February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
July 15, 2008
I am not a crier.
In the movie An Unfinished Life, Robert Redford’s character, a gruff, crotchety old man, asks someone, “Is this something we’re going to have to talk about?” and I laugh hysterically, because I know exactly how he feels. I do not like discussing my innermost feelings. They are my innermost feelings for a reason. And I rarely cry when moved by emotion. In deep crisis, in heartbreak, my eyes are dry.
But a few years ago I taught at Patterson—an inner-city Baltimore high school of 1,700 students—and met hundreds of kids who changed my life.
In three years of teaching, I had four white students. Most of my kids were African-American, Latino, or newly arrived refugees and immigrants.
There are hundreds of Pattersons all across the United States. Kids who come to learn in such schools often leave without learning much by way of books. They learn a lot, however, about what we expect of them in society.
In Baltimore, I could barely open my eyes without them seeping, leaking, dripping out fat salty tears of heartache.
You can tell the days from their faces. The best day is Wednesday; that’s the farthest they get from home, from whatever’s going on in the streets. You see smiles then. Monday is angry. Tuesday they’re caught between Monday and Wednesday, so it could go either way. Thursday they’re feeling that weekend coming. Friday is bad again.
—Grace, The Wire, Season 4, Episode 3
In the last period of my first day teaching English at Patterson, one of my freshmen girls, the one whom I will nickname Attila the Hun halfway through the year, curses at me. I keep her after for detention, but I don’t really know what to do. All the training in the world doesn’t prepare you for that first time a kid looks you in the eye and says, “Fuck you.”
I have no idea how to teach.
Dante1 skips class four times a week, and I wonder why he bothers showing up on Fridays. John fails every assessment given in the first month. Tamia walks out one day in the middle of a reading. One of my mentors tells me teaching is an exercise in failure every day.
I’m talking to one of my best friends, and she asks about what blows me away the most. I have the first protective inklings for my students. I don’t want to tell her about the bad stuff, the stuff no one would believe, because my children are so much more than skipping classes or absentees.
My first period class is complaining they’re not smart enough to do an assignment, and I tell them they’re a roomful of miracles. I tell them they can do anything they put their minds to. I tell them they’re beautiful. It’s one of those dreadfully awful, sappy Frank McCourt teacher moments that only occurs once every ninety days or so.
I tell them to write three positive attributes about themselves. They get hung up on the definition of attribute, and then they still resist.
Dwayne raises his hand. “Ms. B, do you tell all your classes they’re miraculous?”
In January, Calvin will take his neighbor’s van for a joyride across state lines, which will earn him some time in juvie. For now, he is in class, and he is writing:
“I dont believe in God. But if there were a God, why dont he care about the things goin on in Bmore? Why dont He look down and see them?”
Over the intercom, my principal is incensed about graffiti that has appeared in the east stairwell: “Teachers, keep your recalcitrant students in your rooms!”
Somebody mutters “fuck you” under their breath, and I smilingly interject, “make sure you use a condom, darlin’,” to my lesson on comma placement. Tiana laughs, others smile, and we get back to constructing sentences.
I plan a nonfiction unit focusing on issues of violence. We start discussing causes of violence and ways to stop those causes, and we research peace processes around the world.
I pull an article from The Baltimore Sun that follows a series of shootings which occurred the previous fall in East Baltimore. The story goes that one person stepping on someone else’s shoe at a party led to a shooting later that night. The dead man’s neighborhood friends retaliated against the shooter, then that shooter’s friends retaliated, and so on, until there were six shootings and five deaths over a period of six months. It’s not really news in a city where the murder rate has hovered around 270 per year for the past few years, but it’s news for me. The violence took place in the neighborhoods where my students live.
I give my students their assignments. I’m talking to LaBrea when I glance to my left and see Vincent’s hands shaking.
I walk over and ask him if he’s all right. He can’t speak. I tell Vincent to step outside for a minute and then follow him into the hallway. I stand against the lockers where one of my favorite children in the world is now sobbing, hands covering his face the way people do when they don’t want you to see them.
So I stand there, eyes wide and mouth closed, while Vincent sobs against a locker. Kavon steps into the hall and says softly, “Ms. B, that article we just read? That’s his cousin.”
The lockers are hard against my back. What do I think I’m doing, saving the world with my antiviolence crusade? In my rush to teach things that matter, I forget that my students feel the impact of violence far more keenly than I ever have. Where I see statistics, they see faces they know; I read of deaths, while they read of cousins, brothers, fathers and sons.
The brick walls absorb more heat than I think is possible, and my classroom, so cold in the winter, is a furnace right now. Summer’s almost here. I’ve gotten the three minute lecture down to an art form, because that’s about all the time you have before their attention goes out the window.
My classroom is in a different hallway this year, and my kids from last year come find me. They tell me about their new classes; they tell me about their sister, mother, football practice, girlfriend, boyfriend, job. I love it.
We’re writing memoirs, and William writes about his aunt cooking him dinner one summer down in Georgia. Tavon says, “I really liked what William wrote about his aunt because you could see how much he loves her and that touched me.”
I watch intently as they take their Tuesday quiz. Shit. I’m falling in love with you, and I think I’m leaving at the end of the year. Is this what’s going to happen? I decide to leave and then can’t see you grow up?
Jonelle has an anger problem. She also loves to read—anything. She’s gone through eight books of her own choosing in the first seven weeks of class when another kid threatens her in the lunchroom. Jonelle hits the lunchroom bully. In the ensuing debacle, she somehow throws a punch that strikes a teacher. I never see her again.
I walk past Mrs. Vander’s science classroom. She’s in front of the kids at her desk, reading a novel. Her students are talking, laughing, throwing paper balls. She told me last week it was too cold to do any work.
I go to a football game to watch Vincent play quarterback. He sees me in the stands with Jake and waves. Vincent’s grandfather is in the front row. He says, “Ms. Bergquist! How are you? He’s doing great this year, isn’t he? He says he misses your class!” We chat for a while and watch as Patterson wins, 21–7.
Raymond’s parole officer interrupts last period to check on him in class. I tell her he’s got a 73 at the moment. It should be higher, but he’s not doing his homework. But he’s been in class all day, every day.
The parole officer says, “Better’n bein’ on the corner slingin’, Ms. B.”
“You got that right, Ms. Clark.”
It is about twenty-five degrees outside, and I don’t have heat in my classroom, haven’t had it for the past three months. Because my windows don’t close all they way, it’s freezing in my room. We’ve got a space heater in the front and back of the room. I’ve got on long underwear, mittens, and my heavy winter coat. My students have their coats on too. My principal walks by and then steps in.
“Ms. Bergquist, this is a safety issue. Students cannot have their coats on. Think of what they could be hiding under there!” She walks off before getting a reply, but certainly expects I will inform my students to take off their coats.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen, back to Ernest Gaines and Jefferson. Gaines is using the word hog a lot. What’re the implications of this?”
I ask my freshmen who their heroes are. Athena writes:
“God is the only hero I have because he is the only one who keeps me safe at night.”
My students love Romeo and Juliet’s blood and guts, the feuding families and cousins.
We’ve performed the play and are watching Baz Luhrmann’s version of the final act. Tameka is engrossed in watching Leo come upon Claire.
As Juliet lies there merely sleeping, as Romeo lifts the dagger to stab himself, “Don’t do it!” Tameka yells. “No, Ms. Bergquist, he can’t. She can’t . . .” She watches, helpless to stop it. One of those glistening tears you read about makes its way down Tameka’s soft cheeks, hand clasped over her mouth.
Jamal is walking alongside his cousin in a parking lot on the West side when a man shoots his cousin through the head. He is killed two blocks from his home, the 27th teenager to die in Baltimore in 2005. Anna Ditkoff details it in her Murder Ink column: 8 homicides this week; 205 so far this year. There will be 269 murders by the end of the year.
I write a recommendation letter for Samuel, a junior I taught as a freshman. Sam’s an artist—always drawing quietly in the back of the room. I found that his word choice and writing matched his pencil strokes: careful and deliberate. But he never comes by to pick up the letter. I call his mom.
Ruthie tells me he’s been arrested and charged with armed robbery; he’s now sitting in Central Booking.
I go, take him some work from other teachers. I bring along Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He says thanks, Ms. B, and he can’t wait to get out of there, and they’re messing up all his credits at the jail, and they put him in classes he had last year as a sophomore.
I’m on an airplane going home for Thanksgiving, sitting next to an older couple visiting their daughter. I’m reading Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of the Nation. I read his notes from a conversation with John Lewis, who says:
Sometimes you have to ask for something that you know you may not get. And still you have to ask for it. It’s still worth fighting for and, even if you don’t believe that you will see it in your lifetime, you have got to hold it up so that the generation that comes next will take it from your hands and, in their own time, see it as a goal worth fighting for again. A segregated education in America is unacceptable. Integration is, still remains, the goal worth fighting for. You should be fighting for it. We should be fighting for it. It is something that is good unto itself, apart from all the other arguments that can be made[. . . .] You cannot deviate from this. You have to say, some things are good and right unto themselves. No matter what the current mood in Washington is like, no matter what the people who are setting policy today believe, or want us to believe, no matter what the sense of temporary hopelessness that many of us often feel, we cannot give up on the struggle we began and on the dream that brought us here. You cannot give it up. We cannot give it up. As a nation, as a people, I don’t think we have any choice but to reject this acquiescence, to reject defeat.2
I think about how hard it is to get up every day and go to work knowing that I will not reach all my children, that there will be some who fall through the cracks regardless of my effort.
I think about how my little classroom in Baltimore is representative of a national attitude that devalues our children.
I think about how I have no idea how to start addressing the issue of segregated schools. I wonder how in the fifty years after Brown versus Board, we have come so slowly down this road of integration and perhaps even backtracked.
I’ve never cried in public before. I learn on this airplane it is possible to cry silently, to let tears race down your cheeks, great drops rushing down your sweatshirt, leaving blotchy haphazard patterns down the front. When I get off the plane, Mom says, “I think you’ve lost ten pounds.”
For some reason this makes me want to cry more.
The seniors come around collecting money for Hurricane Katrina victims. Kai, whose mother is barely scraping by with two jobs, slips a ten dollar bill in the container when he thinks nobody’s looking. I think about the widow who Jesus talks about, the one who gave her last coin to the temple collection. I have to look away, back at the chalkboard.
After a class discussion about how much we love The Wire, Gardner tells me he can get me copies on the black market for fifteen bucks. “For real, Ms. B.”
Samuel’s court date comes up and the witness who pinpointed him now says, “Oh, no, I made a mistake. It wasn’t this kid.”
The judge releases him. He comes back to school to learn he’s now half a year behind and won’t graduate with his class next year.
I’m helping the junior advisor plan an assembly for the junior class. I scan through the list of names. Of the 120 kids I taught as freshmen, only 57 are on this list. Some the students transferred legitimately, but most are simply gone without explanation, lost somewhere in Baltimore’s arms.
I’ll see a few on the corner. They wave as I drive by.
I see Raymond one day, down on Lafayette. He grins as I slow down. Most of the white folks rolling through here are looking for illegal substances, but by now most of the neighborhood thinks I’m a harmless social worker or some other city employee. I roll down the window to the fierce humidity of the early Baltimore summer and immediately my hair’s plastered against my forehead.
“How ya doin’, Ms. B?”
“I’m all right, Raymond, how’re you?”
“A’ight. Ms. B. I’m a’ight,” Raymond says in the street language of Baltimore, words I’ve come to love. He fades back to the corner stoop waiting for customers, and I drive on.
I’m watching The Wire, Season 4, the one about education. Watching Prez’s first day reminds me of my first class. As the season progresses, we see him fall in love with his children: their harsh tenderness, their laughter and street smarts. In the end, only one of the four kids focused on throughout the show is still in school. I am saddened by this accurate portrayal of a school system in crisis; it is representative of a national issue being addressed every day by teachers, administrators, community members, and parents, but very rarely by those in power.
I don’t know what all I learned in Baltimore. I don’t know what to tell sometimes. I don’t usually talk about it so personally. Instead, I simply tell people it was a great thing to do; I learned a lot about education. I keep my students and their memories close to my heart.
I did learn to be humble about what I do not know, and that there’s a lot I don’t know. I learned to be honest about the privilege I was brought up in and what it has sheltered me from. I learned to recognize faces behind the statistics people spout off so flippantly. And I learned there are children in this country who warrant far more than they are given.
Sometimes the only thing left to do in the face of unbearable inequity is to weep. And then, as my kids taught me, you wake up, roll out of bed, and you keep going, trying to be a person who works to give our miraculous children opportunities they deserve.
Greta Bergquist taught as a Teach for America Baltimore corps member from 2003-2006. She currently lives and works in Seattle.