You don’t know what’s under the black do-rag knotted at the back of the kid’s neck, the baggy T-shirt that looks like it swallowed him whole, the wide-legged jeans that hang so low on his hips you’re afraid of what you might see when he takes the next slow, ain’t-got-nothing-better-to-do step across the parking lot, through the front door and into the Murtis Taylor center.
The center glimmers in this Cleveland neighborhood, Mount Pleasant, where everything looks as worn out as the kid’s grandmother.
She raised 16 children-none of them hers-before she took on No. 17, the last, the one she said “no way” to, the one she almost gave up on 20 years ago when she was 64, this kid right here, Bernard Hill.
On a hot day in June 2007, Bernard rustles past the front desk, back to the computer lab. After nearly three months of coming to this GED class, he’s almost ready. Two more weeks of algebra, and he’ll have everything he needs to earn his diploma, everything this 20-year-old dropout needs to turn his life around.
If anything tempts him away from this-basketball in his back yard under a cloudless blue sky, his friends back at home playing “Scarface” on their PlayStations, the street life his cousin taught him about years ago-you can’t tell.
“I don’t want to be 25, 30 and not have anything to show for it,” Bernard says, a shy smile dissolving from his face, taking his dimples with it.
He drops his head, shakes it back and forth, stares at his hands, at the finger with the gold ring his grandfather once wore. “You can be the smartest man in the world, but if you don’t have those papers. . . . ”
That’s one of dozens of sayings that slip from Bernard’s thoughts every day.
“A minor setback for a major comeback.”
That’s another one, his favorite, the story of his life.
Dropping out in the ninth grade was his minor setback. Earning his GED-that will be his major comeback. Once he gets those papers, he finally can land a full-time job, buy a car, start saving for college, where he can study graphic design, and move on to a life doing what he loves-drawing, designing Web sites, creating video games.
That dream keeps him going.
But he’s got a history, too. It’s got him by the collar, holding him back. And he knows it.
“I don’t want my grandmother to come see me behind no jail cell bars,” Bernard says in a soft, scraped-up voice that makes him sound older than he is. “She’s seen enough of that.”
His whole neighborhood has seen enough of that. Mount Pleasant is a lot like Bernard, a kid who has lived there his entire life. It’s tough-looking outside, gentle inside, a place struggling with itself, trying to escape its troubles, not quite sure how to do it.
There are flower-filled yards on the streets around Kinsman Road and Union Avenue between Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the Shaker Heights border. But what stays with you are the boarded-up houses, the rusty gates over the doors, the little storefronts with hand-painted signs that let you know they’ve been converted to churches.
This isn’t just a neighborhood without a Starbucks. It’s a neighborhood without a McDonald’s. It’s a neighborhood nobody outside the city paid much attention to, until last spring.
One night in April turned Mount Pleasant into a place that had us all shaking our heads, asking one another, “What’s the world coming to?”
What’s the world coming to when a 15-year-old kid and a friend rob a man-with a gun-as he walks home from the corner store?
What’s the world coming to when the man shoots the kid dead?
What’s the world coming to when the neighborhood builds a shrine to the kid, fills it with teddy bears and balloons, and runs the man out of his house, sending him into hiding?
The dead teenager, Arthur Buford, became a symbol for what’s wrong with kids today. And Mount Pleasant became a symbol of the places those kids come from.
Some people defended the neighborhood, tried to explain.
“It’s hard down there,” one 17-year-old said after the shooting. “It ain’t easy for people to make money. Ain’t no jobs down there. It’s just hard down there.”
Bernard Hill knows how hard it is in Mount Pleasant, knows the people with money have fled, knows what the rest of us think of those left behind.
He’s got a saying about that, too.
“Don’t give up on us yet.”
You can hear the earnestness in his scratchy voice as he pauses, like a preacher, then starts again.
“There’s still good people here,” he says, “even though it seems like there’s not. You can’t count them out. You can’t count out the good people. I’m an example of these good people that I’m talking about.”
He pauses for a few seconds, laughs nervously, starts again.
“And I know a lot more people like me.”
There are a lot of people like Bernard Hill in Mount Pleasant. They are born to single mothers, abandoned by their fathers, taken in by kind-hearted women, educated by guys on the street. In the end, so many of them, like Bernard, have no choice but to take whatever life spits at them.
Bernard has a saying about that, too.
“You’ve got to adapt,” he says. “I believe if you take penguins to the beach long enough, they’ll be OK.”
You can’t help but think of those penguins as Bernard heads down a hallway at Murtis Taylor on the last Friday in June in search of his GED teacher so he can finish those last two weeks of algebra. A few minutes later, he walks back into the computer lab. Ken Walters isn’t far behind.
Long-haired and thin, the ex-hippie who taught English in South Korea before he took this inner-city job seems flustered as he tells Bernard the news.
His GED lessons are over.
“The funding lapsed,” Walters says. “Today’s the last day.”
There’s talk of paperwork and money and where Bernard can go to take the test.
“Good knowing you, man,” Walters says as Bernard makes his way out of Murtis Taylor, onto the street, into a world that keeps leaving him behind.
Out here in the warmth of a perfect June day, Bernard shrugs it off. Another minor setback.
“I don’t really have too much trouble learning. I can teach myself,” he says in a voice that searches for confidence.
“I want to make my grandmother proud. If I don’t pass it, I won’t just be letting myself down, I’ll be letting her down.
“That’s really the only thing I’m scared of. Failing.”