A different campaign

October 23, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

Gerry Brewster had planned to spend these days strolling the halls of Congress, giving President Clinton a hand in charting the nation's future, representing Maryland's 2nd District in the House of Representatives. The voters had other plans.

Instead of weighing the wisdom of sending American soldiers to Bosnia, Mr. Brewster finds himself weighing how often you can let teen-agers go to the bathroom before they're taking advantage of you. Instead of cutting deals in smoke-filled rooms, Mr. Brewster patrols lavatories to make sure they're smoke-free.

Mr. Brewster is a new teacher at Chesapeake High School in eastern Baltimore County. At 36, with a resume that includes athletic records (at 6 feet 2 1/2 inches, he says he was the world's tallest licensed jockey from 1983 to 1990) and a political pedigree (he served in the Maryland legislature and his father, Daniel Brewster, was a congressman and senator), Gerry Brewster has chucked it all to take spitballs in the back of the head.

"I always wanted to be a teacher," says Mr. Brewster, still the politician, "and the voters finally gave me the opportunity."

Gerry (pronounced Gary) Brewster won the Democratic nomination last year for the congressional seat that Helen Delich Bentley gave up when she ran for governor.

"My timing wasn't very good," he said. "It turned out to be the worst year for Democrats in 40 years." He was beaten by Robert L. Ehrlich, who had been his classmate at Gilman School and Princeton University and who had served with him in the legislature.

"When the voters decided to relieve me of my duties, I began to realize there were a lot of similarities between politics and teaching," he said. "I went into politics because I wanted to make a difference in people's lives. This is more hands-on. It allows for a more personal approach."

Sometimes it gets too personal. The day after being hit with a spitball, he was hit in the rear end with a water pistol. He confiscated it and stomped it to bits. "I haven't been shot since," he says with a smile.

In the past two months, Mr. Brewster has had to confront a conflict that has developed over a generation for today's teachers: Is he a teacher or is he a social worker?

Chesapeake is trying hard to keep a check on the social ills that often accompany poverty. The school has the second-poorest student population in the county: 26.4 percent qualify for subsidized lunches. At Sparrows Point High School, 31.9 percent qualify; at Dulaney Valley, only 1.4 percent.

New teachers such as Mr. Brewster get the standard classes, not the honors students. Special education students now are "mainstreamed," and Mr. Brewster has about 25 students with attention disorders, limited abilities or other problems. One is legally blind.

He's at a disadvantage, because he is still learning classroom control. But even when they're being quiet, many of his students simply don't want to be in school. And that's a source of deep pain for a teacher who wants them to get excited about the Bill of Rights or Shakespeare.

On a crisp fall day as the sun rises over Turkey Point, east of Essex, Mr. Brewster stands on the pavement at 7 a.m., ready for bus duty. He'll leave school for his home in Towson 12 hours later. In the interval, he will take charge of 85 young lives. He'll worry about a 10th-grade girl who is pregnant and living with her boyfriend. A boy will come to class looking as if he's high on drugs. Another boy tries to disrupt the class by talking loudly about gonorrhea.

Mr. Brewster will hover over the copying machine ("I used to have a secretary to do this"). He'll sympathize as another teacher complains that she's been issued the last light bulb in the building for an overhead projector (Chesapeake had to absorb $37,000 of a countywide deficit). He'll counsel a girl who's worried about a cousin being returned to an abusive father ("She needs a lawyer, and you do have to obey a court order").

He'll even teach (His ninth-graders take the Maryland Citizenship Test on Nov. 2, and they can't graduate without passing it).

When he gets home, he'll eat a frozen dinner and fall into bed exhausted, unless it's Thursday, when he takes an education course at the Johns Hopkins University. He's not married, and so can devote considerable time to school.

Mr. Brewster has lost 10 pounds since he began teaching his two ninth-grade and one 10th-grade social studies classes. He used to eat about six political meals a day, what with power breakfasts and swings along the rubber chicken circuit. Now it's a few sips of Gatorade in the morning, a tuna fish school lunch and a frozen dinner at night.

Like politics, teaching requires the courage to stand in front of a roomful of people and risk looking like a fool. A new teacher who began with Mr. Brewster quit after three weeks. "And she student-taught and everything," Mr. Brewster says in amazement.

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