Principal thundered, but cared for children

March 01, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Julia Woodland used to talk about "my children." She had about a thousand of them a year when she was principal of Dunbar High School, although some who were 6 feet 6 and played basketball didn't exactly look like children. And they didn't exactly act like students.

"What is this?" Woodland bellowed, the first time she noticed some of these kids strolling the halls when they should have been sitting in class. She had a voice like a blunt instrument across the frontal lobes.

"You don't go to class," she declared, "then you don't play basketball for my school."

It was as simple as that. The school had a history of producing giants on the court who were absent in the classroom. Once their basketball eligibility ran out, they had a tendency to vanish and get swallowed by the streets. Instead of using their skills to finance a college education, a lot of them became cautionary tales, coulda beens, shoulda beens.

"I have a rule," she would tell all her kids. "If you do anything within a hundred miles of this school that's wrong, I'm gonna find out. And if you make the 6 o'clock news, it better be good news."

When she sat behind her desk at Dunbar, where she seemed a one-woman army of occupation from 1971 to 1984, Woodland would heave a sigh and take the thunder out of her voice. All these children, she said, shaking her head ruefully.

"All of them dreaming of being basketball stars, and they can't all make it," she said one day. "And what happens once they don't? Where do they go?"

She knew where too many of them went. She knew the details as well as anybody right up to the moment she died the other day, at 70, of heart failure. She wanted these kids not only to believe in themselves, but to believe there was a place for them in the American mainstream once their school days were behind them.

There's the real battle: persuading these kids that the classroom lessons mean something, that there's a payoff if they hang in there. Too many suspect the opposite. They figure the game's been rigged, that they've been cheated by their public school education, and college is prohibitively expensive, and employers aren't waiting with open arms.

Last week at New Psalmist Baptist Church on Old Frederick Road, there were echoes of such concerns. For two days, a few hundred business people gathered to talk about creating more economic opportunity for black Baltimoreans.

It's an eternal problem. City Council President Lawrence A Bell III, who helped put the conference together, noted painfully that the city's top elected leaders are black -- but political power hasn't translated itself to black economic power. It's a charge the Schmoke administration heard repeatedly the last time the mayor ran for re-election.

Though the city is roughly 60 percent black, its private business community is overwhelmingly white -- even though scores of companies, mostly white-owned, have fled the city in the past decade.

This is no secret to black youngsters, who see this as part of the stacked deck. They've been informed, often inaccurately, that white employers aren't interested. They look around and fail to see black employers. Thus, some decide to make their own way in the world.

The result has been a terrible self-destructiveness, reflected in juvenile crimes. A year ago, city police arrested 11,548 juveniles, of whom 8,811 were black males and 1,362 were black females. That's 88 percent of all juvenile arrests. (And 74 percent of the victims of juvenile crime were black.) Such sociopathy comes out of a history of seeing no alternatives, of checking the neighborhood and seeing no jobs, and checking the cost of college and strolling the halls of high school because going to class seems pointless.

Julia Woodland understood this. She knew her children were growing up too fast, knew they were giving up on the system. One morning, she was roaring mad about the future they faced.

"Government handout jobs," she sneered. "They're no good. Seeing some kid push a broom with one hand. That's getting money for nothing. You gotta give these kids some responsibility."

But it had to start in the classroom. If they just showed up, they had a chance to beat the system. The rest of it -- including the basketball dreams -- could come later. One time, Charles "Lefty" Driesell learned this the hard way.

At the time, Driesell was riding high as basketball coach at the University of Maryland. To high school kids, he seemed a god. fTC To Woodland, he was a pest. He showed up at Dunbar one day to talk to some of the basketball hot shots.

"Get the hell out of here," Woodland hollered at him. "This is only September. Don't start bothering my children now. You at least wait until the season starts."

She wanted a sense of perspective. She wanted her kids to know there was an alternative to basketball or the streets. They were still talking about this alternative last week, at the job conference on Old Frederick Road. Julia Woodland was gone, but maybe her spirit was smiling on the place.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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