City Kids

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The other day I met a guidance counselor at a county elementary school. When I remarked that I hadn't realized that elementary schools had guidance counselors, she replied, "We have mostly city kids at our school."

"City kids?" I asked. "I thought you said you worked in the county."

"I do," she replied, "but we have city kids."

"You mean they live in the city and go to school in the county?" I asked.

"No," she answered, "but they're just like city kids."

As a veteran city school teacher, I was upset by this exchange. When I moved to Baltimore almost 20 years ago, I was warned by well-meaning people to avoid at all costs teaching in the city. But, although I had a master's degree in my subject area and two years' teaching experience in another state, the county refused even to interview me because I lacked a course in the history of education. Lucky for me, the city was more interested in my ability to teach than my ability to talk about teaching, and here I still am.

Throughout the years, I have found my job enjoyable and rewarding. That shocks many people, like the dental hygienist who once told me how brave I must be to teach in the city. If you believe what you read, the city schools are hopeless, disorganized and dangerous, and so are the pupils.

In 1987 I wrote a piece in praise of my homeroom, part of an outstanding graduating class at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

"You'll never see another class like that," many said. "It's all downhill from here."

Well, guess what? This year's class is even better. Bright, good-natured, socially conscious (before it's even a state requirement!), determined -- this is a teacher's dream of a class. This year's graduating class is also a wonderfully diverse group whose members (or their parents) come from all over the world. One snapshot from this year will stay with me always: a lab table occupied by students from Germany, Spain, Myanmar and Indonesia, all debating their interpretations of a chromatography experiment -- in English! It brought tears to my eyes.

The college acceptances have been flooding in: Columbia, Barnard, Cornell, Penn, Dartmouth and Brown; Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore; Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke; Spelman and Georgia Tech; Goucher and Hopkins. Many have received full or large scholarships. UMBC has offered five Poly seniors Meyerhoff scholarships.

As we do every year at Poly, we have a National Merit finalist, a National Achievement finalist and several Maryland Distinguished Scholars.

Knowing their ability, study habits, initiative and the excellent and rigorous preparation they have been given at Poly, I expect them to accomplish much. They will be challenged at their colleges, and most will rise to the challenge. And they are such nice people. More than any other class in my teaching memory, these young people care about and look out for one another. I cannot imagine a high school -- in any location -- that wouldn't be proud to graduate this class.

As I think back to the guidance counselor's comment, I am struck by the amazing negative public-relations job that has been done on the city and its schools. If something bad happens in the city, it's the city's fault. And now, if something bad happens in the county, that gets pinned on the city, too. The myth is perpetuated: The city is the root of all evil.

So, the exodus from the city continues, to the benefit of no one. As city dwellers continue to leave, "city problems" spill over into the county, necessitating running ever farther away. In the once-beautiful countryside, grotesque tract mansions sprout from the hills like poison mushrooms after a rain. Commuting time becomes longer, more fuel is burned, pollution increases, the serene countryside is transformed, the Chesapeake Bay registers its discontent by decreasing its yield and a sense of community becomes almost impossible to attain.

This city dweller has no plans to leave. It's hard to leave a place that offers so much. And one of the best things it offers are my students . . . those city kids.

4( Lissa Rotundo writes from Baltimore.

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