Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"I grew up in a neighborhood in Baltimore that was like a war zone, so I never learned to trust that there were people who could help me." -Jada Pinkett Smith

On one of my first days as the Youth Coordinator for the Inner Harbor Project in Baltimore, I was sitting around the table in our office with the Youth Executive Leaders. These are teenagers, so I was still a little nervous about my new authoritative role in their lives. It was important that they respect me, and I knew from my experience as a teacher that respect was almost always earned in those early days. I ended up being relieved at how easy our relationship was from the beginning. 

During that roundtable discussion, I ended up learning what a "chicken box" is. It's simple really, fried whole chicken wings and fries, topped with ketchup, hot sauce and salt and pepper. It's a Baltimore tradition, and trust me, it's delicious. The YELs then told me that I wasn't allowed to truly live in Baltimore if I'd never had one. Clearly I needed to know where the best place was to get a chicken box, and a debate ensued, everyone advocating for their favorite. The one thing everyone agreed on though was that I shouldn't go to those chicken places because it wouldn't be safe for me. That week, the youth leaders at the project brought me a variety of chicken boxes from all over the city, so that I could choose my favorite. They were all awesome, and it was hard to choose a winner! It was a fun week, and "What is a chicken box?" was the first of many lessons that the teens here would teach me about their Baltimore.

I say "their" Baltimore, because it's become increasingly clear to me that the Baltimore that my kids live in is not the same Baltimore I grew up loving. It's not the Baltimore of Camden Yards, Fells Point and Inner Harbor attractions. Their Baltimore is scraping together change to catch the bus to work, sitting in overcrowded classrooms that are, in many cases, without clean water, air conditioning and/or proper heating, and neighborhoods full of abandoned row homes and peeling lead paint on the walls. They grow up watching teens on television who are either comfortably living in the suburbs or affluently living in cities like New York, and until Kerry Washington debuted as Olivia Pope on "Scandal" a few years ago, strong, important black characters were largely absent from the small screen. 

It would take far too long for me to elaborate on all of the historic factors that have contributed to the amount of poverty and hopelessness here in Baltimore, but I would like to highlight a couple of important points related to the "American Dream" that most of us grow up believing in. In the poor neighborhoods of Baltimore, and poor areas all over the country, there is no such thing as the American Dream. If we compare the route to achieving success to a fire escape, then kids that are born into poverty (all poverty, both rural, suburban and urban) have to first find a way to reach the ladder, which is dangling ten feet above them, and pull it down, rather than having it readily accessible from the ground. 

I grew up hearing the common phrase "If you work hard enough, you can do anything," and I believed it. I believed it all the way up until I took my first teaching job at Harford County's Alternative Education School. It only took me a few weeks to realize that much of what I believed about the American Dream just wasn't true. As the CEO of Baltimore City Schools said in his recent Baltimore Sun editorial, "most of us remain in or near the socioeconomic level in which we are born." That means that if you're born poor, you're most likely to remain poor. Success stories, like Jada Pinkett Smith's, whose quote I used to title this piece, are few and far between. Many of the kids that grow up poor may not know the statistics of the issue, but on some level, they realize that it's not likely that they'll become superstars or CEOs. All they have to do is look around their neighborhoods for proof. I credit the great job my parents did with the fact that with the exception of not having central air conditioning, I was largely unaware that we weren't affluent when I was growing up. Many of the kids I went to grade school with were not so lucky. 

Adding insult to injury in the case of childhood poverty, over a half a million children in the U.S. are believed to have lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can lead to learning disabilities, behavior issues, organ damage, low IQ and death. Where does the lead come from? It comes from the peeling paint on the walls of the homes that children are growing up in. The story is a lengthy one, and has its roots in the 60s and 70s, when landlords (or slumlords) were buying up houses for cheap, and then dragging their feet when it came to bringing them up to code. All the while, families were living in these houses, and toddlers, who are well known to ingest anything and everything, were putting those peeling paint chips in their mouths and drinking water from lead pipes. Sadly, there are many houses in Baltimore today that are still not up to code, and as a result, Baltimoreans like Freddie Gray and his twin sister Fredericka are suffering from lead poisoning.

I've taught more than a few students with lead poisoning. They've been diagnosed with everything from ADHD to emotional disturbance, and in many cases are put into "special schools" that are little more than holding cells until they can be turned out into the streets, many times with a reading level far below that of a high school senior. Because they have behavioral issues, many of which are a result of the lead poisoning, they are often deemed "too hard to handle," and as a result are shifted into In School Suspension and expected to learn independently by reading to respond to questions. Because this has happened from an early age, they've never really learned to read at all, and so they become frustrated and defiant, continuing the cycle of punishment until they either drop out, age out or graduate. This is also a large part of the school to prison pipeline theory, which I won't get into here.

In an article for the Baltimore Sun, Ruth Ann Norton, from the Green and Healthy Homes initiative said "This is the toxic legacy of lead based paint. Our kids are ill-equipped to stay in the classroom, finish school. They're very unlikely to go on to higher education..." I have seen this firsthand, and it is both heart breaking and true. By the time many inner city kids reach high school, they're so disenchanted with school that they're counting the days until they can legally drop out. And this also true in a lot of cases where lead poisoning doesn't play a part.

I want to ask you, the reader, a favor. Close your eyes and pretend for a minute that you're a toddler, living in Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood. You're two, maybe three years old, you rarely see your mother because she works two jobs, and you've never met your father because he's been in jail for dealing weed since before you were born. You spend most of your days in the care of your oldest sister, who's twelve, but she's in the fifth grade because she misses a lot of days of school. She has to, because someone has to take care of the younger kids while mom is working. "The younger kids" include you and your other older sister, who's five. Your oldest sister struggles in both reading and math because of the inconsistency of her education, and so she avoids them at all costs, because she has come to associate school with frustrated teachers and failure. That means that no one is reading to you or your other sister. Mom is too tired when she is home, and your oldest sister just doesn't want to. All of this means that you are going to enter school already at a deficit in comparison to more privileged children. 

Fewer than half of children who are born into poverty arrive at school ready to learn, as opposed to 75 percent of those from families with moderate and high income, according to a study done by the Brookings Institution. This is the very first achievement gap that students experience, and when you add to it other factors like lead poisoning, having to care for younger siblings, and large class sizes, the gap just seems to get wider as they get older. Is it any wonder that kids like Freddie Gray grow up without any real hope of a legitimate career? When you're reading at a fourth or fifth grade level at the time you graduate from high school, what are the chances that you'll be able to obtain even a minimum wage position? This is the kind of hopelessness that kids in Baltimore, and in other places across the country, face every day. Can you begin to see why it may seem like dealing drugs is the only way to make money? 

The situation facing the students enrolled in public schools today is dire. Even beyond socioeconomic and environmental factors, standardized testing has added another level of pressure to students who already consider themselves to be failures. The closing of many Baltimore City Schools has increased the number of students in a classroom, and teacher absenteeism is an epidemic in a school system where those large class sizes and standardized tests can make even the most accomplished, passionate educator feel overwhelmed and despondent. Plus, keep in mind that most teachers take a passionate, vested interest in the welfare of their students, and it's traumatizing to see the system fail them again and again. According to the U.S. Department of Education, thirty-five percent of teachers in Baltimore City miss ten days or more on average per school year. Teacher attendance is closely linked to student success.

Politicians and laymen alike continue to say things like "young people are the future," and yet as the years pass it seems like less and less is being done to help prepare those young people to be successful, contributing members of society. If a child who is bright and capable when they enter school has been beaten down and left behind to the point that they drop out before graduating, clearly something is wrong. Many of my students who had been "given up on" by the traditional education system were in fact some of the most creative, brightest kids I've met. Yet in most cases, by the time they reached me in high school, the damage to their self confidence was so complete that they were dispirited, unwilling to believe that they could turn their academic experience around. 

After the riots that shocked the nation last week, the question shouldn't be "Why haven't these teenagers been locked up?" The question should be, "How did we, as a community, fail these kids, who so obviously believe that they have nothing to lose?" More importantly, people should be asking, "What can I do to help?"

There are two Baltimores. Most of the people I know only experience the fun one, the one full of baseball tradition and Natty Bohs, crabs and Ravens football. It's the Baltimore I grew up with. That's the Baltimore that many lamented "losing" as unrest tore through the streets of the other Baltimore, the one that many would prefer to ignore. I know, because before I began teaching here, I ignored it too. Not out of malice, but because it was easier to ignore it than deal with its disparities. It's the Baltimore where my youth leaders live, in the neighborhoods where some of their houses are poisoning them. It's the Baltimore that many Marylanders sweep under the rug of their consciousness because it might challenge their ideas of fairness and justice. Now, in the wake of the last couple weeks of protest, is the time to bring the other Baltimore to light. We as a community need to admit that the system isn't working, and begin to fix it for the young people that are the city's, and the country's, future.