Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Teach For America in the Terrordome

Teaching in the Terrordomeby Heather Kirn Lanier, UTNE reader: http://www.utne.com

Teaching in the Terrordome (University of Missouri Press, 2012) tells the story of how Heather Kirn Lanier joined Teach For America, a program that thrusts eager but inexperienced college graduates into America’s most impoverished areas to teach, asking them to do whatever is necessary to catch their disadvantaged kids up to the rest of the nation. 

Teaching at Southwestern High School, a.k.a. “The Terrordome,” in West Baltimore, Lanier had to overcome obstacles such as a disintegrating building, suspicious colleagues and even violent actions from the students. 

Despite shining statistics presented by the organization, here is a more common story of “Teaching For America,” written with thoughtful complexity, a poet’s eye and an engaging voice. Read about Lanier’s first impressions of West Baltimore and the school she would be teaching at in this excerpt taken from Chapter 1, “The School Beside the Cemetery.”
But so far, I’ve never seen any. I’m heading west again today, as I did yesterday and as, should I survive another seven hours of teaching, I’ll do tomorrow.

After passing through Charles Village, the neighborhood of Johns Hopkins and brightly painted, Victorian row homes, and after pass­ing through Mount Vernon, Baltimore’s upscale, urban-hipster scene of posh bars, galleries, bead stores, and transvestite prostitutes, I turn right onto West Franklin.

White flower boxes sit perched on the sills of tall, arch-shaped windows. Park benches and potted plants line one building’s out­side. I am not yet west of MLK.

But West Franklin becomes a freeway, and it’s here, on a slab of concrete hovering twenty feet or so over MLK Boulevard, that I do what those voices warn me never to do. The elevation of the freeway lowers until it dips below street level. I now speed below the short Baltimore blocks that my students freely, almost cheerfully call “ghetto.”

I pass under the names of streets they live on, the ones that make the news for the latest shooting or drug arrest: Calhoun, Gilmor, Monroe. If I were to head south on the last, I’d hit West Fayette. North Monroe and West Fayette: a drug intersec­tion made famous by an HBO series.

I merge from West Franklin onto Route 40, and with each passing meter the road rises to street-level, the walls diminish, and it’s like emerging from a concrete tunnel, like being birthed from a concrete mother into a depressed world of more concrete that’s now just trash-riddled and broken.

In a mile, the city has transformed. Trees and shrubs aren’t sculpted around banks and homes. Instead, dead vines and branches wrap around phone lines and chain-link fencing. Row homes line the streets. The homes are no wider than a window and a door. They look conjoined and sad, their varying brick fa├žades stuck together like dulled Lego bricks.

Several are boarded up, the doors and windows covered by plywood. Homes should have entries, openings, ways in and ways out. The boarded-up homes look like faces with sealed eyes and mouths. Occasionally, when I spot a real home - a home with glass, a working door - it’s almost inviting. Except its rarity seems foreboding.

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