In a second-floor classroom at Booker T. Washington Middle School, in the very heart of one of the city's most poverty-stricken and life-threatening neighborhoods, eight sixth-graders are squirming in their seats, as sixth-graders do whenever they find themselves in a room with desks and blackboard, and one boy finally topples his desk and falls to the floor. Laughter momentarily interrupts their talk of courage and bravery and love.
On the street below the classroom window, three police cars and a paddy wagon are parked, summoned to deal with a couple of boys who dragged a young girl into a bathroom down the hall, intent on molesting her. The kids pay no attention to the police cars, a common-enough sight in West Baltimore.
These children, and other groups like them at middle schools throughout Baltimore, have been volunteering once a week at nursing homes, and they are gathered for a periodic reflection on their experiences. They are among 700 Baltimore youngsters -- and 1,000 others across the country -- who are involved in Magic Me, an enormous undertaking begun more than 10 years ago by one young Baltimore woman who wanted to change the world.
Kathy Levin, who was barely out of college at the time, started Magic Me because she wanted kids to learn through the lessons of everyday experience that they can affect other people's lives. Once they saw that, she thought, they would begin to see they had control over their own lives, too. Kathy Levin has taken her idea to exclusive private schools; it has spread to London and Paris and Nebraska. But the essence of her effort is being played out in schools like Booker T. Washington, where children grow up groomed more for victimization and powerlessness than for assertiveness and control.
"When you started talking about going to that nursing home," Antwan Rooks says as the rest of the group listens, "my heart started beating." He taps his chest with a worried look, and it's not difficult to imagine his heart pounding away inside. "I didn't want to go."
Patty Bond, the Magic Me program director, listens sympathetically. "Was there a moment that changed things?" she asks.
Antwan responds quickly. "When I drew a house for that lady. She kept saying how good it was and all that. She kept saying it over and over."
Antwan and his friends rarely hear about how good they are. Magic Me asks principals in Baltimore's public schools to recommend the kids most in danger of school failure for the program. As a result, many of the Magic Me youngsters are kids who have been told for some years -- in messages both spoken and unspoken -- that they can't do anything right.
The little group sitting here in the light of a winter afternoon has traveled an enormous distance since the sparkling bright mid-September day when Kathy, Patty, Magic Me's director, Alfred de la Cuesta, and two social work interns from the University of Maryland Baltimore County walked into a large room where 26 Booker T. sixth-graders were assembled and, of all things, promptly began tying the kids up with masking tape and rope.
Alfred swirled tape around one boy, so his arms hung uselessly, close to his body. A girl with a fluorescent hair bow was caught as she leaned over and was taped so she couldn't sit upright. Kathy taped a boy in a green sweat shirt across his face, across his eyes so he couldn't see. The kids giggled nervously.
"I started to tape them so we could begin talking about limits," Kathy whispered to a visitor.
Alfred took off his pin-striped suit coat and rolled up his sleeves. "My name is Alfred de la Cuesta," he said. "Does anyone know what Magic Me is about?"
One girl answered. "My sister's in this," she said with some astonishment, "but she didn't tell me about this part."
Alfred asked what the kids had seen if they'd been to a nursing home, and a few hands were raised. He pointed to a youngster with his mouth taped up for the answer. The boy tried valiantly to speak despite the tape over his mouth. Alfred, happily and purposefully misunderstanding, smiled patronizingly and patted the boy's arm. "What -- you've got to go pee pee? Can you wait just a little while? That's a good boy."
The kids laughed and tried to tell Alfred that wasn't what the boy was saying, but Alfred wasn't listening. A girl tried to explain. "Ignore her," Alfred said. "She's a little -- you know," he said, patting his head.
It wasn't long before the kids began to understand -- by feeling instead of being told -- the confinement of a nursing home patient. "Confused," the kids said. "Frustrated. Angry. Uncomfortable."
"OK," Alfred said, "free yourself." No one had told them that they couldn't free themselves earlier, he said, but not one child had tried to do so. The concept of limits was taking the solid form of reality.
"You were just going by what you thought he was saying," one youngster said about the mouth-taping incident. "You were too stubborn to listen to what he was saying."