Bernard Hill’s Story

Despite living the street life himself, Bernard's role model encourages him to aim higher.


Previously: The woman Bernard calls Granny takes the place of all the others who’ve abandoned him. He’s determined to make her proud by getting his GED.

Part 3 of 4

What a boy without a dad needs most, aches for, is someone to show him how to be a man. No matter how much he loves his mother, his grandmother, any woman who cooks for him, buys his clothes, gives him a place to lay his head at night, to sleep, to dream, to grow, he still needs something more.

Bernard Hill’s father spent years of his life behind bars. So Bernard grew up, like 70 percent of the kids in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, without a dad at home.

He didn’t have to turn to the streets for a role model though.

He had Pooh.

That’s what he and the rest of the family call the cousin who grew up with Bernard in Granny’s house, the one who is 12 years older than Bernard.

Pooh was the guy with nice clothes and money, the guy who taught Bernard how to drive and defend himself, who insisted he stay in school, no matter what.

He didn’t want Bernard stealing cars and selling crack, joining a gang, carrying a gun. But he let Bernard watch him do those things. And he talked to him about it.

“I’m teaching you to box so you’ll never have to pick up a gun to defend yourself,” he’d tell Bernard.

“Guns are for punks,” he’d say. “They cause more problems than they solve.”

He’d give Bernard $50 to wash his car, $30 to run to the store, so Bernard wouldn’t have to turn to the streets.

Despite living the street life himself, Bernard’s role model encourages him to aim higher

“Your mother and father were on drugs just like my mother and father were,” Pooh would tell the kid who felt more like a little brother than a cousin. “I had to resort to something else to fill that void in my life. I don’t want you to have to do the same.”

But preaching and practicing were two different things.

Pooh tried to escape Mount Pleasant the right way. He graduated from high school and enrolled at Kent State. But in 2004, the year Bernard’s mother and grandfather died, Pooh was charged with shooting into an occupied building.

He’s doing six years at Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut for that crime. And he’s converted to Islam, changed his name to Hasan Shakur.

Bernard admits he followed in his cousin’s footsteps —— for a while. It was another one of his setbacks.

“I did all that hanging around or whatever,” he says, refusing to go into details.

“No one told me to stop. I got myself out of it. I knew that this wasn’t for me. I could be doing better than this.”

That doesn’t surprise Pooh.

“Bernard is strong,” he says, looking out the prison window at blue sky and razor wire. “Bernard is way stronger than me. As a kid, he saw just as much as I saw, but he didn’t fall prey to any of it.

“It seems like he did everything I told him as far as not to sell drugs, not to steal. The only thing he didn’t do that I told him to was finish high school.”

Pooh watched as teachers selected Bernard for a gifted and talented program at a school on the West Side; watched him get into trouble there for disrupting class and fighting; watched him fail the fourth grade, get sent back to his regular school, fall apart just like so many other people in his family had.

Bernard explains that part of his life with another one of his sayings.

“You can’t blame a child if he follows his father.”

He didn’t follow for long.

He pulled himself up. And he has another saying for that: “I ask God to bless me with understanding and commitment so I can commit myself to understanding. ‘Cause if I’m going to do anything, I have to commit to it.”

That commitment is what pushes Bernard back to the Murtis Taylor center, on a gloomy, overcast afternoon in late September, three months after his GED class was canceled, to find out why he hasn’t gotten a letter from the state giving him the OK to take the test.

He filled out the application, got it notarized.

He mailed it to the Ohio Department of Education in Columbus, along with a voucher he received to cover the $55 fee.

And he waited, for weeks, for a response.

Sure, he was slow getting everything mailed.

Despite living the street life himself, Bernard’s role model encourages him to aim higher

He was scared——afraid of failing, afraid of letting his grandmother down, afraid of letting himself down.

What scares him more, though, is ending up like the bums he sees walking down the streets of Mount Pleasant.

So here he is, walking into the lobby, ball cap in hand, to see the center’s chief program officer, Elbert Clark.

The old man shakes Bernard’s hand, introduces himself as Clark, the way he always does, leads him to his office, offers him a chair.

“So are you ready to take the GED test?” Clark asks.

Bernard looks as though he’s meeting a new girlfriend’s father. He rests his ball cap on his knee, twiddles his grandfather’s ring around his finger.

“You can call right now, make the appointment and take the test. That’s it,” Clark says. “And if you don’t have transportation, we can give you a bus ticket.”

Clark explains that there is no letter. The education department uses its Web site to notify students when their applications have been approved. All Bernard needed to do was go online and check.

He never knew.

He doesn’t need a ride. He tells Clark his aunt can drive him to Cuyahoga Community College for the test. He’s still twirling the ring as Clark gets on the phone and signs Bernard up to take the GED in two weeks——Part I on Oct. 9, Part II on Oct. 11.

Clark gives Bernard the address and a name and number to call if he has questions.

“Do you have a possibility of a job?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Bernard says, “my cousin’s a manager at CVS.”

If Bernard can get a full—time job there, he won’t have to depend on the little bit of cash he earns working eight hours or so a week at the convenience store around the corner. He can start saving for a car, stop depending on buses and other people to get him wherever he needs to go.

Then he can think about college, that degree in graphic arts, a career and living his dream.

“I want to be in control of my life——to be able to provide not just for myself, but my family,” Bernard says. “The way I see it, my grandmother saved my life. So I owe her a life. I’d give her everything I have.”

He’s been trying all summer to find full—time work, walking to the library on Kinsman Road to fill out applications online, taking the bus across town or into the suburbs to fill them out in person.

He’s got to do something. The family bills come to about $1,500 a month, way more than Granny’s Social Security check. A disabled uncle who lives with them helps out. But there’s no money left at the end of the month.

“After we buy the groceries, that’s it,” Bernard says. “I can’t just go out and get a pair of shoes when I want them. I have to wait.”

The GED. It can change all that.

But four days before he’s scheduled to take Part I, Bernard says he can’t do it. There’s a problem.

He won’t ask for help. He not that kind of guy. “I’m responsible for my own self,” he says, explaining with another one of his sayings.

So he doesn’t call Clark at Murtis Taylor, doesn’t ask for the free bus pass, just announces the Friday before that he’ll have to cancel taking the test.

“My aunt can’t take me,” he says. “I don’t have a ride.”

Wednesday: Bernard faces his fear of failure.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: [email protected], 216—999—4987