I taught in Baltimore for five years in what a lot of people would consider a pretty tough school. I broke up fights and got punched in the face once. I taught gang members. I crafted curricula and lesson plans on literally a $0 budget.
And I loved my students. I bristled when people asked me why I was wasting my time. Or why it even mattered. Or when they told me that I couldn’t possibly save one of my students.
No, I didn’t save any of my students. That wasn’t my goal because they didn’t need me to save them. I just wanted to teach students, to help them find their way through the often confusing maze of their teen years. I wanted to help them become successful in whatever path they chose for themselves. I wanted to be a damn good teacher.
When people talk about urban youth, African American youth, or Baltimore youth, they’re talking about my former students, my kiddos. And most people– from the talking heads on the news to the talking heads on social media– have never had the opportunity to spend time with the same kids they bash.
I have scrutinized every picture I can to see if any of the uncovered faces might be people I know. I’ve heard from former students who have let me know that they’re okay. I have cried watching coverage on CNN.
You see, even though I’ve left Baltimore, I’ve never actually left Baltimore. And there’s so little I can do as Baltimore wakes up today. But I can do this.
Let me tell you about R*, a gang member who retook my class twice. Who was never disrespectful to me even though he had been in and out of jail and was over age for the eleventh grade. Who threw up in class because he raised his hand and waited for my acknowledgement while we were reading rather than just running for the bathroom. Later, he told me he didn’t want to disrupt the rest of the class and he didn’t want to leave without asking me if he could.
Let me tell you about the time my students kept learning… even as a confused mouse ran back and forth in the front of the room. Or the times that we read The Crucible and talked about peer pressure and paranoia. Or the times we saw Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, or Laura Lippman give lectures… and the kids were riveted. Or the hundreds of times kids would come back into my room just to talk, to clean my chalkboards, to alphabetize my classroom library, to help me clean up, to sell candy bars for the SGA, to make up work.
There’s C*, a teenage mom when she was in my class who graduated from high school. She is now a coach for the school district and beams with pride over her children’s high academic achievement at school.
There’s K*, one of my students who participated in the NFL combine, and J*, who plays basketball for a D1 school. They both sat next to each other in my class, good natured and too tall to cram their long legs under the desks, so their arms and legs leaked out into the aisles.
Let me tell you about the time we took a class trip to New York City, and I watched even the toughest students stare up, up, up at the skyscrapers and look dwarfed and timid. When the kids who seemed invincible asked me if they could spend their free time walking around Times Square with me because they didn’t want to get lost. They wanted to go to the huge Toys ‘R’ Us. They wanted to go to Virgin Records.
There’s D*, one of my former AP students who is on her way to a bright future as a teacher. (And her future students are already lucky!)
There’s B* who participated in a peaceful demonstration to help create a human wall. He’s married, has a little baby, and a fierce love for a city that so often, through policy and institutional discrimination, has not loved him back.
I can also tell you about the time we were acting out a scene in The Crucible where the girls were accusing each other of witchcraft. The scene is intense and the actors and actresses were impassioned in their performance.Two school police officers rushed into the room, ready to break up the melee. My students were amused and annoyed– didn’t they know we were learning? And besides, they ruined one of the best parts! (We “rewound” and tried the scene again.)
There’s L*, one of my kids who was shot last year in what looks like a case of mistaken identity. He was a baseball player, a musician, a member of JROTC. He did nothing wrong, nothing to instigate such a violent death. His murder is still unsolved.
There’s Z*, who thought about being a pastor but decided on being a police officer instead. He would come visit me after school even after he graduated .
There’s W*, now a proud, new college graduate who was always so self-assured and prepared in class and who pushed her other classmates to meet her bar of excellence.
I can tell you about my kids who created a poster of alternative swear words. They delighted in using the phrases “What the flapjack?” and “Shut the front door!” just to see my head snap around before I realized what they had said.
There’s A* who wore stilettos to class every day and wasn’t afraid to debate her classmates on literary analysis. She wanted to be known as pretty and smart… and someone with impeccable fashion sense.
I can tell you about the mad rush to my classroom door on Monday morning when I released who earned Bs and As on their vocab quizzes. I can tell you about the drama activities my students played before we read Fences– how we shared in jokes and laughter. How even the most reluctant students participated once we cleared the room.
There’s V*, a student who left my classroom on the last day of school, angry that she had only earned a D in class. A year later, when I came back to watch her class graduate, she was the first student at my side to give me a hug. She shoved her phone at me and told me to put my number in it. She told me she was sorry for the way she acted.
There are my students, too numerous to name, who are serving in ERs and hospitals, hospice care and nursing homes as health care professionals. Others have joined the military. Some are fathers and mothers now. Some are cashiers at the same places that were looted last night. Others are college students or are going to trade schools. Some go to Comic Con or like to ride bikes or are addicted to their smart phones.
Not every day was a good day in my classroom because not every day can be a good day. There were standoffs over snacks in the classroom and curse words. There were days I barely made it through the class period without crying. There were days I had to lock my classroom door so that random students wouldn’t wander through my class to pick fights or disrupt our learning.
I am not so naive to think that every one of my students is living a noble life. Because they are individuals and human beings, they make mistakes. Some of them have made terrible mistakes that will impact their lives deeply and for a long, long time.
I had to write this today because the teens and young people of Baltimore are human beings. They are not animals. They are not thugs. They are not leeches on society. They are not scary. The vast majority are not criminals. They have hopes and dreams. They groan at the goofy jokes their teachers tell them. They cry when their pets die. They mourn the loss of the people they love. They have favorite songs and favorite movies. They fall in and out of love. They make good and bad decisions and do stupid and smart things. They are humans, not a wall of humanity.
We need to see the complexity of the whole, not just a few seconds or even a few days of concentrated media coverage.
The conversation cannot only be about the riots. It can’t even just be about Freddie Gray. The conversation must be multidimensional. The conversation needs to encompass the abject, crushing poverty, the lack of jobs, the lack of a living wage, the crumbling school system, the lack of resources for people and families in crisis, the violence and hopelessness, the painful history of our country in relationship to race, class, and gender, the portrayal of people of color as a monolith by the media, the futility of the American Dream in many of our decrepit, forgotten places, and it absolutely must be about the powerful systems in place and people who are the keepers of those systems that abuse the most vulnerable who have no voice.
And most of all, it needs to go on with the realization that the people in Baltimore– all of them– are real, live human beings, with real blood flowing through their veins, who are all important to someone and loved by someone. Even their junior year English teacher.
*names have been changed