Baltimore City Public Schools in the Ghetto
from The Corner (1997) (pp. 276-85) by David Simon and Edward Burns
You want to set a standard, to show them that you care. You have expectations. On this, the first day of a new school year, you're out to let them know that what happens in this room truly matters. .
There are thirty-five names on the roll, but only twenty-six faces- black and brown, a stray white or two-- stare back at you with some tentative interest. Thirty-five to a class is the standard for the city school system it's what Baltimore can afford. So for the teachers, the no-shows and occasionals are almost a blessing. Twenty-six souls-and twenty-five of them are actually awake and alert on this first day of a fresh year. You can work with this.
You might want to tell them the rules. Or a little about yourself. Talk to them about teaching, or learning, or what they can expect if they’re willing to work. You might start with a story, something with the night lesson attached.
"Once upon a time . . ."
Story time always works, even here in a high school. Right away, you've got their attention.
". . . we're talking a long time ago and we're talking insects. You know, your basic insect community. . ”
Some nervous laughter. You're playing them now and they’re a bit off guard.
". . . and you know, most insects are hard workers. It's not that they are all about work, but work comes first. Work first-- and then play. So in this community, we're talking ants and grasshoppers and one grasshopper in particular . . ."
. . .
The short kid in the second row pipes up: "I know this one. I like this one."
You're off. You're teaching.
". . . and the grasshopper comes around to the ants' house and tries to get them to go party. But they're about business. It's not that they're rude and brush him off. In fact, one tells him that when they’re finished, they'll hook up with him . . ."
You've got them. They're buying it.
". . . so when the winter comes, our man is caught short. At first, all the other insects are willing to carry him, but this is a long winter and the stash gets low . . ."
"They gonna burn 'im," says a boy in the back.
“. . . so one day, while the grasshopper's away, the wise old beetle calls a community meeting. And it's decided that they can no longer take care of the grasshopper. So when our man shows up and makes his play he's told that's all there is and there ain't no more."
The moral is right there, waiting for them. But you play the thing out to the very end, taking your lazy grasshopper from door to door across lnsectville, and finally dragging him out into the deep snow of a bleak unforgiving winter.
"And," you say, savoring the lesson, "you know what happens to a hungry grasshopper in the dead of winter, don't you?"
A hand goes up, and you nod your head.
"He goes down the welfare building and gets his food stamps."
You look down at the wiseass in question, but what stares back at you from the middle of the end row is a neatly dressed, well-mannered girl who’s not even trying to be funny. She has answered in absolute earnest and her answer is, in every sense, accepted and understood by the rest of the class.
You've crossed the chasm. You're a city teacher.
As such, you're beginning to realize not only that Aesop won't play in Baltimore, but that for the children of Fayette Street, the idea of education-- the formal education of a classroom, at least-- has no meaning. To those who argue that the urban school systems of this nation are underfunded, or understaffed, or poorly managed-- and in Baltimore, at least, these are fair accusations, every one-- there is this equal and opposing truth: The schools cannot save us.
The debate over tax bases and class size, efficacy and alternative curriccula matters only for that finite portion of children ready and able to learn, to set genuine goals, to adapt their lives to the external standards of the culture. For these children, the key is a functional family and their place in that family. For them, some semblance of victory was assured before they ever walked into the classroom.
True, a better school might cultivate a few more minds, salvaging more of the marginal students in an environment that rewards skilled teaching and assures consistent discipline. It's always good to be better. But it's also true that in cities like Baltimore, the thing is now beyond the fine tuning of school superintendents and educational experts. Take the entire Phillips Exeter Academy, drop it into West Baltimore, and fill its ivy-covered cam pus with DeAndre McCulloughs, Richard Carters, and four hundred of their running buddies, and see just how little can be had for a dollar's worth of education.
As it is with our laws and our legal deterrents, our educational theories no longer matter within the all-consuming universe of the corner. We want the drugs to disappear because they are illegal or, more basically, because they are bad for people. But the drugs will not disappear in a culture where everything else—jobs, money, hope, meaning—has already vanished. With the same naivete, we want
the children to learn because learning is worthy, and right, and the last, best hope for their own future. It was the way out for us, and our parents, and the legacy that our grandparents worked to ensure. The public schools that launched the immigrant masses out of the pushcart ghettos and into manicured suburbs hold a place of honor in the American mythology.
But Fayette Street is no place for myth. Those that escaped from the heart of West Baltimore did so in a different time and a different way, with union-scale factory jobs or government work in a nation-state that seemed to have some use for them. But the factories are closed now, and the government isn't hiring, and the jobs today are all about doing something with a computer somewhere out in the county. For that kind of work, a City of Baltimore diploma and 750 on the college boards can't matter. Down on Fayette Street, they know how many finished products of the city school system are standing with them at the next register over in the Kentucky Fried. Or in the intake area of the Rosemont social service offices. Or, after a time, in the vacant lot off Vine Street, waiting patiently for the New York Boys to bring out the morning testers.
It's too simple to mistake this for cynicism; it is, in fact, certainty. Knowledge of the eventual outcome isn't limited to those already lost to the corner, or to those about to arrive there. It's there in the eyes of third graders who have already segregated the world of education, pushing the classroom to the fringes of their lives.
By middle school, they're spouting future-tense fantasies in the same sing-song cadence used to offer remorse to a juvenile transfer or probation agent. Gonna stay in school. Get educated. Be a doctor. A lawyer. A pediatric neurosurgeon. Either that, or .a cosmetologist. But take a closer look and you see a child with only the weakest grasp of literacy and basic arithmetic. Algebra, biology, composition-what does any of it mean to the corner, to the only working economic engine in their lives, to the place where most of them will eventually be consigned?
Even the socializing effect of an alternative curriculum-the kinds of skills designed by desperate educators to get these kids to the most basic level of employment-has no real application on Fayette Street. Job inter view techniques, cooperative learning, managing emotions, interpersonal discipline-stuff like that will get you hurt at Fayette and Monroe, where the rules of the corner demand not social skills, but unhesitating ruthless ness.
At this age, these children are not yet aware that they are horribly alone that the rest of America-its dreams, myths, standards-has walked away 'from West Baltimore. They don't fully sense that this country has reshaped itself as distinct and apart from the core of its cities, that it no longer even pretends to have a use for an underclass that once might have served it with raw labor, filling its rural spaces or crowding its sweatshops.
compartmentalization that has allowed them to straddle both worlds is beginning to crumble. By middle school, the more savvy are already asking themselves and each other whether knowing the names of four African rivers will help them spot a drug corner stickup a minute before it hap pens. Or whether awareness of the Pythagorean theorem will allow them to squeeze ten more vials from an eight ball. Everything taught in the classroom becomes strangely dissonant; the contradictions between general knowledge and the rules of the corner are there and inexplicable.
And if, God forbid, you are a child with a genuine and innocent interest in something other than the business of the street, you'll be battered down. For the sake of their math book, how many twelve-year-olds are ready to endure the certainty of ostracism? Caught in the crossfire, they burrow in, play dumb, watch from the sidelines as the streetwise kids wreak havoc time and again, only to suffer precious little consequence.
Eventually even the most timid realize that there isn't much bite behind all those rules.
The teachers learn as well. They recognize the ones who care-the kids who are still walking the fine line-but understand that they have to survive. Call on the same child repeatedly for right answers and, eventually, he'll shut down. Point out the high test score, and the unlucky achiever will be made vulnerable to the group. It's peer pressure, same as it is anywhere, but in urban Baltimore, it's compounded by the weight of numbers. In the classrooms at Harlem Park, or Lombard or any other inner-city middle school, it's not one or two roughnecks who refuse to buy into the educational experience. Here, in the toughest schools, that alienation can consume half a class or more.
By eighth grade at the latest, the choice has been made, with children opting out of the classroom in every way save for their physical presence. Creativity ceases, and what classwork remains is so disjointed and distant that it can be ignored in its entirety. By the end of middle school, a child is filling a desk in the Baltimore school system as little more than a social experience. He's there for banter and play. She's there for girlfriends and lunch.
This is a school system that dares not speak to the heart of the problem-- the fact that its children now come from a world apart. But walk with a Baltimore teacher into a ninth-grade class and see the future:
It comes in the shape of Anthony, a child so beaten down by circumstance that in this class of kids going nowhere, he occupies the bottom rung. For him, there is no one at home who can manage the slightest recognition or interest. He's easy to spot; his filthy shirt and denims are the only set of clothes in his possession. There's always a fight when someone has to sit next to Anthony.
Or Marie, who sits nearest the door and at thirteen is going on thirty, now that her body has filled out and caught the interest of a twenty-four year-old drug slinger. She can't be bothered with a notebook, spending her class time with pocket mirrors and jewelry and nail polish, preening for the other girls. Most days, her boyfriend sits outside the school at two-thirty, idling a glittering Acura, waiting to collect his girl. By next year, she'll be a transfer to the system's special school for young mothers.
Or Neal, a lumbering bear with the dead eyes of a battlefield casualty. Twice wounded in shootouts, he sits in the back of the class, content to do or say nothing the entire year. But he rules the hallways, with a group of lesser gangsters drawn to him because of the way he carries himself and the impressive rep of his older brothers' drug crew.
Or Michelle, a small, wiry fourteen-year-old in the middle row, her face a profusion of scars and scratches, reminders of her tooth-and-nail struggle for a small niche in this world. She's been living at her boyfriend's mother's house for the past two months. Her own mother is on lockup at women's detention.
Or the amazing Michael, a spinning whirlwind of disruption, unable to remain in his assigned seat for more than an instant. He's rushing about the classroom, coins clasped in his hand, offering lunch tickets, candy, and comic books for sale to any and all takers. Evasive to authority, he'll keep moving until he's cornered. He's living with his mother. His father gets supervised visits, and the written notes in the file hint at abuse.
Or Durrell, who comes to school from a homeless shelter. Or Clyde, a special education student with borderline retardation, who needs special attention and is, instead, doomed to this class. Or Tonya, who responds to any confrontation by fighting savagely and, by the end of the year, will be expelled for carrying a lock-blade. Or C.J., who will disappear in midyear never to return, amid news reports that have him fatally shooting an older boy in an argument over drugs and being sentenced as a juvenile to Boys Village until his eighteenth birthday.
And what remains for the teacher? What training, what lesson plan, what act of educational artistry will be sufficient to the reality? In Baltimore, as in every other beleaguered city system, the administrators and bureaucrats have for decades wrapped the failure in the latest educational trends, programs, and jargon, as if changes in approach or technique could ever matter. Back-to-basics, alternative schools, privatization, magnet schools, teaching the whole child-all of it is offered up as slogans in place of meaningful endeavor, as if the Titanic could have reached the New York harbor narrows with a more seaworthy set of deck chairs.
Ignore the hyperbole and slogans. Regardless of how many times an urban school system reconstitutes itself, the choice that remains for teachers at Harlem Park, or Lombard, or Hamilton middle schools is no choice at all.
They work in classrooms in which creativity and intelligence have been almost willfully extracted, a room of silences and by-rote drills and copied information. For many teachers in the city system, there is still the willingness to fight the inertia, to use their talents to battle back into the heads of children who have shut down, who cannot find it in themselves to bridge the chasm between their own lives and a world of learning. Sometimes, despite the long odds, these teachers actually succeed.
But for many others, a separate peace has been made with the forces arrayed against them. In too many city classrooms, in too many city schools, there is a readiness to participate in the charade, to pretend that dittoed handouts and assignments merely copied from the board constitute an educational experience. Similarly, there is a willingness to pretend that the relative few who make it to a high school commencement in Baltimore have actually received the equivalent of a high school education. These are the teachers and administrators who have given up on a system that cannot salvage its standards.
As with the drug war, the struggle to save the Baltimore school system has always been framed in incremental terms: With a little more money, with a teacher's union that is a little less obstinate, with more responsive administrators, the children will be saved. But the truth is that these things don't add up when the weight of numbers prevents anyone from accurately assessing and rewarding real achievement, or responding in earnest to disruptive behavior, or even making a legitimate effort to find out why so many desks are empty every day. In Baltimore, three social workers and four case managers are responsible for tracking two thousand chronic truants-- children who have missed anywhere from a month to an entire year of their education. Facing this strange new generation of corner children, too many teachers will not extend themselves for a system that pays them thousands less than their counterparts in suburbia, arms them with torn, broken-back textbooks and ancient filmstrips, and then deposits them in a classroom environment so chaotic that no fewer than an average of one hundred and fifty teachers and thirty school police officers are assaulted each year. Those that can get out, will-- either to the safe haven of a county school system or to another profession entirely. Those trapped by the inertia of years, by a vested pay scale, or by their own rank incompetence will remain. These teachers are not likely ever to rediscover a belief in their purpose, their students, or for that matter, in whatever acronym or slogan or program is now being touted as salvation by the superintendent's staff. Some of them were once good teachers; others never had a clue. But all of them are now looking only for survival, ready and willing to penetrate a young mind so long as classroom decorum can be maintained. It's perversely fair: By middle school, the students are pretending to learn; their teachers, pretending to teach.
And come the end of every academic year, the deceit culminates in a process that is known, in Baltimore at least, as the social promotion. When all else has failed, when the relationship between the child and the school is in tatters, it's time for the last, desperate act.
Social promotion- elevation based on age or behavior, rather than academic achievement-is anathema to many teachers and even some school administrators. They regard it as a turning away from the old standards, which hold that each academic year should build on a progression of skills, that it isn't in a child's best interest to be moved up until those skills are firmly in place. But all that presumes a functional society, one in which the occasional child with the most earnest intentions will for some reason struggle with the work. It presumes a failure rate proportionate and manageable , housed within the larger set of well-tended, well-taught school children . but the end of the century Baltimore, the swelling horde of disconnected kids has forced a whole new logic on the educational structure that has neither the time nor the resources to respond.
To the individual child, a social promotion is a devaluation, a dumbing-down of the system's already fragile standards. Collectively, however, it seems to offer a solution to the backlog of repeaters, the hulking sixteen-year-olds clustered at the rear of every eighth-grade class. Without social promotion, the older kids are retained to terrorize the younger ones, or pass down their legacy of mayhem, or openly battle teachers for control of the class, or-- at best-- sit sullenly, embittered, no more willing or able to learn than they were the year before.
It's a Hobson's choice: The studies note that kids left behind will drop out sooner, but passing them without basic skills can hardly be considered a guarantee of success. Worse still, the social promotions send a message to the borderline students-- the ones who just might, with the effort of a good teacher, be induced to continue working. For them, there seems to be no discernible difference in outcome. If they pay attention and do their work, they will see the ninth grade come September. So, too, will everyone else.
There can be no right decision here, nothing that can later be justified to anyone who actually cares why Johnny can't read-- not that there's much hue and cry from any quarter. It's left to you and the other teachers to sit in that staff room on a late spring day as the vice principal rolls down the list. There's nothing in writing, nothing for the record, but everyone in the room knows what's feasible and what isn't. Three percent can fail, maybe 6 or 8 percent if you want to push it. But the system can't sustain itself on a 25 or 40 or 60 percent failure rate. So you sit there with your colleagues, roll book in front of you, and you begin, alphabetically as always.
“He’s okay. . . pass.”
"I saw some improvement at the end of the year."
"Well, not in my class."
"You can fail her there, but I've got to pass her."
"Lord, one more year and I can adopt him."
"Hey," someone jokes, "third time's the charm."
"No way. I'm tired of him tossing books out the windows."
"Well Herbert Thomas sets his on fire and we passed him."
"Please. I can't deal with Robert."
You sit there for two and a half hours, making judgments off the top of your head, all the while sensing the absurdity of the thing. You remember a test you gave back in March on Greek mythology-- a unit that they invariably enjoy. That was the test where you offered a full review the day before, giving them the answers to every question, making a game of it and letting them team up to work on the material. Eight-five percent of your students failed that exam; the highest score was an eighty-six. Hell, you were even offering a ten-point bonus just for reading the test directions.
"Please put your name and class number at the top of the sheet," you typed on the ditto sheet. "Then number the paper in the left-hand column from one to twenty-five. After answering the questions, on the back of the paper, for ten bonus points, draw a smiley face."
From twenty-two students, you got six grinning circles.
Now, you all sit here going through the motions, pretending that there is a difference between the kids you send to the tenth grade and those left behind. The no-shows are easy enough-- if they didn't exist in your class, they can't exist now-- but virtually everyone else is an open question.
Failing grades in the core classes? That alone could disqualify more than half of the eighth grade. Achievement, or the lack of it, is not enough of a filter. You factor in class absences, disruptive behavior, and indifference; still, the number of those actually deserving promotion is appallingly low. But next year, there will be another swarm of eighth-graders. And they can't be taught if a third of last year's class is hulking in the back of the room.
"His stepfather got him working."
What is left at the end of such an exercise is a school system playing with numbers in the same way that the police department must, a bureaucracy still seeking some proportional response "to a problem of complete disproportion. Just as Baltimore's police commissioner will seize the rostrum to proclaim 18,000 street-level drug arrests a victory, so does the school superintendent cull his files
for anything that smells like hope or success. Reading and math scores are up a couple percentage points; never mind that Baltimore is trailing the rest of the state by 60 percent. The senior graduation rate is up in the mid-nineties; never mind that by the twelfth grade, 70 percent of the students have already been lost to attrition.
Yet these children, like children everywhere, have facile minds. You can hear it in their ease of language, in their rapid-fire mimicry of adult convention. You can see the innate intelligence on those rare occasions when a bit of information touches a nerve, provoking them with a challenge that they can understand and accept as relevant to their world. These children can, when it serves them, unravel a moral dilemma with subtle precision. They can respond to a classroom injustice with the most carefully formed arguments, or produce the solutions to the most intricate engineering and historical conundrums.
Ask Michelle whether Egypt or England are countries or continents and she has no interest and no clue. But ask how the Pharoah's architects managed to get the crypt inside the finished tomb, or how the ancients got the rocks to stand at Stonehenge, and invariably, she'll give you a working hypothesis. And Michelle's effort will readily provoke a vigorous classroom discussion, as kids previously dead to the process suddenly pour themselves into heated debate. Just don't ask for anything in writing, or expect the effort to sustain itself for longer than fifteen minutes or show itself in any review quiz a few days later. To see these students come alive, to sense the eagerness buried inside them, is to understand just how far the elemental human urge to learn has been subverted, how something natural to childhood has been brutally limited to a handful of raw lessons suitable to the corner.
Eventually, somewhere short of the sixteenth birthday, most of these children stop going through the motions. At some point in the ninth grade, the social promotions cease and some facsimile of actual schoolwork is required. But by then they're close enough to the age when they will no longer be a problem to the school system. The severance, when it comes, is rarely planned; it simply happens. One day, a kid starts out for Southwestern or Francis Woods but end ups down at the Carroll Park courts, or over at some girl's house, or out on the corner where his crew is hanging. He doesn't go back the next day. Or Friday either. A couple months drift away and he's dropped from the rolls; the academic exercise ends without so much as a word spoken.
For the children of Fayette Street, the result is never in doubt. One after another, the boys and their girlfriends follow each other down to Mount Street, or Fairmount, or Monroe, until the entire C.M.B. contingent reaches that station in life for which they were always intended. They arrive on the corners utterly intact, hardened to the business at hand and all those grade-school lectures about civics and drugs and violence, all the alternative curricula and vocational education and Afrocentric esteem building-in the end, none of it sticks. None of it even counts for baggage as they journey to their place on the factory floor.
DeAndre pretends to school, but his efforts seem almost valid when compared to the rest of the crew. Dorian and Brooks, for example, jumped out of the system two years ago, wandering away from Harlem Park by the seventh grade, removing themselves so early that the truancy people were actually able to catch on and lock them up before they could got close to sixteen. That meant some time in group homes, but little improvement in school attendance. Dinky, DeAndre's cousin, felt the
same but managed to wait a little longer to make his move. The truancy workers never laid a glove on Dinky.
This spring, it's Brian who escapes the eighth grade, walking away from middle school to work his uncle's package on Lemmon Street, then getting locked up with so many vials that schoolwork becomes the least of his problems. R.C. plays the system as best he can by missing virtually all of his ninth-grade year at Southwestern, then landing at Francis Woods and doing the same thing with a second set of teachers and administrators. Then there is Tae, the leader of the pack and the only one of them to demonstrate any academic promise at all. Never having been held back a grade, Tae is finishing the tenth grade at Carver with a high-C average and standing on the track team. He's getting past algebra and talking scholarship, telling himself and anyone else who would listen that school isn't a problem. And Tae can talk that way without it bouncing back; he's a co-founder of C.M.B. and his corner status is such that any academic inclinations are unlikely to be criticized. In time, Tae will make it all the way to his senior year. In fact, he'll get all the way to the second semester of the twelfth grade before simply giving up and going down to McHenry and Gilmor full-time.
By then, the slow grinding will be done. The school system will have taken its shots, tallied its misses, and closed its files, relinquishing any further claim.
The corners will have them all.