The morning bell rang 20 minutes ago at Henson elementary, but the stragglers are still drifting in. At a counter inside the front door, the head security guard, Kelvyn Cockrell, greets them all by name and fills out their tardy slips. A sixth-grade girl in braids and barrettes approaches along with her brother, a second grader in a baseball cap. Cockrell asks the girl, who was absent the day before, if she’s feeling better.
“She wasn’t sick,” her brother volunteers.
Cockrell chuckles. “You not supposed to tell on your sister like that.” He hands the children their slips. “Have a good day. I’ll see you later, OK?”
Cockrell’s voice is husky, his manner genial. He’s short and round, a teddy bear. His glasses often slip down his nose, revealing a dash between his eyes—as a boy he got clipped by a baseball bat swung carelessly by a playmate. He’s 49 now, and his hair is thinning. He’s got a slim mustache and a token goatee.
On a monitor, Cockrell can see who rings the front bell before he buzzes them in. A map of Africa on the wall behind him is lined with names of famous African-Americans. Many of the trophies in the case across from his desk were awarded to teams he coached.
“Mr. Chapman! What’s going on?” Cockrell greets a second grader.
The boy mumbles something about candy.
Cockrell tilts his head. “I thought I gave you a dollar yesterday.”
“We’ll discuss this later,” Cockrell says as he hands the boy his tardy slip. “I’ll hear your side of the story. ‘Cause I think Mr. Cockrell’s looking out for you.”
Cockrell sounds cheerful, and he usually is, but it’s an effort this morning. He’s been dreading this day: Wednesday, June 19. The three-story school, on the 1300 block of South Avers, once held more than 700 students. But the population of the neighborhood, North Lawndale, has thinned, new charter schools have cut into enrollment, and the student body has been declining. Now there are only 250 kids. In May, Henson was one of 50 schools the board voted to close, and today is its final day.
Matthew Henson Elementary opened in 1962. It was named for an African-American explorer who, as part of Robert Peary’s expedition in 1909, may have been the first person to reach the north pole. The school’s neighborhood was then and today is still almost entirely African-American. The poverty rate has always been high. Violence, drug dealing, and unemployment have long been rampant. Henson’s enrollment this year was 99 percent black, 1 percent Hispanic, and 92 percent low-income.
Cockrell was born a year after Henson opened. He lived down the street with his mother and two older siblings. He attended the school from kindergarten through eighth grade. While a student at Manley High, he spent much of his free time at Henson, helping coach the sports teams. Soon after he graduated from Manley in 1983, he became a security guard at Henson, and he’s worked at the school ever since. He still lives with his mother, now 85, in the same small house down the street.
Now three little girls pass the security counter, headed from their classroom to the office. They sing out to Cockrell, almost in unison: “You cheated!”
Cockrell chuckles. Yesterday, one of them quizzed him on a word puzzle she was doing; he peeked mischievously at her paper for the answer. On their trip back to class the girls wave and giggle and call out to him again: “Bye cheater! Bye cheater!”
“That’s the stuff I’m gonna miss, the laughter and the smiles from the kids,” Cockrell says wistfully as the girls disappear around a corner.
The school closings have been tough on students, parents, teachers, and administrators, but also on support staff. Lunchroom attendants, building engineers, janitors, and security guards can grow attached to a school. It’s a job for them, but for many it’s more than that. And some are unheralded assets to their schools. Those who stay at a school for many years can be sources of stability for students—kind voices, familiar faces. Some go way beyond their job descriptions. Cockrell has been coach, friend, counselor, and benefactor for generations of Henson students.
“He’s family,” Henson’s final valedictorian, Mia Bonds, says. “He cares about all the students—not just the good ones. He helps with everyday problems. If a student is going through something, he’ll talk to them about it, give them advice.”
“He’s an icon in our community,” says Kahinde Longmire, a teacher at Henson for 15 years. “When we have students who are upset, he’s the one who can calm them down.”
Bernadette Shields, a special ed teacher at Henson, says: “I had a teacher tell me a long time ago, ‘Kids don’t care what you know, until they know you care.’ Kelvyn touches their hearts first. He’s concerned about the whole person.”
Shields says it’s her job as a special ed teacher to deal with kids with behavioral problems. “But sometimes I’d just say, ‘Go talk to Mr. Cockrell.’ He’s got a calm, confident demeanor. Our children can be yelling and cursing, and he just de-escalates them.”
Shields adds: “He’s a steady influence not just for our kids, but for the adults as well.”
Henson’s principal, Demetrius Hobson, says Cockrell’s empathy has always been obvious. “It was very clear that he understood the trauma that a lot of children face. Coming from the neighborhood, experiencing the years of neglect and knowing the impact that would have on a child or family, he’s very sensitive. I’ve spoken with several young adults who talked about how Mr. Cockrell would loan money to families, or even pay rent to prevent evictions. I’ve seen him purchase clothing for children.”
“Leaving this is gonna be strange for me. But I’ll be OK. I’m mainly worried about the kids. Some of them need a lot of help. I hope they find people who care about them.”—Kelvyn Cockrell, longtime security guard at the now-closed Henson elementary
As a security guard, “he knows how to redirect children’s anger instead of getting physical with them,” Hobson says. “He’ll have a quiet conversation with them and provide an alternative view. A lot of things wouldn’t have to come to me—children would sometimes just go to Mr. Cockrell, and he would be the mitigator. He operated like a dean of discipline.”
Last year Hobson decided to have Cockrell move up to the third-floor hallway about a half hour into each day. That’s where the older children have their classes, and where more serious conflicts occur. Not infrequently, teachers would have to put students out of class. Cockrell “solved a lot of problems right there in the hallway,” Hobson says.
A clerk in the office is married to a seventh-grade teacher. Cockrell introduced them. Hobson says other staff members decided to work at Henson after hearing Cockrell rave about the school. “He’s been a powerhouse here,” the principal says.
Late morning, Cockrell is in an aisle seat near the back of the auditorium for the student awards ceremony. The auditorium, 20 rows deep, is only about a quarter full, but it’s bursting with enthusiasm. Many of the students are wearing T-shirts that say I BELIEVE I CAN ACHIEVE AND SUCCEED above HENSON ELEMENTARY. Hobson, on the stage, leads the students through a chant: “Education is—liberation! Peaceful! Positive! Productive!”
The principal summons Henson’s “most improved” reading and math students to the stage, grade by grade, and a teacher slips a medal over their heads. Cockrell claps his meaty hands and joins the cheers. A fourth grader wins both the reading and math medals. “Whoa!” Cockrell calls. “Double trouble!”
Cockrell knows he’s biased, but he thinks closing Henson is a big mistake. The tenor of the school has been excellent since Hobson came here two years ago, he says. Sure, the building is underused by students, but not by the community—a health clinic and a food pantry operate out of former classrooms. The building’s in fine shape, but now, as far as anyone knows, it’s going to just sit here idly. The school that most Henson students are supposed to go to, Hughes—a few blocks west—is in an even more dangerous area, Cockrell says. Some of the older Henson students got closed out of another neighborhood school a few years ago, he says, and it’s not fair that now they’re being pushed somewhere else again. “The little ones don’t understand what’s happening,” he says. “I’m happy about that part—it’ll be easier for them to move on.”
As for Cockrell, a principal of another west-side elementary school recently offered him a summer-school position, and he’s hoping it leads to a permanent job.
The awards ceremony ends, and the students and their teachers file out of the auditorium. Cockrell stays in his seat, hunched forward, leaning on the back of the seat in front of him. As students pass, the younger ones waving at him, he slides a forefinger under his glasses and wipes an eye. He shifts his walkie-talkie to his other hand and wipes the other eye. “This is the first time it’s hit me really hard,” he tells me. “Leaving this is gonna be strange for me. But I’ll be OK. I’m mainly worried about the kids. Some of them need a lot of help. I hope they find people who care about them.”
He removes the glasses and rubs both eyes with the butt of his hand. “I gotta try and get myself together,” he says. Too late: a pair of sixth-grade girls has noticed. “You fitting to make me cry,” one of them says, and then they both lean over and hug him. Cockrell tells them he’ll see them outside in a few minutes, at the picnic on the playground.
The weather’s perfect for the picnic: a cloudless sky, temperatures in the 70s. There’s barbecued chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers. Students are skimming down a big inflatable slide, tossing Frisbees, skateboarding, playing games at booths. Some are playing basketball and volleyball in the adjacent gym. Cockrell’s sitting at one of the portable tables set up on the concrete playground. Kids approach him to show off prizes they’ve won at the booths.
“Mr. Cockrell!” A third grader displays sparkly gold pom-poms. Cockrell nods approvingly.
“Mr. Cockrell!” A second grader has a box of colored chalk and a heart-tattoo sticker. “Where you gonna put your tattoo?” Cockrell asks her. The girl points at her arm.
“Mr. Cockrell! What you gonna win?” a little boy wonders.
“I’m not gonna win anything, I’m just gonna watch y’all win.”
In Cockrell’s first week of kindergarten here, he got in trouble one day for something—”probably talking too much”—and was kept inside for recess. From the kindergarten window he could see his classmates romping on the playground, and he showed his annoyance by emptying cartons of milk on a couple of them. The assistant principal made him wash their shirts. “She taught me that when you do something wrong, you have to deal with the consequences.”
“He cares about all the students—not just the good ones. He helps with everyday problems.”—Mia Bonds, final valedictorian at Henson elementary, which closed last week
It was that assistant principal, Joanne Bradley, who invited Cockrell to work at Henson after he finished high school. Bradley retired in 1993 after 30 years at the school. She still talks with Cockrell now and then on the phone. “I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t at Henson,” she says. The way people opened up to him is what really stood out, she adds. “They would tell him things they wouldn’t tell us.”
On the playground, Cockrell asks a young man to buy him a Pepsi and something for himself at a neighborhood store. He gives him a few bucks. The man is a former Henson student, now age 20. “I try to keep a couple dollars in his pocket,” Cockrell says after the man departs for the store. “He’s a real nice young man, but the job opportunities right now are not too good.”
Cockrell also pays the man to run the clock in his Sunday men’s basketball league. Cockrell started the league at Henson 16 years ago. Last year, because of insurance issues at the school, he had to move it to another gym in the neighborhood, at the church he attends on Pulaski near Roosevelt. He still calls it the Henson men’s basketball league, and he says he always will.
When the games were at Henson, he thinks the league helped make students safer, because of the connection young men made with the school. Henson’s hallways were being painted over the summer last year, but the painters weren’t going to be able to finish on time. Henson got a bunch of his basketball players to complete the job.
Cockrell believes he’s kept some Henson students from joining gangs, because of the relationships he’s formed with them, and the activities he’s provided them through his coaching. “You can’t save them all, but you can save quite a few,” he says.
He never had children of his own, though he helped raised three kids with a longtime girlfriend. Their fathers weren’t very involved in their children’s lives. “I love kids, but the Lord didn’t bless me with any,” he says.
Cockrell’s own father was never around, but he says his mother made him feel secure and loved. For 40 years, she rose early to take public transportation to Skokie, where she cleaned houses. He gives her her medicine every morning before he leaves for school, and cooks for her evenings and weekends.
Now he gazes across the playground, and talks of plans to organize kickball, dodgeball, and basketball games here this summer. “I’m gonna try to get some of the men in my basketball league to donate a couple hours so we can keep something going in the neighborhood for the kids.” For their benefit, of course—but not only theirs. “It’s important for me, too, because I cannot go without seeing them.”
Midafternoon, Cockrell’s in the first-floor hallway with an agitated sixth-grade girl. She’s talking a mile a minute about the fight she nearly got into moments earlier with a classmate. She says that after another girl hit her with a dodgeball in the gym, she grabbed the ball and chased her into the auditorium and hurled the ball at her, but hit another girl in the face. She says she apologized even though it was an accident, but the girl still wanted to fight her.
“I’m proud of you because you told her you were sorry,” Cockrell says.
“But she still wanted to fight me,” the girl says.
“You can only apologize. You can’t make a person accept your apology, you can just do the right thing, and you did that.” The girl smiles bashfully.
Cockrell tells me later that the girl had been in a lot of conflicts during the year and “normally wouldn’t apologize to anyone. But she’s learned a little bit. She used some bad words to the other girl, but I would rather her do that than fight. She’ll calm down and she’ll be OK.”
He’s seen innumerable students through the years who have trouble managing their anger. “It’s no guidance in their homes. They’re being raised by babies—some of these kids’ mothers are 19, 20 years old. A lot of women have men in their house that shouldn’t be there. The violence, the drugs, seeing all that—you’d be angry, too. I tell people all the time: we say the kids are bad, but you gotta look in the household and see what’s going on.”
Children “are looking for love and guidance, and for someone to believe in them,” he says. “God blessed me with words that they listen to.”
In the front lobby, the mother of a second grader is steaming. A classmate struck her son earlier today in their classroom. She happened to be there and she saw it. She’s fanning herself now with a RedEye, but it’s not bringing her temperature down. “It’s not fair that my son gets punched in his nuts twice in one week,” she says loudly, to no one in particular.
She strolls down the hall. Cockrell catches up and chats with her. He asks her what her son will be doing this summer. She says she’s trying to find a summer program for him. Cockrell tells her about a program at his church. By the time he eases her out the back door, she’s cooled off.
Near the security counter, a sixth-grade girl is crying silently. She argued with a teacher upstairs, then came down to the office, hoping someone would call her mother to come get her early—but it’s too close to the end of the day. She tells Cockrell her head hurts.
“I want you to answer this for me,” Cockrell says. “What’s the best thing you can do right now? Can you control yourself for an hour and a half? I think you can do that.” The girl leans on the counter and wipes her eyes with the collar of her I CAN ACHIEVE AND SUCCEED T-shirt. “Look at me,” Cockrell says softly. “If you calm down, you’ll feel better. I want you to go to the bathroom, and wipe your face, and get yourself together.” She heads towards the restroom.
At 3:40, principal Hobson is on the PA with his last end-of-day announcement: “This is our final few minutes as a school. As you prepare for your summer, I want you to promise that you will read every day. . . . I want you to remember that education is the key to unlock the golden door to freedom. Let’s leave our school peacefully and positively.”
At the security desk, Cockrell has been glancing at his cell phone; he’s been getting texts from former students and friends who wonder how he’s doing on this difficult day. Now he pushes himself up from his chair. “Man, this is it,” he says. “Gonna go out here, say good-bye to the kids.”
It’s breezy outside now. The shallow front steps are soaked in sunlight. Students spill out of the front door and exchange hugs and high fives with teachers and other staff. The mood is mostly upbeat.
“Mr. Cockrell, can you go to where I’m gonna be at, Hughes?” a second grader wonders.
“Uh, I don’t know if I can go to Hughes. Thank you for asking me.”
“Mr. Cockrell, I’m gonna miss you,” another young boy says.
“Thank you, man. You be good at whatever school you go to.”
Students of all ages embrace him and tell him they love him. Cockrell finally loses it, tears escaping again from under his glasses. A fifth-grade boy holding a football gives him a consoling hug.
Hobson notices, too. “You wanna come inside and cool off for a minute?” the principal asks gently.
“No, I’m good.”
Most of the students are soon gone, and then Cockrell trudges back inside. In the student lunchroom across from the main office, he and his longtime friend, teacher Kahinde Longmire, console each other. Cockrell rests his forehead on the edge of one of the folded-up portable tables. Longmire strokes his back and offers him a tissue.
Back at the security counter a moment later, Cockrell lets loose a long sigh. I ask him what he’s thinking. “New chapter coming,” he says softly. “I’ve been truly blessed to be able to work for so long in the place I grew up in. Wherever I end up, I just hope and pray that I’ll get a principal who will know the kind of person I am. I have to be able to relate to the kids, not just sit there. ‘Cause I wanna be more than a security guard.”