"Who will I meet this year?"
Over the past 28 years of 'first days', I have met thousands of young men and women.
As I taught them new concepts, they enriched my life. So many made me laugh, some tested my patience, a few even broke my heart. Most eventually graduated to go on to jobs or college. They became hard workers, good parents, and successful business people. A good number became artists, and an admirable number became teachers. I've sent quite a few of my students off to the armed forces. Some made careers in the military, others have returned from war physically and/or emotionally scarred.
I see my former pupils' names in the newspaper, or on the internet, in the business or society pages, occasionally in the obituaries, and more often than I care to admit, in the police blotter. I've seen their faces on the walls of the post office featured on the FBI's most wanted posters, found them listed in the sheriff's sex offenders updates, and on prison web pages. I've taught killers, gangsters, rapists, bank robbers and con-artists.
And I've also taught the victims.
This week I stood at the door to my classroom and smiled as I waited for the students to find their way to my classroom at the end of the long corridor. Freshly printed schedules in hand, their eyes scanned the walls for room numbers.
"Is this room 356?"
"Yes, you found it!"
Some of the students hurried in, too shy to make eye contact. The cool kids strolled in slowly, sizing up the seating arrangement. The gregarious ones started the conversation before they crossed the threshold.
"Finally, I get to take art! I loved my art teacher in 7th grade! We made these sculptures out of wire... it was so cool! Are we going to make sculpture in this class? I draw all the time when I'm bored. Do you want to see my drawings? I'll bring them in tomorrow."
This year, for the first time, the students are required to wear a uniform: solid blue or white collared shirts, black, blue, or khaki dress pants with belts and shirts tucked in. Before the start of homeroom, I had to send a couple of boys back downstairs for being out of uniform.
"Aw... Come on, let us stay. You can be the cool teacher and not follow the rules."
Laughing I retorted, "I don't need you to think I'm cool. I need to teach you your colors. Go on downstairs and learn what blue and white look like."
I've learned over the years you can pretty much get most kids to do what you ask if you smile, even kick them out of class without all of the usual drama. The two non-compliant juniors headed back downstairs, one of them turned around and mouthed a silent "Please?"
I waved good-bye.
Friday I had a full class, everyone in uniform.
The students this year seem a little different from last year, and a whole lot different from the kids who roamed the halls back in 1998, the year I transferred to Max Hayes from Garrett Morgan Cleveland School of Science.
Back in the 90's, Max Hayes was the School of Last Resort in the city of Cleveland. Principals from the regular neighborhood high schools would send their most incorrigible teenagers to the vocational school where, hopefully, they might find something else to do with their hands besides fighting, stealing, or groping.
When I taught at the School of Science a few blocks away, the security guards in that building had to be on special alert for the thugs from Max Hayes who regularly walked into the school to beat up the nerdy science students.
Well, it is ten years and three principals later. Students must now pass a rigorous screening process to be admitted , and sign an academic and behavioral contract to stay enrolled. Vocational classes have evolved into technical programs. The "shop rats" and "grease monkeys" were replaced with computer programers and engineering students.
Vo-ed has become STEM.
Finally, I will share with you a comment made by a fellow teacher who just transferred to Max Hayes this week after spending most of his career teaching English at Glenville High School on Cleveland's east side:
"I can't believe it! I went through the whole day without having to tell anyone to be quiet. Everyone was paying attention. There were no kids walking the halls in between classes. I think I must have died and gone to heaven."
Now, who says that the Cleveland schools are beyond help?
The dysfunction of the public school system did not happen overnight. The issues are complex — social, economic, and political. There is no silver bullet, no quick fix. The solution reminds me of an old joke that goes something like this:
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
If Max Hayes can reinvent itself, perhaps there is still hope for the rest of Cleveland.