The national media had to drive past the ruins of the Clifton Park Valve House on their way to the back corner of the skeleton of the once monumental Lake Clifton High School. I teach here, in that carapace, the remaining, dysfunctional remnant on St. Lo Drive of what was once the largest high school on the east coast of the United States—a ruin, like the valve house, a symbol of another era of abandoned possibility. The basketball team is the only thing still called Lake Clifton.
The video of school police slapping and kicking a student at Reach High School has once again drawn the national news to the city. Police brutality, Baltimore, a million over-determined moral memes are released. There is indignation all around, calls for change and lives mattering from all kind of good folks, mayor-wannabes, state legislators, non-profiteers, ersatz advocates, academics, and reformers. CNN and NBC Nightly News sculpt the story perfectly with a 4-second phone clip and their cut-and-paste narrative template of what racial injustice must manifestly be. The local journalists manqué get as close to a city public school as they ever do.
However, they all got the story wrong. No one stayed long enough to bear witness to the institutional brutalism of what goes on down here past the valve house and goes by the name of public education in Baltimore. Here we have a living history museum of separate and unequal, Jim Crow schooling in today’s Baltimore. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA calls schools like Reach “apartheid schools.”
Lake Clifton used to be a “Year 1 School” in the already over-extended-before-it-begins “21st Century Schools” plan of the district and the Maryland Stadium Authority. It’s not clear now where it fits in any plan—maybe there are plans by the end of the century before it sinks into what used to be the Lake Clifton Reservoir down the hill from Johns Hopkins’s newly restored summer mansion.
The kids at Reach are hemmed up, squeezed on the south by the tsunami of the Johns Hopkins EBDI project that with impunity and self-righteousness razes block upon block of poor black folks housing, replacing it with steel, glass, concrete, and—painful to current residents—the euphemistically advertised “market rate” housing.
Here is the hyper-impoverished, hyper-segregated community. Here are the beautiful kids that go to Reach, the kids Baltimore’s citywide schools don’t teach, the kids the Baltimore charter schools try to keep out as they litigate for more money from the schools that don’t have enough already. Fighting over scraps. Here is a truth about our city we’d rather not look at and our leaders have no plan for.
Here is a truth of kids’ lives erased when we have a 4-second video as our narrative frame. The kids whose street knowledge and deep survival wisdom will never be measured by a PARCC assessment or an HSA (or the insane IReady testing the Baltimore schools rolled out this year). We’ve already won the race to the bottom. We win. These kids here will only be a data point on some reformers’ or politicians’ talking points. The missed, unreported story is the lives of these human beings with the immense potential of young American citizens trapped in abandoned possibilities in this living history museum.
Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander’s 2014 “The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood” showed that only 4 percent of kids from poverty in Baltimore made it to college. More importantly, Alexander’s 25-year study in Baltimore showed that even when kids put in hard work, went to school, and played by the rules, they rarely make it out. There is little to no social mobility for the kids I teach at Reach. They are locked down and locked out. That regularly uniformed municipal authorities use force and violence and the beat down to keep them that way is only shocking to those who are willfully ignorant. This broader truth of my student’s lives is the true brutalism here. This is the story the journalists who came for the video missed, didn’t tell, left behind.
When I drive into work each day past the valve house with its Romanesque archways and Gothic windows I try to imagine what the stained glass used to look like. The valve house is on the National Register of Historic Places. The chain link, jersey dividers and the aging, weathered, stuffed teddy bear of a classic Baltimore sepulchral memorial that now surround the valve house seem the appropriate architectural adornment of the present age.
Regularly this year when I come to work in the morning to teach, someone has dumped a pile of garbage, mattresses, construction debris in the inviting, capacious parking lot of a school that once held over 4,000 students but now about 600. This is a place where people, who don’t want it seen, come to dump their trash.