One Baltimore #4, Schools


My people tend to be the uncategorizable, those who cross social groups, genders, class boundaries and the like. I recently encountered such a person in Shawn Leak, and it’s been absolutely wonderful comparing notes about Baltimore and their home, DC. While the specifics of our upbringings vary greatly, we both moved through an odd stew of social circles in strangely and starkly divided towns, which gave us certain perspectives.

They asked me the other night about “the whole Baltimore county, Baltimore city thing.” Woooooo. As you may imagine, I went on for a while. I started by reiterating some of the stuff I covered in OB #1 ( – growing up in Woodlawn, a ten minute walk from the city line on the west side, confused by how I did or didn’t fit into “Baltimore”.

After geography, I explained a bit about my schooling, an essential piece of understanding anyone’s Baltimore story. Much like land, good schools are all about who gets them and who doesn’t.

For kindergarten, I went to Mt. Providence, a private Catholic school around the corner from my house. Despite not being of that faith, my parents had heard good things about it, and wanted to give me a quality start to my education. Most of my memories of it are good, but the strongest is of the time a nun made all my classmates stand in a line and laugh at me for an infraction. Yeesh.

For a few years after that, I walked every day to the local public school, Edmondson Heights Elementary. I remember being a typical kid, living out childhood’s little dramas, making friends and nemeses. I wasn’t thriving, though, getting decent grades for academics but bad marks for focus (wild that it would be another 25 years before I realized I had ADHD).

In 3rd grade, a kid who was always looking for a new way to be mean called me a kike. We were in art class at the time. I had no idea what he was talking about, I’d never heard the word before. The teacher had though, and she sent us right to the office so that I could make a report. I didn’t mind the opportunity to get a bully in trouble, but still wasn’t clear on what we were talking about exactly. I got it when I heard him mutter that it wasn’t his fault that it turned out the art teacher was a dirty Jew too.

Based on that incident, and on my difficulties generally, my parents decided to make a change. I started fourth grade at Krieger Schechter Day School in the well-to-do part of Owings Mills. Caaaaaan you say culture shock? I was raised a reform Jew – religion was a meaningful part of our lives, but mostly confined to the weekend. Now I was steeped in the conservative strain of the tradition, praying in the chapel every weekday morning. Alongside kids who had spent their lives learning a language I didn’t speak and building bonds that I didn’t share, whose families had SO MUCH MORE MONEY than I was used to, and who, with a couple of life-saving exceptions, Did Not Like Me. The education were pretty good I guess, but it never got easy to be there.

Once middle school had finally, finally ended, I went back to my own neighborhood, to Woodlawn High. That school was of course made famous by Serial’s coverage of the case of Adnan Syed. I didn’t know him, but we were there at the same time, a few years separated. There’s a Netflix piece on him now, if you’re not yet familiar with the grave, ongoing miscarriage of justice being done to him.

I feel like it gets lost that Adnan’s case is another example of BPD malfeasance, one now known the world over. While he lived in the county, the murder he supposedly committed occurred in the city, so it was city cops and the city’s “justice system” that put him away as a teenager. His friend Rabia Chaudry brought his story to light and then started the unparalleled Undisclosed podcast, which is currently covering the persecution of Keith Davis, who has spent the last four years in jail for the crime of being shot by BPD. I learned from the podcast that Keith grew up just to the west of us, in Catonsville (

Anyway, things felt uhhhhhh a little less great back home than they’d been in third grade. The courtyard was tense, kids in tight clumps divided by lines that were sometimes visible to me and sometimes not. The classes were large and stultifying, the atmosphere very much that of a prison. I made a few cool friends, but I knew it was going to be, if anything, an even longer four years than the last had been.

But then something unexpected happened — partway through the year, I was offered a slot in the theater program at the Carver Center for Arts & Technology, a public magnet high school in Towson. I had auditioned there but hadn’t gotten in… apparently I was at the top of the waiting list though, and when someone dropped out, I got the nod.

Carver, Carver, Carver. I’m not saying it was perfect, but I couldn’t be more grateful for that school. I found my best friend to this day there (@Page Branson’s gorgeous full-color comic is free to read online and it’s wonderful!!, as well as a big group of weirdos and queers who accepted me into their midst. The latter half of my freshman year was spent trying to figure out if it could possibly *really* be true that I had a thriving social circle.

All too soon, it was time for college… and I really mean too soon, in that I was late applying to a lot of the scholarships and aid packages. My troubles with focus hadn’t disappeared, but luckily there was a solid institution that accepted me and helped me out. UMBC, just around the corner from where I grew up, launched my adult life and career, and let me leave it without debt.

A contact at UMBC helped me get my first job, at a non-profit. Within a year there, I was working with teachers and students at city schools, helping them plant gardens and trees and such. I have been ever since, over different jobs and volunteer gigs.

To be clear, I’ve never been a teacher. I have three friends from high school and college who went on to become city teachers. Two quit for their mental health and the third is ready to do so. Uniformly, they explain that it’s not because of the kids, the kids have their challenges but they love them… it’s the painfully broken nature of the system, from the federal level to the local, the numbing piles of paperwork, the frustrating and ever-changing rules, the commonplace lack of basic necessities. So much respect to the people who are in it.

If our schools are hard on adults, they’re harder on kids. One could talk about that from a lot of angles, but in the interests of time, let’s look at just one — the infrastructure alone is a scandal. While a few of the city’s 172 schools have been rebuilt in recent years, in general none of the drinking fountains are turned on because of possible lead (yes, there have been “temporary” water coolers at all our schools for over a decade), heating and cooling systems frequently fail, understaffing and high turnover is chronic, social workers and health workers are desperately needed but infrequent, and materials and facilities are on average far behind what their peers in the other Baltimore receive.

Remember when the casino bill passed in ‘07, which dedicated some of their revenue to schools? Billions of dollars have come in from that, right, so why aren’t things better? Except it didn’t come in. O’Malley diverted large portions of the funds for other programs ( and Hogan has diverted all $1.4B that’s come in during his tenure ( The General Assembly passed a bill this year to stop that from happening, so there’s that, at least, only a dozen years late.

There is sooo much more to say about Baltimore City schools, but we’re running low on space, so we’ll leave it there for this week.

If you’d like to do something for our schools, try Reading Partners, where you read and do word games with kids who are behind on literacy skills. It’s easy to get started, you can do as little as one hour per week while still making a measurable difference, and you’re gonna fall in love with the kid you work with, it’s just gonna happen.

Another way to help young people is to ensure they have safe places to play and learn outdoors. Time in nature has been shown to reduce symptoms of ADHD and mitigate the effects of stress and trauma. Atiya Wells and the other organizers there are seeking to purchase a 2.5 acre lot for a community farm project called BLISS Meadows. They have two weeks left to raise the funds, please donate and share!

In order for everyone to be able to equally access good schools, they can’t be filled with guns. Women Against Private Police are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to take away JHU’s private police authorization, and are holding an organizing/training session this Tuesday downtown, check it out!

Remember Shawn, from the first paragraph? They’re a young Black genderqueer activist, and also a Navy vet, who is facing imminent threat of homelessness due to poverty. They have an amazing spirit of hope and determination, but are in a real rough patch right now. They’re working hard to get back on their fee, but could really, really use a little money for basic needs and getting around. Any help at all, including sharing, is tremendously appreciated!!$itsshawnnow

I know I just posted another fundraiser for a different friend in a similar situation (thank you so much for your support, please keep spreading the love!!, but what can I say, these are the people on the ground. When you ask “why aren’t people in the street right now?!” — these are the people who are. They were protesting Trump’s nomination, they’re leading the way now, and they’re at great risk. As we come to the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, let’s not forget that rowdy queer & trans activists are the reason we have anything today!!

#FreeAdnanSyed #FreeKeithDavisJr #JusticeforTyroneWest #OneBaltimore #StonewallWasARiot

Cultural event of the week: Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird is coming to town, this is not a drill!! Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl is bringing them to 2640 St. Paul this Monday night, 5/27. Sliding scale, no one turned away for lack of funds. Alienation Klezmer / Yiddish Punk Cabaret. My god it’s good. Don’t miss it, seriously.

Green events of the week:There’ll be a Grassroots Townhall on the Central Maryland Transit Plan this Thursday evening, 5/30, at the Impact Hub. Transportation is crucial to a healthy city/region, and our system is not up to our needs!!

Song of the week: “Freedom is a Verb” by Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird

And no one gets the freedom they were told that they deserve / ‘Til they realize that freedom’s not a noun / It’s a verb, it’s a verb! Freedom is a verb! / Something never finished, never done! / It’s something you must make, it’s something you must take / It’s something you must constantly become

Photo: Cartoon, shared with permission, by writer and artist Dale Beran, a city school teacher at the time of the Uprising, who witnessed the police provocation of students first-hand and gives a vivid illustrated account here: Follow him at or

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s