About a week ago, I had the pleasure of going back to my old school to see how things were going. My old students are all seniors now, and the school that I helped found (weird, huh?) is now a full house, with grades 6-12. I must say, the experience of going back left me with mixed feelings.
First of all, it was really cool seeing the students again and my old coworkers. My old students are really starting to look like young adults. They’re working out plans for after graduation.
Yet, it was frustrating to be see that they’re still lacking a certain something. I think that “something” is perspective. I’m worried that most of them are in for a very rude awakening when and if they finally get out of Baltimore. Many undoubtedly will delay that reality check indefinitely by simply not leaving the city. That feels a bit patronizing to write, because many of my students deal with reality that I couldn’t have imagined at their age, and probably still can’t. But reality has many levels, and the one about which they lack perspective is the reality of how a person makes it to middle class career success.
If they had perspective, they would be feeling a massive sense of urgency. They would know that the game clock is down to the last few seconds, that it is time to be making some spectacular moves to get ready to compete on the next level. Instead, I saw students meandering aimlessly during class hours and doing everything but being productive. Above all, I feel sad to see that we failed to establish a culture in the school that was fundamentally different that the prevailing culture of the school system. I don’t want to throw salt on my old school, but that’s the reality of it. We worked our asses off. and we couldn’t do it. In the year in the half since I left, my coworkers kept carrying the torch and new people came in and hit the ground running.
Speaking of the teachers, morale is about what one would expect at the tail end of the brutal grind that leads up to winter break. They’re worn out and frustrated with the system and with the countless things that aren’t going as they should. I got to sit in on a few conversations about how to solve problems that shouldn’t exist. But it’s Baltimore City, and unless you’ve seen the schools first hand, every assumption you might have about what a school has and how it must work is probably not even close to reality.
I pitched in a couple of suggestions, but to be brutally honest, I felt a massive sense of relief that tackling these problems is no longer my responsibility. I feel a little guilty about it, but I’d be remiss for saying it. There’s an unhealthy level of general absurdity everywhere you look. Usually, it’s kind of an ephemeral absurdity that plays out in the details, but sometimes you run right into it, perhaps in the form of a half ripped sign saying, “DOOR MUST REMAIN CLOSED AT ALL TIMES”, barely hanging off an unwatched, slightly ajar door to the outside world.
The school itself has seen some changes too. Millions of dollars had been spent to make some pretty impressive renovations to the building. So there are some really cool things going on. Clearly, a lot of people are working to make the place better. Unlike me, they still have the energy to fight the good fight.
In any case, it was good to be back. I want nothing for the best for all the students, teachers, and staff. I’m looking forward to visiting again. It’s actually quite enjoyable to see everyone, and it’s good to remind myself of what’s really going on, especially now that I am so disengaged from that reality on the ground.