NFL linebacker-turned-educator Aaron Maybin draws attention to cold Baltimore schools, preaches activism

Aaron Maybin sat in a West Baltimore elementary school library that was recently without heat and boomed a question at five students: “Do you think that this school matters to the city?”

A few of the kids shook their heads vigorously.

“If it was really cold — the lights came out — they should have did something about it,” third-grader Adrianna Carter said. “A lot of people are getting sick.”

“Exactly,” Maybin said.

Maybin, the NFL linebacker-turned-art teacher, was not trying to stir hopelessness, but to teach the powers of advocacy.

As plumbing and heating problems left students around the city shivering following winter break, Maybin enlisted citizens to fill in where he believes elected officials have failed.

Maybin, an artist and poet, teaches visual arts as a contractor at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School. When the temperature inside the school dipped toward 40 degrees in the first week back at school, he took to his phone to vent.

The former first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills commands a Twitter following of more than 26,000 people. Still, he said, he wasn’t reaching them.

“I was tweeting about it and people just weren’t getting it,” he said. And then it struck him: People need to see it.

So Maybin, 29, set his phone down and hit “record.” The Jan. 3 video of kids seated in the school library with winter coats, and Maybin clasping his hands together for warmth, went viral — and propelled him to the forefront of a growing debate over school resources.

“Until you see it, it’s easy to say, ‘It might not be that bad,’ ” he said.

With Maybin and some of his professional athlete friends bringing national attention to Baltimore’s frigid schools, a GoFundMe page launched by Coppin State student Samierra Jones raised about $80,000 to purchase space heaters and outerwear for the students. That was four times the goal.

By midweek, the heat was back on and the weather had warmed. But United Parcel Service trucks kept pulling up to Henson. The school in the Easterberry neighborhood of West Baltimore is adorned with paintings of Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass and other African-American heroes. In the lobby, oversized block letters promise: “All in for Students.”

Drivers unloaded boxes addressed to “Mr. Maybin” or “Teacher Aaron Maybin Donation Coats” and stacked them in a back office. The packages contained wool, fleece or down coats, hats, gloves and other winter clothing. A ceramic heater arrived in a Sharper Image box.

From J.R. Smith, the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player, came 10 cases of bottled water, along with cups and facial tissue. A trash bag with no return address was filled with stocking caps featuring Disney characters.

The school of 370 students, located half a mile from the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues, the center of the 2015 riots, hadn’t been designated a dropoff point.

But Maybin, a father of four young children who lives in Reservoir Hill, had become the face of the drive.

“This is an example of how you can use the Internet in a positive way,” said local activist D. Watkins, founder of the BMORE Writers Project. “I think he was definitely instrumental in bringing a lot of attention to this.”

Anne Fullerton, a spokeswoman for the city school system, said she could not comment on Maybin because he is not a system employee. He teaches at Henson three days a week through an arts program called Leaders of Tomorrow Youth Center.

“I can tell you we are grateful for all the support we are receiving,” Fullerton said.

Roughly half the city’s schools suffered heating outages or burst pipes during the prolonged cold snap. Gov. Larry Hogan and others accused city and school district leaders of mismanagement. Hogan said the state would spend $2.5 million from an emergency, discretionary account to help fix the heat in the schools. He proposed a new “inspector general” to root out problems in some Maryland school districts.

Henson’s neighborhood endured a power outage, and the heat was “spotty,” principal G. Travis Miller said.

“A classroom may have had lights but no heat,” he said. “Our gymnasium was cold, and I instructed our physical education teacher not to have class there.”

Maybin’s impromptu drive might have been unorthodox, Miller said, but it was effective.

“My job is to make sure kids have what they need,” he said. “It added a layer of advocacy. It was welcome once I talked to people from the central office to make sure lines weren’t crossed.”

In his initial tweets from the school, Maybin accused politicians of “finger pointing.”

“All the money in the world for building jails,” he wrote in one. “But not enough for basic public school necessities.”

“It's really ridiculous the kind of environment we place our children into and expect them to get an education,” he wrote in another. “I got two classes in one room, kids are freezing, Lights are off. No computers. We're doing our best but our kids don't deserve this.”

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford entered the Twitter discussion, saying — although not directly to Maybin — the administration has done its part and that concerned citizens should talk to local school officials.

City Councilman Brandon Scott retweeted Maybin’s appeals for donations, calling him “someone who goes and lives his dreams and comes back home and gives directly back to our community.”

Scott said he wished Rutherford had simply asked: “How can I help?”

“I think it’s extremely unfortunate that [Maybin] even has to have a conversation like that with the lieutenant governor,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Rutherford said “the lieutenant governor frequently interacts with Maryland citizens on social media.”

“In this case,” spokeswoman Shareese N. Churchill said, Rutherford “was reiterating the administration’s substantial funding commitment to Baltimore City Schools.”

Maybin says he is not a politician, but he does consider himself an activist. He recently completed a book called “Art Activism.”

When the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015 provoked unrest, his first instinct was to grab his camera and head for the front lines. He ended up documenting those unsettling days through hundreds of Instagram posts.

He also paints. One of his works shows eight clenched fists thrust in the air at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues, where rioters burned a CVS Pharmacy.

Maybin grew up in Baltimore. His father, Mike, was a longtime official with the city fire department.

He played football at Mt. Hebron High School in Ellicott City and Penn State, where he was a consensus All-American en route to being drafted No. 11 overall by the Buffalo Bills in 2009.

He played four seasons with the Bills and the New York Jets; he recorded his first NFL sack against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco at M&T Bank Stadium.

“I never left Baltimore,” Maybin said. “I always had residences in the cities that I played in. But my main residence has always been in the city.”

He says art — and advocacy — has long been his calling.

“This man was an NFL football player,” said artist Larry Poncho Brown, a longtime mentor. “So where is he now? He’s teaching in Baltimore city schools. He has always had a vision to help his people and to help other people.”

In addition to teaching, Maybin informally counsels kids at the school. Last week, a student who was accused of punching another child was sent to Maybin.

Maybin, 6-foot-4, towered over the boy.

“What I need you to do is apologize to whoever you hit,” he said. “Give me a hug. You all right?”

Maybin sketches children — they may look angry, happy or sad — and asks students to write personal narratives on the pages.

One student assessed a drawing of a girl who looked displeased.

“I want to change the food because it is not good at all,” the student wrote.

Another student wrote that “we need more air” in the school when the weather turns warm.

Miller, the principal, said Maybin told the staff at the beginning of the school year: “If you have concerns about students, I want you to send them to me — students who may need a timeout or reflection.”

“I’ll come into the library and see these kids actively involved with Mr. Maybin,” Miller said. “He gives them a voice.”

Maybin meets regularly with kids for a “lunch bunch” to discuss whatever is on their minds. It was in one of those sessions — with the kids sitting around a table and Maybin wearing black sweats and Under Armour high-tops — that some expressed doubt that the city cared for them.

“We’re showing them evidence that we don’t care every single day,” Maybin said. “We shouldn’t be surprised that they can pick up on it.”

Maybin is not the first athlete to try to advance a social cause. He says the public seems to hear more about professional players’ misdeeds than their good works.

“Nobody typically cares about what an athlete does until they mess up,” he said. “For years and years, athletes have had foundations and done programming and raised money.”

Former Ravens kicker Matt Stover, who set up a fund to help athletes and others with charitable pursuits, said athletes’ stature gives them a responsibility.

“You look at our culture and how it’s set up. Where are most people going on a Sunday in the fall? They’re going to church at the Ravens’ stadium,” Stover said.

“Our culture puts a huge amount of importance on athletes. We’re a role model — whether we want to be or not.”

jebarker@baltsun.com

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