If you believe the stereotypes, the future of Inglewood teen-ager Jewerl Ross would appear as promising as his last summer job flipping hamburgers at Wendy’s.
His parents split up shortly after his birth 17 years ago. His mother raised him and his older half-sister, who got pregnant and dropped out of school.
Home is a two-bedroom apartment he shares with his mother in Inglewood, which like other inner-city areas is faced with troubled schools, drug trafficking, gangs and violence that last year took the lives of six high school-age youths.
But Ross, a fan of Madonna and X-Men comics, has earned himself a ticket to ride--straight into the Ivy League. Next fall, he will be a member of Yale University’s freshman class.
The acceptance by Yale, which came with scholarships and other financial aid, culminates years of preparation by Ross, one of the success stories in a school district in which only 28% of eighth-graders had what state officials considered scores at the adequate level on last spring’s statewide CAP test.
In the halls of Inglewood High School, where Ross takes advanced-placement classes, the pride in him is tangible. Teachers and other adults do not pass by him without reaching out to pat his arm or his shoulder, to tell him how proud they are to hear he’s going to Yale.
When a prominent Inglewood clergyman died last week, the widow, who hardly knew Ross nevertheless had him included among the dignitaries eulogizing her husband at the daylong funeral. And churchwomen, says Ross’ neighbor, Deborah Pruitt, were on the phone that night asking her about that nice young man at the funeral and saying how they would love to introduce their daughters.
With his easy grin and natural grace, Ross can exude a self-confidence that adults say is startling and some of his peers claim is conceit. Then, in a sudden change of tone, he will confide that he’s worried about scoring high enough on the law board exams to get into a “really good law school.”
Try telling him not to worry about something that is four years off and he will probably say, as he did last week to a new adult acquaintance, “That’s how I got into Yale.”
This is a young man, after all, who taped a U.S. News & World Report list of the nation’s top colleges on the wall above his bed. And when he was only 8 years old and his mother gave him the choice of a television or a typewriter for his bedroom, he chose the typewriter.
“Can you imagine,” said his mother, Elnora Lee, chuckling at the recollection, “an 8-year-old who wanted a typewriter? He got a book and taught himself to type.”
That was the “prudent” choice, Ross said, employing a word he uses often. He picked it up from former President Bush, he says, adding that President Clinton is his hero.
Ross, an award-winning debater and speech contestant, can see himself in national politics someday, although hasn’t decided which would be better: to run for office or be the man behind the scenes a la Ronald H. Brown, the former Democratic Party chairman and now secretary of commerce.
“I love politics,” Ross said. “I ran for (student body) president. I lost by 14 votes.”
If there is a special kind of intelligence that makes some people better at social skills and plotting their path in life, said his Beulah Payne Elementary School Principal Wendy Wax, Ross has it. Even as a young child, self-confidence was his trademark. Said Wax: “He was so confident he would discuss what he felt with adults.”
Inglewood School Superintendent George McKenna says there’s no danger that Ross is so driven, so success-oriented, that he won’t be able to handle life’s inevitable failures.
McKenna and others say Ross is blessed with insight that is rare for someone his age. He has always signed up for the hardest courses and as many activities as he could fit into a day, including the debate team, the swim team and the student council, high school counselor Lance Vlach said.
Ross can be cocky too, said JoAnn Jolly-Blanks, college counselor at Inglewood, but that’s just evidence of his fortitude. He hasn’t always come out the winner or the student with the highest grade, but that has never prevented him from trying new activities, she said.
Adults who know him agree that if anything distinguishes Ross from the crowd besides his academic prowess, it is that he seeks out good adult advice, something Inglewood Principal Kenneth Crow says is not true of most adolescents. Peer pressure, Crow said, “does not seem to affect Jewerl.”
Sometimes, even Ross seems struck by the irony of his situation. He volunteers, for instance, that he was a latchkey child. “From the third grade on I would come home with the key, go in and do my homework, fix myself something to eat and wait for my Mom.”
Ross’ mother says she’s a loner and highly independent. She spent 21 years as an administrative secretary in the aerospace industry before being sidelined from work last year by neck and back injuries suffered in an automobile accident.
Ross said he had gotten to know his father better in recent years, but he died a year ago of cancer. His father was an aerospace engineer who left his son with the middle name Keats, after the English poet.
His mother acknowledges that she is slightly offended when she hears the failings of African-American males being attributed to the prevalence of female-headed households.
“When you don’t have the men available, you have to do what you have to do,” Lee said, sitting in her neat-as-a-pin home, not far from the living-room wall where her son’s framed acceptance letter from Yale is hanging.
Lee said her son’s success can be attributed to the fact that she made herself “available to him, to teach him morals, ethics, give him a good Christian training, to try to be that role model for him.”
She said she did the same for her daughter, who is nine years older than Ross. But her daughter did the opposite of what her mother intended and dropped out of school, though she is now working to complete her education, Lee said.
Lee thinks it was the Christian teachings she taught her son that explain why he turned out to be a mother’s dream. Ross suggests, out of earshot of his mother, that maybe the difference is more tangible--that when his sister was born, his mother was much younger.
But Ross attributes his success largely to his mother.
“Even though she was tough and strict, I realized that she loved me a lot,” he said. “Her love for me made me feel like I was the most-loved person on the planet, not by giving me presents and things but by giving me lots of self-esteem.”
Then the anxious look returns to his face. He’s thinking now, he says, about how to find a summer job. Scholarships, student loans and grants will pay most, but not all, of the $28,000 it will cost for him to attend Yale for nine months.
He wants to work in a Century City law firm or at Aerospace Corp., an aerospace research facility in El Segundo, but says he doesn’t think either is in the cards. And he needs money for winter clothes, he points out.
He’s thought about buying a car, he says, but thinks he won’t need one until he’s about 35. Until then, he wants to know, wouldn’t it be more prudent to take public transportation than to make car payments?