PITTSFIELD TWP. — It’s shortly after 10 a.m. on a typical Wednesday at the Lorain County Joint Vocational School.
Young hairstylists, plumbers and chefs in training are tucked into classrooms to learn the finer points of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the details of Ohio’s plumbing law and how to peel, slice and dice a potato with the accuracy of a sous chef.
Inside an office toward the back of the building, Superintendent Glenn Faircloth is gearing up for a quick tour of the 11-acre campus. The various technical programs offered at the school draw students from nearly every area — in effect, the building serves as a microcosm of life in Lorain County.
By this time, Faircloth has already been up, by his estimation, for more than five hours sans coffee. Faircloth doesn’t drink coffee. He doesn’t need it, he says.
He moves at lightning speed and imagines a caffeine jolt would only leave his administrative assistant LaDonna Maxwell more frustrated with her boss than anything. This man who is just a few months past his 41st birthday and two months into his tenure as the school’s superintendent is fueled by something else, something deeper.
“I’m not ashamed of my past. Not anymore,” he said, sitting behind a large desk in an office decorated with the paintings of cool older homes he said he happened upon at a hotel liquidation sale. “I embrace it now way more than I ever did. It’s my fuel. That’s what keeps me grounded. When you forget where you come from, then you lose what is your foundation.”
So, on the days when Faircloth is feeling good about having accomplished the goal of being a superintendent by age 40 — he says he’s checking it off even though he was hired right around his 41st birthday — or when he is walking the halls to the sounds of colleagues and students calling him “Dr. Faircloth,” the doctoral-degree holding educator says a defining childhood experience often creeps into his thoughts.
“There was a time when the kids caught me eating out of the trash can, and they laughed at me,” he says. “That was the joke around school. I still had to go to school with those kids, and let me tell you — kids can be brutal. I know.”
There is no dramatic pause or moment of silence to allow the startling revelation to sink in. Faircloth has uttered those words aloud before — maybe not so much in Lorain County, where he is the new kid on the block, but elsewhere.
Google his name and you will find three YouTube videos from a television station in his hometown of Dayton. The three-part series, “The Man Not to Be,” chronicles his life from forgotten ghetto kid to principal of the city’s premier technical school.
He told his story after too many students in his school told him he couldn’t relate to their struggles because he didn’t know how hard their lives were when they left his care. It was the wakeup call he needed to let him know he was serving no one with his silence.
Now when he talks about his life, he simply shakes his head and a smile forms beneath his neatly trimmed goatee and bespectacled brown eyes.
He now finds humor in the jokes the kids told, the moniker of “Dirty Glenn” that was hurled his way because he wore the same clothes every day, and in how his daily survival was sometimes clearly defined by Dumpster-diving for a meal.
“Man, I was always hungry when I was a kid, and there just wasn’t enough food. What was I supposed to do?” he says, more of a statement than a question.
Faircloth doesn’t shrink from the boy he once was because in his eyes those years helped make him the man he is today — a man who is just as passionate about the struggles black boys have in the public school system, the basis of his doctoral dissertation at Miami University — as he is about single mothers who have the harrowing task of raising boys to be men.
It’s hard to tell by looking at Faircloth that he comes from a background so heartbreaking that for years he barely spoke of it. He doesn’t look at his life through the lens of being a survivor, although age is teaching him that is a more accurate description than he ever realized.
Fatherhood also has changed his perspective.
He is not married, but that hasn’t stopped him from indulging in the wants and needs of his 13-year-old daughter and doesn’t mind saying his No. 1 goal as a parent is to make sure she never knows the kind of life he did.
“Look, I’m still that same kid from the ghetto,” he says. “I just happen to also be the superintendent.”
The boy weeping
in the bushes
“Have you ever cried so hard you couldn’t breathe? I mean, you are really hyperventilating and you are just exhausted from crying?” Faircloth asks.
He is holding a tissue that he grabbed after telling the story of how one of his best friends — a brother to him — committed suicide while he was away at college. The friend hanged himself, Faircloth says, and he only learned about it days after the fact while he was walking in a grocery story and bumped into a mutual friend.
He chokes up every time he thinks about it and grabs the tissue from his desk drawer just in case. It stays in his hand as he tells yet another story from his life. This time it’s about him, and it’s as painful to hear as it is for Faircloth to tell.
“I was about 10 years old, and I was homeless,” he says. “I was a kid, by myself, sleeping in these bushes behind a mall. One night I started crying because I wanted to die. No. I prayed to God and prayed hard that I would die. My life was too hard, and I just wanted to die.”
Faircloth says he fell asleep in those bushes, just outside the now-razed Salem Mall in Trotwood, a Dayton suburb. When he awoke, dew covered the leaves of the bushes, and, as the sun peeked through the branches, he says he thought for a moment his wish had come true.
“I was like, ‘Is this Heaven?’ ” He says. “It didn’t take me long to realize I was still alive. And that was one of the first moments in my life when I knew that, in spite of everything, I was going to be OK.”
But before Faircloth says he had that epiphany, that “a-ha” moment as Oprah Winfrey would call it, his life before that day was wrapped in tragedy.
As far back as Faircloth can remember, he tells story after story of the memories that made him.
He had no father in his life. The man who gave him his surname left home when Faircloth was about 5 and then his mother became addicted first to alcohol, then heroin and crack cocaine.
Faircloth says he was about 6 when his mother — in one of her drug-fueled rages — chased him and his siblings out of their home with a knife.
After a couple of years of living with a woman who would rather spend money on drugs than food or who would rather drink than buy and wash her children’s clothes, Children Services showed up. In an instant, the children were scattered, with Faircloth being thrust into foster care.
Looking back, Faircloth says not every placement was a bad one. Some of the families really tried to make him feel welcome. Others placements — like the group homes he lived in — were just stop gaps in his life.
Within those homes he saw more tragedy — like the day a boy that Faircloth says he lived with for less than a month used a bed sheet to commit suicide. The boy was a little older than Faircloth at the time — probably around 11 — and Faircloth says the memory of seeing him hanging from the bunk bed post seared itself into his brain.
Another foster home was next, but that only lasted a few weeks because the home was infested with roaches. There was another group home where he bunked with boys with criminal pasts.
It was the last time he spent in a group home. Within weeks of walking in, Faircloth left. But this time he was a runaway.
Faircloth says he spent months living on the streets. He went from one friend’s house to another. When he wore out his welcome around the neighborhood, he slept in bushes and ate out of trash cans.
Faircloth says that is when he just wished for death.
It’s hard to imagine that by 10, Faircloth says he was in such despair that he saw death as his only escape. But the exhaustion of his life just caught up with him.
He didn’t know a new life was coming right around the corner. Within a day or two of that fateful night, Faircloth says he ran into a friend from his old neighborhood and the friend had a life-saving message for him — his friend’s mother wanted him to come to their home.
A stable home
They didn’t have much, but they wanted to give him a place to call his own.
Brenda Dunson lived next door to the Faircloth family, watching from her window as three children struggled under the care of a neglectful mother. But one child in particular caught her eye.
Glenn, she said in a television interview years ago, was a special little guy. She described him as, “just a little boy on the quiet side. He wore glasses, and I think was a bit shy.”
Dunson didn’t give birth to Faircloth, but she is the woman he calls his mother. Her husband, Travis Dunson, is his father. Both have since died, but Faircloth says in them he got something he desperately needed — love, discipline, a family.
The small two-bedroom house where they lived was crammed because of the eight kids the couple had before they took in Faircloth. But living there offered the kind of chaos that lets a child know it’s OK for them to dream, to set goals and believe they are attainable.
Faircloth says his journey to the Dunsons’ was like going home. They lived right next door to his real mother, and the Dunsons’ son — the one who found him sleeping in the bushes — was one of his first best friends.
When things got bad, Brenda Dunson was the first person who wanted to adopt him, even though Children Services ultimately decided he should go into foster care.
Faircloth says he was almost 11 when he ended up with the Dunsons. The couple decided he was coming to live with them regardless what anyone else said.
“They didn’t have a lot of money and combined there were nine of us kids in that house,” he says. “Everyone else was either my father’s kids or my mother’s kid. I was the only one who didn’t belong to anyone. I remember they had this conversation about me staying and for my mom it was like, ‘He’s home,’ and that’s that.”
The house was loud at times, Faircloth says as he laughs about the fights he had with his siblings and the way Travis Dunson would plead for the kids to just not break anything.
“My mom was the kind of woman that just believed in us,” he says. “She never doubted us. My father was the kind of guy that said a man was only as good as his word. He taught us that you finish the job you start. You never leave anyone just high and dry.”
Faircloth went from middle school to high school in the Dunson home.
By high school, Faircloth says he started to have more confidence in the guy he wanted to be. He had his own style — sport coats, slacks and ties from the thrift store. On the weekends, he earned money by cutting grass in the neighborhood with an old lawnmower he bought for $15 at a garage sale. It didn’t work, but Faircloth tinkered with it until it did.
He played sports in high school, had a favorite teacher — science teacher George Caras, now a high school principal outside of Dayton — and even got into his fair share of fights in his teenage years.
But by 16, Faircloth said he moved out of the Dunson home and into his own apartment through a Children Services independence program for older teens. It wasn’t like he had lost his family, but he felt it was time he lived on his own.
As always, he was just a kid “trying to stay out of the way,” he says.
‘He shared our vision’
Finding the right kind of superintendent to lead a technical school is not easy.
It’s akin to finding a husband — marrying a plan for the future with a leader who shares similar ideals.
In Faircloth, the JVS has received that and more, says board President Kathryn Karpus, also a member of the Elyria Schools Board of Education. She has become his No. 1 cheerleader, constantly coaxing him to share his story.
Beyond his glowing resume — four years as an Army Airborne Ranger, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science and math education from Central State University and a doctorate in education administration from Miami University — Karpus says the board was drawn to Faircloth’s character.
“Character can be a veneer that is chipped away over time with wear and tear,” she says. “But Glenn has true character, and that is what people will find is the reason why he is here. He says it’s not where you come from that is your story. The rest is up to you. I see a lot of that in our students at the JVS. They know the opportunity is theirs for the taking.”
Faircloth says when opportunity came knocking for him, a thunderstorm roared outside, and he was watching television. He was about 17, living by himself in a small apartment and struggling with where to take his future.
He had a high school diploma but not much else when a commercial for the U.S. Army came on one of those old sets with the rabbit ears with aluminum foil wrapped around the antenna for better reception.
He was thinking of those in his neighborhood who were slinging hard drugs and making more money in one night than he could in months cutting grass and being a lifeguard. He wonder if that should be his path.
But as the less than a minute long commercial ticked away and the rain fell outside, the words “Be all you can be” jumped off the screen and reverberated inside his head.
Could he really be something more than just his mother’s son? A foster kid who was always trying to stay out of the way?
Faircloth says he walked to an Army recruiter’s office the very next day. Leaving behind his life of uncertainty was the only thing on his mind.
Anxiety set in when the recruiter told him it would take several months to get everything in order before he was able to ship out. But he had made his decision, and the recruiter would soon learn Faircloth doesn’t take no for an answer. He looked the man square in the face and told him that was not an option.
“I knew if I didn’t leave then, I would be dead or in jail,” Faircloth says.
He left for military life four days later. It was the catalyst for change he needed. He served overseas in Saudi Arabia and did a tour in the Panama Canal, jumping from planes as an Airborne Ranger.
From there it was a slingshot to college, thanks to the GI Bill, and the educational profession.
A new presence
in the community
That Faircloth is the school’s first black superintendent is worth noting, but race has nothing to do with his appointment.
People who have met him are the first to say the color of his skin has nothing to do with why he will be good for the JVS. They do not mention the statistics — the American Association of School Administrators estimates just roughly 6 percent of public school superintendents are minorities.
“This is not about a person’s color. It’s about what they can bring to an organization, and he brings a lot,” says Elyria school board President Evelyn France.
Lise Day, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lorain County, wasn’t planning to meet Faircloth when she went to El Centro de Servicios Sociales, a Latino community center in Lorain, in late September. But while there, El Centro’s executive director, Victor Leandry, asked Day if she wanted to stick around and meet the new superintendent of the JVS.
“And I was just blown away,” Day says. “I found his story to be so inspirational. To imagine, he was just using teaching as a placeholder as he waited for admittance to pharmacy school, but realized he couldn’t leave education is amazing. He could have easily gotten into something else.”
Day, who works daily with children who live many of the same experiences that Faircloth had, says his presence in the community is a reminder to look beyond statistics.
“The problem with all of that is we forget that people are individuals,” she says. “Whenever we look at any person or child as just a pile of statistics or demographics, we are missing out on the very essence that God has put into them.”
Faircloth made it out of the gutter when others didn’t. His younger brother turned to a life of crime and died a few years ago. The sister he barely knew as a child still lives in Dayton but struggles with drug addiction. Still, Faircloth says he is stronger because of his past.
“When I step into a room, I don’t feel inferior,” he says. “I feel confident enough in who I am because people have seen me at my worst — eating out of trash cans, dirty clothes, mother on drugs, going from foster home to foster home and living in the projects.”
So, how does a man who today looks like a shining example of what it means to make it explain his life’s trajectory?
“I love a good laugh,” he says. “I love to laugh, and people don’t think that because most of the time my face is stern. But I think it comes from growing up in the projects. If you are going to survive the projects, you better have some tough skin because people are going to crack jokes. And I heard them all. I was dark-skinned, wore glasses and had gapped teeth on top of everything else.”
Faircloth says he learned to laugh at himself and find the humor in his life.
“When you are laughing, it’s a temporary escape from being sad,” he says.
‘Bring me your Michael Jordan of the class’
The door to the cosmetology classroom swings open, and senior instructor Kimberly Chandley steps into the hallway as Faircloth walks past.
In her hand is a mannequin head with hair sprayed, gelled and spiked into a ghastly crown of sorts with wispy pieces of gray hair weaved through the design. The entire style is very reminiscent of the bride of Frankenstein, and with good reason, Chandley says.
“We are working on a Halloween theme,” she says.
Faircloth eyes the doll head and walks into the room. At the urging of Chandley, female students grab their work and thrust it toward their superintendent with sheepish grins on their faces.
“Oh, this is nice. Who did this?” Faircloth says. “OK, so what about me? What could you do with this?”
He runs has hand over his closely cropped hair and goatee.
“I guess I would need a weave or a wig or something,” he says with a laugh. “Keep up the good work. I’ll be back, ladies.”
He’s out of the door almost as quickly as he came in. He’s on to the next division of the school he wants to show off.
Downstairs, upstairs, around corners — learning the ins and outs of a school building large enough to house a restaurant, hair salon, auto repair facility and more under one roof is not easy, but in the months since Faircloth has been at the JVS, he says he pretty much has the lay of the land. He’s an ex-Army man, so he has learned how to quickly acclimate to unfamiliar territory.
Walking halls crammed full of high school students is the best way for a superintendent to actually see and interact with kids. As a principal in Dayton, Faircloth says it was his job to make sure the students had everything they needed.
Now, he’s a head honcho in Lorain County, and it is his job to make sure the policies, money and connections are in place so the students, teachers and staff all have what they need. It’s a job that doesn’t always leave time for checking out what students are learning.
“I’m here because this position excited me,” he said. “I applied for two positions in the state of Ohio and was really attracted to this program. Being a principal is fine, great work, but at some point you want to be in a position where you can implement. I see Lorain JVS as having everything it needs to be the premier technical school in Ohio.”
As he walks, he stoops to pick up scraps of paper off the floor.
Next, he steps into a large classroom that looks like the innards of a restaurant. Students in white chef coats and hats are peeling and slicing potatoes.
“Chef, we have visitors in the kitchen,” a voice calls out.
Culinary instructor Kristian Smith acknowledges the superintendent and approaches with his hand extended for a quick shake. The two men talk briefly about the upcoming opening of the Buckeye Room — the program’s full-service restaurant operated by the senior students in the class.
Behind Smith, students continue to peel potatoes at dizzying speed. Faircloth slips behind a wall partition in the room and watches the students.
In a few moments, he is coaxed into a competition. But the students didn’t really have to twist his arm. He is ready to have a little fun and snaps on a pair of plastic gloves like he was gearing up for surgery.
“Bring me your Michael Jordan of the class. I’m cocky like that. I want the best student,” he says as students all vie to be the challenger.
Student Joe Smith steps to the table and informs Faircloth the cut of choice would be batonnet-style. After he defines the method for Faircloth — it’s a basic knife cut that makes french-fry-looking sticks — the two grab their knives.
“You youngsters always go with speed. We go with accuracy,” Faircloth says as he goes through a potato, turning the spud into small strips of vegetable. But his handiwork does not immediately win any praise.
Cheers of “Joe, Joe, Joe” rise up among the students as the contest comes to an end.
“Hey,” Faircloth says mid-dice. “Remember, I’m still the guy who signs all of the diplomas in this place.”
Chef Smith calls time, looks over the work of Faircloth and the student. Then, declares Joseph the winner. The young cook puffs his chest out in pride and shakes Faircloth’s hand.
Faircloth leaves the classroom not the least bit upset about losing.
“Man, these young people are extraordinary,” he says. “They just need someone to believe in them.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.