Sunday, April 29, 2001

How I found friends, hope in the halls

Time, trust helped photographer feel much like family at Taft

By Steve Herppich
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The longer I spent wandering the troubled halls of Taft, the more I saw the richness of this high school.

        I didn't see it at first. After my first day at Robert A. Taft High School last October, I wondered if I would ever get close enough to see the whole story. I felt as though I didn't belong. I felt discouraged.

        I returned to the newspaper warning that this story — my main assignment for the next four months — might be a failure. I wondered if I was in over my head.

        I was a white man in his 30s, with two cameras hanging from his neck, in a mostly African-American school. I felt like I might as well be wearing clown makeup and a pair of big red shoes.

        For a solid month, as I wandered the school, I did stick out. I would regularly hear someone yell, “It's the police!” when they spotted me. Or, realizing who I really was “Hey man, take my picture.”

        I was at Taft because feature reporter John Johnston had arranged for us to spend time there so that we could help readers better understand why so many students fail — and how some at-risk students manage to make it. His report appears on today's front page.

        Getting the kids to open up was slow going, maybe because so many of them deal with issues that I couldn't imagine facing as an adult, much less as a 15-year-old.

        The teachers were nervous, too. While we were supposed to be like a "flies on the wall,” it rarely turned out that way. Sandy Houck's English class, however, was different. The class seemed relatively relaxed about having us there.

        Ms. Houck didn't appear at all put off or guarded. Here was my first glimmer of hope that there was a story that I could tell in pictures.

        Our approach was to spend a day with individual students in the class, so that we didn't focus solely on one student from the start.

        My first day was with Josh Jacobs, who showed me around during lunch. He was a real showman, and he liked the attention of having his own private photographer. “When I get rich and famous, you can be my personal photographer,” he told me. I won't forget, Josh.

        One day, Yolanda Battles came up to me at the end of Ms. Houck's class, asking who I was following today. My reply was “you.” She seemed pleased. Other days, she wouldn't have anything to do with me. Yolanda was a puzzle.

        As John filled notebook after notebook, I shot more than 100 rolls of film as I followed the students and wandered the school. For two weeks I sat out front as school let out and shot pictures from the same spot. I shot in the gym, the auditorium, the halls, the classrooms and outside during lunch. Of course, all those pictures didn't — and couldn't — make it into the final story, which became more narrowly focused as time went by.

        One day, I caught a fight in a stairwell, one of about a dozen fights I saw.

        Ultimately we decided that a photo of the fight did not illustrate the story we were telling. One of the boys in the fight was someone we were following, but the student most visible in the photo wasn't. You also won't see that photo because the boy's mother asked us not to use it.

        School Principal Mary Gladden told me later that she'd heard I shot the fight. Her response: “He's seen everything else that's going on here, why not that?”

        I was no longer a stranger. I was now a firsthand witness to the daily struggle that students, teachers and other staff face at Taft.

        Amid troubles, I saw promise.

        I saw a young man put a chair under a basketball hoop so he could feel the joy of a slam dunk.

        I saw a motivational speaker draw a student to the stage and ask him to rap about the school. The words came easily and the auditorium erupted with cheers at his success.

        I got a sense of family, of young people depending on one another, connected, in a school that is a safe haven for many students with fractured childhoods.

        As the project was coming to a close, a student, Cydnie Merrits, asked me, “Were you scared when you first came to Taft? I'll bet you were scared.” I told her that my only fear was that nobody would trust me enough to tell the story.

        Taft has many problems, but it also has many good, caring people — and that is where I found promise.

        I made new friends during these months. My hope is that they and all those students who jockeyed to smile at my camera beat the odds to graduate.


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