Thursday, March 22, 2007

Neal: On living in Cleveland

"Truthfully, there aren't too many great things about Cleveland."

Neal's response was immediate, without a moment's consideration.

"It's not the city, it's the people who make the city bad. People run around shooting each other."

Like so many kids living in Cleveland's neighborhoods, Neal is very aware of the criminal presence that is a daily fact of life in the city. Night after night, local television newscasters will report on a west side drug bust, a south side shooting, or an east side robbery. It doesn't go unnoticed that a suburban murder makes the Cleveland Plain Dealer headlines, while inner city shootings only rate a two inch column on page B-3. Drugs and poverty have made the neighborhoods dangerous; people get killed. It's not really big news anymore.

"My neighborhood, for the most part, is good. I live in West Park, so my street is full of firefighters and cops. All of my neighbors, including me, get along. We all get together during the summer, hang out and talk. There is one house on the street though that is a rental. Some white-trash meth addicts moved in and have overstayed their welcome." Neal rolls his eyes in disgust. "You know what the problem with Cleveland's neighborhoods is? You have these people who own these houses, but they want to get out of the city. They move away and don't care about the neighborhood anymore so they rent to anyone, they rent to trash who destroy the neighborhood. Like, the guy across the street from us moved, and now the house is rented by drug dealers. Cars are pulling in and out of the driveway day and night. Strange people, crackheads, come and go. The worst part is, the guy who owns the house was a Cleveland cop. He moved away, so he has no idea what is going on over there."

I asked Neal what he would say to Mayor Frank Jackson if he had the opportunity.

" I would tell him to stop trying to make himself look good to the people in the suburbs, and work on the schools. They want to put kids in uniforms so they look like nice private school students, but who cares if they learn anything. We have substitutes in our classes for months, never enough supplies for the classes or materials for the shops,and the buildings are falling apart."

We look up at the ceiling of my classroom where there are thirty six tiles missing leaving gaping holes from water damage that happened more than a dozen years ago. Several more tiles are barely hanging on. Cracked asbestos floor tiles were finally replaced a couple of years ago in the hallways, but not the classrooms. Of the one hundred panes of glass in the windows on the north side of the room, twenty seven are cracked, and have been that way since I came to this building nearly a decade ago. At that time, (Neal was in second grade) Clevelanders voted to raise their taxes to repair the schools. A few new buildings have opened, yet tens of thousands of Cleveland students continue to attend classes in environments that can only be described as disgraceful.

My next questions for Neal concerned his plans after graduation.

"The thing I look forward to is getting a good job so I can support myself and leave the nest. I don't plan on staying in Cleveland, because there are no jobs here."

Neal studied the machine trades in the vocational program at Max Hayes, but doesn't feel he would be very happy with a manufacturing job. Neal likes to spend time in Pennsylvania with relatives at a family farm, and prefers the rural lifestyle. He enjoys the outdoors, and dreams of running a small dairy farm some day.

"Is there anything that could make you stay in Cleveland?" I asked.

" No, " he said " absolutely not."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Neal Interview - Part One

The rain was falling hard enough to make a racket on the roof of my car. Without a hat or a hood I would have to make a dash for the door.
I looked in the rear view mirror, and leaned back to get a better angle so I could check out my hair. Damn, it was already frizzy. Since there was nothing to save, there was no need to run. I cut through the custodians' entrance to save a few steps anyway.

Just inside the doorway stood Neal, with a couple of sheets of paper in his hand.

"I laughed for half an hour when I read your post. I had to print it out for my mother to read. She's computer illiterate."

"How are you coming with the questions I gave you?"

"I was working on them yesterday. I wrote about a page. I'm not done with them yet, but I will show you what I finished when I come up to your class."

I have to admit, the interview questions I gave Neal were pretty lame, so he answered most of them with a single sentence. I needed him to elaborate, so we talked about his answers when he came to class this morning. I will share what I have learned about him here.

Neal lives in the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland with his mom and dad. He told me that he took offense to my reference to the "gritty sidewalks of the near west side", as his neighborhood is kept up and "believe it or not, I know who my daddy is." He has lived in Cleveland all his life, attending grade school at St. Pat's West Park.
When asked why he chose to come to Max Hayes High school he responded, "The only reason I came to Max Hayes was because I had no other place to go. I was out of options." Pressed to explain he said "Holy Name wouldn't take me. They rejected me because my grades were awful. My best friend, Eric, goes there though."

On his questionnaire he describes himself as a mystery.
In his words: "I say this because you can look at me and you have no idea what I am thinking, but on the other hand, I can look at you and read your face and know what you are up to." I disagreed with his terminology, saying he was perceptive rather than mysterious, and suggested he might want to take some psychology classes, if he goes to college.
But Neal isn't thinking about applying to any college programs this year, instead, he jokes about staying in high school until he is 21.

After school, Neal likes to work on things.
He recently bought a riding lawn mower off of Craig's List so he could earn money cutting neighbor's lawns this summer. He says there are a lot of older people on his street who need some help. He would like to start a business fixing lawn mowers, but he admitted he works slowly, and customers couldn't expect to have any work finished overnight.
After last month's snowstorm, he made quite a few bucks cleaning peoples' driveways. Like so many teenagers, sleep is high on his list of things he likes to do when he is not at school, followed by fishing and camping. On weekends, he and his buddy Eric take "road trips"; anywhere out of the city, anywhere but Cleveland.

When asked to share his thoughts on being a public school student, and in particular how he viewed his educational experience at Max Hayes, Neal first expressed his disappointment in the way people look down on public school students.

"There are a good amount of students who want to learn. They do care, but the ones who don't really make the whole school look bad."

He observed how that attitude also extended to the teaching staff. He noted that there were very good teachers at Max Hayes High School, but then there were some teachers who didn't seem to care about the students. He said you could tell which ones were only in the classroom to collect a check. Admittedly this is most likely true at most schools, but Neal's concern is with his own experience.

When asked if anyone at Max Hayes has made a positive impact on him, not surprisingly, the head custodian, Duane Gibson was the person who he said was his best influence.

"I always think about the advice he gave me, " Neal laughs. "He told me 'Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.' "

True enough, Neal.

I also asked Neal some questions dealing with his views on the city of Cleveland, it's neighborhoods, it's leadership, and what it would take to keep him here. He's still thinking about those questions. I will share his answers with you later this week.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


His face, blushing pink, registered an uncomfortable hybrid expression of both delight and fear.

"You really wrote about me?"

"I told you I would, so I did. Friday afternoon, during my lunch break. I posted it online this morning before I left for work."

"Let me go down to the library right now, I want to read it."

"Sorry Neal, the network filter won't permit access to the site. You'll have to read it at home. Hey, I'd like to do a mini-series of posts about you. What do you think? How about an interview?

"Okay." He nodded, but a second later, dark eyebrows knotted, his thoughtful stare became a grimace. "What kind of questions are you going to ask? Can I write out the answers?"

I'll talk about it with you later. Why don't you get busy on your assignment?"
Neal scrawled a horizon line across his sheet of drawing paper. "Can you help me get started? I want to draw a barn."

Neal is not the student-stereotype who most people imagine roam the halls of a Cleveland public high school. He is the kind of kid who would look more at home sitting on a tractor, plowing the back forty than shuffling along the sidewalks of Cleveland's gritty near west side. Early each morning on his way to work, Neal's father drops him off at the high school before most of the faculty arrive, and so he has built some very close relationships with the custodial staff. He spent so much time hanging out in the boiler room before and after school, that eventually the custodians put him to work. He stands head and shoulders above most of his classmates, and more than a few visitors to the building have mistaken Neal for a member of the staff. On any given day he can be spotted tossing salt on an icy sidewalk, carrying a ladder down the hallway, or lugging boxes of copy paper to the third floor teacher's classrooms.

Each fall the twelfth grade students of Max Hayes Vocational High School hold a fund raiser to help pay for prom and graduation. The Senior Auction is always a popular event where members of the class auction off their services for one day. Bidding starts at two dollars and has been known to pass the hundred dollar mark upon occasion. Each year I bid on a few of the students in my art classes who I have gotten to know, and who I won't mind spending the day with. This year I quickly scanned the list of seniors and checked off six names of kids who either were taking my class this year, or passed my class a while back. All of them were talented artists and good students, except for Neal.

Neal's daily mantra in Art class is "You know I can't draw", and his academic record leaves something to be desired, yet he was my first choice.
You see, Neal is connected.

Normally when I send a student to the custodian's office for paper towels, they will bring back a package. When I send Neal, he brings me a case. He personally installed two brand new pencil sharpeners in the classroom when he discovered how useless the old ones were, and personally makes sure they are emptied regularly and working properly. When the wind off Lake Erie began to blow cold, and my classroom morning temperature dipped into the low fifties, Neal came to the rescue once again. Within days the custodians were tinkering away with their wrenches, and the Uni-vents that for years had only provided anemic heat at best, were suddenly blowing plenty of hot air, and keeping us toasty.

I wasn't the only faculty member who appreciated Neal's talents, but I did manage the winning bid at thirty dollars.

Neal spent most of his day of servitude hanging artwork, organizing the back room, and cleaning the sink. That afternoon we walked next door to the Harp for a corned beef sandwich. While we were reading over our menus, Neal looked up and whispered.

"You can order a beer."

"No, I can't. Technically I'm still working."

"I won't tell."

"That's irrelevant. I can hardly keep my eyes open after lunch the way it is. If I had a beer I would be snoring through my last period class, and drooling on the desk. Then some student with a cell phone camera would take my picture, and I would be all over the evening news on Channel 19."

"C'mon. It would be funny."

I rolled my eyes and changed the subject. "So what do want to do when you graduate?"

We spent the next hour talking about school, and plans for the future. Neal is articulate, opinionated, and funny. An eighteen year old going on thirty...maybe forty.

Neal is Future Cleveland.
Maybe not.

He talks about moving away from the city like so many of his classmates do. They don't see a future for themselves here. Over the next few days I will post interviews with Neal and several other students who said they would like me to write about them. I will be asking them to share their views about the city and the school district. I will ask them to share their stories. If you have any questions for them, you can email me, or simply post a comment.I will make sure they get your messages.

Keep an eye on this site.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Big Neil

Approaching Dead Man's Curve, frustration simmered as my speedometer slowed to a single-digit reading. I was stuck behind a rusted pick-em-up truck dropping scraps of cardboard. Semi's to the right and left boxed in my little Celica, and frustration became road rage. I wouldn't be late to class this morning, but I would be rushed, and I hate feeling rushed.

By the time I turned into the school parking lot, I had nearly exhausted my entire vocabulary of nasty words in English, as well as a few choice phases in Polish, German, Arabic, and Croatian I've picked up from various friends, family members, and acquaintances. I rarely ever curse, unless I'm driving. I call it "profanity therapy". I learned it from my father. Mom never approved, but it works.

When I looked to the far corner of the parking lot, my furrowed brow relaxed and I favorite spot, near the building exit, was still empty, and I would have five minutes to make it upstairs to my classroom before the tardy bell rang...the sun was shining, it was Friday and life was good.

As I hurried toward the faculty entrance, I passed the custodian's door. Big Neil, a senior in my first period class, stood in his usual early morning spot, about five steps away
"'re here." He shook his head, but his grin gives him away. "I might be late to class." he adds.

"Good morning to you too. I'll see you when you get there."

True to his word, Neil arrives about ten minutes late. The class was already engaged in discussion, or shall I say complaining, about the results of the Black History Month poster contest. Since Neil didn't complete his poster in time to enter the contest, (and still has not turned his assignment in), he had no interest in the conversation, and changed the subject.

"When was the last time you wrote an article on your web site?" His question caught me off-guard, and I stuttered, trying to recall my last entry.

"October...I think."

"When are you going to write about me? You said you would write about me."

"I think I was kidding. I haven't had much time to write anything lately."

"So what...You said you would write about me."

"Okay, I will."

"Write something today"


"I'm going to check on you."

Hey!...Was this a challenge?
I'll show him...Maybe if I start writing again, I can get Neil to finish his assignments.

Okay Neil, I'll write about you, but now you are going to have to do something for me.

To be continued...