Sharing realities of school
The teacher hopes her experiences give people an even-handed perspective.
CLEVELAND (AP) -- The chubby teenager had an itch to scratch. MaryBeth Matthews spotted the handgun's black handle when he reached under his flannel shirt.
Firearms are a no-no in high school. So Matthews told the boy to hand it over and the student, with nothing more than a startled look on his face, complied.
Then, for Matthews, things started to sink in.
"Oh great!" I fussed, "Now I have to send for security. What the heck were you thinking? I cannot believe you had the nerve to bring a gun into my classroom ..."
"While my mouth was running full throttle my mind was screaming, 'MARYBETH, YOU ARE AN IDIOT!!! What if he wouldn't have handed it to you? He could have shot you!!! This is a gun in your hand!!!"'
Such is the life of a Cleveland teacher, according to "Street Smarts," Matthews' Web-based journal.
Matthews' Web site provides a rare insider's look at the realities of being a teacher -- and a teenager -- in Cleveland schools. She chronicles life at Max S. Hayes High School, a West Side trade school, and other memorable moments in her 18 years as a Cleveland art teacher, and publishes them at mbmatthews.blogspot.com.
Matthews said Cleveland teachers are perceived as either martyrs or money-grubbers. The city schools, she said, are considered "dysfunctional hellholes."
She said she hopes her experiences give people an even-handed perspective. "You can't know about anything until you look inside," she said.
Some of the dispatches on "Street Smarts" could fuel the hellhole perception, however. Matthews recalls when a student threatened her life -- and tried to make good on it -- after she confiscated his hat. She reflects on abhorrently high teen pregnancy rates and a student who killed himself by leaping out of a school window.
But many of her stories are narratives -- neither positive nor negative -- that sketch out a mosaic of daily high school life.
"Cold mornings in Cleveland will find the students in my morning classes bundled up in wool afghans, working Cratchet-like at their drawing boards. No matter how hard or hot the uni-vents blow, they will not often keep pace with the icy drafts of air that pour through the cracks, spaces, and holes of the single pane windows in their ill-fitting frames, along the north wall of my classroom."
Former students make regular appearances on her blog, the term for an online journal like Matthews'. One is a homeless, diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who calls her when he's in trouble. Another is part of a rock band signed by a major music company.
"She very much wants to put out good news about kids," said John Eby, director of arts education for the Cleveland schools. "But she doesn't do it in a way that is Pollyanna and doesn't do it in a way to make people feel good. She tells stories. She tells complete stories and doesn't soft-soap them."
Teaching was initially Matthews' backup plan. She studied art and science at Ohio University, but at her mother's urging also sought out a teaching certificate. She was drawn into teaching, she jokes, because the science students were too right-brained and the artists were too left-brained. The teaching majors were just right.
She got pregnant during her senior year -- something she discusses at length in her blog. Her parents shunned her, and Matthews had to place her son in a foster home as she battled what she describes as postpartum depression.
She eventually got her son back, finished her degree at Cleveland State University and started teaching in 1982 at Trinity High School in Garfield Heights. Seven years later, she taught for a year at John F. Kennedy High School and then for a decade at the now-shuttered Cleveland School of Science.
She has taught at Max Hayes ever since.
Last year, Matthews won the Arts Educator Award from the Young Audiences of Greater Cleveland, which promotes arts in local schools.
Supervisors like Eby usually don't endorse a subordinate's blog. Many companies frown on employees publishing details about their workplace. Periodically, they force blogging workers to shut down their sites or fire them outright.
But "Street Smarts" isn't a no-holds-barred take on Cleveland's education system. Matthews purposely avoids writing about the school administration (although she's an admirer of CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett). She also changes the names of students she writes about and gets permission from graduates to use theirs.
Plus, a lot of people don't read the blog. At most, about 250 people visit "Street Smarts" each week, according to Site Meter, a free service that measures Web site visitors.
But Matthews' site is slowly becoming a favorite in the local "blogosphere" -- the collection of local Web log authors. Readers also hail from Germany and Australia, and she has regular followers at Ohio State University, Baldwin-Wallace College, Temple University in Philadelphia and the Minneapolis university system, according to Site Meter.
Her words resonate with some outsiders. Tim Advent, a Medina resident and "Street Smarts" reader for the last few months, said he appreciates a perspective "from someone in the trenches."
"It shows there is more hope there than what some people seem to get out," he said. "But there are major issues that need to be handled. Teachers are out on an island. They are caught in the middle."