Tuesday, June 06, 2000

A big gift from the graduate

        You could tell something big was about to happen.

        Downtown Cincinnati was jammed with people in dressy clothes. On a Thursday night. Men in jackets and ties, despite the heat. Women in dangerous shoes.

        Those packing flowers were asked politely by the Aronoff Center's relentlessly affable ushers to check their posies until after the event. This was probably a wise idea. In an excess of enthusiasm I could imagine somebody flinging a bouquet toward the stage. In fact, I could imagine myself doing such a thing.

        Shamekko Nicole Early would have been mortified.

        She's the one who gave me a ticket for the evening, inviting me to graduation exercises for Walnut Hills High School's Class of 2000.

Beautiful music
        Stragglers were seated as the school orchestra played. I have been to commencement exercises where I wasn't sure whether the band was trying to play Pomp and Circumstance or Hang on Sloopy.

        Not this time. It was not hard to imagine these musicians at Carnegie Hall, where they were asked to perform in April.

        But music is not Walnut's best-known export. It's academic excellence. This class collectively won $7.2 million in college scholarships and grants. Students at “Da Nut” are not, as one student said, “just a bunch of smart kids.” But they are bright. It's a fact.

        At a soccer game when a Walnut team was being trounced by a suburban school, the whispered cheer on the blue and gold sidelines was: “Whip us. Beat us, if you please. We have higher SATs.”

        Co-valedictorian Ben Goldsmith told the packed house, “It's not just academics — it's diversity.” In his address to classmates, he urged them to “remember what you've learned from the people you were with every day.”

        Right now, we live in a city where the chief of police and one of his officers are swapping stories about racial slurs. I believe most of the young people who were accepting diplomas from Principal Marvin Koenig could help them sort it out.

        I am not a total Pollyanna. I know all these kids don't like one another. But they know what's respectful and what is hurtful. They have had daily contact with a world outside their own homes, their own neighborhoods, their own churches or synagogues or mosques.

The gift
        My ticket, as I said, was a gift from a member of the Walnut Hills Class of 2000. And she herself is a gift from the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, who assigned her to me when I asked to mentor a Cincinnati Public Schools student. She is not my first African-American friend, but she is the first African-American child I have loved.

        I never would have guessed she would so thoroughly worm her way into my life. I was just planning to do a good deed. What a smug, silly notion.

        She told me when we were matched up that she didn't expect me to be a tutor — a relief because she is a much better student than I ever was. She didn't need a surrogate mother. She already has an excellent mother and father, who fed me pizza while we talked about this wonderful child of theirs.

        All Shamekko asked of me was to expand her horizons. “Give me a bigger life,” she said.

        But she didn't need me.

        Last Thursday I saw the final assembly of 292 members of the Walnut Hills High School Class of 2000. I heard them talk about the lunchroom and Latin and parties. And one another, of course.

        A very big life indeed.

        E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call (513) 768-8393.


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