You know it isn't an ordinary high school classroom when the sign on the front door welcomes:
"Mr. Turner. Journalism Rm 329. Safe Streets. Stop the shooting."
Philip Turner, a native of Wisconsin, fresh from grad school at Northwestern, is teaching a lesson on crime reporting to high school seniors at Baltimore's Walbrook Homeland Security Academy.
Crime here is neither a concept nor a statistic. It's real. These kids are victims and suspects, relatives and friends of addicts and dealers. Some have been chased and confronted and arrested by cops. Their insight comes not only from what they've read about or seen on TV, but what they've observed nearly every day of their lives.
I joined the class last week and talked with two groups, agreeing to leave out their names because this wasn't a formal interview, but rather me helping them. The first 11 students were pretty much what I had expected. Write about cops who beat us, who steal from us, who plant drugs on us, they implored. "Is crime always bad?" one youth asked, quite seriously.
The second, larger group was different. They didn't talk about cops and drug busts and shootings. They wanted to know how they as journalists could make a broken system better. They wanted to know whether we were pressured by city leaders not to publish stories. And how we approach mothers grieving the loss of their sons.
Most of all, they wanted to know how this city became so violent. They hear the crime stats - Baltimore is getting safer - but don't believe whoever gathers the numbers ever visits Walbrook or the communities they call home. They notice that nobody has fixed a broken lamppost on their street, but that the city "did get us a bright new police camera."
They wanted to know the definition of crime.
The answer seems easy. Crime is breaking the law. But that's not the way many people living in city neighborhoods define it. And it's not the way these students in Mr. Turner's journalism class define it.
"Crime is the result of the loss of hope," one student said.
"Crime is a call for help," another said.
"Crime is human nature," a third added.
It is a crime, they said, to have to go to a school surrounded by drug dealers, to have to pass through metal detectors to get inside, to miss lessons because of fires set in bathrooms, to be interrupted by frequent announcements over the intercom and noise in the hallways. The seniors feel the work is too easy, the good grades inflated, that even with A's they are unprepared for college, that three principals in four years is an example of instability.
They wrote essays, some addressed as letters to Mayor Sheila Dixon and some to Sen. Barack Obama, for an assignment titled, "Crime in my eyes," a selection of which is posted on my blog.
One student felt so isolated that in writing the mayor he felt it necessary to explain what I hope the mayor already knows: "I go to a crime infested high school called Walbrook and it is in Baltimore." Another wrote, "The struggle of urban communities creates a violent lifestyle." A third wrote that some crime really isn't crime at all: "Selling drugs nowadays is just most people's way of surviving."
One female senior wrote a poem that deserves some mention here. The morning I spent at the school showed me there are kids who want to learn and get mad when that opportunity is stolen from them, be it by noise, fires, crime or turnover in staff. This excerpt of her poem demonstrates the skills these students possess and the fears they confront:
... dudes from your family smoking crack
And everywhere you go you gotta watch your back
Cause you scared to wake up with a gun to your back
Where do you call home
Where everywhere you go you see women cop
And you gotta keep ducking
Cause you hear gun shots
Trying your best to stay alive
And everyday you live a lie
Wondering when it will be your turn to die.