned: that life isn’t about accomplishing as much as you can. I had to realize my achievements weren’t everything to me.”
LaKisha Epps, Anacostia Senior High School ’96
When LaKisha Epps was in junior high school, her mother underwent surgery on her stomach. For the next few weeks, a nurse would stop by the house daily to monitor her mother’s recovery. And every day, Epps would watch, fascinated. She decided then that she wanted to become a doctor.
“I would sit there with my food and just watch while the nurse cleaned the sutures,” recalls Epps. “My mom thought it was gross, but I didn’t. I still don’t.”
Television shows such as Doogie Howser, M.D. and ER only piqued her interest, and becoming a doctor certainly seemed attainable to her. The last time anyone had had to remind her to make her schoolwork a priority was in third grade. Epps had been scheduled to go on a trip to Florida with her father, but her mother wasn’t satisfied with Epps’ grades, so she stayed home. “From that point on, my mother didn’t have any problems with me,” she says. “I didn’t want to spoil any more trips.”
Epps applied to Anacostia Senior High School’s Public Service Academy, but she didn’t know if she’d gotten in until after school started, because the administration had not prepared all the student schedules in time. After sitting in the cafeteria for most of the first week, waiting for her schedule, she finally found out she had been accepted.
While belonging to the academy gave her the benefit of a more focused curriculum and increased access to work-study programs, field trips, and other opportunities, she was far from isolated from the school’s violent incidents. “Anacostia was pretty rough,” recalls Epps. “Everything we had was outdated—books, lockers, hallways—and the bad things always affected everybody. If someone got in a fight, we couldn’t do something. Sports were cancelled. Activities were cut. You had all this bad stuff going around you, and even though you may not be involved, it was going to affect you.”
Then, at age 15, Epps became pregnant. Her relatives wailed that she had thrown her life down the drain. She might as well drop out of school and take care of her baby, they said, because they sure weren’t going to. Her mother lobbied her to not have the child, but by the time she told her mother, Epps had already decided she was going to keep it.
Epps had been a scholar before getting pregnant, and once her daughter was born, becoming valedictorian of Anacostia took on extra importance. “I wanted to prove people wrong, that just because I made a mistake and got pregnant, I’m not a stupid person,” says Epps. “I can still do well and make it out of here.”
Epps graduated tops in her class with a 3.99 grade-point average, earned a number of small scholarships, and enrolled in GWU. College was a struggle from the start. The workload was more difficult than she expected, and living at home prevented her from making friends or joining study groups. In her second semester at the university, she received a D in a biology class. “A D,” says Epps, still stung. “And I was pre-med, so it was really, really not good at all.”
Epps became discouraged and began wondering if GWU was the right place for her. “It was tough,” she says. “My mind-set was that I could do anything. I had graduated No. 1, and I was in an academy, not just a breeze-through curriculum like the general population. I could do this.”
But it was too much. Epps quit GWU after the semester and went to Sanz School, a vocational institution, and worked as a medical assistant for a couple of years. Then she was an administrative assistant for tax attorneys at the Internal Revenue Service. She received her degree in computer networking from Strayer University in 2004. Epps has no illusions about the names on her résumé. “We all know Strayer isn’t a great school, but I’m not letting that stop me,” she says. “All my life I’ve been proving people wrong, so why stop now?”
She now lives in Forestville, Md., with her five children and works as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. The father of her first child was shot and killed in 2003. Epps has no idea where the father of the others is. “Lost somewhere,” she guesses. “Although I love my kids to death, we all make mistakes, and he was definitely one of them.”
Epps, along with a friend from high school, recently started a small real-estate investment business—an idea triggered by a late-night infomercial. They are finalizing their first purchase, Epps’ childhood home, and hope to buy a small apartment unit in the near future. This month, Epps will start classes to get her real-estate license. Though she never became a doctor, she shouldn’t be written off just yet. After all, when her eldest daughter is old enough to head off to college, she’ll only be 34.
“Right now, I just want to be financially stable,” she says. “I want to provide for my kids’ education and just be happy. I don’t want to be one who thinks I shoulda coulda woulda. I didn’t. I know that. I just want to move on to next stage in life, and knowing that I can makes me successful. There’s nothing holding me back but me. I still want to be a doctor. One day.”
Aris Winger, Dunbar ’95
Aris Winger lost his mother to cancer when he was 9 years old. Two years later, his father died in a car accident, and he went to live in Shaw with his grandmother, aunt, and uncle. The morning after his father’s death, the adults got up and went right to work. And Winger went to school.
“That was the worst time of my life,” recalls Winger. “But I realize now the point was to just keep going. It was a huge thing for me. Seeing them do that told me that things can be OK. You go back to living. If they had told me how bad things were, things would be completely different. Instead, they implied that life wasn’t over.”
Winger went on to Dunbar High’s pre-engineering academy, and his aptitude for math attracted the attention of guidance counselors, who helped place him in college math classes at Howard University. Winning valedictorian was a major goal for him, motivated largely from his having been beaten out for it in junior high by Vera Okoro, who went on to become valedictorian at Eastern High. His academic dedication left him little time to dwell on the conditions at Dunbar outside of his classes. “Everything was bad during that time,” he reasons. “It was a very day-to-day thing, and the full extent of what’s going on didn’t register. When you’re in it, you don’t think, Oh, this is happening. Besides, was I not going to go to school?”
The single-minded determination didn’t come without a price. Winger was away from Dunbar so much his senior year that he felt as if he were already out of school. It was a lonely time for him. “There has to be some reconciliation looking back, that I missed things and that’s OK,” says Winger. “For me, it didn’t seem like I was doing some huge thing. I look back and realize I was very closed off.”
After Dunbar, Winger decided to stay home to attend Howard. With all of his advanced coursework in high school, he could enter Howard with almost 30 credits, so it seemed logical to go where he could graduate in three years. He wasn’t thinking about getting the so-called college experience. He just wanted to get college out of the way so he could move on to the next thing. “I was very driven,” says Winger. “When I was that age, it was very much about trying to do as much as possible, finish the goals I had set. Even before knowing why I was going to college, I knew I had to finish it. One of those overachiever things.”
In college, Winger confirmed his desire to become a math professor, but he also realized that there was more to life than achieving a succession of objectives. “I came to realize I should be here to be enlightened, not because I want to get a job or fulfill goals,” he says. “The purpose to me being here was to be a better person. That was motivated by, thankfully, the classes I took and reading I did.”
After graduating from Howard, Winger received his doctorate in mathematics from Carnegie Mellon University. Now a newly minted tenure-track professor specializing in differential equations at Emory and Henry College, a small liberal arts college in rural Virginia, Winger couldn’t be happier with the school or his work, which he says he would do for free. He often wonders how he made it to where he is, but for all his accomplishments, he has yet to come up with a definitive answer. “At some level, there’s a notion of being lucky,” he muses. “I’m the first to say I’m very lucky.”
Wai-Ying Chow, School Without Walls ’96
Every Chinese mother has a bit of Dragon Lady in her, but Wai-Ying Chow’s mother, who raised Wai-Ying and her mentally ill brother by herself 10 minutes north of Chinatown in Mount Vernon Square, was extra protective. She escorted her daughter to and from Strong John Thompson Elementary every single day of school, rain or shine. As a child, Chow was allowed to walk alone on only one side of her street, between 5th and 6th Streets, which she says was bookended by drug dealers and a low-income apartment complex.
She got her first giddy taste of autonomy in middle school, when she hopped on the Metro to Jefferson Junior High, though her mother made sure she came right home after school. “She had reason to be protective, but I hated it,” recalls Chow. “She didn’t understand sleepovers. You have a home, and people are going to kill you.”
“I’ll probably be just like that,” she adds, laughing.
Chow was born in Hong Kong but remembers little of it, having moved to the United States when she was 2. Occasionally, she dreams in Cantonese, but she doesn’t know what she’s saying. Chow’s mother speaks little English, so she could help only with her daughter’s math homework, but she made sure Chow understood the necessity of a good education. It didn’t take long for Chow to develop her own sense of achievement. In third grade, she was having trouble with a math concept, and the teacher commented that she didn’t understand why she wasn’t getting it, because she was Chinese. “I remember her having this bewildered disappointment on her face, and that pissed me off,” says Chow. “From that point on, I couldn’t accept anything but an A.”
Not wanting to be like all the other children in Chinatown, Chow decided not to attend Wilson Senior High School. Her best friend was already at School Without Walls and encouraged Chow to apply. You could leave your bookbag out in the hallway and no one would touch it, her friend said. “I’m like, What? How could that be?” recalls Chow. “That was nothing you’d heard of in the ghetto. It sounded like an oasis. I was lucky to go to Walls, because I don’t think I would have survived anywhere else.”
At School Without Walls, Chow thrived. She played volleyball, sang in the choir, and took classes at nearby GWU, accumulating a year’s worth of college credits. When it came time to apply to college, Chow tried to cut the cord, thinking that wherever her mother wanted her to go, she would choose the opposite. But her mother’s guilt trip was so effective that Chow didn’t put much effort into her out-of-town applications, and she accepted a full-ride scholarship to GWU.
One stipulation of her scholarship was that Chow had to live on campus all four years. Her mother suggested she just leave some things in her dorm and live at home, but Chow very diplomatically told her the school would find out; the rule was an external force that they had no control over and they would just have to deal. Her mother relented. “I was like, Yes! Finally!” says Chow. “Bless GW. I will always love GW.” Every week for the next four years, though, Chow’s mother would drive to GWU with enough steaming, freshly cooked food to feed everyone on Chow’s dorm floor.
In typical Chinese fashion, Chow’s mother never let on how proud she was of her daughter. Chow had to learn to read the little cues or overhear her bragging to a friend. When she was named valedictorian at School Without Walls, her mother didn’t say anything. She just cried. “I had to read that and say, ‘Ah, that’s pride,’” says Chow. “She never told me explicitly, but I picked up enough to know she loved me and was proud. She loved being able to say, ‘My daughter was No. 1 in her class,’ or that I went to GW and she didn’t have to pay for it.”
Chow graduated from GWU in 2000, summa cum laude, with a degree in psychology. She was awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship to use at a graduate program of her choice, and is now a fourth-year clinical psychology doctoral student at Arizona State University, with an interest in prevention research for at-risk children and their families. She intends to return to Washington when she finishes her Ph.D. “I feel like I have to,” she says. “In my work here, you start to really understand what makes a kid strong, even though the environment can be very adverse. What we need to do as grown-up resilient people is to go back and share what we know so kids can maybe have an easier time with it.”
The struggle for independence from her mother continues. “I’m all the way in Arizona, and it’s still on,” says Chow with a sigh. “Going to Arizona, that really hurt her. It took a while to get over.”
“I got her trained good now, though,” she jokes. “She only calls every three weeks.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara except where noted.