In a second-floor classroom at Booker T. Washington Middle School, in the very heart of one of the city's most poverty-stricken and life-threatening neighborhoods, eight sixth-graders are squirming in their seats, as sixth-graders do whenever they find themselves in a room with desks and blackboard, and one boy finally topples his desk and falls to the floor. Laughter momentarily interrupts their talk of courage and bravery and love.
On the street below the classroom window, three police cars and a paddy wagon are parked, summoned to deal with a couple of boys who dragged a young girl into a bathroom down the hall, intent on molesting her. The kids pay no attention to the police cars, a common-enough sight in West Baltimore.
These children, and other groups like them at middle schools throughout Baltimore, have been volunteering once a week at nursing homes, and they are gathered for a periodic reflection on their experiences. They are among 700 Baltimore youngsters -- and 1,000 others across the country -- who are involved in Magic Me, an enormous undertaking begun more than 10 years ago by one young Baltimore woman who wanted to change the world.
Kathy Levin, who was barely out of college at the time, started Magic Me because she wanted kids to learn through the lessons of everyday experience that they can affect other people's lives. Once they saw that, she thought, they would begin to see they had control over their own lives, too. Kathy Levin has taken her idea to exclusive private schools; it has spread to London and Paris and Nebraska. But the essence of her effort is being played out in schools like Booker T. Washington, where children grow up groomed more for victimization and powerlessness than for assertiveness and control.
"When you started talking about going to that nursing home," Antwan Rooks says as the rest of the group listens, "my heart started beating." He taps his chest with a worried look, and it's not difficult to imagine his heart pounding away inside. "I didn't want to go."
Patty Bond, the Magic Me program director, listens sympathetically. "Was there a moment that changed things?" she asks.
Antwan responds quickly. "When I drew a house for that lady. She kept saying how good it was and all that. She kept saying it over and over."
Antwan and his friends rarely hear about how good they are. Magic Me asks principals in Baltimore's public schools to recommend the kids most in danger of school failure for the program. As a result, many of the Magic Me youngsters are kids who have been told for some years -- in messages both spoken and unspoken -- that they can't do anything right.
The little group sitting here in the light of a winter afternoon has traveled an enormous distance since the sparkling bright mid-September day when Kathy, Patty, Magic Me's director, Alfred de la Cuesta, and two social work interns from the University of Maryland Baltimore County walked into a large room where 26 Booker T. sixth-graders were assembled and, of all things, promptly began tying the kids up with masking tape and rope.
Alfred swirled tape around one boy, so his arms hung uselessly, close to his body. A girl with a fluorescent hair bow was caught as she leaned over and was taped so she couldn't sit upright. Kathy taped a boy in a green sweat shirt across his face, across his eyes so he couldn't see. The kids giggled nervously.
"I started to tape them so we could begin talking about limits," Kathy whispered to a visitor.
Alfred took off his pin-striped suit coat and rolled up his sleeves. "My name is Alfred de la Cuesta," he said. "Does anyone know what Magic Me is about?"
One girl answered. "My sister's in this," she said with some astonishment, "but she didn't tell me about this part."
Alfred asked what the kids had seen if they'd been to a nursing home, and a few hands were raised. He pointed to a youngster with his mouth taped up for the answer. The boy tried valiantly to speak despite the tape over his mouth. Alfred, happily and purposefully misunderstanding, smiled patronizingly and patted the boy's arm. "What -- you've got to go pee pee? Can you wait just a little while? That's a good boy."
The kids laughed and tried to tell Alfred that wasn't what the boy was saying, but Alfred wasn't listening. A girl tried to explain. "Ignore her," Alfred said. "She's a little -- you know," he said, patting his head.
It wasn't long before the kids began to understand -- by feeling instead of being told -- the confinement of a nursing home patient. "Confused," the kids said. "Frustrated. Angry. Uncomfortable."
"OK," Alfred said, "free yourself." No one had told them that they couldn't free themselves earlier, he said, but not one child had tried to do so. The concept of limits was taking the solid form of reality.
"You were just going by what you thought he was saying," one youngster said about the mouth-taping incident. "You were too stubborn to listen to what he was saying."
Alfred nodded. "If I really wanted to know what he was saying, I could have found a way, couldn't I? I could have given him a piece of paper and he could have written it down."
Then Alfred described a conversation with a man with cerebral palsy who is confined to a nursing home. Alfred lurched, his head fell from side to side out of control. The kids looked horribly uncomfortable, but Alfred insisted they look the real world straight in the eye.
"They kept taking his cigarette lighter away," Alfred said, "so he hooked up one of those car lighters to the battery on his wheelchair and sat on it. He wanted to learn electronics, so he taught himself math first. He put his wheelchair together. And do you know how long it took him to turn one screw? A week. He could have had someone do it for him, but he wanted to do it himself."
When Alfred asked who would like to visit a nursing home every week, every hand was raised.
On a Tuesday afternoon several months later, it's as if a warm little cocoon has enveloped the eight kids gathered in the Booker T. classroom. They are meeting with Patty Bond and Ari Blum, who acts as assistant group leader. Ari, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is enrolled in a social work class at the university that provides interns for Magic Me. The arrangement gives the students invaluable experience and gives Magic Me badly needed free help.
A Booker T. guidance counselor is sitting in on the session, too. "This is a terrible group," she observes. "One day we saw Ari coming out of the van with them on the way back from the nursing home. We said, 'How were they?' He said, 'Great!' We said, 'Great!?'
The guidance counselor shakes her head, still not believing that these tough little sixth-graders were able to behave themselves in a nursing home. Not long ago in this school, a kid hit a teacher over the head with a broomstick. Patty, a slender, quiet woman who radiates a distinct softness, and Ari, her husky but gentle assistant, appear surprised there is any question about good behavior.
"I didn't think Monica could act so nice," Donnell Smith, one of the sixth-graders, says about one of his schoolmates who is sitting across from him.
"They act nice in Magic Me," says Chekeda Hatcher. "In the classroom they don't respect teachers, but in Magic Me they do."
"Which is the real side?" Patty asks.
"Magic Me," Chekeda answers quickly.
"I thought going to the nursing home was going to be scary," says Monica Chaney.
"I thought we were going to be bored," offers Chekeda. "When you're around older people there's nothing to do."
"Nervous," says Shawn Greene.
"I was curious," observes Damion Brooks.
"I was scared," says Antwan.
"And what changed that?" Patty asks.
"When we started having fun," Antwan says.
"What qualities did it take in you to keep going?" Patty asks.
"Courage," Antwan says.
"A lot of heart," Monica offers.
"Bravery," says Damion.
"Those are qualities you guys have proven you have," Patty says. "You guys have courage, bravery and a lot of heart."
"How did you feel before Magic Me?" Patty continues.
"Unwanted," says Dedric Campbell.
"And how do you feel now?" Patty asks.
"I feel I can communicate now," Chekeda says.
"It's fun being with friends instead of by yourself," Shawn says.
"Are there other things in your life you can think of where you need the support of your friends?" Patty asks.
"If someone's messing with you and threatens you," Monica says, "you can tell your friend and they'll go tell the teachers."
"How else do you feel about the program?" Patty asks.
"You feel good," Antwan says.
"Why?" Patty asks.
"You get to leave school," he says.
"You find it's all right to help old people," Shawn says.
They start talking about two women in the nursing home who always argue; this time it was over religion, and it made the kids uneasy.
"I just finished what I was doing and walked out," Javon Leighton says.
"What else could you do?" Patty asks.
"You can get her to focus on something else," Monica suggests.
"Gosh," Patty exclaims. "You ought to be a therapist."
"Tell me some things you've learned about yourself," she says.
"That I can do things" -- this is Dedric.
"That I can work with anybody" -- from Damion.
"That I can make people feel good" -- Antwan now.
"What does that mean about you?" Patty prompts.
"I can make myself feel good," Antwan says.
"That you can see love," Monica says. "You don't have to see hate."
The talk goes on, about how the other kids resent the kids who do well in school and will do anything to disrupt the good student; about how the other kids call the Magic Me kids sissies; about how you have to impress your friends by acting up.
"What's more important," Patty asks, "what other people think of you or what you think of yourself?"
"What you think of yourself," comes the chorus.
Now the guidance counselor weighs in. "I hope you have gotten something out of this," she lectures. "I hope you've learned you can be good students."
No one says a word. They have tuned her out and gone a million miles away.
After the kids leave, Patty and Ari ponder the question of how they are able to get the kids to pay attention and behave when teachers throughout the school complain it's an impossible task.
"It's a smaller group," says Patty.
"There's no homework," says Ari.
"It's an experience thing," says Patty. "They're creating it. If it's boring, they have to take the responsibility. It's just a totally different setting."
"We're more laid-back," Ari says. "Our jobs don't depend on them being tested."
Perhaps the most illuminating incident of the afternoon, however, arrived when Shawn fell off his chair. He had been tipping his chair backward. He had tipped it forward. He tipped it sideways, every moment defying gravity. Neither Ari nor Patty said a word. After he fell, after everyone laughed, he got back up. And not one more time did he tip his chair or even squirm in it.
This would rarely happen in a regular classroom. The teacher would have interrupted the class numerous times telling the kid to sit still. And the kid never would have sat still.
Patty thinks about the incident a little more.
"Our expectations aren't that they'll sit with their hands folded," she says.
"If you let the little things go," Ari says, "they don't seem to become a problem."
"We ask them the questions," Patty says. "They have the answers, not us. I think that's the key -- they're creating the group and creating what they want to create and finding the answers."
Kathy Levin and her tiny staff at Magic Me are trying to substitute the powerful lessons of the nursing home, where kids find themselves able to bring smiles and tears of gratitude from the most dour faces, for the lessons of the neighborhoods, where girls are molested and boys are bullied and shot and if you look around yourself, you see there's absolutely no reason to hope for a job or incentive to get an education.
They do this with a terrible and wonderful honesty, an unflinching look at reality. During this year, one group of Magic Me kids from Benjamin Franklin Middle School was accused of stealing a Goofy doll from a South Baltimore nursing home. Alfred was doubtful they had, but the director was convinced of it.
"How could someone with such flimsy evidence be convinced you're responsible?" Alfred asked them. "You have a reputation problem."
The kids, protesting their innocence, refused to grapple with the fact that they might be barred from the nursing home. Alfred, frustrated, told him he wasn't going to waste his time if they wouldn't come to terms with their problem. He left the meeting, ** but as he reached his car he reconsidered and returned to the meeting room. He found the kids in the middle of a soul-searching session, deciding to write a letter of apology. The next day they each contributed 57 cents to pay for a new doll, and the nursing home let them return.
On a hot August day, a group of Magic Me kids from South Baltimore was visiting the Deaton Nursing Home across from the Inner Harbor. They pushed the patients in wheelchairs out to the courtyard, where they moved a toy basketball net from patient to patient and gave them a ball to shoot baskets.
"Most of them just like for us to be there," said Nicole Harris, one of the youngsters. One woman patient was giving her a very hard time, talking about men until Nicole practically shriveled up with embarrassment. "Oh, I have men," the woman said. "I'm still getting them."
"Oh, my God," shrieked Nicole. But she didn't flee.
Later in the year, on a raw, rainy November day, a Booker T. group visited Franklin Court Nursing Home in West Baltimore and helped the patients draw pumpkins. There was a warm glow to the sterile room as the patients smiled at the kids and reached up from their chairs for a hug.
"I thought I would be uncomfortable," said Alexis Cox, a sixth-grader. "I didn't know what to say." She was having a lively conversation with a tiny smiling patient, Lavinia Carter. Alexis helped her draw and Mrs. Carter beamed, slipping her a butterscotch and squeezing her cheek.
"It was a fantasy," says Kathy Levin, "a crazy fantasy."
Kathy, as everyone in Magic Me calls her, is a 33-year-old woman who often breaks into a hearty laugh. After graduating from Brown University in 1979, she returned to Baltimore in 1979 looking for something to do. She had grown up here and graduated from the Park School. She had enough family money -- her father was in the steel business -- that she could afford to look for an opportunity to do good and didn't have to have a paycheck coming in right away.
"I was struck by the possibility that if you could turn around the negative energy in pre-teens, you could accomplish an awful lot," she says. "Kids are so full of energy, but it doesn't have a very good direction outward."
"If you could turn it into something that would help people . . . " she says, adding, "I can't finish the sentence. Wow. It's because I couldn't finish the sentence that Magic Me was born. If I could turn that energy into anything it would be damned good."
She herself had visited a nursing home during her college days with a vague idea of trying to do something good. She encountered a 105-year-old woman drooling and thought she should go over and say hello. "This is a very important thing here," Kathy says. "I couldn't do it, and I thought something was wrong. I realized she was more powerful than I. I wanted to get closer to her, and something about her started all those questions. Who is the one trapped inside the body she doesn't want to be trapped in?"
Kathy was not quite at the point of turning the questions into Magic Me. She took a job in New York, working in product development. "It was exciting," Kathy says, "but pretty quickly I felt like cotton candy. So I came back to Baltimore to sink my teeth into something."
She persuaded the principals of several Baltimore middle schools to give her an hour or so with groups of kids, and she started asking them questions. "Do you know what I mean? Do you know what it means to be trapped inside a body that doesn't work the way you want it to?"
Then, with Magic Me existing only in her own mind, she began asking middle school principals if they could give her their toughest kids to work with. Most of them had no idea of what she was talking about. They couldn't imagine what this beautiful, young, socially connected woman wanted with their poor kids.
"What got over the hurdle was persistence," she says. "It was me calling back 900 times. I realized that I had a great idea and they'd be crazy not to see it would be a bonus. The deal was, just give me one shot with the kids."
That was 11 years ago. For the first eight years, she did everything herself. Now she has a board, of which she is president, and an organization -- Alfred, Patty, a program coordinator for the Eastern Shore and a fund-raiser. She is
hoping to raise money to make Magic Me self-supporting, instead of drawing on her own bank account. She is unmarried, so she can afford to allow Magic Me to become her job as well as her family. But her financial ventures are all Magic Me-oriented -- she recently helped produce the musical "Gypsy" so she could get the experience to develop a musical of her own. And when she does her own musical, the proceeds will go to Magic Me.
"I would come up with $50 for each bus trip because I was so thrilled kids wanted to go," she says. "I wasn't worried I was spending money. I was so happy they wanted to go. It all felt so unique. So it cost $50? It was fabulous."
She met Alfred, who was working in a dropout prevention program at Baltimore's Northern High School, just as it was becoming clear she needed a staff.
Alfred, who favors Ray-ban-style sunglasses and marvelous suits, seems to be able to charm any kid he meets. "He couldn't for the life of him deal with some of the kids he had at Northern with what he had at his disposal," Kathy says.
"Everybody kept mentioning Magic Me and this Kathy Levin who did crazy things with kids," Alfred says. "I had no budget, so I needed something I could get for free."
Alfred was skeptical but desperate. "Alfred said, 'These kids aren't going to let you tie them up,' " Kathy recalls. "They're tough, large people. So I tied them up. Alfred was more terrified than the kids. Some of them didn't like it, but we started talking about limits, how you can't move when you're tied up, and the sky opened up."
Kathy gave them a passionate description of what they could do. "You are powerful enough to get through your repulsions," she said. "You can save lives. . . . Who wants to do it?"
Every hand went up.
Recently, Kathy found herself sitting next to the director of the National Library for the Blind on a train to New York. They talked, and she had an idea that kids could help the blind place orders for books with the library. The library director told his Baltimore regional office to go ahead with the project, and Alfred has sent kids over for training sessions. Now the youngsters will be able to help the blind in Baltimore nursing homes order books.
"I can't tell you how many hours of overtime I've put in because of her train rides," Alfred says. "She always looks for someone interesting to sit next to."
Kathy's idea of learning self-worth through service to others is one that is gaining more and more currency. The state of Maryland has a similar project geared to high school students, which is run by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and is called the Maryland Student Service Alliance.
The White House has an office devoted to service, and at the end of January President Bush named Magic Me the 362nd "Daily Point of Light." (Referring to his speech encouraging a "thousand points of light," the president has been recognizing volunteers by designating a point of light six days a week.
Last fall, President Bush summoned a busload of Magic Me 13-year-olds to Washington for a ceremony extolling the virtues of public service. The kids found themselves sitting somewhat uneasily amid the grandeur of the East Room, seeming small and uncertain, where earlier in the day, waiting for their bus outside their schools, they had looked much bigger and vaguely defiant.
There was an empty seat on the end of the row in the White House, and a tall 16-year-old strode over to take it. "Dream of a lifetime," he boomed as he sat down.
The young man, in coat, white leather tie and black tennis shoesintroduced himself, sticking out his hand. "Jeremy Moczygemba," he said, "San Antonio, Texas."
He was with another group of student volunteers brought to the White House for the ceremony, and he was pleased, very pleased. "My biggest dream is to one day become president," he said, checking out his future surroundings.
While the Baltimore kids discussed the Middle East situation on the bus, confusing Iraq and Iran, Jeremy not only had the nuances down, he already had policy formulated. "I plan on really going back to the basics, to what America really stands for," he said.
David Missouri, an eighth-grader from Baltimore's Benjamin Franklin Middle School, was asked if he would like to be president. He looked puzzled at the very idea. "Not really," he said.
The ceremony ended and an ebullient Jeremy marched off, back to his hotel and back to a realm of different experience in San Antonio, back to the road that leads to the possibility that any American kid who wants might become president.
The Baltimore kids straggled off to their bus. It bumped and jolted forever back to Baltimore. They told Patty Bond how they ** wished they could take algebra, but their teachers say they can't handle it. The bus stopped and half-a-dozen kids stepped down and fanned out into the night, following the sidewalks back to the West Baltimore projects.