The Lesson Learned Lost on Childhood

By Regina Brett, The Plain Dealer, May 16, 2007

Photos of Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall hang from brown yarn tied to an old steam pipe.

The eighth-graders file in. Their language arts class meets in the basement at Charles W. Eliot Middle School in the Lee/Harvard area of Cleveland.

The room smells of candy apples, with cinnamon scent so strong your mouth waters.

Meryl Johnson has been teaching here for 32 years and makes the room as nurturing as possible. She recently gave her class an assignment: Write the definition of the word “thug.”

The results reveal what has changed and what hasn’t.

She, like many teachers who have contacted me, has made the death of Arthur “A.C.” Buford an exercise. Buford was 15 when he died after he and a pal tried to rob Damon Wells at gunpoint. Wells fired back.

Some of Johnson’s 13- and 14-year-olds knew Buford. One student defended him as if he were still alive.

“He makes good grades,” Deja says. “If you know him personally, he’s not bad at all.”

The students discuss what they wrote. Isaac says a thug goes around terrorizing people, yet he doesn’t see Buford as a thug.

“No. He coulda been in hard times and needed money,” Isaac says. “I didn’t say it was OK, but he coulda been in hard times.”

The debate shifts: If you don’t need the money, does it make you a thug to rob people?

“But they didn’t get anything,” one girl says. “They didn’t take anything.”

Another girl nods and says, “If they didn’t get the money, it's just a stickup. It’s not as illegal.”

Three agree with her.

Tiera says it isn’t just males trying to be thugs to fit in. Girls are pressured, too. Nearly all of them compare being a thug to trying to fit in.

“It’s when somebody is trying to fit in and lets the group you’re in grade you,” Lee says.

The teacher looks confused.

"“The thug is the one trying to get you to do something,” Lee says.

To Jerry, a thug is someone who follows a thug. Franchesca agrees. “If you hang with the people, you are the people. Everybody gonna think you’re a thug.”

That doesn’t wash with Isaac. “So if I hang out with A.C., I’m a thug?” he challenges.

Carl takes it another turn: “They’re just blaming all this on the younger generation. This has always been happening. Older people probably did this in their day.”

The teacher shakes her head. No, no, no, she insists. She tells them there was a time older people could sit on their porches and children could play without fear of getting robbed or shot.

The teens look at her with puzzled expressions, as if she’s weaving a fairy tale.

“How many of you have been to the funeral of someone who was shot?” she asks.

Nine out of 17 hands go up.

“How many of you know a young person who was shot?” she asks.

Every hand goes up.

“That makes me want to cry,” she says.

Me, too.

Carl is unmoved. “It’s always been that way,” he tells us. ”I know you know people in your class who got shot.”

No, we don’t.

Isaac can’t believe us, either. “This is not new.”

Time is up. They file out.

Meryl shakes her head. “Kids haven’t changed,” she says. “Childhood has.”



John F. Kennedy High Students Share Their Ambitions

By Regina Brett, The Plain Dealer, February 1, 2009

If you read about the sixth-grader who picked the pockets of a dead man and plucked out $20, you had to wonder about the future of kids in Cleveland.

A child of 13 stopped to loot the corpse of Samuel DelShaun Peet on Monday. Peet was a criminal who majored in felonies until he died of a gunshot wound near Audubon Primary School.

The bold pickpocket left many questioning just what kind of future there is for inner-city children.

The answer is all over the wall at John F. Kennedy High School.

Teacher Meryl Johnson invited me to stop by this week to see the ideal life her ninth-grade language arts students envision.

Miss Johnson asked her students to create a collage of what they would like their lives to look like when they become adults. The 14-year-olds cut up newspapers and downloaded material from the Internet. They tore out headlines and photos from magazines.

What does an ideal life look life to them?

Darryle glued a high school diploma and a master’s degree from Harvard on his.

Carmella wants to be a pediatrician so she cut out photos of children, a nurse and a doctor.

Felicia used pictures of a woman in a suit holding a diploma and stuck on these words: “The sky’s the limit.&rdquo

Desiray wants to go to Kent State University and become a doctor. She cut out a photo of a physician treating a patient and this quote, “Your life is clay in your creative hands. You can shape it to serve your highest vision, which is your purpose and God’s promise and plan for you.&rdquo

Most every guy wants to be a sports figure, so Miss Johnson made them envision a Plan B.

Michael wants to be an artist. He cut out a photo of Vincent van Gogh and these words, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.&rdquo

Jordan wants to help others, so he put photos of poor children lined up seeking help.

Damyyan wants to be a heart doctor. He put up photos of runners and the word “heart.&rdquo

Miss Johnson reached into a tall cabinet and pulled out a journal. One boy wrote, “When I’m upset I can always look at my vision board to cheer me up.&rdquo

Small thing?

Not in their world. These kids face all the normal teenage angst, dating, pimples and parents but also have to navigate around gangs, guns and drugs.

Miss Johnson reminds them all the time, “You have to have a goal to keep your eye on the prize.&rdquo

The boards give them something else to talk about besides who beat up whom or what song they bought at the store. They show the boards to their friends and sneak glances at them during class.

Miss Johnson can’t control what students see outside of the building. But inside? That wall reminds them the future has no ceiling.

Teasha wants to be an obstetrician. She printed out the job description.

“I know I can change the world,&rdquo she told me.

Saivon wants to study architecture at Kent State and posted the words, “Education First.&rdquo


“Life is too short to be messin’ around,&rdquo he said.

Jazman, whose smile shone as bright as her pink polo shirt, told me she wants to be a teacher. She cut out the No. 50.


She simply wants to live that long.