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Baltimore teacher: Write your own story, or others will

Baltimore teacher: Write your own story, or others will
A resident with a cellphone captured this image of Freddie Gray being loaded into a police van in April 2015. (HANDOUT)

"Write your story!" reads a poster situated in the front of my classroom in Carver Vocational Technical High School in West Baltimore. This is the same school where Freddie Gray attended about a decade ago, the man whose death while in police custody in 2015 sparked massive protests and unrest in the city.

As a first year teacher working for Baltimore City Public Schools, this simple poster was supposed to be my motivation every day for each and every one of my students growing up in inner-city Baltimore. What was most important for me — more so than increasing standardized test scores, GPA's or even reading levels, all extremely important measures of student achievement — was for my students to be able to advocate for themselves and express who they are, and more importantly, to know that they have the power to do so.

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What I did not realize coming in though, is that in many ways, the "story" has already been written for my students. Take for example the effect of systemic inequalities that plague inner-city public schools, and especially those in Baltimore. A Mother Jones article written shortly after the 2015 riots in Baltimore looked specifically at Carver and gave reasons for why the school in which Gray grew up in "played a role in his trajectory." While the article addressed very salient issues that affect Baltimore and its youth, including segregation by both race and class, it also painted a hopeless picture for inner-city or "apartheid schools," where white students make up 1 percent or less of the student population. The article gave an extremely grim portrayal of both students and teachers at Carver.

So, before my students had even entered Carver for their first day of school, a story had already been written for them. This "story" left out many details of what it looks like to be a student at Carver, however. It failed to mention Carver's recent success at the Urban Debate League. It failed to mention that Carver students get accepted into colleges across the city, state and nation — including Morgan State University, Howard University and the University of Maryland, among others.

Since the Mother Jones article was written, students have gone on to achieve even greater things. In the fall of 2016, Carver students enrolled in what is known as P-Tech, a program that allows students to take both high school and college courses, as well as receive relevant job training. In both 2016 and 2017, juniors in Mrs. Hall's English classes came together to write and publish a book: "One Nation, One Heart" in 2016 and "A City Unspoken: A Dose of Our Reality" in 2017. These examples highlight just a sliver of the amazing undertakings students at Carver are doing and working toward every day. While the popular narrative is telling one story about education and opportunity in Baltimore's public schools, many of its students are telling quite another.

With this being said, students in Baltimore City do face very real challenges, and Carver is no exception. A school situated in a city stained with a history of institutional racism and segregationist policies has led to a society where ills such as crime, poverty, drug-addiction and fatherlessness permeate throughout many of the neighborhoods our students come from.

As a newcomer to Carver, it was a challenge to come to work every day with all of these struggles and their residual effects spilling into the classroom. One reminder that kept me going though — and will bring me back this school year — is knowing that each and every one of my students is a unique individual with God-given potential and a story to tell.

I am excited to return to Carver to teach next week, and looking forward to implementing changes in the classroom. Among these changes is to add to my original sign. While I believe in the power of that sign now more than a year ago, I also realize that it's not enough. Originally, I wanted my students to write their stories because I thought if they didn't, then no one else would. I now realize that I want my students to write their own stories precisely because others will. Come September, that sign will be in my room, but will this time read: "Write your own story so no one else will." And come September, you better bet I'm going to encourage it. My students are too important not to.

Michael Tobass is a 10th grade English teacher for Baltimore City Public Schools; his email is mtobass@gmail.com.

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