Study Guide: A Hope In the Unseen by Ron Suskind - Online Notes

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A HOPE IN THE UNSEEN: LESSON PLAN / STUDY GUIDE

CONFLICT

Protagonist

Cedric Jennings, an honors student in the inner city of Washington, D.C., who has high academic aspirations.

Antagonist

There are a variety of opponents and difficulties that Cedric faces in his quest for academic achievement, including inner city peers who deride his ambition, poor educational standards in the inner city, and people in higher education who do not understand the unique problems facing lower class students. During his graduation speech, he generalizes about these enemies and calls them Dreambusters.

Climax

In his first summer back from Brown, Cedric and his mother Barbara are almost evicted from their home, narrowly averting this disaster and showing Barbara that Cedric is now mature enough to care for her just as she had cared for him.

Outcome

Cedric succeeds in his quest for academic achievement as well as self-understanding, and flourishes as a student at Brown University.


SHORT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

Cedric Jennings is an anomaly at Ballou High School in the Southeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C.: in a poorlyperforming school where academic achievement is scorned, Cedric proudly strives for high grades with a desire to attend a top university. The sub-par standards at Ballou place him at a distinct disadvantage academically, while frequent taunts and physical threats from other students has alienated him socially. Cedric lives with his mother, Barbara Jennings, who works for the Department of Agriculture; his father Cedric Gilliam is a drug dealer currently in jail.

In his junior year, Cedric is admitted to the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He believes this is the start of a new life for him, but when summer arrives he finds the classes much more difficult than his fellow MITES students who attended better schools and were better versed in math and science. Though he makes friends at MIT, he also sees that his ghetto background sets him apart from them. At the end of the program, Cedric is told by faculty director Leon Trilling that he would not be welcome in MIT as a college student. This infuriates Cedric, and he finds solace in returning to Ballou that fall despite offers to attend better schools for his Senior year.

Cedric initially disavows his previous ambitions, then discovers Brown University is particularly accommodating to minority students. He files for early admission and tells everyone he'll be accepted. This indeed becomes the case, though the good news is tempered by Barbara's concern that Cedric may lose his old identity as he moves forward in life. As his senior year winds down, Cedric visits Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He also finds himself the recipient of various scholarships, which enables him to attend the college of his choice while other Ballou Seniors with good grades but not enough financial aid must settle for less - again causing friction between himself and others who resent his success. At the graduation ceremony, Cedric strikes back at those who opposed him, giving a speech that rails against these "Dreambusters" and delivering the equivalent of a motivational sermon.

Once at Brown, Cedric again considers himself at risk, as he knows he is not as prepared for an Ivy League college as his fellow freshmen. He is initially friendly with his dormitory roommate, Rob Burton, but their relationship deteriorates as their different values lead to frequent confrontations. Cedric decides to play it safe his first semester, taking all his classes pass / fail and choosing several that teach material already familiar to him. He has some friends, most notably Zayd Dohrn, the son of counterculture icons who shares Cedric's taste in music, and Chiniqua Milligan, the only other African American in his dorm unit. However, to most people he remains aloof and difficult to understand. On Parents Weekend, Barbara and Cedric's half-sister Neddy visit Cedric and find themselves out of step with the other, more affluent families. They barely meet Zayd's parents, who bemoan their son's lack of commitment to ideals larger than himself and wished to spend time with the family of the young ghetto boy Zayd befriended.

As the first semester comes to a close, Cedric meets Helaine Schupack, a gifted tutor recommended to him by personal benefactor Donald Korb; for Thanksgiving, he goes to the home of Korb in Boston, where he is given special encouragement by Korb's Aunt Miriam, one of the first women to graduate from New York University Law School. At the end of the semester, Tom James, the professor of Cedric's History of Education course, worries about how poorly Cedric has adjusted to Brown. Unlike other students, who know how to use their ethnicity and background when needed, Cedric is too close to those beginnings, which will make things more difficult in coming semesters.

Returning to Washington, D.C. for Winter Break, Cedric returns to Ballou for Alumni Day, where he is considerably more grateful to his high school than he was at graduation. Cedric also takes his Ballou friend LaTisha to Scripture Cathedral, where they realize how different they have become over the past few months. Cedric looks forward to returning to Brown, now more comfortable in his new life than in D.C. He realizes his caution in the first semester was wrongheaded, that it was pride in himself that got him as far as he did, and challenges himself for the Spring semester of his freshman year. However, one of the first things that happens is he breaks off his friendship with his one true confidante, Zayd.

As part of his second semester, Cedric takes the class Fieldwork and Seminar in High School Education, which involves observing classes at Slater Junior High School, whose student population is much like Ballou's. Cedric is infuriated when the teacher of the classes he attends, Mr. Fleming, claims to know which students will die after leaving Slater. Meanwhile, Barbara back in Washington, D.C. is facing eviction as depression leads her to making poor financial decisions. When Cedric complains to her about Rob, she suggests that the conflict is a test from God. Rob and Cedric mend their relationship somewhat, as Rob invites Cedric to his birthday party and Cedric agrees to go. In his education class, Cedric writes a poem for his midterm paper. Wakeford allowed for the possibility but is nevertheless surprised; he ultimately gives Cedric a B for the paper but warns he'll be more stringent in marking the final. Cedric had healed his rift with Zayd by this time, showing him the poem and going music shopping with him.

Cedric struggles in several of his Spring classes: he drops Computer Science and takes Psychology pass/fail. However, he has great success on his Calculus midterm exam, despite the inclusion of a question not yet covered in the class. After Spring Break, Cedric goes on a date with Chiniqua, which goes reasonably well. His relationship with dorm mate Rob continues to thaw, despite differing views on acceptable social behavior. Still trying to define who he is, Cedric nonetheless agrees to go with Chiniqua to a party at Harambee House, the all-black form on-campus. When he goes there, he realizes that he kept avoiding the place because he was intimidated and afraid of taking the easy path of staying with people of his race on-campus. Cedric loosens up as the end of the school year approaches, though right towards the end there is new tension with Rob as neither of them budges in cleaning their room's sink. Rob says goodbye to Cedric when he moves out of their dorm room, but Cedric wishes him well a bit too late. He says goodbye to Zayd, finishes his finals, and returns to his mother in Washington, D.C.

One day after returning home, Cedric is shocked when his mother tells him they will be evicted from their apartment that afternoon. Barbara also tells her son she's been suffering from heart problems. Regarding the eviction, Barbara sought help help from the government and her church, but the U.S. Marshall and movers arrive to serve papers and remove belongings. Minister Borden of the Scripture Cathedral finally arrives to save the Jennings, though Cedric is so infuriated by this incident he refuses to speak to his mother. He sees his father at Lorton Correctional Institution and finally makes peace with the man. After a month of silence with Barbara, he finally reaches out to her and tells her she can rely on him now, just as he relied on her to lead him to his current success.

The Epilogue details how Cedric is doing well in Brown by his junior year and has a girlfriend on the basketball team. He has befriended Rob since their freshman year, and continues to be friends with Zayd. Barbara was eventually evicted but afterwards started paying off her debts. The book closes with Cedric pondering how much his life has changed - that he no longer has something to push against, but finds he does not miss it.


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