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The real demons afflicting Douglass

The Baltimore Sun

Audie was the truculent guy, the one with the braided hair and grills in his teeth. About 25 minutes into the HBO documentary Hard Times at Douglass High, Audie pretty much summed up why the school named after one of the most erudite men of his or any century is having hard times.

"This what we do," Audie said about a bunch of students roaming the halls and standing around aimlessly. "Just walking the halls all day, baby. [Bleep] class. That [bleep's] for clowns, man. Don't nobody go to class around here, man. Man, [bleep] academics. Academics? We gon' leave that to them nerd-[bleep] [bleeps]. We gon' keep [bleep] straight 'hood. All my [bleeps] out here, we gon' keep it gutter."

Audie's pearl of wisdom took no more than a minute, but that's all he needed. The documentary, which I finally saw Thursday night, premiered Monday night and repeated all this week. Given HBO's schedule, you still have plenty of opportunity to catch rebroadcasts if you missed it.

Alan and Susan Raymond directed the documentary, which runs one hour, 50 minutes and some change. That's about an hour and 50 minutes too long, because Audie's little tirade pretty much says it all. But in case you have doubts, there are others in the documentary who tell why Douglass and other city schools have fallen on such "hard times."

There's English teacher Mr. McDermott, who left Douglass after the first semester of the 2004-2005 school year, when the Raymonds filmed their documentary. School honchos at Douglass must have been punishing McDermott for some reason, because they gave him the unenviable task of teaching three ninth-grade English classes that year. He left after the first semester, burned out by being unable to teach because he had to spend too much class time just keeping order and discipline.

On Parents' Night, only five parents showed up to talk to McDermott. They were the parents of children who were doing well in his class. McDermott said he wanted to see - needed to see - the parents of children who were doing poorly. Science teacher Mr. Hunt saw one parent; world history teacher Mr. Woods saw four.

"When I was in school it was a bit different," Woods said. "Mom and Dad around the corner. Teachers packed. Everybody waiting to see teachers. But nowadays, kids and parents - at least in this community at this time - don't stress education like they used to."

Woods may be the bravest man in Baltimore. To utter such a thing - and in front of a camera - takes courage not seen much in these parts. Many would accuse Woods of "blaming the victim." You're not supposed to speak ill of poor black folks, you see. So Woods isn't supposed to say what he said. Nor are we to judge the girls shown in the film who had babies before they finished high school. Woes betide us if we suggest to them that they've increased their chances of remaining in poverty by having a child in their teens and out of wedlock.

When students talk about how either one or both parents are not vested in their education, we're supposed to ignore that. To offer any criticism at all is "demonizing poor black folks," you see. But there are at least two things far worse than demonizing poor black folks that we can do to them.

The first is romanticizing them. The second - and perhaps most harmful - is patronizing them. And patronize them we do, in a way that is insidiously cruel. Listen to what English department head Mr. Connally had to say in the documentary:

"We did our ninth-grade reading-level tests at the beginning of the year, and I think out of maybe 300, 400 students that were tested, our incoming ninth-graders, maybe three were on grade level. Most were in 5, 4.5 level. It's unrealistic to think that if you have a fifth-grade reading level that you're going to pass a 10th-grade reading test. It's baffled me for years that we've allowed this to go on. It's almost as if no one wanted to admit that the students were passed to high schools with third- and fourth-grade reading levels. And I'm not talking about special-education students, either. I'm talking about regular students in regular classes. It's a crime - been one for years."

The emphasis in that last sentence is all my own, the better to drive home Connally's point. This is a crime, perpetrated and aided and abetted by those who don't want to "demonize" poor black folks. As a former poor black person myself - who grew up in an era when all black folks were demonized, regardless of class - I'm left to ponder whether it's better to be demonized and well-educated, or patronized and miseducated.

Gee, now there's a tough one.


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