Nerds discover place to blossom across racial gap


Bernard Booker, 16 years old, is going through change of life. The throwing of rocks at cars is behind him. So is the running from cops, which was considered sporting activity in his old crowd. On weekends, when he sees his buddies from the neighborhood, they talk across a communications gap.

"They consider me a white boy," Booker says, "or a nerd."

"A nerd, of course," laughs Sharonda Alston, sitting next to him. The two of them nod knowingly at each other. Sharonda is 16 and says she's heard accusations of nerdiness all of her young life.

"Einstein, they used to call me," she says. She went to Booker T. Washington Middle School and made A's without studying.

In all student circles, this is considered a sin without parallel. Her social life consisted of baby-sitting her little brother.

"I read a lot," she says. "My mom had college textbooks lying around. Nobody invited me to parties."

Camara Kambon, 18 years old, smiles in agreement. He says the last time he had friends in his neighborhood, he was still in elementary school. Then he discovered music, and a new life blossomed inside his head. He marches to the beat of his own piano.

Next month, Kambon graduates from Friends School and from Peabody Prep. He'll start attending Boston's Berklee School of Music in the fall. Alston will move on to her junior year at St. Timothy's School. Booker will go to his junior year at Boys' Latin.

Did somebody say nerds? Booker's an honor roll student, but he also plays varsity baseball and football and junior varsity basketball at Boys' Latin. Alston's an honor roll student, but she also plays hockey and soccer at St. Timothy's, and she founded the school's "Theatre Closet" creative writing club. Kambon's near the top of Friends' academic list, but he also composes music, he's performed with jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, and he's president of the Friends School's Ethnic Diversity Club.

The last is pretty important. It's a mirror of what's happened to each of these three kids because of a group called the Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust (BEST), which takes bright black kids from financially struggling families and raises money to pay their way through area private schools. The money comes mostly from area corporations and foundations.

In four years, 30 BEST students have graduated. All have gone to college, including Cornell, Princeton, Columbia and the U.S. Naval Academy, and there are 181 others currently enrolled in local private schools.

"We're trying to expose them to a world they wouldn't know without us," says Gregory Roberts, executive director of BEST. "There's a transition going on. They realize they can be competitive in any arena. To kids who come from neighborhoods that have gotten so much negative publicity, that's very important.

"Also," says Roberts, "there's a message being sent to black kids: It's OK to be smart."

"Oh, yeah, I've heard that," says Bernard Booker.

He's talking about messages some black kids have sent to other black kids who take school seriously: that they're secretly trying to be white. It's not only a lie, but an exercise in self-destruction.

"It used to be," Booker says, "I had a lot more time to hang out with friends and get in trouble. We'd hit cars with rocks and run. We got chased by the police. It was fun."

He shrugs his shoulders at the mindlessness of something from another existence.

"That's over," he says. "I hang out with them on weekends, but it's different now. One of my friends said, 'I got a 65.' I said, 'Is that good?' He said, 'Hey, it's passing.' It bothers me that they're not going anywhere. They just don't care."

A message needs to be made clear: The BEST program is not implicitly saying that the world of mostly white private schools is good and the world of mostly black public schools is bad.

The program is designed to give exposure, to widen the horizons kids whose options are limited strictly by money.

"It's a chance to learn another type of life," says Camara Kambon, "a chance to interact with another type of society.

"My experience at Friends is that the students here are keyed to being aware of cultural differences. The whites kids are trying to understand black kids."

That it's a two-way effort is left unspoken. That it's important to the life of the community was spoken loudly last week.

A questionnaire issued last November at the city's Convention Center racial summit and then released three days ago said Baltimore has a serious race relations problem. About 300 people filled out the questionnaire, with 93 percent saying the city has a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" race relations problem.

Among the problems made visibly clear at many of the group discussions was this: White and black Baltimoreans do not talk to each other enough.

The BEST program offers little bridges of communication.

"It's changed my life," Bernard Booker says.

In little ways, today and tomorrow, it's also designed to change the life of this city.

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