From the sidewalks outside Matthew A. Henson Elementary School to the classrooms, Aaron Maybin drew in the children with his charisma and spirit, observers said. He sketched drawings of boys and girls at Henson with crowns on their heads, calling them kings and queens. He launched an after-school program for boys where they’d talk about bullying, fighting and masculinity. He took the entire student body to a screening of “Black Panther” in Towson.
“He was like an angel,” said Jasmine Squirrel, a Baltimore mother whose two children attend the school. “All of the children looked up to him.”
But Maybin, the former NFL linebacker turned art teacher and activist, has not returned to the school in the Easterwood neighborhood of West Baltimore this fall.
He was hired as a yearly contract worker for the last five years, but he will not be returning for this academic year. It is unclear who made the decision not to bring him back or where his contract stands. Acting principal Nikia Carter did not respond to a request for comment. The Baltimore City Public Schools released a statement saying officials could not comment on personnel matters.
Instead, Maybin will be caring for his own four children, awaiting a new baby in December, illustrating books for various authors and promoting the Community-Based Response Act. The federal legislation would create alternatives for responding to emergencies, like dispatching mental health professionals — as opposed to police officers — to help an individual in crisis.
It’s not what he planned.
“It’s disappointing that I won’t be in that same position at Henson,” Maybin said. “It’s tough not being able to have that impact [with students] on a day-to-day basis.”
The school system’s statement acknowledged Maybin’s work at Henson and said the school system would be reviewing whether to include an art workbook he developed in the system’s fine arts curriculum for the next school year.
“It encourages students to reflect upon and discuss many of the social themes that they may experience or have seen in neighborhoods or in media,” the statement said.
The change has hit hard for disappointed families. Maybin’s impact went far beyond his official status as a part-timer, say those in the school community.
Krystal Betts, the vice president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, says Maybin was always right by their side.
“He walked to the school every day just to talk with students,” Betts said. “He understood what our children were going through.”
Maybin started out at Henson as a contract art instructor several months after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. He had played in the NFL for teams including the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets, and he decided to retire and return to his roots in Baltimore. He had fond memories of sitting on the porch of his home in Reservoir Hill, connecting with other residents. He began to dream of working with children.
“I’ve always been inspired by my city and the kids here,” said Maybin, 32. “A lot of people like to talk about what’s wrong in Baltimore, whether it’s school, politics or policing … but a lot less people are willing to put the work in.”
Maybin credits Travis Miller, the former principal of Henson who left this summer, for giving him the freedom to craft an art and social justice program geared toward students of color.
The structure of his curriculum was based on a workbook he wrote called “Art Activism.” In it are poems, essays and sketches that children could color about race, politics and poverty.
Miller credits him with raising the voices of the youth.
“There are 6- and 7-year-old students at Henson who are able to articulate their views on social justice matters,” Miller said. “Aaron Maybin inspired these children to know that they’re never too young to know about things.”
Together Miller and Maybin launched an after-school program during the 2019-2020 school year that regularly pulled in about 55 students and adults.
Each month, the pair would host a gathering in the gymnasium inviting the school’s boys, their parents, guardians and mentors to play video games, eat pizza and huddle together to discuss coming of age, manhood, responsibility and empathy for others.
“Parents would roll up on me the next school day to continue our discussion,” said Maybin, whose community work was spotlighted Oct. 4 on a televised segment on NFL on Fox. “There is a need for that kind of dialogue in our schools and in our homes.”
As an art instructor, Maybin was able to work with every student at the school, which serves children from preschool to fifth grade. He also helped children who had behavioral issues, like Squirrel’s 6-year-old son.
“Mr. Maybin would allow him to go into his classroom and color as a way to cope … now my son loves to draw because of him,” she said, adding that Maybin was also willing to get on the phone and help her 9-year-old daughter with math.
In the early months of 2018, when plumbing and other problems left the elementary school with no electricity and no heat, students had to wear their coats to keep warm inside of the classrooms. Maybin recorded the students saying they were cold, and that it was hard to learn during the school day. The video he posted on social media caught the attention of thousands, quickly leading to multiple donations adding up to $80,000, along with gifts of coats, hats and other gear.
It was an act of awareness and a lesson of advocacy for the students at Henson.
Perhaps the greatest moment he created at the school was when, with the help of former Orioles player Adam Jones and Baltimore-based musician DJ Flow, Maybin brought the children to a screening of the film “Black Panther.”
With a whole theater to themselves, the students took in a movie that celebrated African culture with characters clad in African garb and natural hair twists. For Maybin, the late Chadwick Boseman, the movie’s star, was more than an actor; he was a mastermind who showed young Black boys a superhero who looked like them.
Boseman’s death from cancer in late August was tough for Maybin to process. But in speaking with the children of Matthew Henson, he realized that the Black Panther lives on through his students and all young Black men in America, even as they must grapple with death on a daily basis.
“Living in a city like Baltimore, you think about whether you’re going to get shot by police or by someone on the street on the way to the store," he said. "The death of Chadwick and the pandemic presents the reality that we have to be at peace with, that we will not be here forever and that idea is uncomfortable.”
For now, Maybin has decided to help his children, ages 3, 4, 8 and 10, with remote schooling and prepare to welcome the new baby in December.
Maybin has also been working with U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, and California Congresswoman Karen Bass on the Community-Based Response Act.
“In the aftermath of all the protests and demonstrations surrounding state-sanctioned violence against people of color, I’ve been focused on the ways in which we could address these injustices through legislation,” Maybin said in a statement.
And though he is no longer a staff member at Matthew Henson, he promised to champion Baltimore students and has hopes that one day he’ll open a school tailored for Black children.
“We need our own schools in our community where we have control over how they’re taught,” Maybin said.
“If what we need doesn’t exist, I’ll create it.”
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture.