During Heather Kirn Lanier's two years in Baltimore as a neophyte teacher, she taught at a city high school that backed up against Mount Olivet Cemetery.
She could clearly see tombstones from her classroom window. Each time Lanier took in the view, she could practically watch another one of her illusions being buried.
She's written about her experience at the former Southwestern High School from 2000 to 2002 in a new book called "Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach for America." (Southwestern closed in 2007.)
Lanier, 34, writes that, for better or worse, her two years with Teach for America were a defining experience in her life. After leaving the program, Lanier earned a master's degree in creative writing from Ohio State University, taught remedial reading and writing to non-native speakers at the University of California at Berkeley, and moved to Vermont with her husband and their toddler. She recently chatted by phone about her book, which details death threats, administrators who sabotaged their staffs, and a few students who defied the odds and managed to thrive.
I was nearing graduation at the University of Delaware, and I didn't know what I was going to do with myself. I loved learning and thought I might enjoy being on the other side of the classroom.
I'd read about this huge achievement gap between students at the middle-class suburban schools and those attending low-income schools. They were the kind of places teachers were trying to get out of, and I felt that's where I could do the most good. Private-school students would be fine whether I taught there or not.
The introduction notes that your book reconstructs some dialogue. In addition, the names of all students and most adults have been changed. How accurately can you remember things that were said 10 years ago?
All the conversations in my book really happened. I had an idea even then that I might write a book some day, and I was keeping notes. Most of the raw material went into my journal right after those events took place. I also was part of a group of four other teachers from Teach for America. I showed a draft of the book to them, and they didn't have any corrections.
What was your most memorable experience at Southwestern?
I didn't put this in the book, but I'll always remember this one day: I was teaching a difficult lesson during fourth period. It went really, really well and I felt great. But after class, this kid stood in the door and exposed himself to me. It was 4 o'clock, there was nobody in the hallway and it was traumatizing.
That [kind of sequence] would happen all the time. There'd be this great victory and —boom! — something would go wrong and undercut it. I had to remind myself, "I just work here seven hours a day, and then I go home to a nice neighborhood. But, my students live here." And we wonder why they're three grade levels behind.
Your book describes your reaction to a series of articles exposing conditions at Northern that ran in The Baltimore Sun beginning in December 2000.
[In my experience,] there were slight differences between the zone schools. Northern had a lot of knives, while Southwestern had a very high arson rate. Fires were set in the hallways every other day, it seemed. The bulletin boards were flammable, and the students figured that out.
Despite those regional differences, all across the city, teachers told each other, "That sounds just like my school. It sounds just like your school."
[The Sun wrote] a great expose, but the result was a glossing over. Someone got fired, and it was assumed that would take care of the problem. But, it didn't fix my school or Dunbar. [In 2002, Northern was split into two smaller schools.]
Have you received any push-back from the Baltimore school system, Teach for America or your former colleagues?
Not yet, but the book just came out. We'll see.
I know you think there isn't just one all-purpose fix for Baltimore's school system, because there isn't just one cause for all the problems. But what are some of the steps that you think should be taken?
From my experience teaching at Southwestern, I thought smaller communities were important. A place like Southwestern was so big and institutional. Even after it was divided into smaller schools, the building had all these nooks and crannies where students could hide.
A small, close-knit community, where the principal knows every single student by name and where the teachers work in teams, would have been helpful. It wasn't until I got to know my students and their problems that things started to click.
I'm also very pro-teacher. Teachers are getting a lot of blame right now because students aren't performing. But people aren't asking teachers what they need to do their jobs better. People always say that teachers have it easy and only work 10 months of the year. But I don't know any teachers who work seven hours a day. They work 10, 12 hours a day. Their summers are spent in professional development and in what little time is left, they detoxify.
They grew up in these communities, they're still living there, and they're not burned out quite yet. They're not movie star-worthy or turning out impressive statistics. They're just doing the job that no one wants to do but that everyone thinks they should do better. They're the real heroes.