When Marcus Shaw, a seventeen-year-old senior at Towson High School, penned his poem "Believe Me" in an English class, he had no idea that the poem would land him in the principal's office. Shaw—who serves as the senior class president, writes for the high school newspaper, is enrolled in the school's Law and Public Policy magnet program, and applied to 16 colleges—made for a sympathetic protagonist in a story that garnered local media coverage and ignited a debate about free speech and race.
"Officer, I'm begging you to believe/That never ever have I smoked weed/And please do not tell me that I have to leave/I need to stay in school and continue to read," the poem begins. It goes on to discuss police brutality, the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD, and the value of education.
Shaw auditioned for the school's senior talent show, hoping to read his poem, which had already been published in Colophon, Towson High School's award-winning literary arts magazine. But he says that the teacher in charge of the senior class steering committee rejected his audition because of the subject matter. Shaw discussed the decision with the school principal, Charlene DiMino, who he says also rejected it.
"She said that it was offensive and an attack on the police," Shaw says. "She even called in the school resource officer. He said it's anti-police, and you're going to make people uncomfortable. He asked me questions like, 'How many police officers do you really think are doing this?' And I told him some stories I know, like in Florida, the targets that they used were black men. My grandfather was a police officer for 33 years in Brooklyn, New York."
After the meeting, Shaw was furious. He told his mother, who met with DiMino separately. According to Shaw, DiMino maintained that he would not be permitted to read "Believe Me" at the talent show. But DiMino later told the Baltimore Sun that she had never banned Shaw's performance. DiMino declined to speak directly with City Paper, instead referring questions to D. Mychael Dickerson, the Chief Communications Officer for Baltimore County Public Schools for comment.
"We are pleased that following a conversation between the student and Ms. DiMino, the student was allowed to participate in the event," Dickerson wrote in an emailed statement. "The superintendent [Dr. S. Dallas Dance] was also made aware but appropriately allowed it to be handled at the school level. Dr. Dance is pleased that Ms. DiMino and the student were able to come to a resolution and that the student was allowed to recite his poem in the talent show in addition to several other school based forums he had previously shared his work."
"I wanted to help raise money for the school, and also use that open forum to get the conversation started about these types of incidences and this perspective," Shaw says. "That perspective is often not heard at Towson."
The school pulls heavily from middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods with primarily white populations, including Stoneleigh, Rodgers Forge, and Lutherville. But Towson High School has a minority enrollment of 38 percent, according to the Baltimore County Public Schools website—and Shaw sees tracking by race.
"The racial climate is really…" he trails off. "The black kids hang out together and there are very few that are in AP classes. A majority of the AP classes, which are the classes that I take, are white. These aren't the issues that the white people at Towson really talk about. And they're not really supporters of social justice movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Being the only African-American in AP classes, that's really not cool, and it's alienating."
Shaw's classmate Krystal Alexis put together the change.org petition, addressed to the superintendent, U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, and President Barack Obama. "A young man at my high school is currently not able to recite a poem at our senior talent show because his poem topic is about the 'black lives matter' movement," she wrote. "Allowing him to perform this will help others raise awareness of important social issues."
Some 2,600 people signed it, including many Towson High School alumni.
"People were very supportive of me," Shaw says. "They brought up First Amendment rights as well as shame on Towson, shame on the principal for doing something like this. The signatures were really piling on. Like every hour there were a few hundred that signed."
The story was also getting regular coverage in the local media. Shaw met with DiMino again. "She told me that I could say my poem, but that I had to be responsible for the senior class," he tells me. "She was saying that, 'Do you think the senior class can handle it? I'm putting you in responsibility of the class.' I honestly think that she thought my poem was inflammatory and that it's possible that the senior class could get rowdy or upset at it."
In addition to the signers of his petition, Shaw credits assistant principal Omoleye Ajileye and PTSA President Cheri Bond Pegues with supporting his cause.
"Miss Ajileye was very into my poem," Shaw says. "She was very helpful, and kind of stuck her neck out for me. The head of the PTSA, Mrs. Cheri Bond Pegues, she wanted to hold a meeting with Mrs. DiMino, and even emailed her asking why I couldn't say it."
At the senior talent show, Shaw performed the poem with his friend Randall Ainsworth, who backed him up on electric guitar. They began their performance with their heads down, wearing matching hoodies, their mouths covered with tape. Then they looked up, removed their hoods, ripped off the tape and began the performance. They got a round of applause when it was over.
Despite the experience, Shaw says he's grateful for the resources at Towson High School. He's particularly appreciative of the Law and Public Policy program, which he hopes will help him in his goal to one day become a civil rights attorney. He mentions that Michelle Alexander's 2010 book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" has had a big influence on him.
"I get really worked up and I want to try and solve the problems with the achievement gap as well as mass incarceration and other issues," he says.
Not surprisingly, Shaw loves to read. His other favorite authors include Richard Wright and Ta-Nehisi Coates. He talks for a while about Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Jung's concept of the shadow archetype.
"I hope to major in English," he says. "I think that having a great command of the English language can help you in becoming a lawyer. And just communicating in general, which is essential in life."
Right now, he's waiting to hear back from some of the colleges he applied to, including three Ivy League schools and Howard. He's gotten into five schools so far: NYU, BU, Morehouse, Tufts, and Dartmouth.
Shaw is inspired by his late Jamaican grandfather, who died when he was 10 year old.