Peter Modlin, a former post office employee, works with a student… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
Watching many of the children of his inner-city classmates follow in their parents' dead-end footsteps by dealing drugs on the same neighborhood streets only served to further Peter Modlin's resolve.
The 48-year-old Laurel resident began making plans to return to Baltimore to teach in the public school system that once failed him, to help stop what he calls the "circle of hopelessness."
"Those kids need to see there's a way out," said the ex-postal worker who is completing his last months at Howard Community College before earning an associate of arts degree in teaching.
While age and background might set Modlin apart from the average HCC student, he nonetheless is part of a trend at the Columbia school, where enrollment in teacher education classes has jumped 22 percent in one year.
Between fall 2008 and fall 2009, the number of students planning to become teachers rose from 530 to 640, said Fran Kroll, HCC's director of teacher education.
Before that recent blip, enrollment figures had remained fairly steady, she said, fluctuating by only 40 students over the course of five years.
"Teaching is considered a lifelong career and that [reliability] becomes even more important in difficult economic times," said Kroll, noting a parallel between the sluggish economy and increased enrollment in teaching classes.
Enrollment at HCC is up across the board, she noted, as many students and their parents find tuition fees at four-year colleges are out of their reach, she said.
"Students are also looking for careers that give their lives meaning and teaching is one of those professions," said Kroll, who is also a professor.
That's certainly true of Modlin, a divorced father of two daughters and a Navy veteran, who was nicknamed "Samuel Jackson" by his peers for his physical resemblance to the actor.
"I wasn't pushed to achieve when I was in school, and I just skated by," he said.
"The system was easy to conquer, but later it ended up conquering me when I had to work really hard to catch up with what I missed," he said. "If I'd had a teacher I respected, it would have made a difference."
Now, with his week-old acceptance letter from Towson University firmly in hand, he is on his way to becoming a special-education teacher, an area that has a critical shortage, said Kroll.
"I never even imagined that I would be able to go to college," Modlin said.
"But I figure God kept me alive back then for a reason," he said of his early years, when many of his classmates sold drugs and died before age 25. "It's become my mission to work with kids who need that extra push in life."
The self-proclaimed late-bloomer didn't plan on majoring in special education, though; quite the contrary.
After completing his first round of field experience by working with gifted and talented students at Reservoir High School in Fulton, Modlin was certain he wanted to work with exceptional kids, he said.
That decision was reaffirmed for him when he completed the second of three required 15-hour programs by working with bright students at Centennial Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City.
But when he began his third stint at Cedar Lane School, the county's special-education school for students with severe cognitive disabilities, he had a sudden change of heart.
"I knew an hour into being there that I wanted to work in secondary special education," said Modlin, who continues to volunteer weekly in the six-student class of Robin Close, even though he has completed his field work with the ninth- and 10th-graders there.
"The students are very perceptive and they know if you're in it for them," said Modlin.
Fred Boddie, who has worked at Cedar Lane for 21 years, concurred with Modlin's assessment.
"You can't fake anything around those kids," said Boddie, a former football player with the Seattle Seahawks who is assigned to Close's classroom. "It's a calling, and when it fits, you know it."
Modlin, who said he receives disability pay after injuring his back on the job during his tenure at the Postal Service, will attend school full time in the fall to earn a bachelor's degree in special education in two years.
"He's excited because he has found an area where he is totally motivated," said Kroll, who noted that HCC places about 275 students in 17 county public schools each year for field work.
"Peter is charismatic and wonderful," Kroll added. "The students all like him."
Apparently that charisma came through in a speech Modlin delivered at the county's legislative breakfast in February, said Del. Guy Guzzone, Democratic chairman of the county's delegation.
"I was impressed with how articulate he was and with his background," said Guzzone, who invited Modlin to intern in his Annapolis office after his presentation.
"What struck me the most was how earnest he is," he said. "You can feel he just wants to do good things and I had to encourage that."
Modlin said he was excited to accept the offer because he also plans to get a law degree and enter politics one day - perhaps as a candidate for the office of mayor of Baltimore.
"William Donald Schaeffer made a real impression on me because he was the only white person living in my neighborhood, right around the corner from my parents," he recalled. "I admired him."
Why does he have so many different dreams?
"Everything I do is for my girls - they're my life," Modlin said of daughters Tori, 15, and Taia, 11. "They call me a nerd when I'm studying and doing my homework, but they're proud of me. HCC really helped me by giving me hope for the future."
As for his students with special needs, they're like family, too, he said.
"When they glance at me, it's like looking into their souls," he said. "I may only get to see that for one second a day, but that's enough."