First a city-wide curfew… now this, I groaned. I swear I’m in a warzone or something. And all I hear are those damn choppers.
With news and police helicopters whirring above me I was driving my usual route to Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore under most unusual circumstances. It was time to return to school 36 hours after the Freddie Gray unrest. Baltimoreans of all types began another day while holding their breath in the hopes that life might return to normal.
Baltimore City did its part to realize these hopes by commencing a quasi-military occupation. The city imposed a curfew whereby all residents, except those going to work, needed to be off the streets by 10 pm. Charm City 1had enlisted as much muscle as possible to prevent any future disturbances. Maryland state troopers teamed up with troopers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as the Maryland National Guard to maintain a nervous yet well-armed peace. Street corners morphed into guard posts as concrete barriers, law enforcement personnel, and automatic weapons kept a close eye on the city. The parking lots at the sports stadiums held Humvees and other military transport vehicles.
In the midst of these sentries were students and citizens waiting for city buses. They stood together wearing their ubiquitous Baltimore City Schools polos, security guard uniforms, or scrubs. And there they were, wearing blue or olive drab camouflage and holding weaponry. Many of my students took the bus to Cristo Rey and many could very well have been on street corners like those I saw that morning. I got defensive, first of myself and then of white folk. I looked awfully like many of the officers and Guardsmen stationed throughout the city. My students did not. How would I discuss this with them? I had labored the last 20 months or so to show my students that white folk could be trusted, that we weren’t that bad, that we could work together in a school like Cristo Rey and in the corporate world to transform Baltimore. I believed it.
Then my defensiveness shifted to my students. Why the weapons? Why the Humvees? Why the show of force? I wondered how my students must have felt with people bearing automatic arms and wearing fatigues on the same corner as them as they waited for their bus. I became suspicious and my suspicion began to align with what I imagine my students must experience every day. Generations-old social and racial tensions had always pulsed through the city, but after Freddie Gray these tensions made the city jittery. A jittery populace around a security force could easily turn angry, repeating earlier unrest and putting more people into harm’s way. At this point Baltimoreans had seen enough and we all wanted a reprieve from this show of force.
God forbid a nervous Guardsman or angry teen… I shoved the thought deep into the back of my brain. I kept driving, passing students and troops. I felt a little better; I didn’t need to take the bus.
I navigated regional rail, buses, and subways in Philly as a high school and college student. Early on in my teaching career, I thought this fact might demonstrate a kind of solidarity with my students. It would be a point of common ground between us. Like my students, I needed to plan ahead to ensure my two buses (#65 and #125) got me to work from school on time. Like my students, I cursed the local transportation authority when a train, unannounced, became an express and I had to double-back from Center City – adding at least 45 minutes to my commute and causing me to miss class. But I survived and thought I was a better man for it. Transit became a challenge to overcome, and by golly I wanted them to be mini-Horatio Algers who pulled themselves up by their transit bootstraps and get to my level of transit freedom. It was their responsibility to deliver themselves out of their transit mess. But when I made these claims to show I “got” them, to show some empathy or solidarity, I still sensed distance between us. I just couldn’t close the privilege gap.
In Baltimore, transportation and privilege are directly related. Very quickly I learned that the city seemed to facilitate movement in certain directions at certain times of day that favored certain groups of people. Going north-south was remarkably easy if one’s start- and end- points were downtown Baltimore and the immediate northern suburbs. The Jones Falls Expressway (JFX) bisected Baltimore and, though rush hour could provide some annoyances, it was pretty direct and allowed commuters to move freely. If I wanted to get out of downtown easily and avoid the JFX then Charles Street and Calvert Street were timed to stay green to facilitate movement out of the city to Baltimore County. These streets routinely became highways as speed limits became suggestions, especially for me. I once clocked a 15-minute trip from Federal Hill (a young, trendy neighborhood just south of downtown) to our community at Loyola University Maryland via Charles and Calvert. I only ran one red light.
My experience of driving through Baltimore contrasted with the east-west morass my students encountered daily. Many of my students traveled this way – most of the Latin Americans and some Black students from the east, most of the Black students and some Latin Americans from the west and south. Lights were not timed well to get across town nor were east-west streets as wide as north-south streets to move traffic quickly. Moreover, there is no east-west urban highway counterpart to the north-south JFX or I-95. I-170 was supposed to ease movement from I-70 into downtown, but all the infamous “Highway to Nowhere” did was separate traditionally Black neighborhoods from each other on the West Side. Further, the state government in Annapolis has prioritized highways and trains throughout the state and DC suburban mass transit over Baltimore transit. It also left Baltimore City off a transportation infrastructure map.
System-wide inefficiency hurt my students much more than me. For me, driving east-west was an occasional inconvenience. For my students, it was a daily cross that ranged from getting annoyed to “catching a hack” – the Baltimore tradition of flagging down passing motorists and paying a below market taxi price for a ride. Even in the age of Uber and Lyft, it is still common to see people walking along the road pointing down, the signal for a hack. When I asked a student at lunch if he were trying to catch a hack the previous afternoon as I drove by, he responded, “Yeah I was. Why didn’t you pick me up?”
It was a challenging question and it made me uncomfortable. The question cut to the heart of my willingness to head down the same road as my students, to suffer embarrassment and discomfort, contempt and humiliation with and for them. If my privilege won out, then their lives would remain distant curiosities that would forever elicit sighs of pity from me. If I accepted abasement, then I would have a chance to learn why they rode those roads in the first place.
From my start at Cristo Rey, I became acutely aware that differences like transportation between my students and me reinforced a social hierarchy that benefitted me. I often stumbled over omnipresent power dynamics that loaded many of my words and actions. Cristo Rey had about an 80/20 Black/Latin American student ratio as well as a 60/40 female/male student ratio. This context contrasted starkly with my high school student experience: all-male and about 85% white. I quickly learned that mentoring and patronizing differed greatly and so did disciplining and policing. It didn’t help that I looked like various other novice teachers they’d had in middle school who entered their underprivileged world underprepared for the job. Such teachers taught them a short period of time and moved on. There was a good chance I could end up a blip on my students’ life-radar.
The way to bridge the gap created by these differences was abasement, the act of being belittled or humbled. I learned this very well my during first year teaching. Like when my very first class lesson was a dud as my students didn’t know how to read a map of Baltimore. Like when most of my students failed the first history test I gave. Like when a student in my homeroom ripped up the detention slip and threw the confetti on the floor in front of me. Like when another student in that homeroom exclaimed as I ordered him to leave the classroom, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone!” He was right; he was asked to transfer after his freshman year and I still miss him.
Exasperated after my first week of classes, I vented to my mentor. His response? “This ain’t Saint Joe Prep, buddy.”
That understatement encapsulated how the privilege gap affected me and my students. I idolized unrealistic expectations and my students suffered from my ignorance of them and my inexperience as a teacher. My incredulity increased each time I perceived they could not maintain their attention in class, sit still, keep quiet, write clear paragraphs, and keep up with homework. As my frustration became more obvious, their level of trust remained low. I tried to tighten discipline even more and control my students so they could be students at a school like Saint Joe’s Prep, my beloved alma mater in Philly. I hit rock bottom in my first year when I took an entire class out in the hall, lined them up, and waited for them to keep silent for a single minute before we returned to the lesson. It took twenty-five minutes to get one, but I felt that my policing set the proper tone for class.
Because of privilege, my students were stuck at the Cross and I was stuck in the City of Brotherly Love.
Abasement transported me to the Cross at a slow, tough pace that forced me to learn and listen twice as much as I tried to control proceedings. First, this meant I needed to acknowledge my own ignorance as a teacher. What worked at The Prep didn’t work at Cristo Rey and the quicker I accepted that, the better. Observing other teachers and paying attention to my students, I figured out my students learned best with multiple visuals and shorter, quick activities to reinforce the lesson. This also made me realize my students weren’t all that unique; the majority of students – inner-city, rural, or suburban – learn best that way. I still fondly remember one of my finest lessons from about mid-way through my first year. We studied the Progressive Era. All my sections clearly understood the posted learning goal – Students Will Be Able To… explain the rise and goals of the Social Gospel Movement. I gave basic information via quick lecture and photos. Then my students worked with a partner to draw a before and after of a city following Social Gospel mandates. They actually learned history that day. Solid pedagogy allowed me to take a small but firm step towards credibility.
Second, I needed to learn about my students from my students at their will. With more knowledge about them, I could build relationships with them. These relationships would help keep class running smoothly. Relationships were tough to build though, so I undertook any means to understand the students, often putting myself at their mercy. One easy way to understand my students better was to listen to their favorite music. When I added 92Q to the classic rock and pop presets in the community car, I started to become better versed in Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Drake. This allowed me to take another step towards credibility. By no means was I a hip-hop expert, but I knew enough to badger my homeroom one morning, prompting an uproar in my classroom equal parts friendly and fierce. It started when I criticized Drake’s style.
“You don’t like Drake!!?? ‘Views’ is straight fire!”
“Kendrick Lamar is better, just saying.”
“Marchionni, you don’t get it; when he back home, they throw parades for Drake.”
“Okay, I’ll give you ‘Jumpman’ but –”
“Of course Marchionni gonna say ‘Jumpman!’ The class burst out in laughter. It was the most-played song and thus the most likely one for a white man to listen to.
“But listen – overall Drake just talks over a beat. I think Kendrick Lamar got better flow, just saying.”
They then proceeded to destroy my argument, let me know exactly which songs on “Views” to listen to, and then let me know about popular local Baltimore rappers with similar styles. That was the sort of pummeling I needed to show my comfort around them. This put both of us at ease.
Finally, abasement began to bear fruit in the trust my students showed me. Granted, these baby steps towards credibility and trust took over a year. But my students sensed that I was learning from them and that they were playing an active role in the teacher-student relationship. In these privileged moments, the typical teacher-student power dynamic played out with sincerity and compassion – no grades, no deadlines, just accompaniment. There was nothing I or my own privilege could do but to experience my students’ reality on their terms. On the surface, they had the standard inner-city stories. They had witnessed shootings and been victims of racial profiling. They’ve sacrificed to come to this country and have sacrificed to stay here. They visited family members in prison and hoped others don’t end up there. Gangs ran some students’ neighborhoods and tempted them with quick money. Trite as it seems for this foreigner to their context, these conversations allowed me to put a face and story to the statistics. When I hear about a homicide in the city, I know which students are from those neighborhoods and pray they’re safe. I fear a few have succumbed to gangs since leaving Cristo Rey and are on the corners now. I could empathize with the common privileged high school student problems involving some similar themes, but not with these. Life seemed dark and my stomach routinely sank as I found it tough to plan lessons knowing my students’ stories. How much could I blame them if they were distracted by the drama and couldn’t study? How much could I blame them if they were caring for younger siblings instead of finishing my homework?
These moments dragged me from Pilate’s court down to the Cross with my students. These moments when they spoke and I listened liberated us from the dual diseases of control and mistrust. There huddled by Christ’s brokenness I caught a glimmer of my students’ reality. Christ sanctified the struggle and gave us consolation that we could endure this reality together. In these brief moments of trust, accompaniment, and vulnerability, the Cross liberated us.
Any of my students could have been Freddie Gray. I learned about him on my way to school in mid–April 2015. I looked at the day’s Baltimore Sun laying out on a table in the community. On the front page was a photo of a young black man laid up in a hospital bed after being taken into police custody. The tubes, wires, and neck brace dehumanized him for me – I could barely see the person behind the machinery serving his vital needs. I shrugged and went on with my day, but not before sighing to myself presciently, “Shit. This is going to be bad.”
When the school administration heard rumors of a “purge” happening over West Side the afternoon of Monday, April 27, our principal dismissed us at 3:00 pm. By 3:02 pm, I was in a community Corolla and booking it north. Rush hour was just starting and though roads were busy, we all moved along swiftly. It was as if a city held a large-scale fire drill – crowded though we were we needed to move quickly and quietly. It was the same on the roads. I went north from Cristo Rey but cut over quickly to the JFX to get out of the city faster, just in case. It seemed all cars were heading north except for police who were hauling it west; their response just seemed to urge us northward with more vigor and to confirm everyone’s collective hunch: get out while you can. Siren after siren alerted us that Baltimore was in peril.
Scrambling out of the city was easy for me. I drove my own car and traveled the path that privilege set out for me. It was not as easy for students and many working people taking public transit. They were going into the teeth of the unrest. To get home many of my students had to go through the two transit centers closest to the unrest: Mondawmin and Penn-North. The MTA closed each one that afternoon as unrest spread over the West side. For students and adults alike, it became time to improvise as people were picked up at bus and subway stops in other parts of the city. As I binged on live news reports that ranged from sober to absurd, I thought about my students. I thought about why the center of the unrest and worst of the arson was in some of their West and East Side neighborhoods. I thought about what they’d feel with Baltimore in the national and international spotlight. I thought about all the ways Baltimore lived up to the reputation that The Wire formed in popular culture and how my students tried to shun it. I thought about how suburban whites like myself would react to the unrest and how they would ignorantly label my students. I got mad.
I went on a social justice warpath the next day – I had the time since city schools were all closed. While everyone caught their breath, cleaned the streets, and processed the event, I researched Baltimore’s economic and social history inside and out. Our social studies department was supposed to help the students process the event academically, and was I prepared to lecture my students all about our city and to give them ideas (orders?) about how to save it. With the best of intentions, control crept back into my pedagogical repertoire. It appeared differently, though, as now I unwittingly set myself up to be the patronizing white savior I tried so hard not to be. I had come a long way from being a task master, but I had flipped to the other extreme.
Our department chair kindly and firmly put me in my place. She reminded me that this was their event as much as, if not much more, than mine. They are likely traumatized and need to find their voice, so just let them share and listen. As a department, we’ll figure out what to do when we accurately sense where they are with the event.
Oh. I sunk down a little in my chair and my shoulders sagged, annoyed at myself for this latest instance of abasement. I had to accept that I was not from the city as my students were. Moreover, my research had fed my needs and curiosity; it had never crossed my mind that my students might have different questions about or reactions to the event or their city.
And so I rejected the temptation to assume that I was one of my students and that I could accurately speak for Baltimore after my 20 or so months there. I shut out the news and police helicopters whirring above us and listened to my students. Period after period echoed the same refrains – adolescent ennui and cynicism mixed with a dearth of economic and social opportunities. “What can the city do?” I asked. Bring back our rec centers so kids won’t be on the corner, they said. How about some job training? they asked. One student’s critique was pointed at the mayor – “How about she start by not calling us ‘thugs.’ Like, you don’t know me. You don’t know us. Who you think you are calling me a ‘thug’?”
The increased police presence that greeted all of us on our commutes to school – via car or public transit – was too little and too late for my students. From their perspective, these helicopters and barricades were the first visible signs that the civic authority was paying attention to them. My students’ system-wide mistrust of the city government and police matched the perceived mistrust the city and police harbored about them. Mistrust outweighed the constructive or positive moments one had with the other, and both became worse for it. The city has been trying some new initiatives recently, but these were a distant hope in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray protests.
Their responses that day were visceral, raw, and based in my students’ concrete reality. None of their responses matched the data I had collected the day before in my research.
I’m writing these reflections from a great distance – literally 30,000 feet. As I type I’m flying cross-country from Baltimore to Berkeley, CA. I fly regularly as part of my Jesuit formation because I am expected to see family (on the east coast), attend events (on the east coast), and participate in ongoing development to make me the well-rounded servant the Church needs (around the country and the world). American – especially white – Jesuits are privileged and yet it is exactly this privilege that allowed me to attend the Cristo Rey Baccalaureate Mass and Commencement this year. This privilege allowed me to see my students walk across the stage and proudly cheer and yell, especially when former homeroom students received their diplomas. This privilege allowed me to show them that I was still around somehow, someway. This privilege allowed me to let them know they have an ally and a listening ear whenever they needed. But I am in California now and many will stay in Baltimore, and we will lack the physical proximity necessary to cultivate solidarity.
Over three years in Baltimore I used my privilege to try to eschew privilege. The tension from this paradox is ever-present and I do not know how well I engaged abasement in my road from privilege to solidarity. I know I love my students and, judging by reactions at graduation, they love me. But our roads differ so vastly that it will take more than my three years of work to achieve authentic solidarity. The privilege gap deepens distrust and cynicism cements itself in the minds of youth. If I ever returned to Cristo Rey, I’d have to undergo the same abasement process with new students. I’d need to earn their trust and my credibility as I did with my homeroom. I’d need to travel more roads to solidarity with more students and welcome the various roadblocks, inefficiencies, and delays. But my own roadblocks won’t be men with automatic rifles. It will be the instances where students see me as a traveler, an interloper, a colonist, an appropriator of culture, or a redeveloper of a neighborhood. There are no shortcuts and it won’t take 18 minutes to arrive at solidarity.
At graduation I chatted with a former student who could hardly contain herself as she told me about an upcoming family vacation to Florida. It will be the first time she has ever gone on a plane and she was a bit nervous. I tried to reassure her, “Don’t worry – BWI to Orlando is like 2 hours. It’ll be a breeze.” Easy for me to say, of course. My first flight was also a family vacation to Orlando so I could empathize a bit and…
Who was I kidding? She’s 17. I first flew to Orlando at age six and yet I still have very far to go.
- I find it interesting that Baltimore didn’t earn this nickname as much as it created it from on-high. Advertising executives answered the call of a mayor dealing with a city with a bad public image. ↩