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"You just trying to pay bills, forreal," says Blue, a squeegee kid in Baltimore. A look at the business of being a squeegee kid. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun video)

If you’re a resident of this city, you’re familiar with the squeegee boys and with the great squeegee boy debate. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) has an opinion about the kids who wash car windows on this street corner or that. Ask someone which side of the debate they’re on and you’ll immediately know who they are, what they believe in and how they feel about this incredibly complex city.

Ultimately, the squeegee boy debate perfectly encapsulates the Baltimore divide.

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Before we go any further, let me tell you where I stand: I stand with the kids. And that’s non-negotiable.

Squeegee kids elicit a huge range of reactions among Baltimoreans, but we should be able to agree at least on this: what they're doing is not safe.

Because my position is firm, people feel compelled to tell me less than favorable stories about their squeegee boy encounters, but I remain fixed in my loyalties. Why? Because when I see the squeegee boys, I see my kids.

As a Baltimore City public school teacher, I have been working with our kids and for our kids for the past 15 years. When I first started teaching, I worried that building personal relationships with my students might distract me from keeping the bar as high as I wanted and needed it to be. I tried not to think about the fact that my kids were out of school for funerals more often than they were out of school for colds. My heart ached for them, but I knew that I had to keep pushing them forward in order to push back against the soft bigotry of low expectations. I taught the hell out of my kids and felt immense pride as I saw them go off to college and graduate school. But I didn’t really know them. I was so committed to being an effective educator that I didn’t understand that being an effective educator also meant being a compassionate one.

Getting to know our kids means getting to know what it means to be born and raised in this city. In an effort to do that, I started teaching the work of local artists and creatives like Devin Allen, Tariq Touré and D. Watkins, all of whom generously shared their time and talents with us. Once we had created a safe space and a brave space, I invited my students to tell me their stories, and I learned what I had always already known: My kids are survivors. Children who grow up in and around violence experience trauma at a young age, and that trauma often goes unchecked. I’ve taught kids who have watched their friends die, kids who have survived drive-by shootings, kids who have been homeless and who haven’t known where to lay their head or where to get their next meal. These experiences are not atypical. These are the experiences of our children; these are the experiences of the children turned entrepreneurs you see on the street washing your car windows.

I live near the intersection of President and Pratt streets, which means that I visit with the squeegee boys every single day. Every time I see them, I smile and thank them. We have never exchanged anything other than mutual respect. And, more often than not, I even get a heart etched onto my windshield, which always makes my day. When I see them, I see my kids. Despite their innumerable struggles, these kids, our kids, have found a way to make a living for themselves, and, to be honest, I respect their hustle. I know where else they could be and I’m always and forever grateful that they’re at my intersection instead.

We live in a world that insists on perpetuating single stories that criminalize and demonize our kids. But that’s not what I see. I see kids who are hard working. I see kids who are complex and multidimensional. I see kids who have decided to persevere despite the innumerable odds. So this is my ask: Please get to know our kids before you judge them. They deserve better. They deserve our faith and our good will. They deserve our respect and our support. Because they won’t get very far without it. And neither will this city.

Lena Tashjian is an English teacher at Baltimore City College High School; her email is lenatashjian@gmail.com.

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