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Susie Kay grew up in Newport, R.I., immersed in privilege, surrounded by Von Bulow types and yacht clubs and all that beautiful water.
She teaches at H.D. Woodson High School now, on the undermoneyed side of the Anacostia River. Kay’s students invariably find out about her otherworldly childhood environs, at which point they joke that she must have “made a wrong turn” at some crossroads in her life to end up among them, and then they question why she stays. When she gets that ribbing, Kay laughs a bitshe laughs a lot, actuallythen tells her class the silly truth about how she got where she got: Obsessions with the Redskins and politics (or vice versa), not a wrong turn, brought her to D.C. And love of her job and the students (or vice versa), not some sense of guilt or quest for martyrdom, keeps her here.
Proof of Kay’s dedication to the youth of her second city comes this weekend on the blacktop of Hine Junior High School, with the second rendition of the H.D. Woodson Hoop Dreams basketball tournament. Proceeds from the event will go to a scholarship fund to be disbursed to the most deserving and needy college-bound graduates during Woodson’s commencement exercises on June 9. Last year, the scholarships ran from $500 to $1,000, and Kay hopes this year’s grants will be larger.
Kay, a 32-year-old American University alum, teaches government to seniors at the Academy of Finance and Business, a charter school housed at Woodson. She founded the three-on-three, 15-points-wins tourney last year to generate college scholarship funds for Woodson graduates. In a public school system seen as so screwed up that kids put their very lives at risk by going to class, a lack of college funds doesn’t rate much attention.
That doesn’t mean the money isn’t meaningful.
“I’ve learned a whole lot about myths here at Woodson,” says Kay, now in her sixth year at the school. “Like the myth that if you come from a place of economic hardship and you have the academic credentials, then you’ll go to college and all the scholarship money you’ll need will be there for you. That’s just not true. Not at all. I’ve seen it too many times: The kids that I know work all through high school to make themselves successful, but after Woodson, at the end of the rainbow, there is no pot of gold waiting.”
Usually, the kids from the charter school find a way. According to Barbara Birchette, coordinator for the Academy of Finance and Business, 49 of the 51 graduates in the class of 1996 went on to college (the other two enlisted in the military). And among this year’s class of 52 students, 49 have already received at least one college acceptance letter.
Kay feels her biggest mission is teaching her charges that the world is a whole lot bigger than their neighborhood. To do that, and to feed her own political jones, Kay schedules field trips to Capitol Hill as often as possible. She also brings the Hill to Woodson: Congressional aides and even senators and representatives occasionally accept Kay’s habitual invitations to speak before her class.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the Woodson tournament will be held on the playground of a middle school in Eastern Market, a neighborhood that sits just a three-point shot away from the Capitol dome.
“To go from the Hill to Anacostia, you have to cross a bridge, literally as well as symbolically,” she says. “You go from this great bastion of power, a place known for having a surplus of powerful people, to a place where economic resources and hope are sometimes in short supply, a place known for being full of people who feel powerless. Not to sound President Clinton’s theme, but I’d like to show people on both sides that that bridge has to bring us together, rather than separate us. I know that sounds corny, but it’s something I really think about a lot.”
The same techniques she honed while trying to entice Hill rats to lecture her students came in handy while recruiting sponsors and name talent for the basketball tournament. Those who finally caved in to Kay’s full-court press include ex-Bullet Phil Chenier, Maryland hoops legend/ex-congressman Tom McMillen, Georgetown Hoya Ya Ya Dia, and former Redskins George Starke and Rick “Doc” Walker. All will trade elbows and jumpers on the Hine courts this weekend.
“There’s a fine line between being persistent and being a pest, and I’ve probably crossed it a few times, especially when it comes to getting Redskins,” she says. “But, I’ve loved the Redskins my entire life, and,
well, the cause is definitely worth it.”
One of the biggest fish Kay tried to landJuwan Howardgot away, but not without a tough fight. She spent weeks trying to get the Bullets/Wizards forward on the phone, but to no avail. Finally, one night last week, she found Howard walking to his car in a Georgetown parking lot, and gave it the old college try.
“I didn’t know he’d be where he was, so I felt like it was fate that brought us together, and I ran up to Juwan and begged, ‘Please! Please! Please come to my tournament!’” Kay laughs. “And I really thought I had him. But as it turned out, he’s going to be out of town over the weekend. Maybe next year.”
Howard apologized for his unavailability, and to show his contrition got buddy Chris Webber to autograph a basketball with him. Kay will auction off that ball and other collectibles during the tournament.
Kay had none of the same trouble getting Shelvin
Simmons to play in her tournament. Simmons is a Hoop Dreams winner twice over: His team took first place in
last year’s event, and, due solely to his performance in the classroom, he was one of four Woodson seniors from the class of 1996 to be awarded a scholarship with proceeds from the inaugural tournament. He’s in business school
at Howard University now, having just finished up his
“All I did was pass the ball to teammates, really,” Simmons says humbly. “But I’ve still got to be there to defend my title.” And even if somebody manages to knock Simmons and his crew off the champion’s dais, he’ll still be heading back to Howard for his sophomore year.Dave McKenna
For information on H.D. Woodson Hoop Dreams, call (202) 543-2128. Volunteers and contributions are welcome.