At seven in the morning, with the sun still rising, Al Clark kicks open the front door of the old school. “Ladies, ladies, ladies,” he calls out in his big, booming baritone voice. “How are my three beautiful ladies today?”

The three employees are hall monitors stationed at the school’s entrance in preparation for the opening bell, which will ring in a few minutes and send a few hundred teenagers spilling through the door. They look confused. Are they supposed to joke back or silently smile? It’s early in the school year, and no one knows yet what to make of the new boss.

In fact, it’s only three months into Clark’s first year as principal of DeWitt C. Cregier Vocational High School. The last principal retired in June after about 40 years in the system. Cregier local-school-council members wanted to replace him with someone new, someone different. So they hired Clark–a six-foot-three, 275-pound, up-from-poverty, much-decorated Vietnam war veteran–away from a high school outside of Waukegan, where he’d been assistant principal. He had never worked in the Chicago public schools.

Outside Clark’s office two teachers, a janitor, and a student await him. He deals with each of them, bustling in and bustling out, with a word or two of advice, a pat on the back, and a laugh–always a laugh. He spies two students down the hall squabbling over a coat. “Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Clark bellows. They look startled. They hadn’t seen him coming.

“This mo’ fu’,” one kid says, “started pushin’–”

Clark cuts him off. “Son, do you talk that way in front of your mother?”

The boy looks down.

“Well, don’t talk that way in front of me.”

“Oh, man, he pushed me–”

“What did I tell you about calling me ‘man’?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Clark–I forgot.”

Clark’s challenge–the transformation of Cregier–is immense. Cregier is housed in an old school building surrounded by three weed-filled lots at 2040 W. Adams, just a few blocks west of the Chicago Stadium. Some call it the public high school of last resort, the school for kids no one else will take.

The reading scores of last year’s juniors were the lowest in the state. The students come from poor black families in high-crime, gang-infested neighborhoods. Since September five Cregier students have been shot–three murdered–in gang-related shootings outside school (the last began as a squabble over a Bulls warm-up jacket). On any given day half of the students are absent. The basketball team plays in a short, skinny, bleacherless gym. There are no football, baseball, soccer, track, or wrestling teams. And no band, choir, drama club, or yearbook.

What the school does have is Clark. “Where’s it written that our kids can’t achieve?” he asks. “Where’s the law that says our school can’t get better? It can have a band and a yearbook and a choir. I want my students to be able to bundle up in their Cregier sweaters on a fall day and go out and watch the football team play. Is that too much? The kids in the suburbs, to them high school is a fun, rewarding experience. Why can’t it be that way at Cregier?”

In the late 50s and early 60s, Cregier was a shining star in the public school system. The economy was growing, and employers eagerly sought the kind of kids vocational schools such as Cregier were graduating. The school’s program hasn’t changed much since then. It offers courses that train students for jobs in auto mechanics, industrial drafting, nursing. What has changed are the times.

Until the 70s Cregier was located at 1820 W. Grenshaw, one block north of Roosevelt, in a tough working-class community of Jews, Italians, and blacks. By the mid-70s whites had moved out of the area, and most of the local factories had closed. The boom industries in Chicago were law, real estate, health, and insurance–occupations for which Cregier’s students were not being trained. Some factories were hiring, but they were in the suburbs, an all-white universe far removed from Cregier. It became increasingly apparent that the school’s graduates were being trained for a future that didn’t exist. “There was less need for our students,” says Al Embry, a graphic-arts teacher at Cregier for 25 years. “People began to put us down. They treated us like we had smallpox. Counselors would tell their eighth-graders, ‘Cregier? Oh, you don’t want to go there.'”

In the 1970s the old school building near Roosevelt Road was bulldozed, a victim of urban renewal. “They talked about closing us down then, but they didn’t,” Embry recalls. “They’re always talking about closing us, but they never do. They need us.”

The school was moved to its current Adams Street location, into a sagging former grade school whose steps and handrails were worn from years of use.

For a while there was talk of renovating the school. Former mayor Jane Byrne even recruited Chicago Bears founder George Halas as a corporate sponsor. “The Bears were going to help us build a football field out in the vacant lots in the back,” says Embry. “There were plans drawn up. I remember Mike Ditka came here with the old man. Ditka was sitting in the cafeteria smoking his cigar and everything.”

Those plans died with Byrne’s 1983 defeat. “All we got from the Bears was a bunch of old footballs and some used shoes,” says Embry. A framed artist’s rendition of the stadium sits in a corner of the principal’s office, the sole remnant of a good idea.

“The board treated us like we were a burial ground for people who wanted to hide and collect their checks,” says Nathaniel Howse Jr., a member of Cregier’s local school council. “Nobody expected anything great out of Cregier. The attitude is that it’s got all the worst kids, all they do is go in and go out. We had disciplinary problems with students, and the faculty had almost given up. There were plenty of rules, but they were not enforced. The school was crippled by a sense of hopelessness and negativity.”

“It was the pits,” adds Mildred Marshall, a lunchroom aide. “Kids would smoke marijuana right in the building. You didn’t see it, but you could smell it. I saw a kid bash another kid over the head with a chair. Kids would be swearing and fighting right in front of the principal. We had one assistant principal who would come in here with a bullhorn, saying ‘OK, sit down.’ I thought, ‘What’s that bullhorn for? Can’t you just get them to sit down? What do you need that thing for?’ It looked awful.”

The only hope, school-council members decided, was change at the top. They would need a new principal, a man or woman of intelligence and inspiration. The school-reform law of 1988 gave them the power to hire a principal, but who and how was hard to determine. The libraries were filled with books and articles about the heroic efforts of inner-city educators such as Joe Clark, the iron-fisted principal whose experiences in a New Jersey high school were made into the hit movie Lean on Me. But movies like Lean on Me seemed unrealistic and irrelevant.

Joe Clark, for instance, expelled rule breakers and academic stragglers, and tyrannically controlled teachers, parents, and students. The principal Cregier hired could not limit enrollment; state law required the school to accept all comers. Nor could a new principal simply impose his or her will. The whole point of reform was to put the schools in the hands of democratically elected and run councils of parents, teachers, and community representatives.

“A good principal is hard to find under any circumstances, but it takes a special person in these days of reform,” says Cyrus Driver, codirector of leadership development for Designs for Change, a not-for-profit school watchdog group. “They must have a plan for success, but they also must have an open mind. They’re firm but fair. And they base their decisions on what’s best for the kids. It’s not an easy job to fill.”

It was leaders of Designs for Change and another school-reform group, the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools (ABCs), who eventually invited Al Clark to Cregier. “The ABCs coalition decided to advertise nationally for principals, and we got well over 100 resumes from people who were interested in coming to Chicago,” says Driver. “We screened about 35 of the best candidates and then held a luncheon where the candidates could meet the local school councils.”

Nathaniel Howse attended that luncheon. “The first thing that struck me about Al was his presence,” he says. “It’s his size, his voice–he’s very commanding. But there’s also a gentleness to him. He’s not a bully. And then when I heard his story, and realized what he had been through in his life, I knew that this was a role model for our children. I knew that here was the principal we were looking for.”

Alfred Clark Jr. was born April 17, 1943, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother died four years later. His father was in and out of jail for theft and drug dealing.

“My father wasn’t around much when I grew up,” says Clark. “I do remember one piece of advice he gave me. He said when–not if, but when–you go to jail, hit the first guy you see upside his head so people will think you’re crazy and they won’t mess with you. That was my father’s advice.”

Clark’s maternal grandmother, Rose Adams, raised him, his brother, and two sisters. His grandparents were divorced, and he never met his grandfather. “My grandmother didn’t have more than a third-grade education, but she taught us right,” says Clark. “She would tell us things like ‘A hard day’s work for a hard day’s pay’ and ‘Respect other people like you would want them to respect you.’ My work ethic is based on what she taught us.”

The family lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a rent-subsidized low-rise housing project in the Hill, a notorious part of town. “I shared a room with my brother, my grandmother slept with the two girls, and we all did our homework at the kitchen table,” says Clark. “When people tell me, ‘Oh Mr. Clark, you don’t know where these kids come from,’ I laugh. The Hill was as bad or worse than any slum in the country.

“There was lots of crime: shootings, rapes, stabbings, you name it. Most of it was black-on-black crime over the dumbest stuff–a fight over a pork chop, an argument over who ate the last sandwich, a fight over a girl. Senseless stuff.

“I had no role model. Something inside of me just wanted to get out of Pittsburgh. I took advantage of every opportunity I had. That’s the only way I got out of the Hill.”

As a high school student, Clark had two sides: one good, one not so good. The good Al Clark played football (tight end), ran track, sang in the church choir, and was a clerk at a record store, where his boss “could tell you how much change he had in a bag just by lifting it up.” The other Al Clark joined a gang (“I felt safety in its numbers”), fought (one neighbor said, “Al, you won’t live to be 21”), and might have wandered aimlessly through life (“I don’t think I would have wound up in jail–I was more devilish than bad”) had it not been for his high school counselor.

“Mrs. Smith told me, ‘Al, how come you’re working so hard to prove that you’re not intelligent?'” Clark says. “I was 16 and in my junior year when she told me that, and she made me very angry. I said to myself, ‘I’m not stupid,’ and I vowed to prove her wrong. I made the honor roll eight straight times after that.

“Looking back, I see that she set me straight. She inspired me to work harder. Not all kids would have taken the challenge. Not all kids are alike. The beauty and challenge of teaching is that you never know how you’re going to touch a kid’s life. I never got a chance to tell Mrs. Smith what she did for me.”

He went to Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, where he played football, ran track, and majored in math. After he graduated, the Miami Dolphins invited him to try out. But by then the Vietnam war was raging, and Clark enlisted in officers training school. “I joined the Army because I knew I would be drafted anyway. There was a war going on, and I decided it was my duty to serve. I was trained to fight communism. It was a perceived danger. There were communists in Cuba. Now look at Russia, look at glasnost, look at the Berlin Wall. Those communists in Cuba are all alone. We were told the fall of communism would never happen on its own, and I believed that. I wasn’t the kind of guy who asked a lot of questions.”

He graduated from officers training school as a second lieutenant fluent in Vietnamese. On June 14, 1969, he departed for a 12-month tour of duty in the Bac Lieu province, which is south of Saigon in the Mekong delta. His assignment was to help South Vietnamese soldiers clear the area of Vietcong. He lived in a tiny hut on a muddy rice paddy and went on ambush patrols almost every night.

“I don’t want to glamorize war–there’s nothing glamorous about it. Anyone who glamorizes it hasn’t fought in one. I think guys like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris are criminals for making young kids think war is easy. It’s hell, that’s all it is. The whole time I was there I was either bored and scared or excited and scared. I was scared of bombs, bullets, and booby traps. I was scared of death. We’d go out at night, and it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. You had to develop purple vision. You learned to see shapes and figures, you learned to see the oil glistening on someone’s skin. You’d set up a position, digging a hole in mud, and sit there for hours, your heart beating wildly, waiting for the enemy to come by so you could shoot him–and hope that he doesn’t shoot you. You couldn’t talk, you couldn’t move. You just sat there and thought about home and girls, while the mosquitoes buzzed around your ears. I always worry about snakes. I hate snakes. I’m afraid of them.

“A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about the war. I think about the guys I knew there, the guys who are dead. A few years ago I went to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. I stood at the wall and read the names of all the guys I knew. There were five guys from my old neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Five guys dead at age 19. What a waste. What a stupid waste. But that was that war. It was a crazy, stupid war. We were killing people who were supposedly our allies. In hindsight we shouldn’t have been there. But that’s my opinion.”

In 1970 he came back to the United States and was stationed at Fort Sheridan, where he met Donna Thomas, a schoolteacher in Waukegan. One year later they were married. In 1975 they had a son, Jadaun, who’s now a high school sophomore.

Clark left active duty in 1973 (he retired from the Army Reserves as a major in 1986) and went to work as a production supervisor at the Campbell soup factory on 35th Street. “I couldn’t stand that job–it seemed meaningless. It just wasn’t me. I had always got along with kids, even in Vietnam in the midst of the war. I decided that there had to be a reason I got out of the Hill and survived the war. Maybe I was meant to be the role model I never had.”

So he took a job teaching math and coaching football at North Chicago High School in North Chicago, an integrated working-class town just south of Waukegan. In 1976 he became the school’s dean of students.

“I was the hard guy who had to take care of the offenders. I was the guy who kicked kids out and broke up fights. I learned a lot of tricks. Once I jumped into this big rumble, maybe 40 kids fighting outside the building. After a while I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere in terms of breaking the fight up, so I fell on the ground holding my heart. You should have seen the kids. They stopped fighting, they were so scared. They said, ‘Mr. Clark, are you dead?’ And I jumped up and said, ‘No, but next time your foolishness will kill me.'”

By 1986 he had earned a master’s degree in education administration and was the school’s director of student activities, athletic director, and assistant principal. But the principal was young enough to be there for a long time. “I was restless. I knew I wasn’t going to be principal of North Chicago, so I started looking around. I interviewed at schools in Las Vegas, Kenosha, and Milwaukee, but Chicago posed the biggest challenge. I figured these were the kids who really needed help.

“I remember the day I got this job. There were two other candidates. When the council went into executive session to decide, I clasped my hands and looked down. And I didn’t look up until they came out and said, ‘We’ve chosen Alfred Clark.’ I was so excited. When I got home, my wife said, ‘How much will you get paid?’ I didn’t know. I had never asked. Not that it really matters. I always felt I was put on earth to help children. This was a new opportunity.”

At his first meeting with Cregier’s staff Clark laid down the law. “I told them there would be some new rules: no hats, no Walkmans, no beepers, and no cards. Someone said, ‘Can we wait a couple of weeks so the student can adjust?’ I said, ‘No way. The change starts now.’

On the first day of school Clark stood at the front door and welcomed the students to Cregier. “They thought I was crazy. I don’t care about that. I don’t worry about what people think. I thought it was important to greet the kids with a smile. Some people might have thought I was imitating Joe Clark, but I don’t imitate anyone. I may learn from different people, but I’ve got to be my own man.”

He took to walking up and down the halls throughout the day, greeting kids with smiles, soul shakes, high fives, or pats on the back. He laid down more rules: no swearing, no fighting, and “don’t call me ‘man.'” He told the big kids they should try out for football. When they told him there was no football team, he said he’d organize one. He told the basketball players he planned to watch their games. When they reminded him that the gym had no seats, he arranged to have home games played at nearby Malcolm X College. (“I like to watch my teams play, and I like to watch the games in comfort.”) He told students in home-ec classes that their cooking smelled so great he was “gonna get as fat as a pig just smelling it.” He told all students that school should be fun, that they should feel lucky to be here, that he and they would work together to make their school so great that years from now they would look back on their days at Cregier as the happiest days of their lives.

One day he wore his expensive leather jacket. “Some of the kids told me ‘Mr. Clark, don’t wear that jacket.’ I said ‘Why?’ They said ‘You wear that on the bus, and they’ll kill you to take it.’ Well, the next day I wore the jacket again–and I wore my snakeskin cowboy boots too. And I made sure everyone saw it. I didn’t go to Vietnam to come home and be scared in my own country. Al Clark ain’t afraid of nothin’. A man pulls a gun on me, I’ll give him the jacket. That would be stupid of me not to–no jacket is worth your life. But I’m not going to be intimidated.”

Another day he rushed downstairs to break up a fight between two boys in the cafeteria. “I jumped right in and pulled them apart. As soon as I did that, one fellow reached over my shoulder and punched the other fellow in the eye. I put the puncher in a full nelson and dragged him away. You should have heard those kids. They were saying, ‘Aw, Mr. Clark, you bad.’ Like those itty-bitty little old puppy swings are gonna hurt me.”

Over time his reputation spread throughout the larger education community. I met him at a Designs for Change workshop where the moderator asked participants to recall particularly illuminating grade school experiences. Clark volunteered a story about the time a teacher overheard him call special-education students “dummies.”

“The teacher made me sit in on their class for an afternoon. They were making baskets, and the basket I made was the worst in the class.”

What’s the point to the story? the moderator asked.

“The point is that I learned that special ed doesn’t mean stupid.”

A few weeks after the workshop he invited me to visit Cregier. I dropped in unexpectedly and found the school clean (though the walls need painting) and orderly (there were no kids running through the halls).

As Clark walked me through the first-floor hallway, one girl saw him and started singing “Lean on Me,” title song to the movie about Joe Clark. “I’m the real thing,” he boomed back at the student. “Joe Clark only got my money.”

Afterward he admitted that comparisons with Clark (a man he’s never met) make him a little uneasy. “I’m happy for Joe Clark’s success, but we have different styles. I would never humiliate teachers like he did. And I don’t see a need to walk around a school yelling at kids through a bullhorn. I hate the idea that black educators have to be what I call ‘super niggers’ to work with black kids. You don’t have to use brute force. We’ve got little itty-bitty white women here who teach without any problems, and they’ve never laid a hand on a kid. Sure, I’ve got my size–I can play the tough guy. But that’s not all I’ve got. I have a brain. Sometimes people overlook that fact because of my size. That’s why I don’t like to make a big deal about my football-playing days. I don’t want people to pigeonhole me as some big, dumb jock.”

And he doesn’t think his size is essential for his job. If a kid punched him, he says, “I would defend myself.”

“But what if you’re a little guy who’s afraid to fight?”

“You should never let it get that far.”

“But what if a kid challenges you? What if you ask a student to sit down, and he says, ‘Shut up, punk’?”

“Then call for help. We have two police officers in the building. But again, it shouldn’t get that far. Most kids don’t want to fight with their teachers. You’re working from the assumption that these kids are all dangerous criminals. They’re not. Most of them want discipline, most of them crave structure. There’s plenty of chaos in their lives, but they don’t have much structure. I’m not saying teaching’s easy. Teaching in the inner city is very difficult. But if you’re consistent and fair and smart, you’ll do OK. These kids are looking for what you’ve got.”

Back in his office a teacher and a small 14-year-old boy were waiting. The teacher was upset because the boy had disrupted her classroom by starting a fight, which, given the size of the bruise under his right eye, he apparently lost. After the teacher left, Clark handed the student a tissue to blow his nose.

“Tell me what happened, son.”

“That boy punched me,” he sniffled.

“Did you hit him first?”

The boy said nothing as a tear trickled down his cheek. Clark let a few awkward seconds of silence pass before he gently spoke. “Tell you what. Go back to class and listen to your teacher. She’s a good teacher. You might not realize it, but she’s looking out for you. If anyone bothers you, come back to me.”

The boy left, and Clark shook his head. “Half the fights in this world are caused by ego. That boy’s pride is hurt more than that little mouse he has on his face. He wanted everyone to know that he had his meeting with me–like we’re going to work something out. That’s OK. He got whupped, and now he needs to save face.”

After that Clark walked downstairs to the cafeteria, where students were already gathering for lunch. As they saw him approach, they stopped roughhousing and dropped their voices.

“You staying out of trouble?” Clark called good-naturedly to a tall student wearing a Bulls jacket.

The student looked away, obviously embarrassed, and mumbled, “Aw, Mr. Clark.”

“That boy is a gang leader,” Clark said. “I knew that the minute I got here. You can tell which kids are in charge by the way others hang around them. I called his mother into the office, and I said, ‘Your son’s entitled to an education, but he’s not entitled to disrupt my school.’ I was straight with them. He hasn’t given me much trouble since.”

In the back of the kitchen Mildred Marshall was rolling dough. “Hey, Millie,” Clark called out. “Did I tell you my wife knows your name?”

“Mr. Clark, don’t be playing,” Marshall replied.

“She knows your name ’cause I say it in my sleep, baby.”

“Mr. Clark, you better not be getting me in trouble with your wife,” Marshall said in mock anger. “There ain’t no reason to be saying my name in your sleep.”

Clark laughed and ducked back into the cafeteria.

“He’s always joking,” Marshall said. “He’s the principal, but he’s a regular human being. He takes a personal interest in us. He tells me, ‘Millie, without you, this school can’t function.’ He let’s us know that we’re important. How many other principals do that? Not many, believe me.”

Back in his office Clark pointed to a white sports car parked across the street. “It belongs to a drug dealer. I wish he wouldn’t park it there. It’s sending the wrong message about how to make money. These kids are so messed up when it comes to careers and making money. Every year college recruiters come into the inner city looking for basketball players. They aren’t looking for potential doctors and lawyers. Kids see the fancy cars and rich clothes, and they think the only way to make it is through sports, crime, or entertainment. There’s a whole business, medical, and legal world out there that they know nothing about. If I could reach the business leaders of Chicago, I’d tell them, ‘Don’t overlook my kids. They’ve got something to offer you. Give them a break. Give them a chance. You had one. No matter how rich or successful you are, there was a time when you needed a break.’

“Part of the struggle is getting students to think better about themselves. After the article came out that said we had the lowest reading scores, I had an assembly for the juniors who were going to take the test this year. One student said ‘Mr. Clark, was that article true?’ I said ‘Do I lie?’ She said ‘no.’ I said ‘Well then, that’s the truth, sweetheart. Some of you have a reading problem. But that’s no reason to hide. That’s no reason to feel ashamed. You’ve got a problem, we deal with it. That’s what we’re here for–to learn.’

“Some of them cover up their failure with gang fights and machismo. You see them acting tough, getting into fights, saying, ‘I’m gonna kick your butt.’ But they’re just lost kids looking for help. We’ve got to reach them.”

He paused for a moment. “There’s a student here, a real smart kid, a good kid. I got him a job interview at a place downtown, and he wanted to take his buddy. I asked him why, and he said ‘Well, Mr. Clark, I ain’t never been downtown, and I want some company.’ When he told me that I couldn’t believe it. This kid was born in Chicago, has lived here all his life, and he’s never been to the Loop! The Loop is, what, 15 minutes away? It blew my mind. It’s like these kids are living in total isolation–the west side is all they know.

“I said, ‘Young man, don’t bring your friend–not unless you don’t want that job.’ In the end the friend went, but he stayed in the lobby. The kid interviewed well and got the job. Now he goes downtown every day, and from what I hear he’s doing fine.

“OK, that one job doesn’t change the world, but it could be the break that boy needs to change his life.”

A few weeks later Clark went with a couple hundred middle- and grade-school children and their teachers on a visit to the Cook County Jail. The inner-city students were there to see the harsh realities of prison and listen to ministers, cops, guards, and prisoners warn them that the path of gangs, dope, and violence leads to ruin.

Clark sat in the bleachers of the jail gymnasium while a speaker told the kids they could be whatever they wanted. Miss Black Chicago said, “A good time is temporary, a good education is forever.” A rap group sang an ode to voting–“Pullin’ the lever is clever.”

Then a lanky young prisoner, dressed in a brown prison jumpsuit, took the floor. “I see some of you guys walking in here real tough, signifying. You got your hat cocked, and you’re making all the gang signals, and you think this thing is a joke. You think it’s a game. Well, it’s not. This is for real. Girls, I saw you flirting with some of these prisoners. Well let me tell you, a couple of these brothers are pimps. They’ll put you out on the street. They don’t care about you.”

Suddenly the prisoner’s eyes locked on a boy in the audience who was giggling. “Look at you, laughing. You think it’s a joke.” His voice was steely cold. “Let me tell you, a little fellow like you won’t last long in jail. There ain’t nothing you can do if I want to have sex with you. If I get horny, I’ll have my way with you and you’ll have to let me do my business.”

The prisoner was followed by a convicted murderer. “I see my first-grade teacher here,” he said, pointing to a woman in the front row. She started to cry. “She tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen. The security guards tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen to them either. That’s why I’m stuck here. That’s why I might be in jail for the rest of my life.”

Outside the gym Clark stood for a moment, unable to speak. In the car going back to Cregier, he turned angry. “That prisoner was right–those kids think it’s a game. They want to show they’re tough enough to take on all the bad guys in the Cook County Jail. They don’t realize it’s a game they’ll lose.”

Suddenly he spied three Cregier students walking along Madison Street drinking pop and eating potato chips. “Those kids should be in school,” he said.

We pulled alongside the students, and Clark rolled down his window. “Hey fellows,” he called out. “How come you’re not in school?”

Startled, they launched into simultaneous and disjointed explanations about how they had to leave school early to avoid a fight.

Clark cut them off. “Quit yanking my chain. I don’t believe that story any more than you do. Where’s your student ID cards?”

“We forgot ’em,” said one student. Another instinctively reached into his pocket.

Clark snorted. “You guys can’t even get your story right. We got one denying he’s got the pass, while the other’s ready to turn his over. I know you have a pass, otherwise you couldn’t have gotten into the school. So I’ll tell you what. I don’t know your names, but I know your faces. And I expect to see those faces in my office first thing tomorrow morning. If I don’t, I’m gonna come lookin’ for you. And if that’s the case, you won’t want me findin’ you. Understand?”

“Aw, man,” one student complained.

“What’s that?” Clark snapped.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I mean, Mr. Clark.”

“All right then. Get going, and be in my office first thing tomorrow.”

A few days later Clark told me that the three students never showed up in his office. Instead, they’d ended up in jail, arrested in connection with a gang fight. “We keep trying, but we’re up against so much,” Clark said. “For eight hours a day they’re ours. It’s those other 16 hours in the day that I’ve got to worry about.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.