When the 11-year-old witness opened his mouth to testify in Baltimore Circuit Court the other day and nothing decipherable emerged, the court stenographer, a man named Ken Norris, drew his little typing stand as close as he could without actually sitting in the boy's lap, and commenced hollering into his face, "What? What was that?"
It was almost impossible to understand the boy. The mouth took shape as if to form syllables, but then these little grunts, monotone groans, previously unknown conjunctions of consonant and vowel, worked their way up from somewhere in the middle of his chest and tumbled directly to the floor before anyone could catch them.
"What was that?" stenographer Norris asked, and then asked again.
The boy was a witness in the Nathaniel Hurt homicide case. He wore a sweat shirt and sneakers, and carried sullenness as a kind of badge. Now he was asked, at the time of the killing of 13-year old Vernon Holmes last October, did he remember giving a statement to city police. He did.
"Will you read your statement to the jury," an attorney said now, handing him a transcribed copy of it.
"No," said the boy.
"Can you read and write?" the attorney asked.
"No," said the boy.
"No?" asked the attorney.
"A little bit," he said.
"Can you read the word 'cut?' " the attorney asked.
"Can you read letters?"
Now the attorney pointed to three consecutive letters on a page: C-U-T. The boy read them aloud, one by one.
"And what do those letters spell?"
"I don't know."
With great amounts of diligence on both his part and the public schools', the boy is currently in the sixth grade. That is not a misprint. He's been marched into court as part of a small procession of kids produced routinely in this city, kids moved from one foster home to another because their own families have come undone, kids lacking any sort of moral guidance who quickly became part of the city's predatory class, kids who reach the sixth grade in school and still have no ability to translate words on a printed page.
For the moment, suspend all impulses to damn the schools for such children. True, the system has a certain history, over the past quarter-century, of passing difficult young people through the various grades as way of getting rid of them. But the city schools have 110,000 kids, of whom 17,000 are special education students with physical, emotional or learning problems. The 11-year-old is one of them.
"Sixth grade and can't read?" says a public school official familiar with his case. "Yeah, it happens. We're just happy to have these kids in class."
The schools, recognizing that most of these kids will never become brain surgeons, cut a deal with them. They stress other forms of development than the reading of words on a page, and pass the kids along to keep them receptive to some general notion of education as a civilizing process.
In the homicide trial of Nathaniel Hurt, the 62-year-old retired steel worker, there are plenty of reasons to sense a need for a civilizing process.
They've come marching into court, one by one, as witnesses to the shooting: a 12-year-old who's in the fourth grade; a 17-year-old who beat up a schoolmate for his money, then threatened to kill the teacher who pulled him away and stalked the woman for weeks; a 15-year-old eighth-grader named Johnny who watched impassively as his buddies harassed Hurt.
"Did you try and stop your friends?" Johnny was asked.
"Nope," Johnny declared to a packed courtroom.
"Not my problem," said Johnny.
So we look at the 11-year-old sixth-grade witness, unable to read and write, grunting his way through court testimony, and find ourselves taken aback. But the boy is small stuff. At least he's in school, where there's still some shot of becoming a productive human being.
But the streets are filled with those like him. Some of them wind up harassing the old people, while others look on and figure it's not their problem. And so we wind up with this squalid procession of children marching into court, brief pauses in their volatile little lives, and the whole thing just makes you sick at heart.