Saturday, May 19, 2007

Prom night with a twist

So, when I moved here a year ago I signed up for a volunteer program in which I would get matched with a DC public high school student and become her mentor. The goal of the program is basically to help the students graduate high school and encourage them to move on to college. I was matched with my protege, Brittany, at the start of the school year. The program is pretty cool, and involves a simple time requirement of spending at least five hours a month with your protege and have phone or email contact with them at least once a week. Brittany is a senior at a DC magnet school for academically gifted students. She will be attending the University of Maryland at College Park in the fall. In-state tuition is $8,000 and out-of-state tuition is $21,000. There is a great program in DC called DC TAG that pays the difference between in- and out-of-state tuition for any DC public high school student attending a state school in another state. This is a nod to the fact that the only public school in DC is UDC, which is not exactly known for being a stellar institution of higher learning. Unfortunately, DC TAG has a price cap on it of $10,000 a year, which means that Brittany will be paying $11,000 instead of $8,000.

The banquet for the graduating seniors where the scholarships were announced took place on Thursday. I thought it was just going to be a little thing with the seniors, their families, and their mentors, but it turned out to be a fancy thing at a nice hotel near the White House that doubled as the annual fundraiser. Each mentor-protege pair was seated at a different table full of old rich people, rather like zoo exhibitions. I found myself talking up the program to a pleasant lady from Fairfax, Virginia, whose husband casually bid on and won a dinner cruise for eight worth $1,100 during the live auction.

I had helped Brittany with her scholarship application and essay and had written her a letter of recommendation, as required by the program. Each recipient would win a one-time $1,500 scholarship. The announcer got close to Brittany's name in the alphabet, I got out my camera, we pulled her napkin off her lap so that she would be able to stand up, and then they went right past where her name would have been in the alphabet without calling her.

It was horrible. We just stared at each other, totally shocked and confused. Brittany, who had been very nervous about the scholarships (she's struggling to raise the $11,000 she'll need just for tuition, and that's assuming that she lives at home instead of on campus) looked completely crushed. All the old rich people at our table stared at her like, "We obviously got a dud at our table." This wasn't helped by the fact that Brittany ate her salad with her dessert fork, although actually I think that might have been just the kind of social gaffe that would shock people like that into opening their checkbooks.

Brittany almost cried. And it was her prom night and she was wearing a very sweet pink dress and had her hair done all fancy and had been so excited. I almost cried for her, too, because she was so disappointed and because she really needed the money. And then someone new came on stage and announced that a special scholarship for academic merit and academic pursuits in tandem with the mentor was being awarded in the amount of $2,000 a year to Brittany. It was the most exciting thing ever. Then she really did cry.

To top it all off, at the end of the night she won the raffle for a state-of-the-art laptop. I would say that qualifies as one of the best prom nights ever.

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