One in a series
The boy, sullen and quiet, left his mother and followed Lawrence D. Tribble, Jr., to breakfast.
At the cafeteria entrance, the boy stopped, mumbled something, and pointed back toward his classroom down the hall.
"You don't want to eat?" Mr. Tribble asked.
The boy shrugged. A flood of students greeted Mr. Tribble, and the boy wandered away from the cafeteria.
Mr. Tribble had never seen him before that morning. They met just moments before, as Mr. Tribble and two other men from the Village 50 signed in and as the boy's mother explained why today he would leave school early.
Today, his father would be buried.
Every day, the Village 50 members come to Toledo's Robinson Elementary School.
When it's warm, the men build a perimeter around Robinson, during which they watch for trouble: fights percolating, strangers mingling, or stragglers avoiding school.
On this day, it was cold. They focused on the hallways, greeting students with a handshake and a smile, accepting and giving hugs through most of the morning.
"Morning, gentlemen!" project coordinator Brian Hayward called out to a group of boys.
Sometimes there are 10 men from the group at the school, in the mornings, at lunch, at dismissal.
On this day three arrived, and they moved from the cafeteria to the hall outside the library, directing traffic and rerouting stragglers.
Several boys sneaked into a computer lab despite protests from a teacher.
"Why'd you disrespect Miss Crabtree?" Mr. Tribble asked.
With minor protests, and some gentle ribbing in return, the boys returned to their class. No harm, no foul.
The Village 50 men aren't at Robinson to discipline students. They're there to set an example.
The first adult most children see when they step into Toledo's central-city schools -- buildings populated by students who almost all are poor and in overwhelming numbers are black -- is a white woman.
The American elementary teacher has historically been a woman. About three-quarters of all teachers in the country still are, and nearly 80 percent are women in the Toledo Public Schools system. Although the majority of its students are black or Hispanic, about 87 percent of the district's teachers last year were white. At no school were more than a third of teachers black.
That's not to say that white women or men can't teach and emotionally connect with students from communities such as Robinson's, Mr. Hayward said. But those demographics amplify an already disheartening dearth of male role models for students in poor neighborhoods.
About half the students in one Robinson seventh-grade glass said their fathers are effectively out of their lives, and while there are no official statistics on the subject, it's likely the trend holds true for the rest of the school.
Mr. Tribble calls it the lost element in the community. Children see few examples of successful black men at home, on TV, and in school.
"The only definition of a man is a guy on the street corner," he said.
They've participated in community events, such as a fatherhood walk in downtown Toledo and marches through neighborhoods to protest gun violence. There have long been complaints about deteriorating family values in central cities. Instead of pontificating, the Village 50 is a move to do something. Even if it's just as a presence for a child.
"I've made the mistake of not always being there," Mr. Hayward said. "I didn't want that to happen in other families."
Reception was rocky when the Village 50 showed up at Robinson. Students resisted.
"You trying to be my daddy?" they'd ask, Mr. Tribble said. They didn't know who these men were or what their intentions could be. They thought the men were just there to enforce rules. For many of them, he said, their fathers are gone. Another man trying to fill that role is just another man who will later abandon them.
But the men kept showing up. And students started to respect them. They learned they could talk to them, turn to them for help.
Kamiya Simms turned the corner toward her seventh-grade class and burst into inquiry when she couldn't find Mr. Hayward.
"Where's my dad?" she asked Mr. Tribble.
She has a father at home, the girl said. She calls Mr. Hayward that because he's another role model for her.
"He's like a dad to me," she said. "He tells me right from wrong."
It's not just the Village 50 who are trying to change perceptions of the possibility at Robinson. A shift in culture is at the core of the school's mission. For example, school counselor Antonio Davis hosts a new program called "Real Talk," in which successful people who came from communities similar to the Robinson students' speak candidly about their lives.
Ralph Murphy, who runs the Toledo chapter of the Ohio State Young Scholars Program, told eighth-grade boys that he came from poverty, with a father addicted to crack cocaine. He said they couldn't use their surroundings as an excuse.
There's little immediate tangible reward for the work Village 50 does.
No structure is built. No goods are distributed. It can be hard to maintain a volunteer movement with such abstract results, and the Village 50 finds itself struggling to keep momentum. But Mr. Tribble and Mr. Hayward said that they will come to Robinson every day and let others decide their own choices.
"We decided we can't worry about whether other people will show up," Mr. Hayward said. "We have to be there. This is something we are committed to."
Words flew back and forth at lunch, and two boys seemed close to blows when Mr. Tribble stepped in.
Marquan Whittaker later admitted he was ready to fight, after a reoccurring argument escalated. But Mr. Tribble took a seat next to him, leaned close, and told him it wasn't worth it, to have thicker skin.
"He said be cool," Marquan later recounted.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6086.