Visions of gliding on ice After school: For a month, the Bocek Recreation Center has been introducing youngsters to the thrills, spills and joys of skating.

February 01, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Samantha Harrison, usually all laughs, freckles and braids, sleeps fitfully Tuesday nights. Visions of slipping, then gliding, across a patch of ice on Wednesday afternoons are too compelling for the 10-year-old to turn them off and sleep.

Samantha hangs out at East Baltimore's Bocek Recreation Center, a brick bunker of a building along Madison Street that is an after-school gathering spot for kids in the neighborhood. The adjacent basketball court, where the late National Basketball Association star Reggie Lewis once played, and the pool table inside are the two main diversions for the spirited legions arriving after the last school bell rings.

But since last month, Samantha and her friends have been ice skating once a week, a novelty as exotic to children poised between poverty and modest prosperity as Chinese food.

"The opportunity to do these kinds of things just doesn't come up for these kids," said Cecelia Howell, who has run the Bocek Recreational Center as a loving tyrant for 15 years. "It didn't for me."

Yesterday, a school bus arrived at Bocek Park to take 41 children to the Inner Harbor Ice Rink for skating lessons, pizza, and one of their first experiences with a sport they usually see only on television. In the late afternoon sun, the outdoor rink on the harbor's edge was frigid, the ice a dotted abstract of red hats and green ear muffs.

Samantha stepped confidently onto the ice, remembering her initial success three weeks ago. But her first turn around the oval was shaky. She clung to the rail, or a friend's hand, and related her travails to Ms. Howell when she made it around.

"I've lost it," Samantha said. "I can't get it back."

The weekly excursions, which will last through February, are paid for by Baltimore on Ice, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the rink. The After School Skating Program, in which children from Southwest Baltimore's Carroll Park Recreation Center also participate, culminates in March with a recital for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The program costs $7,500, which was raised from private foundations and individuals.

"I knew it was going to be culturally different for them, and I truly did not know how they were going to respond," said Ms. Howell, who becomes a rinkside cheerleader on the trips. "I was amazed at how they took to it and how they look forward to it."

The Inner Harbor is 4 miles from Bocek Park, which sits in the shadow of the closed Armco Steel plant, but it might as well be in a different state. For the children, East Baltimore life is circumscribed by slim resources. The streets -- some lined by well-kept rowhouses, others by windowless shells -- don't lead far without family cars or bus fare.

"It's just a bunch of nonsense out here," said Angela Rose, 13, of Highlandtown Middle School, who is the skating group's social commentator and court jester. "There's stuff like shooting, fighting, fires, drugs. But that stuff happens once in a blue moon."

On the bus, the skating that keeps Samantha up nights inspires the whole group to describe the sport's merits with full-throated delight. It's easy, they said, voices gathering volume. The laughing and high-fives become singing -- songs by Boyz II Men and T. L. C. Ms. Howell assigns the loudest to seats next to her.

At the rink, Samantha slowly regained her ice legs, striding and gliding next to her friend Michel, who began trying to copy some of the older children not from Bocek Park as they spun in tight circles at the rink's center.

"I'm getting it again," Samantha said. "You learn by falling. We even learn how to fall. Then you just get up and try again."

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