Heights High has 'really changed'—right?
In a few weeks, I’ll be standing on the stage of the Heights High auditorium. I appeared on that stage about 40 times while I was attending the school, in the late 1960s, usually performing music. This time I won’t be performing; I’ll be giving monetary awards to two graduating seniors who have excelled in music and the visual arts.
I have done this almost every year for the past decade, awarding the Friends of Cain Park Scholarship for Excellence in the Performing and Visual Arts to students who have not only excelled in their respective artistic areas, but have also decided to continue their studies of those fields in college, and are planning to use their skills and talents in their careers, often as a way to help others.
I’ve been a member of the Friends of Cain Park’s board since the group’s inception in 1991. I’ve served as the board’s president for the past 20 years, having been elected to the position at the only meeting I’ve ever missed. (So let that be a lesson to you about why it’s good to always attend your organization’s meetings.)
The connection between Cain Park and Heights High is strong: Cain Park was started, as a park and as an arts center, in 1934 by Dr. Dina Rees Evans, who was a teacher and drama director at the school from 1930 to 1958. Heights High’s auditorium, the Dina Rees Evans Performing Arts Center, and Cain Park’s main performance space, the Evans Amphitheater, were both named in her honor.
While it’s true that appearing on that stage in my youth provided great training and rare opportunity, it’s actually more gratifying to stand on it now, presenting awards and rewards to these students, who, obviously, represent hope for the future. In fact, the entire annual Senior Awards Night is always extremely gratifying, seeing the tremendous and numerous accomplishments, in so many diverse areas—academics, arts, community interest, and others—of a large number of graduating seniors.
Seeing this always makes me wish that all these people I hear from could be there with me—these Heights High alumni who have moved away, to anywhere from Solon and Beachwood to California and Arizona, who, when they hear that I still live in Cleveland Heights, never miss that opportunity to tell me how much the school has “changed.”
I run into them at various events and I see them on Facebook groups related to Cleveland Heights and Heights High. They say those words, exactly: “The school has really changed.” And they say, “When we went there, it was a really good school.” They make other, similar comments. A lot of similar comments.
What they really would like to say, if they weren’t such cowards, is: “I see that there is a very large African-American population at Heights High.” That’s what they mean when they say it’s “changed.” And that’s why they assume that the school has gone downhill, academically. I look at their Facebook profiles and at what they have posted—a lot of racist material, some subtle, some not.
I try to tell them that the school hasn’t really changed that much, though it may look a little different. I tell them that both of my kids went all the way through Heights (and not all that long ago), and that while they were Heights students, for eight consecutive years, I did volunteer work there in many areas. I tell them that my daughter-in-law teaches there; and that she and my son are both coaches of sports teams there. I tell them that I still attend football games and choir concerts there.
I tell them that when I first started volunteering, it did seem a bit scary, but that I quickly realized it wasn’t because I was in the midst of hundreds of black teenagers, but, rather, that I was, simply, in the midst of hundreds of any kind of teenagers. And then I further discovered that everything that goes on in the halls of Heights High is almost exactly the same as what went on when we were there. And that every kid I encountered was exceedingly polite to me (which was kind of disappointing to me, in a way—because I think it was, in part, due to their belief that I was really old).
But these people—who have not been inside the school since they went to the school and only know what they “know” from driving past it or from talking to similarly uninformed friends—don’t hear what I’m saying; they only see what they’re seeing. And, I guess, you can’t change the way you were raised . . . if you don’t really want to. Though attending Heights High’s Senior Awards Night might provide a good start.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.