ELYRIA — Six years ago, Stacie Starr, who then was a 29-year-old teacher who loved sports so much she decided to coach middle school football, looked into the eyes of 15 young boys tagged with the label “at-risk youth” and saw something different.
Yes, they were the ones teachers singled out because they had no desire to do the required 20 minutes of reading then-Northwood Middle School Principal Tom Jama wanted all students to do each morning. They were the loud students, the rambunctious ones. They were filled with defiance and, in many cases, anger.
Still, Starr, who is the mother of a son, saw something more behind the faces that were not yet those of men but beyond the point of being adorable little kids.
“They were just boys who needed someone to care,” she said. “I knew I could do that. My son, who is a freshman now, told me the other day that it’s like I’m everyone’s mother because I mother people all day. But I know he’s right.”
Starr could barely get through a sentence Wednesday explaining why the students impacted her so when one of them walked through the door of the Elyria High School Performing Arts Center.
Dominique Sharpe weaved his way through a maze of students and stopped at a table lined with boxes. He was handed a red cap and gown folded and stuffed into a plastic bag and a piece of paper with the words “COMMENCEMENT CHECKLIST” typed across the top in all capital letters.
He spotted Starr seated at a table in the rear of the lobby and made a beeline for her.
“Hey, Ms. Starr, you’re still going to be there, right?” he said. “You’re still going to be the one to give it to me, right?”
Starr stood up and gave the 18-year-old a high five.
“You bet. I wouldn’t miss it,” she said.
The now 35-year-old Intervention Specialist sat back in her chair and began again.
“You know, when I was in high school and I graduated I think a board member or someone gave me my diploma. I don’t remember who it was,” she said. “But for this group, I know I need to be there and I want to be the one that hands them that piece of paper that says ‘You did it.’ ”
To simply say Starr started a boys’ group at Northwood six years with 15 kids in seventh and eighth grade and 10 of those same boys are graduating from high school today barely scratches the surface of what the past six years have been like.
The full story resembles something seen only in a Hollywood movie — a female teacher begins mentoring boys, having them read books about people they never heard of before, making them wear ties to school, taking them to meet doctors and authors and just being a constant force in their lives.
At the end of that movie that teacher would probably lament about how she couldn’t save all the kids, how she lost a few along the way.
But that is not Starr’s story. Of her 15, 10 are set to graduate, three moved out of the district and two are juniors that will graduate next year.”
“No one dropped out,” Starr said. “I didn’t lose one.”
Jama, now the principal of Elyria High, calls her inclusion in the ceremony the icing on the cake any teacher would want.
“It’s like that pot of gold at the end of a rainbow when you see the fruits of your labor,” he said
‘She’s my lady’
Eddie Nelson Jr., 19, won’t be walking with the 10 other boys from the group today.
He graduated from Lorain High School last school year and just wrapped up his first year at the University of Akron.
“But I wanted him to be here so the others can see that they can do it, too,” Starr quickly explained as the other students grabbed their graduation garb. “I’m so proud of him.”
Nelson offered Starr a sheepish grin and quick hug. He remembers the first time he met her.
He was in the eighth grade when the rest of the boys were seventh-graders. He was told — not asked — that he was going to be a part of a boys’ group led by the female football coach.
“I have to say I thought she was kind of crazy at first,” Nelson said. “I mean, all of us back then were from the same neighborhood and we hung out together so I didn’t think that anyone could tame us.”
But Starr did. She had them read “Tears of a Tiger,” a novel about a 17-year-old boy who felt guilt for inadvertently causing his best friend’s death through drunken driving. Then, there was “A Child Called It,” the gripping autobiography written by a man who was brutally beaten and starved by his mother.
Finally, Starr placed, “We Beat the Streets,” in their hands and watched the world open up right before their eyes. The book is written by three friends from New Jersey housing projects who beat the odds and encouraged each other to not just survive, but thrive. Today, all three are doctors.
Together, the doctors also penned “The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream,” and “The Bond: Three Young Men Learn to Forgive and Reconnect with Their Fathers.” Those books became required reading in Starr’s group — books a lot of the students say they still have to this day.
“She showed us there was something better in life than just Elyria,” Nelson said. “Elyria is great, but she told us to get out of here and see the world, to make something of ourselves.”
Nelson’s tumultuous life took him out of Northwood in the middle of the school year. He grew up without his mother — he calls Starr the mother he never had — and his father was sentenced to prison, forcing Nelson to go live with his grandmother.
“But we got lucky. He went to Admiral King where my boyfriend worked and my sisters went to school so it’s like I never left him,” Starr said. “I showed up at his events and tried to be there. I went to his high school graduation and at his graduation party there was a board of family photos, showing everyone who helped Eddie get there. My picture was on the board. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Looking back over the past few years — not seeing his mother or father, feeling like so many people had abandoned him and not knowing what his future would hold — Nelson said Starr never gave up on him.
“She made me grow up a lot. That’s my lady right there,” he said as he shot a look over to Starr who was busy making sure the other soon-to-be graduates had all their belongings.
Nelson turned to Starr and told her not the cry Saturday, but he knows she won’t be able to contain the tears.
‘I don’t operate that way’
Jama was the first person to introduce Starr to the students who would eventually became her boys’ group.
He wanted her to get them reading. In Starr, he saw a caring teacher who was personally motivated to help students who were not reaching their full potential
“She’s just the type of person who can work with all kids. She has always talked about working more to mentor boys. That’s why I hired her as the football coach,” he said.
Starr wanted to get the students to high school. She never thought about getting them to graduation.
“But I love a challenge,” she said with laugh. “I don’t want easy. I don’t want that normal everyday kid who doesn’t really need you. I would be bored out my mind.”
If easy was not what Starr was looking for, she got exactly what she wanted.
“There have been some of them that have had struggles. No one is perfect. But to see them here today is special,” Starr said.
Finding the group books they would actually read was just the start. She taught them how to stand out as young men and how to tie and wear ties so they looked respectable.
She even got the students as middle school students to write letters to the three doctors who wrote the book they all loved and when the doctors came to Cleveland for a presentation at the WVIZ IdeaCenter Studios, Starr secured a meet-and-greet.
“I just knew they needed to see people who looked like them and made it to something better. We all need to see that so we know we can do it,” Starr said.
A female teacher and a bunch of young boys seem like an unusual pairing, but Starr, who grew up on the south side of Lorain in a very active home, saw nothing wrong with what she was doing. And, where others would have just stopped at a book club, Starr said she knew almost from the first day that she was going to go the distance with her group — however far that turned out to be.
“I don’t operate that way. Whatever I do, I pour myself into 120 percent. I try to put passion into everything I do even if that means I’m their counselor, mother, teacher and mentor.”
Jordan Stovall said Starr gave him something he didn’t know existed in the outside world — hope.
“She was the only person outside my family to do that,” he said.
Once the students left Northwood, Starr said she didn’t see the boys every day, but never lost contact. She kept an eye on their grades, was known to send notes of encouragement home with siblings and cousins and was a constant face at track meets, football games and parades where some marched in ROTC.
Her cell phone’s photo gallery is full of photos of young athletes from the boys’ group. She flips through them like a proud mother would her photo album.
At the beginning of this school year, she transferred from the middle school to the high school.
“It was like the connection never left,” said 17-year-old Marquise Edwards, who was featured on the front page of the Chronicle-Telegram in 2008 when Starr made a plea to the public to donate ties to her students, many of whom lived in households run by mothers and had never tied ties before in their lives. “It kind of sucked that she wasn’t here since freshman year. It was just cool having her here, you know someone to talk when we needed it.”
Edwards said he is probably the luckiest of all the boys.
“I get to have Ms. Starr for another year,” he said.
Jama said he was thrilled to have Starr in the building, a move that came up with an opening in the special needs department.
“I knew she already had a personal connection with some of the students,” he said. “Even when I left the district for a few years, she would keep me informed on how they were doing.”
Deanyon Groves, 18, said he will never forget Starr. He had a bad year last school year and because of grades and behavior was kicked out of school. He should have graduated last year.
Starr went to bat for Groves and now he is graduating this year.
“I had a few bad months. I’m not going to lie,” he said. “But Ms. Starr gave me that talk and got me back on track. She told me I had to do this or I would always regret it.”
It doesn’t surprise any of the graduates to hear that Groves got a talk from Starr. In the group, dropping out was not an option and everyone had to maintain at least a C plus in classes — which proved to be a harder task for some.
“It was harder when I didn’t have someone in my ear everyday asking me about my grades,” said 17-year-old Justin Spraggins. “Sometimes you just need someone to go to in the middle of a bad day to talk to. It sounds like a little thing, but she played a big part in my high school career.”
Starr has a few standouts in her group.
There is Rod “RJ” Pereyra, who plans to go to Ohio University to study physical therapy. He has a 4.42 grade point average, achieved after finishing all of this year’s classes at Lorain County Community College for dual high school and college credit.
There is also DeAnte Thomas. He got an athletic scholarship to Mount Union University to play football.
Looking back over the past six years of talks, playful slaps against the head when a student was being too loud or calling a mother in the middle of a bus ride when a student’s language became a little too colorful, Starr said she doesn’t know what she could say to the young men now.
“What more can I say to them? I’m handing them their diplomas,” she said.