The version of truth shown on `The Wire' won't set kids free

December 19, 2006|By Michael Corbin

To be a Baltimore schoolteacher and watch Season 4 of HBO's The Wire, which ended last week, is to experience cognitive dissonance. The show, widely praised for its authenticity, verisimilitude and simple honesty about life in Baltimore, attempted this season to represent some truth about what passes for education in the city. And no doubt there is some truth in the show's Hobbesian world of Baltimore youth, whose TV lives are nasty, brutish and short.

I often struggle to adequately convey to others the intensity of teaching in city schools. You find yourself torn by a contradiction: needing to promote the American promise contained within education in an institution and world where promoting that promise seems cruel. Ed Burns, a writer and producer of The Wire who taught in city schools, describes what one must do to go into a city classroom: "Psychologically, there's no way to prepare for it. The closest preparation I think I had was when I went to Vietnam in the infantry."

And thus, the truth represented in The Wire - where nail-gun assassins, corrupt cops and drug kingpins cohabit the small screen with middle-schoolers and ill-prepared, good-hearted teachers - can have a salutary effect in conveying what this teaching and these classrooms can be like to those who've never experienced it.

Yet this "truth" about Baltimore schools has in its own way become a kind of id?e fixe, a cliche. You can't have a conversation with anyone about city schools, be they conservative or liberal, and not have it eventually become some taxonomy of horrors. "North Avenue," for instance - as in the show - becomes a shorthand epithet for the dysfunction of Baltimore schools, an environment where students are forced to endure the predations of failed institutions, where school is only practice for criminality, incompetence and bureaucratic sadism. Not to mention those low test scores.

From governor to mayor to teacher, Baltimore schools are literally "worth less" in our discourse.

One thing that kids never fail to do, though, is to learn what we teach them. No doubt Baltimore students are taught by the existential deficits in their schools and their lives. However, they also are taught by this other cultural orientation, this fixed idea about the schools they attend.

There was great social cachet to be had this fall by my students in getting a bootleg copy of Season 4 of The Wire. It was popular to own, particularly in its illegal format. But it wasn't a collector's item for its authenticity, its realism or its storytelling technique.

None of my students perceived a critical message in the show. Some described The Wire as simply another Stop Snitchin', but with better production values. And as with that infamous bootleg DVD of Baltimore street life, there was great respect for the power of being represented at all. Here were the images of "Bodymore, Murderland," in all its street-cred glory. Here is the adult world representing what goes on in our messed-up school. It's on TV. We're on TV.

So, on the one hand, we have the cruelty of separate and unequal schools in the America of Baltimore City. On the other hand, we have the cruelty of a kind of aestheticized abjection represented by Season 4 of The Wire and our own disassociation from institutions we claim are unfixable, dysfunctional and probably best saved by being destroyed.

This season of The Wire ended with the heavy-handed metaphor of bodies of young men from the streets of Baltimore being stacked in the gym of a city middle school. Without question there is a kind of truth here, but more, there is a variety of cruelty.

Tomorrow, I will go teach to kids who aren't on TV and who aren't part of some taxonomy of failure, but who are real human beings who often learn how little society values them. They hear us talk about it. Maybe they read about it. And now, along with the rest of the world, they can see it on TV.

Michael Corbin teaches at the Academy for College and Career Exploration, an innovation public high school in Baltimore that is part of the high school reform effort. His e-mail is mcx5@verizon.net.

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