On a recent visit to Detroit I stopped by Western High School where I started my teaching career. Having undergone a $28 million dollar renovation, the place looked brand new; it has been renamed Western International High School and is now one the city’s premier schools.
The day was filled with countless fond memories many of which found their way into my upcoming “Thorn Birds of Detroit” series. A couple of experiences from my days living in Detroit didn’t make the series, but I’ll never forget them.
Recalling my first day of teaching makes me smile. Since the old Tiger Stadium was in the district, I decided to use a baseball analogy with my first-period mechanical drawing class.
“In this class you get three strikes and you’re out!” I announced boldly.
I remember pausing for effect. “Now this is your first warning.” I glanced around the room. “Everyone hear that?”
Heads nodded up and down the rows of drafting tables.
“Now, here’s you second warning! Did everyone hear that?”
The guys straighten on the stools.
“And now, I’d like to give you a third warning. Does everyone realize that was your final warning?”
Not a word was said.
“And your ass!” came from the back of the room.
“And yours is gone,” I said, taking the student by the arm and marching him to the in-house phone and then waiting for the assistant principal to arrive.
The funniest part of the story came three hours later when I took a break in the men’s lounge. I had no sooner closed the door when an old-timer called, “Hey Cochran, what in the hell did you do in your first-hour class? Every kid in school is on alert!”
The most moving experience I had while teaching at Western occurred at an away basketball game at Detroit Chadsey. I was coaching the JV squad and had a player by the name of Cleophus Pickett. While six foot five, he defied all stereotypes—he wasn’t fast and couldn’t jump—but he was the nicest kid with the biggest smile you’d ever seen.
I played Cleophus every game; he even made a basket or two that season, but that’s not the story.
When we’d travel to away games, Cleophus was always the last one out of the locker room. With all of the players on the bus, I’d run toward the locker room shouting, “Cleophus … Cleophus, where are you?”
The call always came. “I’m coming coach.” And then, the big smile would appear.
After the final game of the season at Chadsey, I walked slowly toward the locker room without saying a word. Peeking inside, I saw Cleophus sitting on the bench tucking the tops of his socks inside his shoes—there were no bottoms!!
I stepped back and shouted, “Cleophus hurry up.”
“I’m coming coach.”
When we got back to Western that night I put my arm around him and asked him to come into my office. I could feel his body shake; he may have thought he was going to get a beating like he often did at home.
I unlocked a storage cabinet and pulled out a box of twelve pairs of sweat socks. “Thanks Cleophus for having a great season.”
A glaze filled his eyes. We hugged each other and squeezed out the tears.