"Oh it's on!" my student said about the Baltimore purge. "I'm gonna get me some new shoes."
We knew about the "purge" by first period. The students at my West Baltimore high school were being called to participate in the looting of Mondawmin Mall through social media. My 11th and 12th grade English lessons were already focused on the civil unrest, protests and the destruction of property that had taken place at Camden Yards two days prior. The attention of the national media was already shifting to Baltimore, and the conversation was already switching from alleged police brutality to hooliganism.
In my classes we discussed the then hypothetical rioting that was about to unfold and why it was a bad idea. One student came late into class, "Oh it's on!" he said. "I'm gonna get me some new shoes. We're gonna tear that [expletive] up". Excitement spread. "Really?" I asked, "What does looting have to do with Freddie Gray?" We talked. "What are the real issues?" The class sobered.
Soon after, I would learn that my social-media savvy principal was well aware of these "purge" messages. Our administration dismissed our students that day urging them to refrain from participating in the event at Mondawmin. Already we could see the first helicopter hovering over the intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues. The unfortunate night of mayhem had already begun.
That evening, as violence spread through the city, Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby, delivered some direct words to a snarky Fox News reporter. He spoke about the causes of this unrest such as poverty, urban blight, food deserts, and he more than once cited the lack of education of the participants. Four days later, Congressman Elijah Cummings also singled out education as a primary contributor to the current tensions.
Did they mean that as educators, this was partially our fault? Like Mr. Mosby and Congressman Cummings, so many of us work every day to empower our city's youth, yet it is so very true that it takes more than a school to educate a child. The answers as to why Baltimore burned (this time) are as much linked to a history of white flight, the welfare system, and the 1980's crack epidemic, as they are to the capabilities of the city schools. As educators we cannot ignore the importance of family and community in the educational success of a student, especially when we have ever increasing data now showing us that some of the most deterministic indicators of success in school are self-control, emotional regulation, and the concept du jour — grit. In response to this, more and more of our schools are redefining their roles, now embracing a wrap-around model that offer educational, health and vocational services to all members of their communities so that we can bolster all factors that influence a child's ability to succeed academically.
Education is an attitude, and education is also about listening. This is the part where I should list the woes of poverty and urban decay — teenage pregnancy, lead poisoning, etc. But in my mind I see one of my student's head shaking as I write this. He is telling me "no." He wants me to tell you that he is not a stereotype. He wants you to know that he doesn't like violence. He wants you to know that he is trying, that he wants to go to college, and that he is the best that he knows how to be.
At the moment Baltimore is cleaning-up and reassessing. In our schools we are encouraging positive and non-judgmental expressions. We are discussing the real problems. We are talking about poverty, fear, anger, about economic disparity, about racism, the police and Freddie Gray. It is an unusual moment, a moment where it feels like something could be done, when connections could be made and more holistic approaches could be found to the interwoven problems that caused the riots in Baltimore. We should not be naive, but we should listen. Our students are speaking.
Morgan Showalter is a high school special education English teacher in the Baltimore City Public Schools and a recent graduate of Towson University's Educational Leadership program. His email is MJShowalter@bcps.k12.md.us.