Friday, April 30, 2004

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

"Please -- Tame me!" he said.
" I want to very much," the little prince replied. " But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand."
"One only understands the things that one tames," said the fox. "Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends anymore. If you want a friend, tame me..."
"What must I do to tame you? asked the little prince.
"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me--like that--in the grass. I shall look at you from the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstanding. But you will sit a little closer to me everyday..."

The next day the little prince came back.

From The Little Prince

Antoine De Saint-Exupery

This Wasn't in the Handbook

"Hey, I think this is gonna be my last class."
"You getting your schedule changed?"
"No. I'm getting locked-up. I have to go to court Monday for sentencing. My lawyer said I might get a year."
"Detention facility near Columbus."
"Naw. It's a long time though. I just did forty one days...and that seemed like a year."

Oh boy...this was going to be one of those conversations that was never covered in the Teacher's Handbook.

The student at my desk this morning was one that I'd been keeping my eye on this year. A sixteen year old ninth grader, he was new to our school in September. Always quiet, he didn't seem to have too many friends in class. Although his Ambercrombie-Fitch looks prompted many a crush amongst the female population in our building, his tough don't-mess-with-me attitude, coupled with a steely glare kept most of the girls at bay.

I worry most about the quiet ones, even more so when they are angry. Although I have always been compelled to reach out to the kids who seem troubled, the tragedy at Columbine brought a new sense of urgency and importance to that aspect of teaching.

It is a tricky sort of dance, getting some of these kids to trust you enough to open up.
There are kids who've been starving for attention, that will spill their guts at the very first sign of interest. But others are suspicious. They are usually not the neglected ones, rather they are the boys and girls who've been hurt. They will often watch and listen for a long time, and if they finally do decide to open up, it's just little by little. They test your reaction.
I always consider passing their test a mixed blessing. I become a friend and advisor, and they get to break my heart.

The boy in my classroom today was one of the heartbreakers. I'd just recently begun to piece together his story. He would only give me a snippet here and there. The child of divorced parents, he no longer felt welcome by the step-parent in either household, and was feeling abandoned. He ran away from home several times, and got caught stealing when he was on the road. He was, at this point, considered unruly with a record.

"Do you have a tie and a dress shirt?" I asked.
"Yeah, I've got a suit. I'm going to wear it."
"Good," I smiled "...and be polite. Apologize to the judge. Tell him you want to pay it all back and, most important, don't get matter what. And say thank matter what. It will make a difference. I've known a few judges. Trust me on this."
"Thanks for talking to me." His eyes met mine. " Thanks a lot for the advice."
"So, will you come back to Max Hayes when you get out?"
"I want to."
"Good." I said, as he turned to head out the door. "I'll be thinking about you Monday. I hope things go well in court."
"See you later," he gave me half a smile "unless things go well, then I'll see you sooner."
"Okay," I returned his smile. "We'll talk when you come back."

As I watched him head down the stairs, I wished for a moment that I had a crystal ball.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Good Karma

I've picked a career that can drain the spirit.

In every one of my classes I look around the room and see kids with problems, kids in trouble, kids in pain. Some days I feel as if too many people need something from me, advice, encouragement, a hug, a dollar, a sounding board, a nag, a savior.

There are days, when overwhelmed, my psyche screams, "Leave me alone! I've got nothing left."

Thankfully, nature abhors a vacuum.

Every so often I am blessed with students who are there for ME. Two years ago I met a tenth grader, Misraim ( nick-named PoPo), and this year a sophmore named Tabatha.
Both of these kids are smart, focused, and motivated. They know what they want, and they aren't shy about letting people know what they need.

Misraim has mastered the art of what I call "playing well with grown-ups" He is well-mannered, listens, and asks good questions. Tabatha listens well, and asks questions too, however she has a tendency to be way too candid with her opinion, (even though she is usually right) and has upset more than a few of her teachers by pointing out their inadequacies and inconsistencies....Hmmm, who does that remind me of?

These two can walk into my room and tell immediately what kind of mood I'm in. They know how to make me laugh, can find my keys under the mess of memos on my desk, and will spread the word to their less understanding classmates, to take it easy if they notice that I'm having a bad day.

Today I woke up with the kind of headache that should have been the result of way too much fun. Too bad, there was no fun involved. (Unless you're really into sorting socks and folding laundry) Nothing in my personal pharmacy of pain relief would quell the thud between my temples.

Perhaps this sounds odd, but it was nice to hear," Hey you look awful today! What's wrong?"

In my youth I was something of a prodigal. I have spent this latter part of my life hopefully working off that bad karma, and now it looks like I might be catching up. It feels like the good stuff is finally coming around, carried in by Tabatha and Misraim.

Monday, April 26, 2004

"No soldier starts a war--they only give their lives to it. Wars are started by you and me, by bankers and politicians, excitable women, newspaper editors, clergymen who are ex-pacifists, and congressmen with vertebrae of putty.
The youngsters yelling in the streets, poor kids , are the ones who pay the price."

Father Francis P Duffy

A lovely man with a gift

"Get your phone!" a boy called out. I ran across the studio to grab the receiver before the answering machine clicked on.

"Ms. Matthews?" It was the school secretary's voice. "There is a lovely man here in the office, and he has something for you. I am sending him up."

A lovely man bearing a gift? That rarely (better make that never) happens to me. I could hardly wait to see who was coming.

"There's someone at the door!" a student announced. Peeking at me through through the window, wearing a smile that started in his eyes, spead across his face, and settled on my heart, was my dear friend, Rabbi Sid Rackoff.

"Congratulations on your award." Sid handed me a bouquet of flowers and hugged me. " My wife spotted your picture in the paper. I could't find your phone number, so I came up here in person." Sid walks slowly with a cane, as he is well into his eighties. My classroom is on the third floor of my building. There are no passenger elevators. I was deeply touched.

I became aquanted with Sid Rackoff when I first got the idea to invite sculptors to Max Hayes High School to work with the trades students. Sid began his sculpting career in his sixties after he was retired. He works with scrap metal creating figures inspired by the events of his life. His textured metal pieces can be found around the city in any number of locations. He doesn't sell his artwork, rather he shares his creations freely with whomever would like to display them.

When Sid comes in to speak with my classes, he is often asked about the motivation for his sculpture. Several of his works are references to the suffering brought about by war, and Sid will talk to the students about his experiences on the front lines in Europe during World War II.

Today he told me about his lastest project; a sculpture with two figures, one lying on the ground and the second standing over the first, with the head thrown back in agony and grief. It will be called "Our Soldiers Return from Iraq".

He talked with me for a while about the wars in Iraq and Afganistan. His eyes filled with tears as he looked at the boys leaving my classroom when the bell rang to signal the end of the period.

"I am afraid for them." he said softly.

I am too.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Rainy Day Thought: How to Win Voters

On a rainy Sunday, I can usually be found at my dining room table with the stack of newspapers and magazines that have been waiting for my attention.
My Doberman, Max, loves these mornings. Today he lies with his long legs sprawled out on the couch. His eyes closed, snoring, and drooling on the leather cushion. As I stand up and make my way into the kitchen with my coffee cup, he raises his head and smiles in that wide open-mouthed panting way that dogs do. There will be no walk today.
I think I must have the only dog in the history of dogdom that HATES going for walks. He hides from me when I get his leash. Max is a bonafide couch potato.

When I return to my reading, Max joins me, resting his chin on the table. I brought no goodies to share from the kitchen, so he stares at me, with an unwavering intensity, as if he were trying to send me a telepathic message..."Get a cookie".

"Sorry buddy, I'm trying to lose this winter fat. No cookies. Here, I'll read to you."

Chris Sheridan's editorial catches my eye. 'Misbehavior Now will Doom Levy Later'. In it, she discusses the importance of the public's perception of the Cleveland schools in regards to the passage of a levy his fall. She stresses the importance of good press and responsible behavior on the part of the administration and the teachers union. Those are indeed very good points to consider as these groups try to convince the reading public that the Cleveland school district is working hard to improve it's track record.

What a lot of people seem to forget is that not every voter forms an opinion about the Cleveland schools from what is reported in the media. Many Clevelander's opinions are developed by what they observe in the community. If the average Clevelander's main perceptions are formed when they ride the RTA with the school kids, or by watching students swarm onto a sidewalk at the end of a school day, they may not be inclined to spend any more of their hard earned dollars on rowdy kids who are not their own.

If the schools want to get community support, then they need to reach out to the community.

In the past there has been a push to get volunteers from the neighborhoods to come into the schools and help with the kids. Those generous people, were few and far between.

If each school were to find out from their neighbors how they could become a more positive participant in the community, it might go a long way in garnering the support needed. If every school sent delegates to the neighborhood block clubs and business associations, and became proactive in opening communications, rather than waiting for volunteers to come to the school, it would be so much easier for the voting public to get to know all the good things that are going on in the individual buildings.

In my personal experience at Max Hayes, each time I contacted a business or organization in the neighborhood to solicit help with a project, I received enthusiastic responses and new ideas for future collaborations. Several organizations even told me that they had considered working with the schools before, but never pursued the idea since they lacked a contact

A number of the high schools are now requiring seniors to complete service hours as a graduation requirement. If asked, the community might offer opportunities for service. Some of my students even got jobs as a result of our community collaboration. These are all good things...and good things result in better schools and 'yes' votes.

Hmmm...perhaps it's time to shoot this idea along to the Powers-That-Be. It's not often that they take suggestions from the treches, but times are desparate. One never knows.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

"I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand."

Chinese proverb

An Afternoon at the Track

"Wha?" I gasped and spun around, my startle reflex, once again, embarrassing me in public. A loud screeching thump had triggered that involuntary rush of adrenalin.
"That's just the sound of the brake." chuckled Tim Meese, as the little car slowed, and finally stopped at the bottom of the hill.

I'd never seen soapbox race cars until today. At least not up close and personal. I'd noticed them before on television news reports about the Akron National Soapbox Derby, but truthfully, hadn't paid much attention.

At the request of Tim Meese, a member of the Cleveland Soapbox Derby Commission, I stopped by the Cleveland racetrack near Edgewater Park this afternoon. I was there to watch a few of the trial runs, as area kids ready their cars for this seasons races.

A logical question would be "Why the sudden interest?" and the answer is " For art's sake".

Last year, I wrote a proposal, and received funding (from Young Audiences of Greater Cleveland) for a project that would bring sculptors into the shops at Max Hayes Vocational High School to incorporate art and design concepts into teaching the trades curriculum. One of the goals of the proposal was the fabrication of outdoor sculpture, and the development of a sculpture park in a vacant lot across the street from the school. Unfortunately, some legal issues prevented that site from being used for that purpose, so we began the quest for a new location to install our artwork.

With the help of Cleveland Councilman Matt Zone, and the generosity of the Cleveland Soapbox Derby Commission, we now have a marvelous hilltop with a picture postcard view of Cleveland's skyline and Whiskey Island. The space is dream location for any public artist, let alone a group of high school kids. Not only is the view phenomenal, but twenty thousand people driving on the shoreway pass the site every day, and it is accessible to pedestrians in the neighborhood via a classic art deco styled bridge and stairway.

We are now in the process of designing site specific sculpture using the themes of soapbox cars, kids, racing, and family. Last week, I drove out to Classic Cars in Auburn Township to checkout their custom stainless steel works facility with artist Steven Tatar. Steve will be working with the students in the fall, fabricating a stainless steel sculpture of a stylized soapbox race car. Classic Cars has generously donated the use of their laser cutter for this project.
It is AMAZING. If we can draw it, this machine can cut intricate minutes...totally clean....awesome...really, really awesome....makes a plasma cutter look primitive.

We have two other proposals for the park in the works: A sculptural fence designed by the students with the help of Mike Spencer from the David Davis Foundation, and a mosaic-tiled seat, designed by the students under the guidance of Cleveland ceramist David Alban.

I'm so excited to be able to give my students these opportunities.
I feel very lucky to be working at such a unique school, in a neighborhood that reaches out to its young people, encouraging them to become a part of the community, and enabling them to create their own artistic legacy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

A Life Cut Short

Walking down the corridor this morning, a colleague waved me over toward the door to his classroom.

"Hey MB," he called in a loud whisper. " Did you have Rodney Roberts in class a few years back?"
My eyes widened. " That was our Rodney Roberts?"
"Yeah." he answered "Tall, skinny, kid with braids...Security guards always kept an eye on him...Suspected he was selling...Couldn't prove anything."

Rodney was a likeable enough kid, although he was never one to get close to a teacher. Not this teacher anyway. Always had friends, never gave me an attitude, did his assignments and turned them in, graduated on time. Considering 60% of Cleveland students never graduate from high school, he was doing better than his peers.

Today's Plain Dealer reported that Rodney was in jail Tuesday. He was arrested after turning himself in for the shooting death of 16 year old Lorenzo Hunter. Lorenzo was a star football player on the state championship Benedictine Bengals football team.
I heard about Lorenzo's murder from my oldest son, a Benedictine graduate, this past weekend. The Benedictine community was, of course, shocked. Max Hayes, on the other hand...Not so much. Curious, yes, but not shocked.

Many of my students, or their families, have been the victims of crime.
It seems, just as often, I hear that someone in our school is the perpetrator of a crime. We read about our students and former students with an uneasy regularity; armed robbery, rape, police chases, assaults, domestic violence, murder.

Crime in the inner-city is like a thread that weaves in out of our lives with such a regularity that it becomes a part of the pattern. Unfortunately, it is a pattern that I am growing used to. I am not so jaded that I have lost heart. I am just no longer surprised.

If I had to identify the silver lining on this particular dark cloud, it would be the appreciation that I feel for the good things in life. The preponderance of negativity really makes me take notice of the positive stuff around me. The constant contrast helps me to focus on savoring the goodness that I see, and inspires me to nurture it.

It makes me want to be a better teacher.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004


A letter was put in the mailbox of every staff member this morning from our CEO. It began with the words:

"It is with deep sadness that I write to you today."

She went on to discuss the cuts in programs and massive layoffs that will be announced this evening at the school board meeting.

We have known for some time that our building was going to lose staff. We all wonder who and how many will be given notice, and have quietly guessed, but like a family with a member who is gravely ill, only speak our suspicions in hushed tones.
Veterans, whose jobs are the most secure, relay stories to the newer teachers about the layoffs and job shuffling that happened in the eighties and nineties. "Don't worry." they assure, "People get rehired soon enough."

I've been around for a while, and in the nineties, was even laid off once in June to be rehired in August. This time feels different though...Somehow, more desperate.

Monday, April 19, 2004

He who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep
pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and in our own dispair,
against our will,
comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.


The Roster of the Unforgettable

Monday, the one day of the week that my classes are virtually percolating. From 8:00 until 12:54 when my last group of students departs, you can feel the energy bubble. Conversations are louder, laughter is infectious, and I am constantly telling somebody to sit down and get back to work. Mondays at Max Hayes always feel like a long overdue reunion. So many of the kids act like they haven't seen each other in ages rather than days.
Today that enthusiasm was amplified by the fact that they were away from each other for over a week. Spring break is over, and we're in the home stretch. Only seven more weeks to inspire, to motivate, to work, to get the last projects finished.

Although many of the kids are happy to be back with their friends. Others are simply relieved that they are not at home. So many of their stories are heartbreaking... to listen to. Difficult and painful as they are to hear, I never can forget them.

This morning my Art 1 classes were starting first drafts of an editoral cartoon. I was making my way around the tables to check their progress, when I noticed one boy writing words on his paper, rather than drawing. As I stood behind him reading he looked up at me and said quietly, "It's all true."

Happy Easter
Hit in the face
Bloody Lips

" Are you okay?" I asked
" Yeah" He looked down. "My mom's boyfriend was drinking, then he made me drink too. He started to hit me, and I hit him back." He looked back up and smiled. The right side of his face bore the dark yellow mark of a week old bruise. "The police came. Now he'll be in jail for 10 years. He violated his parole."
"How long did he live with you?" I ventured.
"About a year."
"Was it worth it?"
His thoughtful smile broadened into a grin. "Yes" he nodded "It definitely was."
I grinned back at him,"I'm glad you're okay."

Then our conversation turned to writing music, playing guitars, and garage bands, and he seemed to relax. I felt privileged that he trusted me with his pain, and lucky to witness this difficult step towards manhood.

Today this curly haired boy, with the sad eyes and the bruised cheek, was entered on to my roster of the unforgettable ones.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

The Business of Education in Cleveland

Wednesdays Plain Dealer ran a little article headlined:

City Schools may Drop Activities
Cash-strapped District Plans Cutbacks.

The article goes on to discuss the various programs and services that may be cut due to the 100 million dollar budget deficit.
Two things mentioned that affect me directly will be the supplemental pay for high school department chairmen, and pay for nonmadated professional development. We have also been warned about staffing cuts next year in all buildings: teachers, security, custodial, cafeteria, etc. My classes have always been large, now it looks like they may become huge. My supply budget will be cut even more. I have already been supplementing that out of my own pocket.

One of the most devastating cutbacks that I've gotten wind of though, has the potential to set the district in a virtual tailspin, and ruin futures. That is the cut in transportation for high school students.
There are no school buses for high school students in Cleveland. Kids who live more than two miles from the school receive RTA bus tickets from the district. Without that free bus ticket many of my students will have no way to get to school.
Of course we have always had the students who rode their bikes, walked, or got a ride to school. Most of those kids live close by. Their transportation was never paid for anyway. Cleveland's drop-out rate already exceeds 60%. Now we will add to the mix all the kids who want to go to school, but can't afford to get there.

Talk about kicking someone when they're down. Here's an amazing little piece of twisted legislation:
According to state mandates concerning private and charter schools, Cleveland parents who can afford to send their children to private schools, will get free transportation for their kids. Ironically, due to state cuts in school funding, parents whose kids go to Cleveland public schools must pay for it.

Amid all of the turmoil caused be the immediate actions being taken by the school district to minimize the devastation caused by this financial crisis, many Clevelanders have overlooked a rather disturbing fact:

46 million dollars of the 100 million dollar deficit is Cleveland public school money that must be paid out to charter schools

Here are a few things I've discovered about the charter schools.:

Many of these schools are run as for-profit businesses. They do not charge tuition because the per-pupil money that the state allocates to the district goes to the charter school instead. But, because the schools are run as private companies they are not required to disclose any of their records to the public. They are profiting from public tax dollars to educate the publics children, but have no public accountibility.
Do I see potential for abuse here?

One might counter with, "So what? If the charter school doesn't do a good job, if people aren't happy; it won't survive."
True enough, but what if the school doesn't do a good job and the people ARE happy?

Case in point:

Lately I have noticed a number of new charter schools popping up around Cleveland. These are the Life Skills Centers run by White Hat Management. This company was founded by David Brennan, an Akron businessman, and a big supporter of the Republican Party. Life Skills markets their program to students who are not succeeding in high school as an alternative way to earn a high school diploma.

At Max Hayes we are beginning to see a steady trickle of students leaving our vocational program for Life Skills.

Last month, I lost two more students to the Life Skills Center on Madison Road. When I asked their friends why the girls left, I was told that they had failed several classes, and would not be graduating this year. At Max Hayes they would be required to repeat their senior year of high school. Life Skills would allow them to graduate on time. (In two months)

I'd heard these rumors before, but chalked them up to teen exaggeration, and wishful thinking. I had also recently overheard some of my colleagues discussing a former student, who had just graduated from Life Skills. This girl was classified Special Ed.- Developmentally Handicapped at Max Hayes. ( There are no special education classes at Life Skills) Her reading ability hovered around the third grade level. She was 18 years old, in the 10th grade, and had not passed any proficiency tests. In a matter of a few months, she had her diploma from Life Skills.

Either Life Skills has a phenomenal new method of teaching that can produce educational miracles, or there is something very wrong with the way we teach at Max Hayes.

Or something fishy is going on at Life Skills.

I began asking questions.
When I asked my classes if any of them knew someone who was going to Life Skills, every hand went go up. Surpised, I asked them to tell me what they knew about the school.

Conventional teen-wisdom explains it this way:

Life skills is where a person goes who just wants a diploma fast.
People don't really learn anything there.
All the work is done on a computer. You simply have to show up, and complete the work that comes on the disc for that class.
Cheating is rampant and ignored.
Only a few general academic classes are required to get your diploma. Nothing like the work you have to do in a regular high school.

Several of my kids said that they were considering transferring there maybe next year. Other kids said that they would never go there, because that was where all the losers went. One boy said that he considered going there, but he wanted to join the Marines. His recruiter told him that they would not accept a GED, or a diploma from Life Skills. Another student told me that the Navy had the same policy.
I found those statements especially distressing.

That afternoon I called the Marines recruiting office. What they told me was essentially the same thing.
They consider a Life Skills diploma to be a worthless piece of paper. They find that something is very wrong when a student is getting all 'F's in public school, transfers to a Life Skills School, subsequently gets straight 'A's and then cannot pass the Armed Services Test.

What kind of scam is being pulled on our country's poor and uneducated? They are being tricked into thinking that this piece of paper means that they have received an education that they have not worked for. You will not find any of these schools in affluent or middle class neighborhoods. They are only being built our most disadvantaged neighborhoods whose populations are the most vulnerable to this type of scam.
Society doesn't seem to care that David Brennan is getting rich by exploiting these kids and their families. They were destined to be drop-out losers anyway.

These schools are popping up all over Cleveland's inner-city, and now other states (Arizona, Florida, Colorado,Washington DC), are buying into White Hat as educational savior. Three years ago I never even heard of them.

Does anyone else hear the giant sucking sound?

Oh, and one more thing.
When a student leaves Max Hayes and goes to Life Skills in the fall, the per/pupil tax money goes with him. If after a few days, or weeks, the student decides that they are not happy with Life Skills and returns to Max Hayes, the money is NOT returned to the Cleveland school district. It stays with White Hat Management. This is not theoretical. It has already happened.

It's just business.


Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Playing Matchmaker

Driving home in the rain this afternoon, my cell phone rang. It was Mike from the Glass Bubble Project. Mike has become one of those wonderful friends who will call out of the blue, for no other reason than to harass me. Sometimes he calls me at work, on my school phone, during a class, pretending to be my boss. I almost fell for it...A bunch of times.

He never says "Hi, this is Mike" He just starts discussing whatever is on his mind. Today he jumped right into:

"Does Jose ever STOP talking? This boy won't shut-up. I tell him I'm going to take a nap, and it's a Thousand Questions...'Mike, why are you tired? Mike, why are your eyes closed? Mike what are you doing?'...He's driving me crazy!"
I can hear Jose laughing in the background. Mike starts laughing too.

I'm still smiling

I feel like a Matchmaker...Here's the rest of the story.

Last summer I was crossing the parking lot behind the West Side market with two students who were taking a bronze casting class with me. That afternoon we were at Ron Deweys foundry on West 28th watching a pour and afterwards, stopped at the Market to grab something to eat. The door to the glass studio was open, so we stepped in to take a look.
The owners, Mike and Chris were finishing up a piece and called us over. Mike handed my student, Misraim, a pipe and asked him to try blowing some glass. We stayed for over an hour. It was awesome fun.

The Glass Bubble Project is walking distance from Max Hayes High School. I thought, what a marvelous opportunity it would be for more kids to go to the studio and have the experience of glass blowing. The next week I stopped by to discuss the possibility of holding after-school glass classes for Max Hayes students...Maybe I could apply for a grant. Mike, Chris, and I worked out the details. In October we got a Neighborhood Connections grant from the Cleveland Foundation for twelve students to take glass blowing classes in the winter.

Jose is one of those hyperactive boys that can be a classroom teacher's nightmare. He's out of his seat more often than in it, distracts his classmates, and is constantly running his mouth. He seems to thrive on attention...any matter how he gets it. He has boundless I-just-can't-sit-still-energy. I can't count the number of times I've had to ask him to wait outside the door of my classroom, so I could get through giving directions to the rest of his classmates without his loud interjections.
We have an arrangement. It saves my sanity and he thinks it's funny. I start talking...he interrupts, once, twice, three times...I point to the door...he walks outside and stands there making faces at me through the window until I'm finished...I motion him back in and give him the rest of the instructions, one on one. It seems to be working. He has incredible artistic talent and has been earning 'A's. For some reason he's not doing so well in his other classes.

When Jose applied for a glass blowing scholarship, I raised my eyebrows. My first inclination was 'No way could I turn this kid loose on Mike and Chris, they will hate me.'

Before the scholarships were awarded, I took the interested kids to the Glass Bubble to get an idea of what the classes would be like. Jose was in the group. His enthusiasm was radiant, you could see him soaking up the atmosphere of the place, asking questions, listening to every answer. "I like that kid" Mike said to me " He reminds me of myself."

For the next six weeks Jose blew glass. Goblets, bowls, plates, flowers, pitchers, vases. He would bring the pieces in to school each week and show me. He was scheduled for Friday afternoon class, but started going to the studio nearly every day after school. Mike began to put him to work so he could earn extra "blow time". The other eleven students were just as enthusiastic, but Jose had that pound puppy neediness that will tug at a persons heartstrings if you give it half a chance. Mike felt the tug.

Pretty soon Jose was calling him "Dad". " I love this kid" Mike says "He's just like I was at that age." Jose has been talking about building his own glass studio when he graduates from school. With the help of his new-found mentors I have no doubt he will be successful.
"Fifty years ago teachers said their top discipline problems were talking, chewing gum, making noise, and running in the halls. The current list, by contrast, sounds like a cross between a rap sheet and the seven deadly sins."

Anna Quindlen

On Books, Nuns, and Unholy Runs

I am an information junkie. I cruise the bookstores for my fix.

Two weeks ago, it was Joseph Beth in Lyndhurst. Sunday found me at Barnes and Noble. Today the Borders here in Cleveland Heights seduced my checkbook from my wallet. I buy books like I buy shoes: way too often.

Normal reading addicts have library cards. I'm not allowed. They are way too expensive.
You see, I'm not good at borrowing things, because I forget to return them. My library bill for late fees and missing books became so outrageous that I had to tear up the card. It's much cheaper to just buy my literature.

My bad library habits have been fostered over many years. Not long ago I came across a copy of "The Little Prince" by Antoine De Saint-Exupery, the inside cover bearing the stamp of my high school alma-mater,Notre Dame Academy, on the card pocket. The book was required reading for my 11th grade English class, and it's rediscovery conjured up a nearly forgotten adolescent memory that still makes me chuckle.

One winter morning, toward the end of homeroom period, the school librarian stuck her head in the doorway of our classroom and began to read names off of her list of overdue book offenders. Just as the bell rang to signal the end of the homeroom period, Sister Aimee called out , "Miles, ...MaryBeth? Where's that Miles?" While the sister had her head turned to the left, I made a dash for the door on her right. I didn't know where the book was and I had no money. I didn't feel like dealing with any of the dished-out nun-guilt that would certainly be delivered to my reluctant conscience.

Uh oh! Those eagle eyes spotted me! I started to run. To my amazement, that little 80 year old nun in her flowing black skirts and fluttering veil gave chase! It was like a scene from a lame Disney movie. As I tore down the hallway in my black and white saddle shoes, Sister Aimee was gaining on me. Soon the corridor filled with hundreds of uniformed girls, and the single-minded sister got lost in the confusion of plaid skirts and navy blue blazers. I made a sharp left into a stairwell. Phew!! My unholy bolt to obscurity was a success!
I'd ditched her.

I had to pay for the missing book in June. It turned up in July under my bed. I would purchase many more library books in a similar fashion as the years went by.

At Max Hayes High School, where I teach, the library is rarely used for reading or research. There is such a dearth of books that it's shelves display knick-knacks to disguise the emptiness. Students will come in to use the internet or make copies on the xerox machine. In fact, it's not even called a library any more, it was renamed the Media Center. Things certainly have changed.

I find that rather sad...and somewhat disturbing. We want our kids to pass the reading proficiency tests, yet how are we going to encourage them to read when we have no books?

Sunday, April 11, 2004

" If we weren't all crazy, we would go insane."

Jimmy Buffet

That Could be Me

I read this article by Joan Mazzolini in today's Metro section of the Plain Dealer:

Overcrowding Plagues Shelter"
" From almost the day it opened in February 2000, the shelter on Lakeside Avenue has been too crowded.

The slumping economy and resulting increase in homelessness have made the situation worse in the last two years.

In recent months, an increasing number of men released from Ohio prisons started showing up for beds.

The shelter has bunk beds for 400 men, but it's not unusual to find 600 there some nights. Virtually every room is crammed. Men crowd the halls and negotiate narrow aisles between banks of beds, which are stacked close together."

One evening in July, several years ago, I received a call from a phone booth outside 2100 Lakeside Avenue.
"Ms. Matthews?"
I recognized the voice.
"I can't sleep."
"Where are you?"
"There's too many people."
"Are you at The Spot?"
"No, I had to leave. They sent me to 2100...I'm gonna have to hit somebody. They're saying things to me. There's a lot of spirits flying around here."
"Okay, wait for me outside...I'll be there in about 15 minutes."

The caller was a former student of mine. He developed severe paranoid schizophrenia during his senior year of high school, and at the age of 18, joined the ranks of the homeless.
Friends and colleagues accuse me of being a magnet for the truly troubled. I cannot turn away from someone who needs help.
This young man was on a waiting list for a housing and therapy program for young adults with schizophrenia. But until a space opened up, he was living in shelters, not taking medication, and rapidly decompensating.
That evening, he slept on my couch, and the next morning we saw a doctor at the Bishop Cosgrove Center for Mental Health . That afternoon he was admitted to St. Vincent Charity Hospital for the help he so desperately needed.

The ranks of the homeless are filled with the victims of this most cruel of illnesses. The diseases of the mind wreak havoc on a persons most vital organ, but since the rest of the body exhibits no other signs of weakness or pain, many of these victims are shunned rather than treated. They are mocked and they are feared, becoming societies pariahs.

"but for the grace of God"... that young man could be my son, that woman, my daughter.

The disease does not discriminate.

How could I ever turn my back?
That could be me.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

On Being Bad, and Lessons Learned

Yesterday I resolved to do something adventurous over spring break. Well, day one is over and my biggest adventure was the flat tire I got in the parking lot at Marc's. It wasn't a AAA-type of flat tire; rather it was the neglected slow leak, that became all too evident when I returned to my car after an hour's worth of looking at stuff I don't need. The deflated tire was easily remedied by that marvelous invention, "Fix-a-Flat". I am it's biggest fan.

I park next to the dumpster at work. Since I work at trade school, the dumpster is usually overflowing with sharp objects: nails, scrap metal, broken glass, etc. I have had six flat tires in the past two years. The people at Firestone know me by name. It's kind of embarrassing.

I also resolved yesterday to indulge my inner wild-child, and be a little bit bad. Well, the bad girl that I am busted into a bag of jelly beans two days before Easter.
How scandalous!
How pitiful.
I really must try harder.

Last week my students were teasing me about my Marc's shopping habits.
A group of them was helping me organize my storage closet, when they noticed that many of the items in there had Marc's price tags on them. The boy's started calling me Ms Marc instead of the usual Ms Matt.
Let me explain. This past year Marc's had a whole lot of art supplies and paper on sale in their Close-Out's section. The prices were so cheap that I went a little crazy and bought a bunch of stuff for my classes. I don't mind buying supplies for my classes if I can get really good deals on them. What I hate is when I go out of my way to get things for the kids to use and they waste them.
Once I caught a couple of boys playing pencil-break with a brand new set of colored pencils that I just purchased. I went ballistic. Not only were they breaking the pencils, but then they took the busted up pieces and started throwing them across the room.
I am not proud of my response. I saw a new pack of magic markers poking out of one boy's bookbag, so I snatched the box and began throwing his markers one by one across the room. The whole class just stopped, dumbstruck. "How does it feel? " I snapped. We glared at each other for a moment. Then the young man stood up, quietly walked over to the other side of the room, and gathered his markers. I made my point.

When the bell rang I called the two boys aside and told them that we needed to talk. After the rest of the class left the room I apologized for losing my temper. That must have been the last thing they expected from me. They looked kind of shocked. I don't think that either one had ever heard an adult apologize before. I gave the boys back respect, and they responded with an unsolicited "We're sorry for breaking those pencils, we'll pay for them."

Sometimes the most important lessons are the one's that will not be found in a course of study.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

" Good people exasperate one's reason; bad people stir one's imagination."

Oscar Wilde

Whooo Hooo!!!

"The three best things about being a teacher: June, July, and August."

That phrase was printed on a T-shirt somebody was wearing at an end-of-the-school-year union party at Fagan's in the Flats. This afternoon, while sipping a Guinness at the Harp, on Detroit, I smiled and celebrated the fourth best thing about teaching:


My ten whole days of freedom to do whatever I please began today at precisely 2:30. So what does a wild woman like me have planned?
I'm going to clean out the basement, paint the upstairs bathroom, and shampoo the living room carpet.


I am so FREAKING pathetic. What happened to my life? At some point I was knocked into the sandtrap of the mundane. I've gotta get out.
I will make a resolution. Sometime during the next ten days, I will revisit the wild child of my past and do something interesting, something adventurous, and maybe something a little bit bad.

I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Current Events (Anybody Got A Gun?)

Most days I liken my early morning class to Zombies—their bodies are present, but nothing else. They bring their breakfast up to the studio and silently sip their orange juice, awaiting the morning harangue of their teacher.
“Good morning artists and scholars! What do you need to get started today?
A few will shuffle off to get their projects out of the storage closet , the rest will continue the motionless blank stare. More than several kids have great difficulty coming up with ideas for their artwork. What motivates?
I am continuously searching for new sources. I urge my young artists to observe the world, and use their responses to the issues of the day to inspire art.
Lately I have begun using current events to prompt thinking, and inspire creativity. I grab the day’s newspapers from the cart by the front entrance to the school on my way upstairs. With black coffee in one hand, and the Plain Dealer and USA Today spread out in front of me, I flip through the pages announcing the headlines as they catch my eye. Often I can get a discussion going.
Today, the new gun laws caught my group’s attention. The legislation, allowing persons over 21 to carry a concealed weapon, didn’t spur much conversation. What did, was the comment that the law wasn’t very relevant, since so many people already carry guns illegally.
Every one of my students in this morning class knew where they could get a gun TODAY if they needed to. Many said that someone in their household had purchased an illegal (read stolen) weapon, and several claimed to own one.

Hmmmm….good to know

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

"Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it."

Mark Twain

Perverts and Predators

The picture on the front page of today’s Plain Dealer Metro section shows a poster of 14 year old Gina Dejesus, tacked to a tree outside Wilbur Wright Middle School. I overheard a couple of my students talking about her in my morning class. They knew her from the neighborhood. Many of the kids here at Max Hayes live in the area around Lorain Avenue where first Amanda Berry, and now Gina, disappeared.

The conversation began with the theory that the same person may have abducted Gina and Amanda (missing since last April). Someone challenged that idea saying that there were so many perverts roaming the streets of Cleveland that the location and dates were probably just a coincidence. Almost everyone in class had a pervert story.

I decided to take an informal survey in my remaining four classes this morning. What I learned was disturbing, but not surprising. Every single girl had, at least once, been approached or harassed by a stranger on the street. Nearly two-thirds of the boys had similar experiences.

Last year my own daughter and her friend were beckoned to the car of a stranger from the sidewalk of our quiet, leafy suburb. Thank God, they kept on walking, as fast as they could, to the friend’s house three doors away. The police were called, but since neither girl was able to remember a license plate number, nobody was ever apprehended. After this incident I checked out the county's internet site that lists sexual predators online. How frightening…so many.

And those are just the ones who have been convicted.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Nothing Half-assed

Immediately after graduation this past June, a favorite student of mine, Allan Cooper, left for Paris Island. He promised that he would come back to visit me in his dress blues, right out of boot camp.

At first glance, Allan seemed an unlikely candidate for the Marines. Blue-green hair, pierced tongue, x-rated tee-shirt, and skate pants so wide I teased him about hiding a couple of girlfriends in there with him... He was way more punk than platoon. His career choice didn't surprise me though. Nothing about Allan was half-assed. This young man worked as hard as he played.

As a ninth grader Allan took my Art 1 class, and although he was no great artist, managed to earn an "A". Senior year he walked through the door of my classroom and announced that he didn't need an elective credit, there were no study halls for seniors, and he was already enlisted in the Marine Corps. I should plan on giving him an "F" because he was not going to do any work. He was only signed up for my class because he had to be someplace, and he liked the atmosphere in the art studio. We had a great year. He made me laugh every day, and I was able to cajole enough work out of him to pass him with a "C".

My favorite part of teaching high school is when former students come back to visit me. Often the kids who go to college come back to school during winter or spring break. Sometimes students come back and tell me about their jobs. Sometimes they come back with their babies. But it's the kids who come back in uniform that make me gasp with pride and delight. They are always the ones who seem to have matured the most.

Allan came to visit me in October. The classic Marine. Starched, pressed, shoes gleaming, white hat in hand. In love with the Marine Corps. We talked about the war in Iraq. He wasn't worried.
I was.

After Christmas he stopped in to see me again. This time he was dressed in civilian clothes, and he came by with a classmate of his, on winter break from college.
"Guess what?" he asked when he walked in the door. "I got a new tattoo."
"Show me." I said, always eager to check out new body art.
"You don't want to see it." his friend grimaced, shaking his head.
Allan smiled, "I got my balls tattooed...Cherries!"
I see some things never change.

Allan was leaving in a couple of days for a few more weeks of training, before receiving his next assignment. He had not yet been told where he would be going.

The Iraqi war rages on.
Each day I read about more casualties, more American soldiers dying. Today I finally got word....Allan is stationed in Japan.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

"Soldiers Killed"

I saw the headline today:

Ten U.S. Soldiers Killed in Iraq Violence
Number of American Service Members Killed Reaches at Least 610


When I was a very little girl my parents took my sisters and brother and me to a funeral home. They were attending the wake of an old aunt or distant cousin, whom I 'd never met. Rob was a baby in my mother's arms.

My sisters and I were bored and so we wandered off to explore the elegant old house. There was another room with a casket across the hall. Nobody was there and the coffin was open. We tip-toed up to peek inside. Lying on the white satin pillow was a most handsome boy of about 18 or 19 years. He wore a dark green, army dress uniform, and by the way the fabric dipped, I could see that his left arm and part of his left leg were missing.

The Vietnam war had been a staple of television news for as long as I could remember. It was the backround noise of my childhood, until that moment when the words "soldiers killed" took on a face. That face was young, and beautiful, and cold. I shall never forget it.

I see that young soldier's face each time I read those words in the news, or hear them broadcast. I have been thinking about him a lot lately.

" I don't know what it will take out there--500 casualties maybe, maybe 500,000. It's the aughts that scare me."

Lyndon Baines Johnson