Cleveland student David Boone worked hard to go from homeless to Harvard
By Patrick O'Donnell, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio — David Boone had a system.
There wasn't much the then-15-year-old could do about the hookers or drug deals around him when he slept in Artha Woods Park. And the spectator's bench at the park's baseball diamond wasn't much of a bed.
But the aspiring engineer, now 18 and headed to Harvard University in the fall, had no regular home. Though friends, relatives and school employees often put him up, there were nights when David had no place to go, other than the park off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
So he says he made the best of those nights on the wooden bench.
His book bag became his pillow, stuffed with textbooks first -- for height, he says -- and papers on top for padding.
In the morning, David would duck into his friend Eric's house after Eric's parents left early for work so he could shower and dress before heading to class at Cleveland's specialized MC2STEM High School. David expects to graduate from there next month as salutatorian of the new school's first graduating class.
"I'd do my homework in a rapid station, usually Tower City since they have heat, and I'd stay wherever I could find," he said.
If you meet David Boone today, his gentle, confident demeanor and easygoing laugh betray no cockiness over racking up a college acceptance record that others brag about for him. He was accepted at 22 of the 23 schools he applied to -- including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown and Penn.
He also gives no hint of the often harsh and nomadic life he has led. The medical problems he faced as a boy, a splintered family, being homeless -- it all could have left him bitter and angry.
But David says that giving up would have left him stuck in a dead-end life, so it was never an option.
"I didn't know what the results of not giving up were going to be, but it was better than nothing and having no advantages," he said. "I wanted to be in a position to have options to do what I want to do."
David was born to a young mother, who divorced his father when David was a little boy.
When David was a student at Sunbeam Elementary, medical problems put him in the hospital regularly, said Mary Solomon-Gatson, the school's former nurse. Even then, she said, he impressed her as a bright child. He was one of the school's few students to pass the state's achievement tests, she said, despite missing classes constantly.
Even at that school, which covers kindergarten through eighth grade, David said he was pushed to join gangs. He refused, fueling tension with gang members. Once, he says, they tried to jump him. Because his older sister dated a member of a rival gang, he said, the situation was that much worse.
"There was a lot of pressure for me to join. That was the life they lived, so it was the only life to live and they thought if I wasn't with them, I was against them," David said.
Family split up after attack
In the summer after eighth grade, he said, gang members shot at his family's Eddy Road home. He attributes that mostly to the issue of his sister's boyfriend, but his whole family was affected.
No one was injured, but the family split up. His mother went to stay with a boyfriend, he said. His three sisters went to stay with friends and he went to his friend Eric's house -- for a while. Though Eric's family took him in for a short time, he said, he couldn't stay there permanently.
"We've been through a lot as a family," said his mom, Moneeke Davis. "There's been a lot of challenges and adversity."
But she said David was determined to build a better life.
"He's so focused, so driven and so humble," Davis said, adding that she is grateful for the people "the Lord put in [David's] path" to help him.
Sometimes he stayed with Solomon-Gatson, sometimes with Eric, sometimes with other friends and relatives, and sometimes in the park.
"It's a lot to take someone in, particularly a teenage boy," David said. "I was kind of upset that no one would, but I was never upset at any one person."
Though the park baseball diamond was mostly isolated from crime in other parts of the park, he soon decided it wasn't safe to sleep there. He says he developed a new plan: When he wasn't in school, he would sleep in parks during the day and roam and study at night, so he'd be awake and alert to trouble.
"If you sleep in the daytime in the park, people don't bother you," he said. "You're just taking a nap. It's acceptable."
In between studying at Tower City, he'd work at a now-closed boutique, he said, to buy food.
Science-focused program sparks his interest
Despite his troubles outside the classroom, school was much better.
Before leaving Sunbeam, David had applied to several district specialty high schools, including the John Hay School of Science and Medicine. But he was intrigued after attending a meeting at the Cleveland Public Library about the newly created MC2STEM High School, which teaches science, technology, engineering and math with a hands-on, projects-based program.
David likes tinkering and learns best by pulling things apart to see how they work. When he was 6, he says, he took apart the family television set and put it back together in working order. His favorite part of school, pre-high school, was an eighth-grade project about solar electricity. That let him dive in and make plans for a combined solar and wind farm that he was excited about.
MC2STEM caught his eye because it would allow him to work on projects at the Great Lakes Science Center, with General Electric at the Nela Park campus and with companies across the region. With a nudge from Solomon-Gatson, he applied and was accepted.
Instantly, he was hooked by an early project on alternative energy. That covered material he had worked on for his solar and wind farm project and had him working on it with GE engineers.
MC2STEM also pushed him -- hard.
"They don't accept mediocrity," he said. The school requires students to master a subject before moving on to the next. In the first two years, students receive an A in a class or an incomplete and keep taking the class until they earn an A.
MC2STEM also has longer school days and a year-round schedule with classes most of the summer.