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Flying High In Duluth
By Chris Julin, Minnesota Public Radio
April 12, 2001
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The Hillside Flyers are kids who tumble. But that's only part of the story. Many of the Flyers come from the poorest parts of Duluth, and they don't go to music lessons or summer hockey camp. Some of the kids have problems at school and at home, and tumbling with the Flyers is the only thing they believe they're good at. And they ARE good.

Members of the Hillside Flyers, a tumbling team in Duluth, take turns practicing handstands.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

Reporter's Notebook - Chris Julin
I know some of these kids, because one year ago, I was teaching at Nettleton Elementary. It's a great school, in many ways - full of hope and potential. But it's a hard place to teach - the closest Duluth has to an "inner-city" school - and I couldn't cut it. A lot of kids at Nettleton have tough lives, and they bring their problems to school. Like the little second grader who was so unstable that an adult escorted him to a special bus every day, after the other kids had left.

This boy was in constant trouble, for running around, hitting other kids, swearing. But one day he really went off. It took two teachers to restrain him. He kept kicking people, so I pulled his shoes off and followed behind as they carried him to the office, screaming and flailing.

When we got to the office, the boy's mother happened to be standing in the hall. She had just checked in with her older son, who'd been suspended for five days for the same kind of problems. I handed the shoes to her and walked away, knowing that I had to stop being a teacher.

At school, several of the Flyers are what teachers call "defiant." They'll look an adult in the face and do the exact opposite of what they're asked to do. But here in the gym, they're polite - to adults and to each other. The big kids help the little kids. When they "spot" another kid who's doing a difficult move, they say, quietly, almost under their breath, "Nice job Alan," "Nice job Sam."

I see a skinny nine-year old spring improbably high into the air, and make a perfect landing. With just the hint of a smile, he dashes away and turns four consecutive, beautiful back flips.

This is the boy whose shoes I carried to his mother.
IT'S ABOUT FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON, and the Washington Center is coming to life. The building used to be a school. Now it's a community center. It's perched on the Central Hillside, overlooking downtown, in one of Duluth's grittiest neighborhoods. Kids start filling the halls as soon as school lets out. Some of them come here to see adult mentors. Some are getting help with homework. Today, some of them are here to do back flips.

A couple dozen kids have spread mats on the floor and taken off their shoes. Now they're bounding across the gym, turning cartwheels and handsprings. These are the Hillside Flyers. The smallest is six years old, the biggest is 15. All but three of them are boys.

Yusuf Abdullah coaches the Flyers. When he was a kid in Racine, Wis., he spent a lot of time at a drop-in center like this one. That's where he learned to tumble. He came to Duluth for college, and now he works organizing activities for kids here at the Washington Center. About a year ago, Abdullah was walking down the hall past this gym, and he saw some boys trying to do flips.

"Instinctively, I put out the mats, and I started to show them a couple things that I knew, and they got excited because the staff is doing flips. Usually, when adults see kids do flips, they get nervous and say 'Stop doing that,' but I was just the oppposite. I was, 'Okay, let's lay out the mats and let's do more,'" says Abdullah.

In some parts of town, gymnastics is highly organized, competitve, and made up of girls. But Yusuf Abdullah says in African American neighboorhods, lots of boys tumble, on their own, just for kicks. That's how the Flyer's captain, ninth grader Walter Taylor, got started.

"My first back flip was in the living room, my mom's living room. I just did it. And then I went down the hill and I did more. And I heard a tumbling team was at the Washington Center, so I thought that would be something fun to do, so I got on it, and I started liking it," says Taylor.

The Flyers choreograph their own routines, and they choose which moves to learn, but Yusuf Abdullah decides when they're ready. While Walter Taylor and the other big kids are flipping off the spring board, Abdullah is on his knees helping younger kids do back handsprings. With one hand on the small of their backs, he gives each of the kids some encouraging words, and just enough oomph so they land on their feet. Sixth grader Ray Moore started out with the beginners a few months ago. Now he's one of the 12 kids on the Flyers' performance squad.

"When we first started, we started of with forward rolls, and backward rolls. Once Yusuf thinks that you've got good at that, he'll send you off to something harder, like a front flip off a spring board, or a dive roll, or something more experienced. The hardest thing I'm still working on is a back flip with no hands," says Moore.

Ray Moore goes to Nettleton Elementary, just a few blocks from here. So do a bunch of the Flyers. Some of the Flyers do well in school, and have happy lives at home. But many of them don't. And Yusuf Abdullah says those are the kids who get the biggest charge out of tumbling in front of an audience.

"These kids are show-offs. They want somebody to say, 'Look at me, look what I'm doing.' And that's probably what they're doing in their classrooms also - showing off. When they go out in front of those people, the people are applauding them, and cheering them. They very seldom get that in other environments," says Abdullah.

It's Nettleton Elementary's spring talent show, and the Hillside Flyers are the opening act. Four-hundred students and adults twist in their seats to watch the Flyers stream down the center aisle in their royal blue t-shirts and shorts. The smallest Flyers lead the way, doing diving somersaults. The bigger kids do back handsprings to the front of the auditorium. For 10 minutes the Flyers live up to their name, zooming up and down the auditorium, doing progressively fancier moves. They pull out a spring board, and Yusuf Abdullah stands in front of it while one by one, the Flyers soar over his head, doing flips.

They construct human wheels out of pairs of kids and roll the length of the mat. Some of the bigger boys walk the length of the mat on their hands. Yusuf Abdullah goes all the way down, and back. One boy turns back flips the entire length of the mat without touching his hands to the floor. The crowd loves it, and so do the Flyers, who are all sweat, and smiles.