In 2006 I moved to Baltimore to work at KIPP Ujima village academy to teach 8th grade English. My students were selected by lottery from the neighborhoods in the west side of Baltimore. In the two years I was there, I was inspired by dedicated teachers that literally worked around the clock and by students who did the same because they were committed to their own dream.
While I was lucky to teach for a charter school that had a great reputation and backing, there were definitely challenges but those challenges were no different than the ones I encountered with students and teachers throughout my entire twelve years of teaching in Central Florida and Baltimore City.
There were issues of poverty, drugs, hunger, violence, abuse that challenged the most hard-working students and presented even greater hurdles for students struggling academically. Teachers faced the same daily struggles of managing big classes, meeting all students needs, grading mounds of papers, creating innovative ways to present materials, identifying supports for those struggling and finding additional enrichment opportunities for those excelling while taking care of their own families. It’s the daily tug of war that existed in every school I taught driven by love and fueled by passion (and a lot of caffeine.)
And of course ever-present the indomitable teen spirit that inspires peers to speak up, speak out, and show the world their own individual spirit. A spirit that brings joy into the classroom and also challenges but a known variable as a teacher and one that you learn to help bolster the classroom experience – if you are really good (I had my moments).
I was inspired and reveled in literary discussion of great literature like Things Fall Apart, The Color Purple, Pride and Prejudice, The Twelfth Night, and enjoyed chess challenges and literary tea parties but also cried about societal issues I felt limited by and my own limitations – physical, time, patience, understanding, and expertise. It was the hardest and most humbling experience but also long-term rewarding as I get to celebrate the college graduation of one of the students I became very close with.
This student will graduate the day after Mother’s Day exactly two weeks after the world was introduced to the teenagers of West Baltimore as monsters. Silly, annoying at times, hilarious, hard-working, inspiring, stubborn, driven, defiant, candyholics, competitive, self-righteous, creative, scared, fearless, big eaters, athletic, quiet, loud, angry, tired, joyous, hyper, shy but powerful are all adjectives that describe the teenagers of West Baltimore, not much different from the teenagers in other areas I’ve taught, BUT NEVER EVER monsters.
I showed up the morning after the unrest to help Ms. Monique and Brian Burns clean up efforts in the area. There were over a hundred people there but amazingly enough no press, so I felt I could be more useful another way. Armed, as always, with my pen, paper, and camera I began interviewing anyone who would talk to me.
That was the beginning of a collection of interviews from people of West Baltimore and surrounding areas that were and continue to be part of the solution. In an attempt to offer a different narrative to the public story of Baltimore, although one that may not have the same shock value, I have begun to collect interviews from the people of West Baltimore so that they can share their concerns in their own voice. It is my goal to share their stories with as many people as possible. Please, post, paste, like, and share away.