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The Good Kid

Meet Eddie Wilson, pillar of Cleveland.

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David Williams has wardrobe problems. Whenever he talks about his son, his brawny chest puffs out an extra two inches. "I'm going to have to get a new shirt size," he laughs.

There are few things more beautiful than a father's pride in his children. And Williams has ample justification. His son, Eddie Wilson, just received the National Honor Society Achievers Award from the Urban League.

If you read the brochures, city kids are supposed to be crackheads, gangbangers, scumbags, punks. Worse, Eddie attends Cleveland public schools, keeper of the nation's nastiest graduation rate of any urban district. It's a place where, when one out of three finishes high school, we celebrate our improvement.

Yet Eddie's is the story less told. He's a good kid, a quiet kid. Comes home with B's. His folks tend to his education and manners like good folks do. And he's become the showpiece for a program under which students are trained to eventually fill the park system's employment rolls. "Eddie is the crème de la crème," says coordinator Brenda Watkins.

Beneath the wretched publicity -- most of which is deserved -- impressive things are happening in the district. Eddie attends the Washington Park Horticultural Center, an affiliate of South High. Here, students study animal care, landscaping, small engine repair, greenhouse production, and floral design. The place does such skilled work that, come the annual Mother's Day flower sale, people are "lined up outside the door an hour before opening," says Joanne Scudder, who heads the center.

Eddie, he's an animal guy. Last summer he was chosen for an internship at the zoo. "I remember, his second week, they would only let him clean the stalls and bring the food in," says Dad. "But with each level of responsibility, he came home excited. I remember when he got keys to the zoo. He came home excited, and he said, 'Dad, I got keys to the zoo.' And I said, 'That's good, son. That means they trust you.'"

In fact, his supervisors like him so much, they found money to keep him year-round. They've also gone to church with him. "One of the curators was discussing possibly taking him to Venezuela next year to get some animals," says Dad.

But it's the animals Eddie really connects with. He feeds them, trains them to lie down for the vets, introduces them to winter quarters. And the animals connect with Eddie. "Sometimes when I'm near the leopards, they're purring at me when I come around."

So it's no news flash: "Kid Succeeds at Internship!" And Eddie's probably not going to Harvard. Which is precisely the point. In an age when a college education is the benchmark of achievement -- so kids can get degrees in 19th-century literature and thus find gainful employment as the poet laureate of Target -- Cleveland schools still understand the virtues of that most out-of-vogue scholastic path, vocational training. There are good jobs, good wages, good lives to be had by fixing engines or growing plants.

"I think it's pretty tough for some of the people in academia to come to that conclusion," says Scudder. "You're seeing those kids in vocational training doing very well, and the opportunities out there are so much greater."

Eddie, he's not stopping here. He's going to Tri-C, then Ohio State. He wanted to be a vet, "but the animals don't like it when the vets come around." So now he wants to groom and board pets, "probably have a little pet shop on the side."

All of which has Dad talking about getting bigger shirts. "I'm blessed. There are not many inner-city kids that could walk into this type of opportunity, and he's making the most of it. He did not make the same mistake his father made, going into a field that you really didn't want, but you needed a job."

In the age of the Quiet Crisis, this is how you build a city: one Eddie Wilson at a time.

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