School takes time for talk about how to survive

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 25, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In Ms. Fussell's sixth grade math class at Hampstead Hill Middle School, in East Baltimore, a thing is happening last week that has nothing to do with addition, or fractions, or computing the distance from Baltimore to New York in kilometers, whatever they are.

The day has been turned over to the violence in children's lives, to changing this condition which stays with us like a stain. And the thing happening in this classroom is at once heartfelt and frightening.

"It's not just happening in your neighborhood," says Ms. Fussell, "but what?"

"All over," the class chants back.

"And it's something," she says, "we're gonna what?"

"Do something about," the class says now.

The responses are unsettling. The kids are chanting answers almost reflexively, the way they might recite multiplication tables on any other morning, or the way crowds are worked at a political rally.

There's a lock-step quality to the responsiveness, as though these children have been programmed. How do you program? By repetition. Why do you program? To create a mind-set, to build a mass consensus, to turn things around by sheer force of adrenaline.

All this is intended to replace the major response to violence of the last 20 years around here, which is mainly the anxious wringing of hands. Across the city last Thursday, some variation of the scene in Ms. Fussell's room was repeated in all of Baltimore's 178 public schools. It was called the Safe Schools Summit, and it was the system's way of trying to hold back the night.

The schools cannot survive another year like the last one, in which more than 2,500 criminal offenses were committed, and it cannot survive another period like the last 20 years, in which all who could afford to pull their kids out of the public schools did so.

In Ms. Fussell's room now, a kid in a yellow shirt is relating some traumatic moment, a confrontation outside his house.

"He pointed a gun at my head," says the kid, "and he said, 'You want to die, boy?' "

To this, Ms. Fussell addresses the entire class: "Innocent people are what?"

"Dying," says the class.

"Leaving behind?"

"Babies," says the class.

Again, it sounds like rehearsed response. The schools didn't change their routines last Thursday to give everyone a day off. The idea was: This thing is terribly out of hand now. Break everybody into groups, let the kids talk out their problems, and hope that some solutions result.

In a hallway at Hampstead Hill stood Dr. Walter Amprey, the school superintendent, reflecting on the impulse behind the summit and not unaware of the long troubles inside this very building.

"Well," he said softly, "some people say we're jinxed down here, but I don't want to believe it. But you see young children being shot, and youngsters not knowing if they'll have a long life -- it makes you realize, we've got to change the way we deal with the schools. We've got to reclaim the future."

We have heard variations of such words from a series of school officials, who have borne the brunt of the outside world's problems. One equation never changes: The schools have six hours a day to embrace the kids, but the world has 18 hours a day to harm them.

In Ms. Fussell's room now, the kids ask a visiting city policeman why the cops don't arrest those suspected of dealing drugs.

"Well," the officer says, "you have to have evidence. . . ."

"Probable cause," a sixth-grader says, nodding his head knowingly.

These kids know too much too soon. One talks of seeing a bullet go into a man's head. Another talks of a local drug dealer selling jumbo. No one needs the term explained.

To this, Ms. Vernell Fussell, looking at her class with a sad understanding of innocence lost, asks: "When exciting things happen, do you run to see it?"

"No," comes a chorus of voices, one more conditioned response. She shoots them a look that says: Don't try to fool me.

"I've seen you break for the door when something happens," she says. "Now, why shouldn't you run to see excitement?"

"There might be a gun."

"Or a knife."

"They might be meaning to hit someone else but hit you."

In such a mean season, math books are put aside for a day. Lectures on Christopher Columbus will have to wait. A moratorium is declared on the teaching of irregular French verbs, while a city worries about the simple survival of its children.

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