Respectful approach to toughest students

Education: With his unconventional style, art teacher Walter Gill reaches many troubled youths at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School.

January 11, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

At 62, Walter Gill is a book-writing rapper who teaches art at a campus surrounded by high chain-link fences and evil-looking razor wire.

"Good morning, good day, buenos dias, too; Got love in my heart, got work for you to do. As Salaam Alaikum, Wa Alaikum As Salaam; Peace be upon you, keep it cool, keep it calm."

That's Gill, rapping out morning greetings in Spanish and Arabic to students at the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a facility on the grounds of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School at Cub Hill in Baltimore County that houses about 350 young men ages 14 to 18, some of them charged with rape and murder.

Gill, a silver-haired man who wears bow ties, dress shoes and a pair of broken spectacles, likes to keep it loose in class.

He plays hip-hop music and fills the classroom with posters of rap stars and models. He scents the room with exotic oils such as frankincense, and shares some with students, who use it like cologne.

Although his students' criminal records speak volumes about the trouble they have seen, Gill doesn't even glance at them.

"I don't need to know," he says. "I have some of the toughest students here, but that doesn't matter."

Gill is not your average teacher -- but then he never wanted to be. He's different, just like his students. Together, they create art.

Art sets the tone in Gill's classroom. It forces the young men to think about themselves, their neighborhoods, their families, if only for a few minutes, says Gill, who has published a book about urban education.

Gill knows that if he wins over the leaders -- the smart guys and the class clowns -- he can keep most other students under control.

"Look at them. It is almost as if they were at prayer the way they are bent over their art," says Gill, a practicing Muslim, during a recent class.

Two rows of young men -- most of them convicted robbers or car thieves -- are immersed in their art. Today they are creating designs that incorporate their names. Gill says it's a way for them to develop a positive self-image.

Connecting through art

With a pencil, Joseph Cephas, an 18-year-old from Federalsburg, faintly sketches a name, but it's not his. "Isaiaha," it reads. "That's my son," Cephas says, referring to the 3-month-old he has seen only twice.

Another student, Kevin Correia, 18, of Rockville, draws the word "smile" in thick letters.

"To me, it just means to keep the hope up," he says. "A lot of people feel down for being here. I know when I leave here I will have a smile."

Not everyone is working. A student in the corner of the room uses a pencil to tap out an urgent, irritating beat on his desktop. Gill speaks quietly into the young man's ear. Soon, the noise subsides.

"Sometimes, they get fidgety," Gill explains. "They can't help that. It's up to me to give them something else to do. Like passing out pens or paper. It calms them down."

Gill's therapy -- although that's not a word he uses -- seems to work. Students say they enjoy his class because he appreciates them -- their talk, their style.

Like Gill, many educators who deal with troubled youth are turning to a more humane approach in the classroom. They realize that tough love -- angry words and even physical violence -- don't work, says R. Dean Wright, a professor of sociology at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

"It doesn't mean that you close your eyes to anything bad a student does, but you appreciate people for who they are," says Wright, explaining humanistic sociology, a theory that is being taught at some teacher colleges.

The accidental teacher

A trained artist, Gill began teaching by accident: In 1962, after serving in the Army, he couldn't find work as an artist. Today, he wouldn't change anything.

"I care about these students, that they be successful," Gill says.

By his count, he's taught approximately 10,000 students at campuses as diverse as the School of Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the Thomas J. S. Waxter Center in Laurel, a facility for juvenile offenders.

At times, it's difficult to understand how a soft-spoken man like Gill can control a roomful of young criminals.

First off, he's not alone. Another staff member sits in his classroom to deal with rebels.

And being a sexagenarian helps, he says.

"It's a bad child that gives lip to his grandparents," Gill says. "When they find out I'm old enough to be their grandfather, they respect me."

Gill is proud of his lifetime achievements -- happy moments he shares with students. Copies of his academic diplomas are taped to the chalk board. Family photos -- Gill and his wife, Frances, have five children and six grandchildren -- stand near his desk.

"You've got to show them what you've done or else they won't respect you," he says. "In here, I'm the gang leader and they know that."

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