The book begins with the following line, describing the academic awards assembly at Ballou High School's auditorium:

A hip-hop tune bursts forth from the six-foot high amplifiers, prompting the shoulder-snug slopes of black teenagers to sway and pivot in their bleacher seats. It takes only a second or two for some eight hundred students to lock onto the backbeat, and the gymnasium starts to thump with a jaunty enthusiasm. (1)

The opening image is actually one of sound, with the emphasis on the size of the amplifiers making clear how loud it is. The image of the heads bobbing in unison so quickly shows there is a shared bond among those in the auditorium, a shared appreciation and cultural understanding. It is significant, then, that Cedric Jennings is not present for this event. The event is for his benefit, in praise of his academic achievement - however, that is beside the point, that is not what defines the value of the audience, who are the vast majority of Ballou students.

Regarding this disconnect between his values and those of his fellow students, Cedric receives some early advice from his mother Barbara in this passage:

"The race," she says with a satisfied smile, "goes not to the swift nor the strong, but he who endureth until the end."
Oh yes, that's a good one, Cedric agrees, and nods. Hasn't heard that one in a while. "Thank you, Jesus," he says to her with a wry smile as he makes his way toward the back bedroom. Stopping at the threshold, he turns and calls back: "But it wouldn't be so terrible to be all swift and strong - just once in a...........

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Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on A Long Way Gone". TheBestNotes.com.