`I have a dream ' of a peaceable city

Douglass: High school students express hopes for an end to the killings, poverty and hate that beset their young lives.

January 22, 2000|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

When the question was put to her class, Shawntia Artis didn't have to think long. The answer rushed to mind. The words came tumbling out.

"Young people will stop killing each other," the 15-year-old girl quickly wrote, "and we will all get along better together."

Her dream for a better world, for an end to the gang warfare and gunfire that all too often claims the lives of her classmates, is part of a small but powerful exhibit at Douglass High School.

Notes written by nearly 100 students have been taped to a drab concrete wall in one of the busiest corridors of the three-story brick school in West Baltimore. Social studies teachers asked students to finish the line from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speech: "I have a dream that one day " The assignment was voluntary; the best answers are on display.

The messages, which will be left up through February, form a portrait that is bleak yet undespairing of teen-age life amid the poverty, drug addiction and crime in inner-city Baltimore.

"I won't have to make fast cash," scribbled 16-year-old Darian Alexander. "I won't have to stand on the street corner making preparations to see the coroner."

Some notes are carefully typed, long and poetic. Others are hastily scrawled and frank. More than a few missives, brimming with hope and anger, are unsigned.

"People would stop killing one another," says one unsigned note. Nearby another says: "Fathers will start acting like fathers, and mothers will start acting like mothers."

Some in the 1,300-student school wished for a cure for AIDS, an end to hunger. Others were like Brandon Belford, a junior, who envisioned a world without racism.

"African Americans and Caucasians can discuss and work out their differences," he wrote.

Only a couple of the messages are lighthearted. One of the more whimsical: "I'll entertain people and become the World Wrestling Federation champion."

Most plentiful are messages about the violence that permeates the surrounding neighborhoods and sometimes spills into school corridors. Students wrote of their fears of offending someone in school, of going outside at night, of getting caught in cross-fire. One wanted simply "to be able to attend school and not have fear on your mind." Another unsigned note is from a student who dreams of nothing more than "that everyone would live an average life."

"There will be no poverty in the world," wrote Philonese Brickus, "no more killing, no more homelessness and hatred."

Her home is just outside the Penn-North and Whitelock areas, where abandoned houses and street crime have become commonplace. On her way to school, the 11th-grader walks past a homeless man who sleeps on the steps of a church. Her mother told her that he is a drug addict who "took the wrong path." Philonese wishes she could help him.

"I see him every morning," she said. "I worry about him. It's winter; it's cold outside."

Tenth-grader Jessica Lewis wrote: "There will be enough police on the street in order to get all the drugs off and stop the violence." Nearby is the note from Shawntia, whose words were inspired by the death of a classmate.

Two days before the assignment, a boy in her class, 16-year-old Lamont Jones, died in a gunfight in Sandtown. He was shot on a street corner shortly after midnight Jan. 2. He became the city's second homicide victim of the year and the fourth Douglass student to be killed since fall.

"I was shocked," said Shawntia, a 10th-grader. They weren't close, but still she grieved for his death and could not help but wonder why crime has worsened even in the short time she has been alive.

"That makes you think it could be me or a friend of mine," she said. "It can happen to anyone."

Tracye Howard, the social studies teacher who came up with the idea, said she has been moved by the messages urging an end to the violence.

In past years, she asked students to give their own "I have a dream" speeches. This time, she decided to put up their responses to "show the entire school that we have dreams."

"I love Dr. King," said Howard, 36, whose hand the civil rights leader shook when she was a baby. "His idea of nonviolence is so important, and you see it as a theme throughout the wall."

Students and teachers have been lingering in the hall since the messages went up on the wall last week. Principal Rose Davis compared her emotions to those she feels when visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

"It is so compelling," she said.

Junior class president Devrin Lindsay, 17, said he hopes some classmates internalize his message.

Douglass has a long, proud tradition. Its alumni honor roll reads like a Who's Who of Baltimore: Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice; Kweisi Mfume, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; entertainer Cab Calloway; singer Ethel Ennis; Alice G. Pinderhughes, the late city schools superintendent; former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell; and Clarence H. Du Burns, the city's first black mayor.

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