A different campaign


Gerry Brewster had planned to spend these days strolling the halls of Congress, giving President Clinton a hand in charting the nation's future, representing Maryland's 2nd District in the House of Representatives. The voters had other plans.

Instead of weighing the wisdom of sending American soldiers to Bosnia, Mr. Brewster finds himself weighing how often you can let teen-agers go to the bathroom before they're taking advantage of you. Instead of cutting deals in smoke-filled rooms, Mr. Brewster patrols lavatories to make sure they're smoke-free.

Mr. Brewster is a new teacher at Chesapeake High School in eastern Baltimore County. At 36, with a resume that includes athletic records (at 6 feet 2 1/2 inches, he says he was the world's tallest licensed jockey from 1983 to 1990) and a political pedigree (he served in the Maryland legislature and his father, Daniel Brewster, was a congressman and senator), Gerry Brewster has chucked it all to take spitballs in the back of the head.

"I always wanted to be a teacher," says Mr. Brewster, still the politician, "and the voters finally gave me the opportunity."

Gerry (pronounced Gary) Brewster won the Democratic nomination last year for the congressional seat that Helen Delich Bentley gave up when she ran for governor.

"My timing wasn't very good," he said. "It turned out to be the worst year for Democrats in 40 years." He was beaten by Robert L. Ehrlich, who had been his classmate at Gilman School and Princeton University and who had served with him in the legislature.

"When the voters decided to relieve me of my duties, I began to realize there were a lot of similarities between politics and teaching," he said. "I went into politics because I wanted to make a difference in people's lives. This is more hands-on. It allows for a more personal approach."

Sometimes it gets too personal. The day after being hit with a spitball, he was hit in the rear end with a water pistol. He confiscated it and stomped it to bits. "I haven't been shot since," he says with a smile.

In the past two months, Mr. Brewster has had to confront a conflict that has developed over a generation for today's teachers: Is he a teacher or is he a social worker?

Chesapeake is trying hard to keep a check on the social ills that often accompany poverty. The school has the second-poorest student population in the county: 26.4 percent qualify for subsidized lunches. At Sparrows Point High School, 31.9 percent qualify; at Dulaney Valley, only 1.4 percent.

New teachers such as Mr. Brewster get the standard classes, not the honors students. Special education students now are "mainstreamed," and Mr. Brewster has about 25 students with attention disorders, limited abilities or other problems. One is legally blind.

He's at a disadvantage, because he is still learning classroom control. But even when they're being quiet, many of his students simply don't want to be in school. And that's a source of deep pain for a teacher who wants them to get excited about the Bill of Rights or Shakespeare.

On a crisp fall day as the sun rises over Turkey Point, east of Essex, Mr. Brewster stands on the pavement at 7 a.m., ready for bus duty. He'll leave school for his home in Towson 12 hours later. In the interval, he will take charge of 85 young lives. He'll worry about a 10th-grade girl who is pregnant and living with her boyfriend. A boy will come to class looking as if he's high on drugs. Another boy tries to disrupt the class by talking loudly about gonorrhea.

Mr. Brewster will hover over the copying machine ("I used to have a secretary to do this"). He'll sympathize as another teacher complains that she's been issued the last light bulb in the building for an overhead projector (Chesapeake had to absorb $37,000 of a countywide deficit). He'll counsel a girl who's worried about a cousin being returned to an abusive father ("She needs a lawyer, and you do have to obey a court order").

He'll even teach (His ninth-graders take the Maryland Citizenship Test on Nov. 2, and they can't graduate without passing it).

When he gets home, he'll eat a frozen dinner and fall into bed exhausted, unless it's Thursday, when he takes an education course at the Johns Hopkins University. He's not married, and so can devote considerable time to school.

Mr. Brewster has lost 10 pounds since he began teaching his two ninth-grade and one 10th-grade social studies classes. He used to eat about six political meals a day, what with power breakfasts and swings along the rubber chicken circuit. Now it's a few sips of Gatorade in the morning, a tuna fish school lunch and a frozen dinner at night.

Like politics, teaching requires the courage to stand in front of a roomful of people and risk looking like a fool. A new teacher who began with Mr. Brewster quit after three weeks. "And she student-taught and everything," Mr. Brewster says in amazement.

His first day, he wrote his home phone number on the board and told the kids to call him whenever they felt it necessary. "Mr. Brewster," one girl said with great concern, "you're not allowed to do that."

He did it anyway, and gets calls nearly every day. "Usually it's clear they just need someone to talk to," he said.

Mr. Brewster began his first days eager to bring his I-was-there experiences to his students. Some kids preferred to sleep.

One day he pushed a sleeping boy's books to jostle him awake. "He said, 'Touch me again, and I'll knock your lights out,' " Mr. Brewster recalled.

"Do you try to keep someone like that so they don't become another criminal statistic? Do you expel him, knowing he'll probably never come back and you've lost him forever? I'm trying to keep him from exploding and from disrupting. I'm trying as hard as I can to do it right."

During a class, the boy arrives late. He looks dazed, perhaps on drugs. Mr. Brewster tells him to sit beyond a partition, where the rest of the class won't see him sleeping. Mr. Brewster feels he can't wake others up while letting another sleep right in their line of vision, and he's trying to hang on to the kid until his turn comes for evaluation by a specialist who might be able to find him help.

In the middle of class, Mr. Brewster wakes a boy named Jason sitting in the last row. At the end of class, it turns out he has done his work. "It pays off when you sleep," Jason says triumphantly. "You have more energy to do your work."

By now, Mr. Brewster says, his class is about 200 percent better than it was the first few weeks. He's picked up some tips from other teachers: He stopped the kind of lectures he himself got at Gilman. He gets students on their feet, arranging strips of paper on the board, each one showing the progress of a bill through the legislative process. He rewards participation with a Jolly Rancher candy tossed to the lucky student.

His face still wears the practiced half-smile of a seasoned politician. He's still eager. His department head calls him Gerry Gump.

When a new student arrives, he energetically announces, "This is Tanya. Please make her feel welcome and show her what a wonderful place Chesapeake is." Then he claps, loudly and all alone, for her.

In the past few years, Maryland has changed teacher certification requirements to attract candidates with good credentials but nontraditional teaching backgrounds, to lure people from the world of experience into the world of education. Last year, 150 Marylanders were certified through a new one-year master of arts program in teaching.

The city of Baltimore offers a summer program to train career-changers. In Baltimore County, Mr. Brewster took advantage of a provisional certificate, which allows an otherwise qualified candidate to begin work while taking education courses. He's a lawyer, and could have found a job in a high-priced firm. But he was seeking something else.

So far, he's not sorry. Sure, he wishes he were giving more pep talks on the democratic process at work. Sure, he'd like to inspire them with his stories about brushing shoulders with presidents. But politicians quickly learn pragmatism.

"Oh, I could really get into some good stuff about the political system," he says, with only a hint of regret.

"But maybe I'll help a few kids survive. Think of that. I might help some of these kids survive."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad