Friday, November 03, 2006


I am a witness to the lives of these children. If I am never able to affect any kind of change here I will at least have been a witness; someone to tell the story.

This past week was chaotic and crazy and I’m not even sure why. Perhaps because Halloween fell on a Tuesday and was followed by Homecoming on Friday—the usual flow of things was interrupted, and that never bodes well for maintaining any sense of order at our school. The strange thing was that I felt the disruption, and felt out of sorts as a result.

But the disruption didn’t begin with the un-events of this week (remember: there is no Halloween celebration at my school, and there was hardly any Homecoming celebration to speak of). A couple of weeks ago we had two days in a row of chaos that revolved around a core of young men wearing black shirts, black hoodies, and black hats who were simply wandering and running through the hallways of the school all day. They eluded the five police officers who work at our school for a day and a half, and on the second day set off enough cherry bombs on the third floor to cause an actual fire emergency (not a drill).

There was no fire but there was smoke. This happened about twenty minutes before the final bell of the day on the first cold day of the school year—not too clever on the part of the perps; I mean, if you wanted to get everyone out of school by pulling a prank and causing an evacuation, why do it twenty minutes before the day ends anyway? Why not do it at nine in the morning? That would have made more sense; but I guess people don’t choose a life of crime because they’re the brightest lights in the harbor….

Anyway, the incident had all of the teachers on edge because every class period during that two days was interrupted by a loud disturbance in the hallway, during which we were all calling down to the various academy offices telling them where they could find these disturbers of the peace if they were fast enough. As a result of the two days of shenanigans, the senior principal announced that the school would proceed until further notice under lock-down-type rules: stricter enforcement of the uniform code, no passes during classes at all, and hallway sweeps between classes to pick up and suspend students who are not in class.

What I can’t understand is why these kids who cause this kind of trouble come to school at all? I mean, what’s in it for them? If they really hate school that much why not just skip? One of my little darlings who kept calling me a c**t, sl**, b**ch and a w**re in class got suspended twice for this offense, and on the second suspension he was apprehended in the hallway for trespassing. What kind of crazy behavior is that? To go to all the trouble of getting yourself suspended so you don’t have to come to school, and then come to school and get yourself arrested for trespassing? It doesn’t make sense under the normal “rules.”

But my school and my kids are not “normal” by mainstream standards. I learned a lot from the kid who got arrested for trespassing because he was at school while he was suspended. What that situation taught me is that for many of these kids there is something going on at home that is so unbearable that they act out in negative ways at school; but when they get themselves suspended they have nowhere to go but back home where the problem exists. It’s a teenage “catch 22.” They are trapped in a crazy world not of their own making—they did not choose the life they were born into, but they aren’t old enough or experienced enough to have the ability or the power to change their own circumstances. They are stuck, from their point of view, and they do not have the emotional or social skills to play the hands they’ve been dealt.

There are many statistics on why these kids don’t have the skills. One is that 85% of all kids in this city have one parent at home (most often a mother, no father) who is working two jobs for a total of 80 hours a week just to make the rent and put food on the table. Many people look at the problems of urban children and assume that the parents don’t care, but that is not necessarily true. It’s simply a matter of time and money—if you don’t have a college education and can only get hourly-wage work (which is mostly low-paying), then you have to work more hours to make the money that, in the end, won’t be enough to pay all of your bills. That’s hard enough with one child, but most of these hard-working women have several children to feed and clothe.

Some of them can’t do it. There isn’t enough work or there are too many bills and eventually some of them get “put out on t’ street.” That’s Baltimore vernacular for eviction. You won’t ever hear a kid say, “My family got evicted.” You’ll hear them say, “We got put out t’ street.”

Someone on our block got “put out t’ street” just a few weeks ago. I won’t paint this prettier than it is—they were not good neighbors. They had a dog that they kept chained up in a very small concrete back “yard” and who barked nonstop, morning, noon and night. One day we heard a loud argument out the back in the alley and it was one of our other neighbors hollering at these people about the stench coming from the garbage piling up in their back “yard.”

A few days later I came home from work and saw a mountain of household items piled on the curb in front of that house. In addition to neglecting their dog and accumulating garbage, they evidently had failed to pay their rent, also. They’d been “put out t’ street.” It did not take more than two days for passers by to pick through and confiscate the belongings that had been thrown on the curb—there was nothing left but a little detritus when the city finally came around to pick up and haul off the debris. It was truly heartbreaking to consider that, no matter how happy we were to see these neighbors go, they are homeless now.

My husband is working for the next couple of weeks as an attendant on a school bus for children with special needs. Once he has completed a few weeks working as an attendant he will be given his own route and will drive a special needs bus (and will hopefully have an attendant to help him with the kids). While my days involve dealing with the kids in the classroom, he drives around their neighborhoods and sees where they live. Some of these neighborhoods rival refugee conditions in urban African countries that have been ravaged by civil war. Entire blocks of row houses burned out and/or boarded up; mountains of trash on the sidewalks and in the gutters.

One day last week he was in a particularly bad neighborhood and a car pulled out in front of the bus and stopped, blocking the road. Then a kid came out of one of the row houses and walked up to the car, where it was obvious that some kind of transaction occurred, and then the kid walked away and the car moved on. When my husband asked the bus driver what had happened, he replied, “Drug deal.” Right there in broad daylight, no attempt to cover it up, a drug deal had gone down. What a world.

A few days after the incidents at my school with the kids-in-illegal-hoodies and the cherry bombs I had two nightmares in the space of an hour just before I woke up at 4:30am to begin my teaching day. In the first nightmare I was driving down some street and saw a fellow walking on the double yellow line in the middle of the road. Suddenly I see blood spurting out of his chest from three different places, sort of like buttons popping off of a jacket that’s too tight, and realize that he has been shot three times in the back and that I was seeing the bullets coming out the front of his chest. I keep driving and see another fellow carrying a handgun and walking the yellow line behind him. He looks at me passing in the car and shoots me in the neck and then I wake up.

In the next nightmare I dreamed that I was out in the country at my Aunt’s place in Alabama. I have pulled off of the road just south of her place so I can load some things into my car from the barn. All of a sudden my car falls over sideways. I think, “Bummer. Now I’ll have to find someone to help me tip it back up,” (as if your car could just fall over, and as if it could be righted by just picking it up—it was a dream). At that point I see some kids come down the road and pull over. I think, “What wonderful luck! They’re going to help me pick up my car and set it back on the tires.” Then I get a funny feeling about the whole thing, pick up my car and right it by myself (remember—it’s a dream), get back in it and lock the doors. Before I really know what’s happening, I smell something toxic and realize that they are pouring something flammable on my car. Then I see one of the kids come around the front of my car with a rock in his hand the size of a football, and then he throws the rock at my windshield. I drive back up the road to my Aunt’s place, and I see all of these unidentifiable things in the road that are on fire. Then I see a bunch of kids setting things and people on fire. Then I wake up.

I am not afraid of my students. It’s weird, but I really have no fear around them, even when they are doing things that I should probably consider threatening. But evidently my subconscious is working overtime, because that dream made me think that I must be worrying about my personal safety more than I consciously realize; or, maybe, that I should be worrying about my personal safety more than I do.

Then I just got up, got ready for work, went to school, and didn’t think about any potential threat to my safety until writing this dispatch. But thinking about it now I wonder if I should continue to live in the city. I think I would probably be safer if I lived far from here and had an unlisted number.

In 2004 a gang set a family’s house on fire because they kept calling the police to report drug deals going down in front of their house. The family of seven was in the house when this happened and all of them were killed. Just the other day the Baltimore TV news reported that the Mayor dedicated their remodeled project apartment as The Dawson Family Safe Haven Center (you can read about this at and My husband said the bus driver who explained to him that he had just witnessed a drug deal in broad daylight told him that she had been shot at in a bus before. I’m thinking that he would be safer on a rural route.

Am I a sellout if I move to a safer neighborhood but continue to teach in this school? Am I a sellout if I move to a safer neighborhood and teach in a safer school? If I do that, who will be a witness to the lives of these children? Is it necessary that it be me? These are the questions that I ask myself every day. I don’t know the answers yet. So I’ll keep showing up until I don’t.

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