Chantel Morant's having a big day. She goes out for lacrosse at City College for the first time today and she goes on live TV for the first time.
She's already been on WEAA-FM, Morgan State University Radio. She's been speaking out about the Baltimore City schools budget crisis and, last week, helped lead a demonstration of about 150 students at the State Board of Education.
She's a 15-year-old sophomore at City College. She's 4-foot, 11-inches tall, and 100 pounds of concentrated energy. She wears a baseball cap lettered bebe, jeans, an avocado T-shirt and a baseball jacket with flowers embroidered on the back. She has a trio of gems in each ear. She flashes a smile bright enough to illuminate the Harbor Tunnel. She loves math and she tutors other kids in a city schools program called the Algebra Project. And what she's got to say is at least as sensible as most of the stuff emoted at the State House or City Hall.
"We want our money, and we want our education," she said at last week's rally. "Money and education go hand in hand, like two plus two equals four."
Chantel was among 15 students who met yesterday at City College to plan a city-wide student strike Tuesday. They were working out the logistics and the details of a flyer urging students across the city to join them. They plan to walk out of classes to demonstrate peacefully at City Hall and the State Board of Education under the slogan: We, as students, deserve $260,000,000 annually from the State by court order.
Chantel says much of what she believes comes from her mother, Mary Morant, a veteran transit bus driver. Chantel's the youngest in her family, which makes the bebe cap seem appropriate. She has two brothers, Kentay, 20, and Donte, 18, and a sister, Sundae, 17, who's a senior at Dunbar High School. They live in one of those fine old houses in York Courts on the edge of Guilford, on York Road near 39th Street.
"My mother," she says, with great fondness, "she makes me aware of my self-value. She's a very good person. She's an activist. She's part of the All People's Congress. She introduced me to the world of advocacy."
"I view her as a very interesting human being," Morant, 57, says of Chantel, laughing. "From the very first day in kindergarten, when she slept with her book bag strapped on all night long. She's a remarkable human being.
"She takes on a full plate. She's high energy," Morant says. "When she starts her tasks, she finishes them. She really sticks to them and she gives every task her best effort."
Chantel's first shot at advocacy came during her freshman year when public funds for the Algebra Project were in jeopardy. Among other things, the young tutors in the project, who are supposed to get $10 an hour, would be weeks behind in receiving their pay. It looked like the program would fold.
"We shouldn't have to fight for something that was rightfully ours, the knowledge of math," she says. "Why not get money from the school system because we are providing math tutors when the teachers go home."
So they organized an advocacy committee, and she became its head.
"Since then we've been on a roll," she says. "Advocating for money, issues."
They got the school board to promise $80,000 -- about half the project's budget -- to keep it going.
"She has a lot of leadership qualities," says Jason Boone, a freshman at Baltimore City Community College who works with Chantel in the Algebra Project. "She's very out front. She's one of those people who likes to take charge. And a lot of people fall behind her once she gets out in front.
"She's only 15 years old, and she's doing all these things," he says. "That's what astonishes everybody about her. She assumes so much responsibility. Sometimes I worry about her: `Don't you think you have too much responsibility?' But she goes about it."
Chantel does discuss all this with a slightly startling maturity.
"That's my whole thing," Chantel says. She's sort of curled up behind a desk in a math classroom decorated with algebra maxims. "Students are free with us. They don't feel like they can connect with teachers. That's why our project works. We are their age, and we know what they don't know and what they want to learn. We are their peers. We know what they need, and we can relate better with them.
"I was not interested in math whatsoever," she confesses, until she arrived at the Stadium School for the seventh and eighth grades and became a client of the Algebra Project. She liked the hands-on "pedagogy" of Jay Gillen, a math teacher and director of the project.
She's a B-plus student now. She's finished geometry, and she's ready to begin pre-calculus next year. She's taking an advance placement class this year. She says the Stadium School, on Northern Parkway in Northeast Baltimore, gave her a wider view of the world: "My whole mental philosophy came when I came to Stadium School. I was open to learn outside the classroom."
Stadium School was community-based with small classes and a close connection between students and teachers.
"That immediately opened me up," she says, "and gave me a role in communicating and advocating issues."
She's interested in juvenile justice and forensic psychology sometime in the future.
"I want to get some kind of law degree, but I don't really want to be a lawyer," she says. "You have to be compassionate, and you have to have a self-worth to learn how to love people and to learn how to care for other people."
And she thinks the new walkout on Tuesday will really have an impact.
"We feel strongly about it," she says. "All the media publicity we're receiving, they know we're taking it to heart. So many times they only talk about the dollars and the school system and the teachers. And they forget to put the face on the reality, our faces, student faces."
City College sophomore