Golden Moments in Pigtown

JOHN SULLIVAN

September 15, 1992|By JOHN SULLIVAN

This month I begin my third year teaching GED -- high school equivalency -- classes in the City That Reads. I have taught geometry, chemistry, grammar, decimals and dozens of other subjects. I believe my students have learned something from me. I know I have learned from them.

I have learned that the biggest hurdle facing my students is not race, it's class.

I teach in Pigtown in southwest Baltimore. About half my students are black and half are white -- some are themselves half black and half white. I see no important differences between the groups along racial lines.

I've taught white teen-age females with two or three children by two or three different fathers and I've taught black females in the same life-shattering situation. Both races live in violent inner-city neighborhoods with severe shortages of jobs and hope. Substance abuse is devastating for both races. In this country, I've learned, the color that matters in not black or white, it's green. If you are born to money, you have advantages; if you aren't, you have problems.

Many of my students have been sent to me by order of a judge or agency. The women are sometimes abusive mothers. The men may have criminal records from supporting drug habits. They have all dropped or been thrown out of school. They have all known failure in school and too many expect their failure to continue in my class.

From teaching GED, I have learned that women are more likely to succeed in the classroom than men. This is because some women see education as a tool to help their children. This is a chip I am not hesitant to play in class. I stress that improved math skills make for smarter shoppers. I emphasize that stronger reading comprehension allows the women to help their children read better in school.

None of this works with the few males I teach. Far too frequently I have a male teen-ager who, at first, is obviously enjoying himself in my class. I'm a former basketball player and my continued interest in the game helps start a friendship. I can see these guys blossoming as they delight in academic success maybe for the first time in their lives.

Then their neighborhood friends, who have given up on ever improving themselves, start to accuse the student of trying to ''act white.'' Even the whites in my class hear this. I have never had a male remain in class long enough to take the GED test, let alone pass it.

Our classroom is in the basement of a century-old church. Thbasement is freezing in the winter and broiling in the summer. The lighting is spotty and the dank smell inescapable. We do not have desks and books for every student. Paper, erasers and chalk are in terminally short supply. Our classroom is less than a mile from the $100 million Camden Yards stadium. I can't imagine a clearer statement of society's priorities.

Yet I have learned that more money for education is not, by itself, the answer.

The most troubling disadvantage I have is the wide range of skills in the classroom. We have students who can solve algebraic equations alongside students who cannot divide mixed fractions. Keeping both groups occupied and motivated is not an easy task. The task is necessary because there is no budget for classes separated according to ability. More money would make that separation possible.

Even if more funding magically appeared, however, even if suddenly there was enough funding to give our classroom the same facilities that suburban schools enjoy, the effect on the appalling dropout rate would be minimal. Few if any of my students leave because we are forced to share books or because the lighting is poor. These students quit because they feel so cut off from the dream of bettering their lives that they refuse to even try.

There have been successes over the past two years. A couple of my students have passed the GED test. Others have mastered a few sections of the test and will likely pass the entire test this fall.

There have been other, less obvious moments of success as well. A few months back, one of my students excitedly told me that she was about to begin working at McDonald's. This would be the first paycheck of her life.

The student next to her then announced that she had always sworn she would never work at McDonald's; in fact, she used to make fun of people who did. But she had just put in her application to work there, too. These small, golden moments come all too infrequently in Pigtown, but they are there.

John Sullivan writes from Baltimore.

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