Every morning a slender woman of average height arrives in West Baltimore to take up the task of moving mountains, throwing the full weight of her 122 pounds against despair and indifference, poverty and ignorance.
Ruth Bukatman is the principal of Booker T. Washington Middle School, once one of the glories of black education in Baltimore, a school that turned out Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court justice, and numerous other luminaries. Today, Booker T. stands in lonely Victorian splendor, towering over a neighborhood with the highest teen-age pregnancy rate, the highest juvenile crime rate and the highest dropout rate in a city that has the highest such figures in the state.
Mrs. Bukatman's job is to give her 735 children a future. She must educate them.
During a typical day she will meet with molecular biologists from the University of Maryland at Baltimore who want to set up a center to help her kids do their homework; she'll try to get the heat working right in Room 227; she'll dispense justice to nine kids who threw eggs outside the school the day before. ("Send them to the Hickey School" for juvenile delinquents, one student suggests helpfully.)
She'll pop into classes throughout the three floors of the huge building to give teachers a friendly word; she'll find a young girl -- who was abused in a foster home after her parents were killed in a fire -- wandering the halls in violation of the rules; she'll make sure the turkeys are lined up for the report-card day giveaway.
She'll write up notes on evaluations of two teachers, and she'll send a non-certified teacher hired just the day before off to his work with a shout of encouragement that rings through the echoing halls:
"We're going to make a teacher out of you, Mr. Simmons."
When Ruth Bukatman became principal more than four years ago, she was the first white person to hold the job at Booker T. She worried that the community that sends its children to the all-black school that occupies the block bounded by McCulloh, Lafayette, Madison and Lanvale streets would object.
But Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's stepmother, a retired teacher who had once supervised Mrs. Bukatman, set her straight. "Black people want the same thing as white people," Verdeen Schmoke told her. "They want a good education for their children. You'll do fine."
Mrs. Bukatman arrives at Booker T. Monday through Friday just after 7 a.m., a spring in her step and a smile on her face. When she leaves in darkness 12 or 13 hours later, the spring is gone, but she can still raise a smile.
On this typical Thursday, she begins the day holding 2 1/2 pages of yellow, legal-size paper she had filled up the night before with things to do. "These are the little things," she says. "The big ones are on my calendar."
At 8 a.m., she is talking homework in the first-floor conference room, the yellow and cream walls lighted by the still-harsh light of morning. Gathered around her are three new volunteers, joining the 67 UMAB employees who are trying to find ways to help Booker T. Washington do its job better, despite the staff shortages that make it difficult to find someone who has time to accept help. UMAB has had a partnership with the school for two years.
At her side is Beulah Wallace, a longtime counselor and indispensable right arm who wanted to retire but ended up getting only halfway out. "I said, 'No. We're going to glue you to the walls and probably beat you regularly,' " Mrs. Bukatman says. Mrs. Wallace remained, part time.
By 8:55 a.m., the principal has headed for the halls, as the day's announcements blare through the school. The superintendent, Richard C. Hunter, has sent a taped message in honor of American Education Week, when parents are supposed to visit the schools. Only a handful of parents will be seen at Booker T.
Next stop is Room 106, a small room with two mimeograph machines and stacks and stacks of coats, where Mrs. Bukatman later deposits one she has taken from a child who probably was about to escape for the day.
"In our community, a lot of families don't have the money to buy locks for the students' lockers," Mrs. Bukatman says, "so we provide a place for them here.
L "It's the little things like that that will make you crazy."
Though school begins at 8:30 a.m., and it's already after 9, about 15 kids are gathered in the main hall, waiting for late passes as the school police officer patrols the entrance. Attendance is poor -- last year it ran at 79 percent, which was average for the city's middle schools, and Mrs. Bukatman has made improved attendance a priority this year.
Baltimore has 27 middle schools with 31,400 kids; recent figures show that 41 percent of them scored below the 40th percentile in reading on the California Achievement Test and 28 percent scored below the 40th percentile in math. About 32 percent of the city's middle school students have failed at least one grade, and 11 percent have failed two or more.