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He speaks with a deep, rich radio voice, and he is articulate. Mostly he speaks with passion, especially when the conversation veers toward the lives of black inner-city teens. Every now and then, quite suddenly, he becomes reflective and sad and even borderline bitter, puffing away at a cigarette, staring into space. He has an unusual name-- Torthel Lockli McClodden -- that he has turned to some advantage. In the hallways and classrooms of Beaumont High, which are filled with teens from low-income black North St. Louis families, he was known simply as "Brother Mac." He insisted on that, rejecting the standard "Mr. McClodden" because he felt it cut down the distance and formality of the student-teacher relationship. His voice jumps a couple of notches when he talks of one of the bright spots in his otherwise ordinary life: the honest conversations he has had with the teens about sex, drugs, race, family.
At 43, Brother Mac spoke the students' language better than many of the older teachers at Beaumont did. And it didn't hurt that he is a single father and that three of his five children, still in their teens, live with him. At Beaumont, he used his own brand of tough love. The administrators, he says, "were even willing to let me go to "Motherfuckerville' -- you know, where sometimes I'd have to drag a kid: "Sit your ass down, motherfucker, let me tell you something.'
"And then later you see the same kid telling other kids, "Hey man, Brother Mac's all right,'" he says. He pauses, seeming overwhelmed. "Man, that shit tears you up. It's enough to make you cry."
A couple of colleagues at Beaumont note that Brother Mac had a way with the kids. The kids, it seems, needed Brother Mac as much as he needed them.
When we first met, in early December, he'd been teaching at Beaumont for three years. He talked of how he was raised primarily by his mother, who divorced his father three months after he was born in 1957. He saw his father (who lived "a shady life" in East St. Louis) on weekends and holidays, but he grew up with his four siblings and his mother, who worked several jobs at a time (waitress, hairdresser, scrub nurse). Then she moved her family to St. Peters, where young Torthel was the only African-American in the class of '75 at Fort Zumwalt High School. After floundering for a while, living briefly with his dad in East St. Louis, he joined the Air Force in 1977 and was put to work cleaning and maintaining warehouses. Ten-and-a-half years later, including more than three years in England, he quit the Air Force as a disabled veteran after sustaining a severe ankle injury. Along the way, he fathered a child out of wedlock (now 22 and in college); married a woman, with whom he had four children; and became an ordained minister. He moved with his family to Greenville, S.C., busy with "ministerial pursuits," working low-skilled jobs, taking pre-law courses at Greenville College.
"It was all about trying to find out what kind of man I was," he says.
By 1995, he was divorced and back in St. Louis. He worked at St. Louis Artworks and the Black Rep, then at a chemical firm in St. Peters. Still searching for an appropriate vocation, in 1997 he signed up, at the suggestion of a friend, as a substitute teacher in the St. Louis Public Schools.
When his assignment took him to Beaumont High, his lifelong search ended.
For the first time ever, he felt needed. "The thing that hit me was, these kids hung on every word I had to say," he says. "I quickly realized that they don't have a father figure; they don't have a black man in their life. I mean, these kids were glad I was there; they were glad to see me."
Beaumont is an essentially nonintegrated school of about 1,400 students at Natural Bridge and Vandeventer avenues. It has the lowest attendance rate of all the district's high schools, meaning that fewer than 1,000 students show up each day. At parent-teacher conference days, about one in five parents shows up. As far as test scores go, Beaumont ranks in the bottom tier.
His first teaching assignment was a Spanish class, yet all he knew of Spanish was "bar talk." Keep the kids busy until the Spanish teacher returned to school, he was told. "We would sit and talk about everything -- sex, racism, gangs," he says. He returned to Beaumont every day, doing stints teaching social studies, math, special ed, whatever was needed. Both in and out of class, he listened to and talked with the students -- the "young lady" whose father got her pregnant, the rebellious boy who cussed at the teachers, the dozens of students who saw no reason to pay attention in class.
What, in his experience, motivated the kids the most? "They were as motivated as you showed concern for their lives," he says without hesitation. One day, he had students name all the rap artists they knew, and he wrote the dozens of names on the blackboard. "Then I told them I'd give 20 bucks to the first person who can name all 50 states," he says. "Only one kid could do so. So I turned it around into saying, "If you can name all these rap artists, how come you can't name the states?'"