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Timeless Memoir Still Dares to Disturb the Universe

Who would have known that a simple 8.5-by-7 inch Blue Book could make the difference in preparing high school students for college? Author Charlise Lyles found out after she graduated from Hawken, an elite prep school in the affluent Cleveland suburb of Gates Mills.

Prior to receiving a scholarship to attend Hawken, Lyles attended Cleveland Public Schools that served children who lived in the projects as she and her siblings did. She reveals the advantages and disadvantages of attending both in her coming-of-age memoir titled Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? From the Projects to Prep School.

“I would never exchange my experiences at Lafayette, Kennard and Dike,” she said, referring to Cleveland Schools she attended in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “I had deeply caring teachers who really wanted us to learn.” Lyles recalled her eighth-grade teacher Miss Nelson. “You could not leave her class if you didn’t know the eight parts of speech.” Dike is now Dike School of the Arts, located at East 61st Street. The other two schools are closed.

Lyles’s groundbreaking memoir will reach two milestone anniversaries this year. This year will be the 25th anniversary that Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? was published. It also will be the tenth anniversary that the memoir has been used at Cleveland State University to train future teachers about the issues poor students face at inner-city schools and what the inequities are in comparison to students in wealthy suburban schools.

In a melodious voice suited for broadcast news, she explained in a telephone interview from her home near Dallas, that she knew the eight parts of speech better than her privileged classmates at Hawken. It also benefited her eventual writing career. Still, she said her education did not prepare her for Hawken or a future in college.

“I saw how I was behind” she said. “I had some serious catching up to do.”

This is where the Blue Book came into play.

In her Cleveland Schools, the tests consisted of multiple-choice questions. At Hawken the students wrote detailed essays in Blue Books.

“They were more used to being asked [essay] questions for an exam,” she added. While she had great teachers in Cleveland Public Schools, she thinks they were stifled by a curriculum that did not challenge students. Lyles said the teachers were very caring at Hawken, too. They were advantaged by teaching a rigorous curriculum. She recalls being tested about Peter the Great and being asked about the politics of his reign. Preparing for such exams required deeper reading, she explained.

Lyles admits she lost out on the “social currency” most high school students earn. She didn’t go to a prom or do other things teens do. Once she asked a white boy she thought she connected with if they could go out--only to have him laugh at her--an incident she chronicled in her memoir.

In addition to having a good educational foundation, the white Hawken students did not have to deal with issues that go with poverty. While her Hawken classmates more than likely had their share of personal problems, abundance wasn’t one of them. Most had two parents in the home and there was “never want for basics.”

Meanwhile, in the Lyles’s home, the family had transportation issues. Lyles’s mother divorced her father after experiencing domestic violence. The mother of five didn’t have a car, so she took the bus to her three jobs. The people in her neighborhood were traumatized by two homicides, and there was a rodent problem. Lyles made her television debut as part of a juvenile rat patrol that tried to rid the apartment’s garbage room of the germy animals. The experience proved to be embarrassing for the children’s parents, as she recalled in her memoir.

Even today, poor children come to school without their foundational needs being met. “They need food, clothing, a good night sleep” Lyles said. “The school has to support them,” she added. Some of the characteristics that she developed from her background such as grit and determination, helped her succeed at Hawken and later as a journalist, she explained.

A child of today needs that same grit and determination when going to school under difficult circumstances.

“If the child gets there that says a lot about the child,” Lyles explained.

Lyles also wrote a lot about her siblings in her memoir. She and her two sisters found success through education. Their two brothers struggled. One had developmental issues. The other was mechanically inclined and had a mind like Alexa when it came to remembering football statistics.

“We didn’t know how to support him,” Lyles explained. Neither did the school system. Lyles blames some of his challenges on the desegregation order. Her brother John was bused to West Tech High School instead of going to East High in his neighborhood. Her brother was an outstanding basketball player, but, sadly, his mother never had the transportation to see his games. Her father, who struggled with alcoholism and was away from the family, also never saw his games. Fortunately for Lyles, a kindly couple of married teachers allowed her to stay with them during the work-week and took her to the bus line that went to Hawken.

“He really needed mentors,” Lyles said of her brother. “Our schools have not served young African-American men well.” There needs to be a curriculum designed to meet their needs and a teacher corps prepared to serve young African-American men, according to Lyles. This she finds is true for urban and suburban school districts.

Lyles, who is out of the education business per se, after leaving her position as editor of Catalyst for Cleveland Schools, continues to have deep concern for students Kindergarten to the 12th grade being skilled enough to gain employment after graduation. She is still writing, now for a tech company in a sprawling suburb of Dallas. She said the job market is in need of workers who know software coding, technical writing, and other information technology (IT) skills, particularly in the healthcare industry. She also added that the 11th- and 12th-grade curriculums should be standardized to allow all students to attend a community college and receive associate degrees upon high school graduation.

”Every student should graduate knowing a skill that will lead to immediate employment at or above a living wage that places them on a career track.”

Lyles’s book has not only been used as part of the curriculum for future teachers at CSU, Baldwin Wallace University in Berea and Tufts University in Boston. It is part of a history course on Black Power at the University of Texas at Austin. It also has been used at Cleveland Schools. While it narrates Lyles’s journey, the book also traces the structural negligence in education and housing as policies failed to serve the most vulnerable children and youth in Cleveland.

“I love using the book because it’s local history,” explained Dr. Glenda Toneff-Cotner, who uses the book for EDB 241—Rotation and Seminar I. The course gives first-year students their first taste of being in a classroom. Through their readings and Toneff-Cotner’s lectures they develop cultural competency.

“This course goes back to Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. It fits beautifully into the course we’re teaching. It just shows just how race relations have evolved from Plessy to the present.”