Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Closed, but not forgotten: faith lives and shines in Detroit

Detroit Lutheran West, my high school.

by Keith Yancy

I recently had a very eye-opening experience.  I went back to high school.

In my case, that would be Detroit Lutheran West High School, home of the Leopards.   My high school was one of many high schools in Detroit, a smaller high school that, like most others, had its highs and lows.  To an outsider, Lutheran West was just another high school; but of course, a kid’s high school is always his or her own, a place of memories (good and bad) and usually a place that has a marked impact on their lives.   Lutheran West did that for me.

But, like so many other high schools in Detroit, Lutheran West didn’t survive.

My high school closed years ago.  Another school moved in for a few years, but the forces of decay and population flight were still present, and it eventually closed too.  Like so many Detroit institutions, the problems of our area were just too large to overcome.  Nowadays, the occasional reunion and a devoted Facebook page keep the memories of my high school alive, with former graduates sharing news, renewing friendships, and trading memories.

It was that Facebook page and the pictures on it that made me decide to take a drive over to school to see it once more.  I confess, I’ve been a poor alumni.  I hadn’t physically been there for at least 20 years (class of 1985), even though it’s only a 20-minute drive from my home.  Only when I saw that the property had been sold to a land developer did I decide to visit, and on this occasion, I had my 10-year-old daughter Clara with me.

Even before I got there, I knew things had changed.  Dramatically.

Just for fun, I intentionally went out of my way to re-create the route I took to school each morning.  And while the street signs bore the same names, the trip was strange and unfamiliar; office buildings (some vacant) had replaced empty fields, old buildings were replaced by new ones; too often, those old buildings were either replaced by empty, weed-wild lots or simply boarded up.  I couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty about how long it had been since I had driven through the area.

All these strange feelings steadily increased as I got closer to where my old school was, and when I saw the familiar railroad tracks across Greenfield Road, I braced myself for what lay beyond.  (I remembered how I — and a lot of other kids — used the “got caught by the train” excuse on more than one occasion to explain why I was tardy for first hour.)  I bumped over the tracks, slowed down my car, and pulled into the parking lot of the school I had attended all those years ago.

It was a sad sight to see.

I stopped my car, and stared so long at the building and grounds that my daughter finally piped up from the backseat, “What is this place, Dad?”  I took a deep breath, exhaled, and finally said, “This was where I went to school, sweetie.”  She paused, gave it some thought, and finally said, “That’s sad.” 

We didn’t say another word while we were there. 

The front driveway. When I went to school there, the tall fence on the left didn’t exist.

Tall fences stood where once was an open parking lot.  Tall grass and weeds were everywhere.  Everything from the concrete driveway to the building was crumbling.  The forlorn school sign, still standing in front of the property, said “Faith lives and shines in Detroit.”  A playscape, added after my school closed, sat silent in a sea of overgrown grass. 

A front view, complete with abandoned playscape (added later). The gymnasium is in the background, with athletic fields behind it.

Time, neglect and scavengers had definitely taken their toll on the building.  Metal fascias had been torn off, doors boarded up, windows broken, awnings sagging.  Fences leaned back and forth.  Broken glass and peeling paint seemed to be everywhere.  The sports fields in back — where we played our games, cheered our teams, and held our phys ed classes — were now silent and empty, overgrown and abandoned.  The windows that remained gave glimpses of what I once knew as our school cafeteria, the band room, classrooms, principal’s office.  All empty, all silent.

The gym locker room entrance, located in the dark hallway toward the right of the photo. Scavengers have torn some of the metalwork off of the outside of the building here, perhaps because this area isn’t visible from the street.

Now, I’m a realistic enough person to know that my school wasn’t perfect.  We had plenty of problems, like all schools do, and while I had many good memories of high school, I have some that aren’t very pleasant, either.  I was neither popular, nor athletic, nor a scholar.  (In fact, I was Napoleon Dynamite before Napoleon Dynamite even existed.)  We had the same cliques, issues and dynamics every high school does.

But Lutheran West taught me a lot of valuable lessons, too.

Lutheran West was the place where I learned that white kids and black kids are, well… kids.  We made friends with each other, could tease each other, laugh with each other, play sports together, occasionally fight with each other, and make up again.  It was a place where I saw teachers and administrators who were characters, but who genuinely cared about the kids they taught, even if that meant running extra laps or getting sent to the back of the lunch line.  It was a place where I learned that a good education could be gained even if we didn’t have all the money and “stuff” that bigger schools had.

The baseball field. The field itself is virtually unrecognizable, except for the backstop. Like the other fields, the players helped care for the field after every practice by picking up stones out of the dirt.

And Lutheran West was, in my opinion, unique.  Instead of today’s fixation with the color black, our school colors were maroon and white — still my favorite color combination.  No one else we played had those colors.  And I don’t ever recall, even a single time, where we played another sports team called the “Leopards.”  That was us, and us only.  We knew we didn’t have as many resources as some other schools, and while we didn’t all have matching uniforms on the JV baseball team (there weren’t enough, so a few of us had older-looking versions), we loved — LOVED — when we beat the “rich kids” from the prep high school with their fancy uniforms and palatial baseball diamond.  We had our rivalries with — who else? — Lutheran East, which eventually closed also.

Religion was, of course, important.  One of the best experiences I had in high school was being required to read the ENTIRE Bible as part of the curriculum.  I’m amazed, even now, at how many Christians haven’t done that.  We studied — with respect — other religions, too, and we had chapel for the entire school every Wednesday morning, no matter what.  Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, this gift was the greatest gift Lutheran West gave to me, and I remain grateful for it every day.

The entrance by the school principal’s office, now boarded shut. If my memory is correct, many of the older class pictures were located just inside on the walls. Several windows were broken in this part of the building, and even from outside, it was evident that the interior damage was extensive.

All those memories came back to me in a flood as I slowly drove around the school.  My daughter and I sat in my car for a long while, staring at the building and listening to the cars driving past.  The entire place seemed utterly forgotten and invisible; it was as if the surrounding neighborhood didn’t even see the school (or us) there at all.  Before I finally pulled out of the driveway to go home, I found myself looking one last time at the school sign out front.

The school sign. This sign used to have the Lutheran West logo on it, before Detroit Urban school moved in after West closed. Eventually, Detroit Urban was forced to close also. The old city school bus depot still exists in the background. Greenfield Road is just to the left of this picture.

“Faith lives and shines in Detroit.”

Whoever put that message on the sign was right. 

The building is empty, the people long gone.  Soon, I suspect, the building will be gone as well.  But the true purpose of Lutheran West lives on, its mission accomplished.  Graduates of all ages — and colors — are productive citizens, in all sorts of professions (many students went on to become teachers and pastors themselves).  Some stayed local, like me, while others moved to Florida, or Texas, or California, or other far away places.  And while it’s sad knowing that my high school is gone, I feel better knowing that the lessons I learned there live on in many other people’s lives as well.

“You can’t go home again.”  Yes, perhaps that’s true.  But maybe you can take home with you.  For those of us from Detroit Lutheran West High School, that’s what we have left: our memories, our friendships, our faith.  And those gifts are greater than any brick and mortar building could ever be.  Faith does live and shine in Detroit, and beyond. 

And no matter where I go, or how old I grow… I’ll always consider myself a Leopard.

Until next time… 🙂


Dead Fish and the Struggle to Save Detroit

Photo of Detroit skyline courtesy of Rob Terwilliger Photography.

by Keith Yancy


That’s the first word that came to mind when I heard the news today — that someone poisoned the fish in the Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit.

First, a bit of background: the Belle Isle Aquarium has been closed for years.  Once a key attraction on the beautiful island of Belle Isle, a small island in the Detroit River, it had long ago been closed and fallen like so many other city landmarks into disrepair.  Recently, a small group of volunteers had worked hard to refurbish the aquarium, and had at long last returned fish to the repaired fish tanks.  All this effort was to culminate in a public viewing before the Grand Prix race which was to be held on the island June 3.

For those who had worked so hard for so long, this was a milestone event.  And then, in the news today, stories were printed (incorrectly, it turned out) that, in an act of utter senselessness, someone vandalized the Aquarium’s tanks, pouring bleach into them and killing the fish.

Before I learned that this incident was misreported, I found myself surprisingly angry about it.  After all… people had worked, without pay, to try to give Detroit back a small jewel, just one gem on a city crown virtually stripped of every precious stone it had.  It’s a small symbol of what so many people in this region hope for — a renewal of a once proud city.  And while no one expected Detroit’s crushing problems to go away with the revival of an aging landmark, it was — and is — a sign that the city can rise up from its ashes to be great once more.

To many, at least judging by the comments in the news and on social media, it felt like a punch in the gut.  It hit me the same way.  Later in the evening, however, I learned that there was no vandalism; there was a mass die-off of fish, but there was no poison, no vandals, and that the aquarium and most of the fish inside were just fine.

But before the story was refuted, I was talking about it with my 17-year-old daughter (who was depressed about the news of the Aquarium also).  It occurred to me as we were talking that this incident, while sad, paled in comparison to what goes on in Detroit every single day.  Murders that happen so frequently, people become numb to the news of them (even when infants and children are killed).  Neighborhoods so blighted and burned out that city officials are considering the possibility of not fixing the streetlights — in essence, abandoning them.  A political system that seems only to produce scandals, incompetence, infighting, and a consistent, pervasive failure to overcome Detroit’s many challenges.

When I stopped and really, clearly thought about Detroit, it occurred to me that maybe the reason I was so annoyed and deflated about a few dozen dead fish was because I had forgotten a very essential point: turning around a city gripped in a 50+ year decline takes much, much more than cleaning up fish tanks and repairing crumbling city landmarks.

It takes finding leaders that care more about the city than their egos (and their wallets).  It takes — once and for all — cutting through the endless maze of regulations and paperwork that inhibits businesses from investing here.  It takes creating neighborhoods — not just landmarks and businesses — that provide Detroit with a stable tax base.  It takes providing children with schools, teachers, and funds necessary to break the bonds of poverty and give them the high-quality education they need to truly achieve success.  It takes Detroiters, suburbanites, and the rest of Michigan’s citizens working together for the benefit of all.

Bringing Detroit out of its death spiral will be long, hard, and costly.  The work of the Friends of Belle Isle, a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving the island, is greatly appreciated by me and everyone else… but it will take more, much more, to bring Detroit back.  For every dead fish in that aquarium, there are three or four dead people every year, city residents who should be alive today… but aren’t.  For all the anger and disappointment people may have felt about this now-refuted senseless act of vandalism, there are decades of neglect, corruption and indifference that created an environment that such vandalism is commonplace.  For every landmark that today’s civic-minded activists attempt to save, there are entire swaths of land where neighborhoods lie in darkness, marked by empty, weed-filled lots, burned out houses, and rampant criminal activity.

Killing fish at the Belle Isle Aquarium, had it been true, would have been a heartless and stupid act.  Thinking back to my angry and depressed reaction to the story, though, made me realize that the forces that hold Detroit in its grip — poverty, crime, hopelessness — aren’t easily defeated.  I’m sure that the good people who worked so hard to refurbish the Belle Isle Aquarium see this as a minor setback rather than a defeat, and I’m glad that this false news report didn’t serve to demoralize other volunteers and workers who struggle every day to improve the city. 

To do so — to give up hope that Detroit can and should be saved — is the one sure way to ensure Detroit falls further into despair and ruin.  A failed, defeated and destroyed Detroit, contrary to popular opinion, is bad for the region, bad for the state, and bad even for the country. 

Thankfully, those reports of intentionally poisoned fish in the Belle Isle Aquarium were a false alarm, and that there was no crime committed.  Still, for those few hours when everyone thought the aquarium had been vandalized, those dead fish were a sad reminder that, sometimes, the good guys don’t always win.  Decades of crime, poverty and neglect can’t be easily or quickly wiped away by a small group of volunteers, no matter how dedicated they may be.  Margaret Thatcher, one-time Prime Minister of Great Britain, once said that sometimes you have to fight a battle more than once to win it.  I hope that people keep fighting, keep working, keep struggling to bring Detroit back.

The struggle is worth it.  People care.  The hope, motivation, and hard work shown by those who care about Detroit is far, far stronger and far more enduring than any single act of vandalism, and certainly stronger than a bunch of  unfortunate fish in a fish tank.

I look forward to seeing the Belle Isle Aquarium, restored, with new fish inside.  And I look forward to a renewed Belle Isle, a renewed Detroit, and better days ahead.

Until next time… 🙂

The Value of a Great Teacher

by Keith Yancy

This past Wednesday, I had the opportunity to hear my 11-year-old daughter play in the PCCS orchestra concert.  As always, the kids did a terrific job, and played beautifully.

But as the concert went on, I found myself wishing that everyone in Plymouth and Canton could see and hear what I was seeing.

It was more than just the music.  The orchestras always play well, and I always leave wondering why our community isn’t more aware of these talented kids and the beautiful music they play.

No, what I wish everyone else could see is the power — the true “cause and effect” — that driven, passionate and caring teachers have on our kids. 

I saw hundreds — yes, hundreds — of kids, from middle-school age to high school seniors, not only playing instruments, but playing them with intensity, passion, and enjoyment.  Kids who obviously cared a lot about the music and their performance.

And their teachers.

Teachers have been taking a lot of hits these days.  Current thinking seems to assume that our education system is irretrievably broken, and that our teachers are complicit in this decline.  Teachers are frequently characterized as caring only about defending their pay and benefits, fighting for shorter hours and summers off of work, and resistant to efforts to evaluate them based on their students’ test scores.

But I saw none of that last Wednesday. 

I saw kids who clearly loved their orchestra teachers.  Seniors soon to graduate were in tears describing the impact their teacher had on their lives.  Younger kids who obeyed direction and commands from their teachers without question and with alacrity.  Kids who had obviously chosen to work hard, work together, and take instruction and direction to be a true orchestra, rather than merely a group of kids playing music together.

I saw teachers — in this case, Ms. DePentu, Ms. Zurbuchen, and Mr. Kobiskie — who clearly loved their jobs, the kids, and the music.  Teachers who recognized the hard work, the long hours, and the sacrifices of parents to make their orchestra come alive.  Teachers whose job it is to not only educate, but motivate — to inspire children to learn, to work, to cultivate the curiosity that would otherwise lie dormant inside of every child.

In other words, I saw the true value and power of good teaching.

And while I’m well aware of the problems in our education system, both nationally and locally, this value — this power — should not and cannot be brushed aside.  The contribution and impact a good teacher can have on a child is not a trivial thing, even if it can’t be quantified in dollars or a standardized test score.

I would challenge anyone who thinks this is merely “what all teachers are supposed to do” to try it for themselves.  Think it’s easy?  I’ve found that every time I assume someone else’s job is easy, I’m almost universally wrong.  And while I’ve never been a teacher, I’ve thought about what they deal with, and I wonder if all of us non-teachers would like it if we were so easily marginalized in the media. 

What People Should Remember About Teaching

1.  It’s work.  Ever had to stand in front of 20-30 people every day, all day long, and ensure that you’re reaching every single one of them effectively, consistently and productively?  That you have something worthwhile to say and do?  Do you have to plan your entire work year in advance, including lesson plans, research, etc? 

2.  It’s demanding.  Here’s but one example: Teachers have to not only know every one of their students names (in some cases, hundreds of kids), but are expected to know how each one of them is performing, what issues/challenges each one has, and even who they’re friends with.  Oh, and by the way, they’re expected to remember the name and unique personalities of every kid they’ve ever taught, whether it was three years or three decades ago. 

3.  It’s long hours.  Simply put, for most teachers, the “in by 7, out by 3” myth is exactly that: a myth.  (My brother-in-law is a teacher — a good one, too — and I know this through his experience.)  When does little Johnny get counseled?  When do 90+ papers/tests/projects get read, corrected and graded?  Not during school hours, for most.  In fact, teaching is often nights and weekends spent doing these tasks, calling concerned parents, conducting after-school tutoring sessions, writing recommendation letters, etc.  And, for many, the teaching day starts earlier than 7AM.  For those who point to the work-free summers, experienced teachers often provide tutoring, work on professional development, participate in other school-related activities (sports, camps, etc) and prepare for the upcoming school year.  Those with less experience?  They sometimes find summer jobs to supplement their “not nearly as much as people think” incomes.

4.  It’s frustrating.  Parents who somehow think teachers should correct their own parental failings.  Administrators who either don’t support teachers when needed or don’t bother to ask for input when making decisions that affect teaching.  Constant student distractions that inhibit academic performance (i.e., over-scheduled activities, family dysfunction, etc).  Poorly performing or behaving co-workers who give education critics more examples to criticize.  Put all that and more together, and the frustration must be enormous.  Pile on with popular public misconception about “how easy teachers have it,” and it’s no surprise that many teachers — especially the good ones — look for alternative career paths.

5.  It’s not “paint by the numbers.”  Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.  While the popular breeze blows toward standardized testing and standardized textbooks, a good teacher knows rote, mechanical education isn’t what inspires curiosity in a child.  A good teacher, in my opinion, brings their own talents to bear to bring subjects alive — to motivate their students to want to learn, to explore, to investigate subjects and go beyond memorization to real understanding.  And that’s done through activities, special projects, and customized lessons that go beyond a scripted textbook.

This, I suspect, is a glimpse at what it’s like to be a teacher.

Most people can think back on a special teacher that made a difference in their lives — a teacher that inspired them, that showed kindness, understanding and even discipline when they needed it most.  A teacher whose passion and enthusiasm took learning beyond a scripted text and brought learning to life in a way that was unforgettable.

Most people remember such a teacher.  I’ll be damned if I’ve ever heard anyone reminiscing about a textbook.

So, while we may have issues in our nation, our state, and our local community about education, I hope we can preserve the element that matters most — the good teachers who serve as a reminder that their avocation is a profession, not a job… a profession that fundamentally matters.  They should be considered assets to our schools, our communities, and our system, not liabilities.

If you ever have the chance to see our local PCCS orchestras, take the time to see — and hear — the difference a good teacher can make.   Go beyond what you read in the news, think back on a teacher (or teachers) that made a difference in your life, and then see that same effect on these kids.  I know you’ll enjoy the music, and I hope you’ll appreciate the lesson being taught to our community: teachers, good teachers, are individuals who still care about our kids. 

And that makes all the difference.

Until next time… 🙂