Folk singer David Roth strummed his guitar among a circle of about 30 people in the McDaniel Lounge on Friday afternoon.

“It all goes back 30 years to Mr. Ryan’s classroom,” he sang, beginning his story. “One day he brought his old guitar and he sang his favorite songs for us, and a single one I remember most ... it touched my very sixth-grade soul. Harmonies he taught us are the ones that I still know today.”


As the song continued, the group sitting in chairs around him swayed gently — with some, like Common Ground on the Hill founder Walt Michael who sat to his left, closing their eyes.

According to the song, the narrator went home 30 years later and asked his family where his beloved teacher was. His mother explained he was still teaching.

“I grabbed my coat and ran outside,” sang Roth, “retracing old familiar routes, the shortcut through the playground and the echo of that hallway. And there he was in Room 11, wiping off the blackboard. I took a breath and cleared my throat and stepped back into time: Thank you for the music, Mr. Ryan, a simple gift you gave that day … you’ll never know how much it has meant to me.”

Roth is one of five speakers that came to Common Ground on the Hill’s flagship class, “The Search for Common Ground,” this week. His class, which focused on singing together for social justice, concluded the first of three weeks.

“This is the class we hope will create ripples throughout our community, where we have the conversations we need to have in order to have a healthy society,” Michael said in his class introduction Monday.

“We are in an age now where people don’t talk across lines,” he said. “We are divided. [Here] we seek to stop division, we seek to listen to each other and become inspired by people who do work of this nature.”

Once Roth’s song ended, the group learned Mr. Ryan was sad he never had children, without realizing all of his students were, in fact, his children — including the narrator. At that point a Robert Moton Elementary School third-grade teacher began to cry.

Kelly Brewer was one of many teachers taking the class and said, “This is your audience for that song, oh my God,” wiping tears from her eyes.

Brewer is earning graduate credits at Common Ground on the Hill. She said part of her final project is to write a lesson plan based on what she learns.

“My mind has been changed a million times [this week] to see what to do,” she said. “I was going to do this lesson about community, then it was kindness, but it was immigration two days ago.”

She said her dream is to get to cover all the topics at some point with her students.

Other speakers included a McDaniel sociology professor who focuses on African-American culture and history, members of Mad River Theater Works who discussed their performance ofFreedom Riders,” a reverend who delivers humanitarian aid at the Arizona-Mexico border, and a McDaniel Arabic and Middle Eastern studies professor who came to the United States with her family to escape the violence and injustice in her home country, Palestine.

Gun violence

By Friday, a group of more than 50 had shrunk to one more intimate, with a few more than 30 people. Those who stayed said the experience was a special one.

“Oh my God, it’s blown my mind,” said Hampstead resident Cecelia Boynton, a recent graduate of Manchester Valley High School.


Common Ground students used some of the oldest skills known to man to create functional arrows.

“This class, especially, has opened my eyes,” she said. “I was aware of the issues happening… But it was just awesome to just hear the people. It wasn’t just me giving my opinion, it was listening to everyone, everything.”

Boynton did give her opinion on Tuesday though, when the members of Mad River Theater Works sparked up a discussion about safety in schools and gun violence rampant across the country.

A second-grade teacher at Cranberry Station Elementary School in Westminster, Kim Kucharski, started talking about what it was like to teach her kids how to handle an emergency situation.

She said the change in climate for the very young students she teaches is difficult.

“The thing that is troubling with me is that for some kids school was their only safe place because they weren’t safe at home,” she said. “We provided them with that safety.

“Now you have to prepare them for any unsafe situation, which scares them,” she said. “It’s very scary. Scary for us as teachers, them as students … It’s a different society, it’s a different time. It’s just sad it’s reaching all the way down to those little people who shouldn’t have those worries.”

Boynton confirmed the fear, reflecting on the Parkland, Florida, students who spoke out this March — not knowing another shooting, this one at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, was less than 42 hours away.

“I can confidently say that that fear will be there for a long time,” Boynton said. “It’s shocking and scarring. To see that all the kids in the same social group and everything were dead … is scarring.

“But something that was comforting was just feeling heard,” she said, “knowing that someone of power greater than yours was listening to you and was on your side. So when teachers stopped and listened to us rant about how scared we were, or when people would report possible shooters to the administration and they listened and followed through on that, that was comforting. It wasn’t saying, ‘Everything is gonna be OK,’ but it was saying, ‘People are working so that it might be okay.’ ”

Race relations

“Why do we still see the deaths of African-American men and women?” McDaniel sociology professor Richard Smith asked the group in its first session Monday.

“Studies show African-American women are killed more than any group,” he said. “Unarmed African-American women are killed more by police officers. Why is it still occurring? Why are these things still happening? Why is that today we still have to say ... formally in a group that … ‘Black lives matter?’ ”

Pam Zappardino, another McDaniel faculty member, said after the class that she felt part of it was a misunderstanding of privilege. As a white person, she said she is coming to terms with what it all means herself.

“Privilege is what you don’t see when you look in the mirror,” Zappardino said.

When a white man looks in the mirror, he sees the reflection of a man, she said. When a black man looks in the mirror, he sees a black man looking back at him.


After watching Mad River Theater Works Monday, she told the class Tuesday she was trying to understand more.

Over 75 minutes, James walked through a handful of chord progressions, strumming patterns and songs as a part of the beginning ukulele class at Common Ground on the Hill.

“Fear at school, especially for students of color, is not something new,” Zappardino said. “I think what were seeing now, is that the lack of safety is startling for much of the population, but it’s not new for the students of color in our schools. We didn’t think it was that big a problem when it was just impacting the students of color.”

Local resident Kierre Vinson shared her firsthand experience living in predominantly white Carroll County as a black woman raising her family. She said she was concerned with the new Maryland state mandate to put school resource officers in high schools across the state.

“As a parent I had reservations about it,” she said. “Safety-wise, definitely I'd give a portion of my paycheck to have an officer in my school. But I have a son, a 5-[foot]-8, 190-pound, bearded [black] boy. Will [the officer] realize my son is a child?

“I feel like security has to come first and foremost,” said Vinson, “but the key thing is relationships. There’s no time to build relationships [right now]. That's the next step for us if we want to have officers in our schools, so all students and all employees will feel comfortable.”

And when Smith asked how we as a society can make relationships better — not only between residents, students, employees and police officers — Vinson said she believes empathy and compassion is key.

“I moved here because of the low crime rate, good education system, housing costs were low,” she said. “My reasons were valid reasons, but as a minority in Carroll County, [my son] is receiving a top-notch education, but the social, emotional part, I had to work overtime. I had to rely on my faith, family… so I could share and pass that information along so that he will know how to face adversity in a positive way.

“A white person, you have so much power,” she said. “If we can explain the pain, if we could share that plight and story with you and you have empathy and compassion, that's enough. To have understanding. If you're a compassionate person, that's enough.”

And the struggles aren’t just black and white.


The Rev. Randy Mayer came from Arizona to speak about his experience living and serving the community on the border between the United States and Mexico.

He said he goes to Mexico two to three times a week, and heard comments on the news about the character of people being brought into the U.S. in caravans while hosting a mother and her two children who were seeking asylum in his home.

“Our politicians have failed us on both sides,” Mayer said to the group Wednesday. “They have refused, really, for the last 35 years to do anything about immigration.

“And so when your politicians fail you and people are dying in your neighborhoods, people are knocking on your doors desperate to have water or food, use the phone — what do you do?” he said. “What do people do when people are dying in [their] neighborhood? … Do you lock your door? Say you're moving?”

Mad River Theater Works will perform their original play "Freedom Riders" as the first keynote of Common Ground on the Hill. The Times caught up with Managing Director Chris Westhoff to learn more about “Freedom Riders.”

Mayer said throughout history, even when people were enemies, they shared water in the desert. And through his time working in Sahuarita, Arizona, with the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ and the Samaritans, he has helped continue that tradition.

“The Samaritans would drive the washes and back roads looking for people who were desperate and in need,” Mayer said. “This humanized the issue. A lot of families, babies, fathers with their daughters, loved ones.

“We also began to find Alcoholics Anonymous books, people were bringing Bibles, Bible verses. An artist found a shoe that was lined with Shakespeare,” he said. “Someone needed extra padding in their shoe and took out their prized volume of Shakespeare to line their shoe for some extra padding.”

He said either the good people he meets every single day are lying, or they are being misrepresented in the media. It can’t be both.

Pat Roop Hollinger and her husband Byron, both county residents, were also at the class.

Throughout the week, Michael had pointed out the presence of a group of teachers from Startalk, a Chinese language program that offers Chinese teachers the opportunity to come to the U.S. with a J1 Visa — one that allows people to work in the country temporarily.

Roop Hollinger wanted to hear their take.

“I notice there’s a lot of Chinese folks here,” she said. “I'd love to hear their experience being here in the United States.”

Pei-Hsuan Liu came from Taiwan to the United States more than 20 years ago. She works with teachers who participate in the Startalk program at Paint Branch Elementary School in College Park, and said although Startalk will host its own discussion in the class next Friday, she would share some of her experiences.

“First people think you're a foreigner,” she said. “It’s hard to break the pattern. But the people at the church were very friendly, willing to help out, and that's how I started, with the social [aspect], and that's how I felt.

“Being a student, it’s hard,” said Liu, “with minor discrimination from people who do not understand your culture — and that happened to me. But the more I talked to the people in the community, I think [my family and I] were more accepted.”

And the next day, McDaniel Arabic and Middle Eastern studies professor Carol Zaru spoke about the 149-year history of the Ramallah Friends Schools, founded by Quakers in Palestine, and her experiences coming to the United States from a war-torn country. She was worried about being accepted, too.

“I don't want to tell people I’m from Palestine,” she said. “[At school my son] was called terrorist, camel boy — anywhere he would go, he was bullied. The ‘go back to where you came from’ kind of thing.”

She also wondered if the conflict between Israel and Palestine would ever be resolved.

“Hope is something I will always cling to,” Zaru said. “I can’t say that there will never be a resolution for this, but I don’t think it will be in my lifetime. We’ve had so many false hopes through the years.”

Future classes

There will be two more weeks of classes, with information on the speakers listed on the McDaniel Common Ground on the Hill website.

Michael said he is especially excited for Tuesday’s class, where the focus will be on HBO’s “Baltimore Rising,” a documentary on Baltimore’s reaction to the death of Freddie Gray.


“We live in such a divided society,” Michael said, “and people understand a lot of those divisions are not real, and they’re unnecessary.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding going on and people feel manipulated,” he said. “And perhaps having those conversations that they’re told are difficult conversations [is what we need]. They’re really not that hard. People are wanting to talk and to listen.”