He got an earful from one class about fatherless families. He heard from another about students urinating on radiators and breaking flower pots belonging to neighborhood residents.
Between classes, he watched out a classroom window as smoke poured from a trash fire set in a courtyard.
Seeking a firsthand glimpse at life in a city middle school, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke spent yesterday morning on a visit to Hamilton Middle School in Northeast Baltimore. He greeted students as they came to school, led discussions in two eighth-grade social studies classes and observed students in the cafeteria.
No one can say he viewed the school through rose-colored glasses.
Mr. Schmoke seemed sobered by what he heard and saw.
He appeared most struck by statements that more than just a handful of students were being disruptive.
"What I was concerned about was the students' assessment of the scale of the problem," Mr. Schmoke said at the end of his visit.
"I get a sense that the overwhelming majority are really good kids, trying their best," he added. "But the peer pressure is difficult and a lot bring really tough problems to school."
Mr. Schmoke was concerned enough about the impression left by his visit that he had an aide send a reporter a recent internal report on Canton Middle School by fax. The report praises the South Baltimore school for "many innovative ways . . . that brighten the lives of students and that produce an effective school."
The mayor's point was that a system should not be judged by one school, the aide said.
At Hamilton Middle, Mr. Schmoke said he would like to reduce the size of the school population, which has 1,100 students, and to see whether the schedule could have more breaks to give students a chance "to let off some of the steam."
He also mused about the possibility of a "publicly funded boarding school" for the most neglected children, many of whom bring their problems to school.
Principal Rosemunde Smith readily conceded the school's troubles. The school has expelled 45 students this year for disciplinary reasons, she said, and issued 250 short-term suspensions. Yesterday's fire was not the school's first, she said.
"It's a school that has lots of problems," she said. "There are kids in turmoil here."
Mr. Schmoke got a sense of the turmoil when he asked members of a first-period class why they named mothers as heroines but not fathers as heroes. "Because most of the time, they don't be there for you," one student said.
In the second-period class, the mayor was told of tensions between some students and neighborhood residents, and of students who urinated on radiators so the stench would permeate the hallways.
But the students also listed some highlights of the school, including its academic and after-school programs, and teacher Addie Ruffin.
"It's a very good school compared to a lot of the other ones," said eighth-grader Jandanesha McNair.
Another student, William Fulton, said he would like the mayor to "kind of tighten up security and have more fun stuff for students to do, like a football team."