Bernard Hill’s Story

Bernard won't disappoint the one person who has never let him down—Granny.

Bernard Hill

Previously: Twenty—year—old Bernard Hill sees getting his GED as a way out of Mount Pleasant’s cycle of poverty. With two weeks to go, his GED class is canceled.

Part 2 of 4

You can’t understand Mount Pleasant if you don’t know the people behind it, the people who keep it going every day. ¦ The same goes for the kids who live here, kids like Bernard Hill.

Know his family and you know him.

There’s the woman he calls Granny. She’s the reason he walked to his GED class month after month, 15 blocks there and back, four days a week, holing up for three hours a day when he could’ve been hanging out with his friends, swimming at the pool, drawing upstairs in his room for hours.

“I can’t let her down,” Bernard says, once again, on a warm afternoon in July, after his GED class was canceled with just two weeks to go. “She’s so open—hearted; she’s such a good person. If I could, I would build her an island just for herself.”

Granny’s story slips out in the slow y’alls she uses now and then, in her stooped back, in the small square that protrudes from her chest, letting you know her heart needs help if it’s going to keep going.

It is the story of a girl who dropped out in the third grade, who picked cotton in the fields of Arkansas instead of going to school, who spent decades after that cleaning hospital, hotel and school rooms all over Cleveland, who survived three heart attacks and a stroke and outlived her husband, the man she called Mr. Haynes all her life, the Boise Cascade truck driver she laid to rest in 2004 after 51 years of marriage.

Jessie Haynes moved to Mount Pleasant in the 1960s. Like dozens of women in this Cleveland neighborhood, where 70 percent of the children live without dads, she is the biggest blessing many kids have.

And, as Bernard says, reeling off another of his sayings, “I take blessings however they come.”

Few blessings come easy here. But Granny came harder than most.

“I don’t want to raise no more babies,” she announced in 1987, when Betty, a young woman she raised as her daughter, asked if she could bring home a baby named Bernard, just 2 months old. His mother’s on drugs, Betty said. Somebody’s got to help him.

Granny loved babies, still does. But she and her husband had already raised 16 children, none of them theirs. And she was 64 years old.

She let her daughter move the boy into the home they shared.

And she said OK two years later when a judge gave Betty legal custody of Bernard.

Neither of Bernard’s real parents were in court the day he officially was taken from them.

His father? Court records show he was in jail on a drug charge. And his mother? She was in custody, too, records say, after stealing dresses from a department store.

They’ve been in and out of jail ever since: his mother charged with attempted robbery, attempted burglary, attempted felonious assault, possession of drugs; his father with receiving stolen property, trafficking in drugs, attempted escape.

Bernard didn’t meet his father until he was 6 or 7 years old; his mother until he was 14 or so.

And he hasn’t seen them much since.

“I’m not even going to let little things like that worry me, or I’ll have a head full of gray hair before I turn 21,” he says. “I always knew that they meant well. They just have problems.”

It was Betty he called Mom. And it was Betty who sang to him and helped with his homework when she could.

But she stumbled, too.

She pleaded guilty to trafficking in drugs when Bernard was 2, to carrying a concealed weapon when he was 6, to possessing drugs when he was 12.

So, one more time, Granny stepped in.

She was there, solid as always, when her daughter got sick in 2003, the year Bernard turned 16.

Then, in the winter of 2004, Betty missed a couple of dialysis appointments. Bernard still doesn’t know why. He watched her start back, though, on a cold, snowless day in February. She was so weak, Bernard and his uncle carried her out to the medical van, sat her in the wheelchair, watched the lift hoist her up.

Bernard climbed in, too, to snap his mom’s seatbelt. She didn’t move a muscle. He tapped her arm. “Mom?” She opened her eyes, nodded, then closed them again.

“Is she breathing?” Granny called from behind Bernard.

He leaned forward, listened.


Everything ran together after that. The van driver called 9—1—1. A fire truck came, then paramedics, an ambulance.

Bernard climbed into the front seat of the ambulance and rode with his mom to the hospital, too afraid to turn around and look at her lying on the gurney.

Two weeks later, they buried her.

Another week later, Bernard’s grandfather died.

That left Bernard and Granny with nothing to live on but his grandfather’s Social Security checks.

“That,” Bernard says, “is when I grew up.

“I knew I had to really start taking care of business. I knew I had to get a job and take care of things.”

That message was handed down to him in the gold ring his grandfather had worn.

Bernard knew its symbolism. At 17, he was the man of the house. And he knew its power. When he needed his grandfather’s wisdom, he could turn to the ring.

“Sometimes, I can just look at it,” he says, “and answers will come to me.”

Bernard quit school after that, went to work full—time, at McDonald’s, taking the bus across town. When the bus ran late, he got written up. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t get a raise, why he couldn’t get the $5.50 an hour everybody around him was earning, why he was stuck at $5.15.

He applied for other jobs. But nobody wanted him. He didn’t have a diploma.

He was angry, depressed, didn’t want to talk to anybody, not even his grandmother.

Eventually, he landed another job, two blocks from home, stocking coolers at a convenience store. He could walk there, or run over when his boss needed him at the last minute. But some weeks, he only got seven or eight hours in.

That’s how little he was working this past April, two weeks before Arthur Buford was shot and killed in the middle of Mount Pleasant. Bernard’s aunt drove him to the Murtis Taylor center then so he could file his income taxes.

She spotted a brochure for a GED class, talked to a woman who headed the program, and the next thing Bernard knew, he was enrolled.

Most days, he was the only student in Ken Walters’ class.

He stuck it out, through general math and English and history, working his way up to advanced algebra. Then budget cuts ended the class.

Walters said goodbye to Bernard on that last day, at the end of June, by handing him an application for the test.

“You’re ready for it. You really are,” he said as he shook Bernard’s hand and wished him luck.

t took Bernard a few weeks to get to the bank, get the application notarized, mail it to Columbus. He watched the mailbox after that, waiting for the OK to take the test from the state Department of Education.

An envelope finally arrived. The letter inside said he’d sent the wrong information.

Bernard put the right papers in the mail. More weeks passed. This time, nothing came back.

Then, in September, almost three months after his GED class was canceled, he let on. He’d been dragging his feet, hadn’t followed through to see what had gone wrong.

“Truthfully,” he says, looking up with sad eyes. “I psyched myself out.

“I’m just nervous.”

You can see the fear, sense the courage it takes just to say the words.

“I know everybody, especially my grandmother, she wants me to pass it on real bad. I don’t want to fail.

“It’ll feel like I fell into a black hole with no way out.

“I’d feel like so much nothing.”

Tuesday: The man in Bernard’s life watches him from prison.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: [email protected]

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Published at 12:00 am CST