Amprey goes back to school, hoping to turn the page on student violence Learning the value of teaching ethics

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 17, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The man with the television camera puts his lens next to the face of a 14-year-old named Angela. Everybody in the classroom giggles. If the man with the camera gets any closer, he'll be picking up biochemical breakdowns of the very pores in Angela's face.

''They always follow me around,'' says Dr. Walter Amprey, sweeping his hand toward four television photographers and a handful of reporters who invaded this room with him. ''Don't pay any attention to them.''

That's easy for him to say. The kids are sitting in Ms. Russo's vTC ninth-grade American Government/Urban Growth class yesterday morning at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High, and the superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools is here to ask questions about morality that they never used to ask in schools, because everybody assumed these things were answered at home.

''I want to talk about values,'' says Amprey. ''What does the word 'value' mean?''

''Something for money?'' says Angela, blurting the words out and then slumping with relief when the TV camera moves off to examine someone else's face.

''A bargain,'' says the boy sitting next to Angela. ''Like, when you get a $10 necktie but only have to pay $5 for it.''

''When you pay a low price for something that's more valuable,'' says a voice a few seats away.

And here we begin to sense some of the problems affecting the lives of many in city schools today, a problem that has brought not only Dr. Amprey but a score of educators, clergy, community activists and police officials to Mervo on this frosty morning: to talk about the troubles that undercut all of the efforts to educate the city's kids, the troubles that give anxiety attacks to their parents each morning they send their children out the front door.

In the past two weeks, violence broke out at four different middle schools in the city: kids beating up kids, kids beating up a teacher, each incident frightening enough to provoke newspaper headlines, and each only hinting at everyday tensions that are never reported because they're too routine to be considered newsworthy.

Yesterday, when Amprey began to talk about violence and the reporters and the television cameras were invited along, he was sending a message: This has gone far enough.

''I need you to teach me,'' he told Ms. Bonnie Russo's students. He is a big, imposing man with a soft voice and a warm smile,

and his tone was seductive. ''You know an awful lot. I want you to be teachers for me.''

And he began to ask them about the violence, about kids who attack for no reason, about values that some kids have been taught and others seem never to have heard about.

''Values,'' Amprey said now, ''are things that are important to us personally. They're the feelings we have that govern or control how we behave.'' He looked around the room for a moment and saw every kid listening to him carefully, and so he repeated the words.

''Values,'' a kid named Troy said now. ''They're like your personal concept of right and wrong?''

A light is being turned on here. Maybe it's a tiny light at first, but for a moment there's a glow in the room, a sense of learning that goes beyond standard textbooks. It is no longer enough merely to teach language and math, not when the lessons once taught '' outside of classrooms are no longer being taught in homes.

The truth is: A lot of the parents don't understand the lessons of morality well enough to teach them to their children.

''I know,'' Amprey tells the kids now, ''that there are parents who warn you about two beatings. You know, 'If you got a beating and didn't fight back, then I'm gonna beat you.' But I have to tell you, there's no way out of that [sort of thinking.]''

The message is for the kids, but only partly. What we're witnessing here is the start of a psychological campaign to stop the bleeding and to restore faith in Baltimore's schools -- to the kids, to their parents and to the city itself.

In a breakfast meeting before Amprey met with Ms. Bonnie Russo's ninth-graders, the Rev. Emmett Burns gestured toward reporters and said: ''We can't afford the luxury of objective reporting. We need to be affirmative. We need some victories, symbolic victories. We need the impression of what we're trying to do being made known to the public.''

With those words, he was pulling away a little veil. Journalists, and those they cover, sometimes do a little dance. It is a mutual scratching of backs: We get something to report, and they get their names, or their causes, before the public.

But we walk a thin line here, not wishing to become active members of even the holiest of crusades. Our job is to stand on the sidelines and report how the battle is going, not to take part in the action. Do we want the schools to succeed? Of course. Can we simply write positive stories and ignore the problems? Only at the schools' own risk, and the city's continuing self-delusion.

It's heartening to watch a big man like Walter Amprey walk into a classroom and lean down to touch kids. It's a sign of a man with his instincts in the right place. But it's wise not to forget that outside that little classroom, there are still kids who aren't learning language and math, and there are still bullies getting violent for no reason at all.

And, while applauding one gesture, we can't ignore the troubles elsewhere. This city has suffered from too much of that already.

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