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.



George Nemeth said...

Awesome. I can't wait to read more.

jeff buster said...


I would welcome the opportunity to get over to Max and photograph Neil and his classmates and whip em up on the web.

Anyone who returns with the entire carton of paper, rather than a ream, is on my team!