Lessons learned in a schoolroom behind bars

City Diary : RANDI SOMMER

February 20, 2002

MY YOUNGEST was about to turn only a year old, but I had no choice. I needed to return to work. I sent out resumes. Financially, things became desperate, so I decided I would take any job that would give me benefits.

Then the call came. "We would like you to come in for an interview at School 370 - Baltimore Detention Center."

"Do you mean the jail?" I asked in disbelief.

"Yes."

Since I live in Baltimore City, I had voted "tough on crime" so that I didn't have to fear the population in prison. I interviewed, out of curiosity, and was offered a job teaching math.

On the first day, a student picked up on my wig and asked about it. I answered, to the surprise of the class, that I wear a wig because I am an Orthodox Jew. The students frequently asked questions during the semester, trying to figure out what my life was like.

For them, the most shocking part of my life is that I don't have a television. Instead, I spend time with my children, reading, playing in the dirt, building Legos and cooking with them. Students asked repeatedly about this until one shouted, "She spends time with her kids. Don't you get it?!"

Despite my initial frustrations, I won over some of the students and they won me over. We simplified polynomials, solved equations and mastered percentages. It was a real class. Maybe not exactly like all other schools, but close enough.

Of course, there were differences that stood out. Our students were waiting for either trials or sentencing, so they came when they were arrested and left after their trials and sentencing, either to freedom or prison.

As teachers, we received only their academic, not legal, records. Unless their cases appeared in the news or the students discussed them, we knew only that they were being tried as adults for felonies. When students missed school for court appearances, we worried about them. I was surprised at that. I was someone who was tough on crime. Yet the longer I knew them, the harder it was to think of locking them up forever.

My time in jail ended on a Friday in June when School 370 graduated four students. As each graduate's name was announced, I found myself choked up with emotion. As I left that day, I wondered about what their future would hold. I thought about the debate in America about what to do with young offenders.

I hoped that people who make the decisions would meet them face to face. And then if they needed to send them away for life, the decision would be based on the complete picture. I felt that I had now seen the other side of the criminal problem and was more open to possibilities that I had not previously considered.

Until tonight.

My son had been sick for a few days, and I took him to the hospital. In the middle of the night, when his fever broke, they released him. As I parked near our house, I saw some young men walking down the street. I grabbed my son and hurried toward my house. The youths approached me and robbed me at gunpoint with my son in my arms.

Now I have seen the bright eyes of children trying to overcome everything and solve a math problem. Now I have seen the dark eyes of two criminals as they stood with a gun while I held my son in front of my house. I know they are one and the same.

I will continue to vote for tougher sentencing for as long as it takes to keep me safe. I will cry each time.

Today's writer

Randi Sommer lives with her family in Park Heights and teaches math at Owings Mills High School.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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