School Talk

Baltimore Kids Need Us Now

“For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.” –James Baldwin

Police move a protester back, Monday, April 27, 2015, following the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
AP Photo

“The Other Baltimore.” I just heard Dan Rodricks, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, use this phrase on CNN this morning. This concept of “other” isn’t unique to Baltimore and is reminiscent of what we have heard in all the cities where protests and even violence have erupted in the wake of the deaths of black men at the hands of police.

Here in Rhode Island, we have the south side of Providence and for many who live on the more affluent and prestigious east side, that area does look and feel like an “other.” And in terms of race, class, and educational achievement, it is.

I can’t pretend to understand the mistrust or tension on any personal level. I am a white mother of three who lives in the suburbs. I ask myself repeatedly, just as I asked myself when writing after Eric Garner’s death, what do I know about any of this? Why do I feel the need to write something today? Who do I think I am? But I can’t stop thinking about the kids I used to teach, and so I write.

There are a variety of lenses through which I look when events like those that unfolded in Baltimore last night dominate the news. The one that invariably occupies my mindshare is that of someone who has worked with thousands of high school kids, many of whom look like the high school students we saw out in the streets of Baltimore last night.

Although 10,000 people were peacefully protesting the death of Freddy Gray in Baltimore in recent days, the narrative has sadly shifted to a night of destruction and violence in which high school students seem to have played a significant role. Despite a united front of clergy brave enough to put themselves between kids and police officers and calm enough to lead people in song and marches, the focus is on one very bad night.

Even though we know that gang members joined their marches, shed tears, and participated in trying to bring peace to their city, the media and subsequently, America, will likely struggle to shift their focus from a city that appeared to be burning down before their eyes.

I can’t help but ask myself what I believe my former students would do if they had been in Baltimore over the last week. There are many who would have jumped at the chance to march, sing, hold signs, and send a message about their experiences as black youth in 2015.

I think of my former student, James. After the death of Trayvon Martin, he articulated his thoughts, anger, and frustration through poetry. Not only did he write a poem but he performed it for the whole school and also competed in a statewide poetry recitation contest. But he had a teacher who provided him with that outlet and in celebrating his work, she also validated his feelings as a young black man. He had the chance to feel heard. His teacher and his school provided it.

I think of some of my other students who don’t have the vocabulary, writing skills or confidence that James does. Some are students with whom I spent a lot of time — I handled behavior and discipline and they struggled mightily with both. I try to picture them on the streets of Baltimore last night and predict what they would have done.

I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t picture some of my former students acting on their anger and playing a role in the mayhem. Screaming, cursing, throwing bottles, jumping on cars, running through looted stores.

Are these former students bad people? Absolutely not. On the contrary, they are kind, funny, helpful, loyal, and loaded with potential.  Do they act on their own worst impulses? Yes, they do. In addition to the normal screwups that are almost universal for teenagers, these young men have the additional layers of race, class, and under-education that can exacerbate their adolescent judgment. Does that excuse their behavior? No, it doesn’t. But it does help to explain it.

If I were to ask these former students if they thought it was ok to burn down the only pharmacy in the neighborhood, or cut a fire hose while it was being used to put out a fire, I am 100 percent confident that they’d be unanimous and quick to answer no.

I heard a Baltimore councilman on the news last night talk about how lousy the education is for so many kids in the “Other Baltimore.” People are kidding themselves if they don’t believe that a culture of low expectations in school is related to the desperation kids and families feel.

Freddy Gray’s attorney, Bill Murphy, concurs. He rightly expressed this morning that these are kids. He reminded us that it’s not their fault if their parents are dysfunctional. It’s not their fault that the educational system is failing them. I totally agree with him. I can hate the behavior but believe in the kids. And I do. And we all should. It’s our job as people who care about education and justice to help Baltimore, and every city, get to a place where its children of color feel hope and confidence about their future.

Whether it’s supporting school choice, better teacher preparation, meaningful after school programs, or a curriculum that is relevant to all students’ lives, we have an obligation to stand up and fight. People may hate us on Twitter, Facebook, and even to our faces. So what? Our children, Baltimore’s children, desperately need adults to do right by them. An essential piece of that is ensuring that they spend their days in schools to which we too would be willing to send our own children.  

The time is now.

To read the 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year’s thoughts on this, click here. 

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