In Baltimore, hope can be a dangerous thing

Baltimore teacher: I have personally taught dozens of gang members, drug dealers and street enforcers.

On a warm summer Saturday last month, while many of you were relaxing with your families or running errands, I attended the funeral of a 16 year old.

This is the fact of being a high school teacher in the third-most violent city in America. This year, my city has experienced an appalling number of homicides: 185 as of Wednesday morning. I have taught English in Baltimore City since 2003. I have experienced the deaths of five students aged 16 and under. I have lost other students to prison, with charges ranging from assault and rape to first degree murder. My wife is also a teacher in Baltimore, a special educator at one of the most difficult alternative schools in the city. Her school was in the headlines for a group of six students who beat a man nearly to death. Earlier this month, one of her 16-year-old students was killed in a quadruple shooting of young, African-American males.

Whispered rumors have blamed the shooting incident on an internal power struggle within the Black Guerrilla Family. Teachers often suspect students have ties to gang activity, but as teachers in Baltimore, we look past the surface to the person underneath. We can't focus on the terrible acts our students might be engaged in because we only have so many chances to make an impact. If we focus on the surface facts of their actions, we write students off, which sends them back to the streets with a message: We have just confirmed their lack of personal worth.

I have personally taught dozens of gang members, drug dealers and street enforcers. I can't condone their behavior, but I have to walk a rope stretched so tightly there is no room for error. I must believe they can change, and I must treat them with respect. I must separate the action from the doer and go into each day with a sense of forgiveness and expectations that they can be more. My wife knew her fallen student as a funny boy who constantly made jokes and took selfies with her. As the boy who showed up to graduation in whites so fresh they made your eyes hurt. As a 16-year-old kid who was making bad choices.

When I came home and saw her the day she found out about his death, I recognized the look on her face. We teachers dread it more than anything we experience, more than senseless bureaucracy or byzantine evaluation practices; it is the worst feeling I have ever experienced as a teacher. It is the look of someone who made herself vulnerable enough to hope that things might be different, God might shine on this one, the streets might give him a pass, he will get out. That hope is a double-edged sword. It makes the work we do possible, but it makes the work we do painful. We must hope to engage with our students in a meaningful way — our work can't be done without it — but hope takes a very personal toll with each obituary and each news story.

My students have seen more tragedy and loss in their brief lives than I can even imagine or conceive of in two or three times the years. The deaths number in the dozens, but they sit quietly and figure math problems and read Steinbeck and deal with their pain by numbing themselves to the violence that surrounds them day after day. After years of teaching in Baltimore, I can feel myself finding comfort in this numbness, too.

Violence like what happened to my wife's student is not isolated. It will happen again next year, and likely the year after that. As teachers in the city of Baltimore, we go to work every day knowing that tragedy is around the corner. We make ourselves vulnerable to the kids we work with because to not do that is to fail. We become defenseless; we show our soft parts, knowing that eventually, we will experience loss. We know the phone will ring, the text will come through, the "RIP" status will appear on Facebook or Instagram, and our hearts will break. We know we will be hurt again.

Each day I get to know my students on a deeper level: to talk about their dreams, successes, relationships, and failures. I open myself up to hope for them, and in Baltimore, that hope is a dangerous thing.

Tonya Luster is an English teacher at Baltimore City College. Her email is tonya.luster@gmail.com.

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