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A Year Of Rivers And Barricades: A Cleveland Teacher Reflects On 8th Grade

Ted Carter's life changed when he canoed the Cuyahoga River in 8th grade.
Mary Fecteau
Ideastream Public Media
Ted Carter gazes out on the Cuyahoga River.

Ted Carter hasn’t canoed on the Cuyahoga River since 1978. But you’d never know it to watch him.

On a late weekday afternoon on the river, Carter pulls his oar through the water with the steady rhythm of someone who’s done this a million times before.

And maybe, in his head, he has. Because he says a boat trip just like this, more than 40 years ago, is what inspired his whole direction in life.

"It was an amazing year, 1978," he says. "The year of changes. That was the year my school, Mount Pleasant Catholic, took us on several field trips and one being a trip down the Cuyahoga River."

The Collinwood resident is on the river to re-live that trip. The memories are still vivid.

"I remember the sun reflecting off the waters," he says. "And seeing the butterflies and insects buzzing around you, it just seemed so pristine, you know. And so good."

Ted Carter canoes the Cuyahoga River. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

That day on the Cuyahoga, he says, he realized something. If he didn’t know how amazing nature was, a lot of other kids from his neighborhood on the southeast side of Cleveland probably didn’t either. He wanted to help them find out.

"And I told my parents that day at the dinner table that that was it for me," he says. "I'm going to be a science teacher."

They liked it a lot better, he says wrily, than his previous plans of becoming a sports star or joining the military.

Possibilities and Barriers

But where the river trip opened up possibilities, something else happened that year that made his world feel a lot smaller.

It was a few months after the river trip when his parents bought him a new bike for finishing eighth grade.

Carter, in 8th grade, stands in his driveway on the southeast side of Cleveland, in the late 1970s. [Ted Carter]

Thinking of it, he can't help but grin even now. "It was a Huffy five-speed," he says. "Great bike. I still remember, with the bouncing seat. And blue. Powder blue."

He and his friends had always loved cycling into the suburb of Shaker Heights, a few blocks away from where they lived on Cleveland’s East Side. They’d joke with each other about the mansions they’d live in when they grew up. But not long after he got his new Huffy, Carter woke up one morning, set off to explore — and didn’t get any farther than the end of his block.

There were permanent traffic barricades running across the entire width of his street and a few others nearby. Right at the border between Cleveland and Shaker Heights.

"It looked like freeway barriers but a little higher," he says. "I would say maybe an inch or two higher. They were they were made of cement, so it pretty much prohibited anything in the street from going forward."

In the 1970s, Shaker Heights erected temporary barriers...

...that were eventually replaced with permanent cement barricades, still in place as of 2019. [Top: Northeast Ohio Broadcast Archives, John Carroll University; bottom: Justin Glanville / ideastream]

The City of Shaker Heights said they were to slow down traffic. But Carter says he and his friends saw something more.

"I looked at it as the have and have nots," he says, "myself being a have not."

That summer, he stopped dreaming about living in one of those big mansions.

Belief in Oneself

But what he didn’t stop dreaming about was becoming a teacher.

Today, Carter is in his 34th year in the Cleveland public schools. He’s now at Wade Park School, in Hough. He does teach science, just like he said he would. But he also teaches things that have nothing to do with academics.

Every day before lunch in a school conference room, he mentors a group of male students — all in eighth grade. They talk about setting goals and seeing a future beyond their neighborhoods, things he believes black boys aren’t encouraged to think about enough.

Carter mentors a group of boys at Wade Park School. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

On a weekday in October, he tells the boys about an upcoming event nearby organized by Project Alpha, a motivational program for teenage boys organized by the historic African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. He asks who wants to attend — all the boys raise their hands — then quizzes them on some of the program's values.

"What is healthy decision making?"

"Not being pressured by other people," one of the boys says. Carter nods.

"And then what is self-confidence?" he asks.

"Faith in yourself," he says. "Okay. Faith in yourself, believing, I like that."

One thing he does every year, at least once, is tell his stories about the barricades and the canoe.

When asked why, he becomes reflective.

"They're both standouts," he says. "The Shaker Heights episode with the barriers, it introduced me early as an African-American male to what my limitations are. So I learned that in eighth grade. And also that year, I learned that God has blessed us with a beautiful planet."

It’s a planet they can and should explore, he tells them. A planet where they’ll find both barriers — and rivers.

This story is part of ideastream's ongoing collaboration with the Cleveland Public Library to present a "snapshot" of Cleveland and Clevelanders in 2019.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.