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"Yes, You Can"

"Yes, You Can” My Faces of Inspiration
A letter from Baltimore, with memories from the Bronx

Carrie Holmes and students photo by Ann Card The Bronx seems like forever ago. The Fabulous 145, what we called home during the summer of 2003 while we taught our students in the Bronx, is my constant reminder that "¡si, se puede!" is the only motto I need to live by. If you believe "Yes, you can," you actually will succeed.

It seems like forever ago when I was corrected by my beautiful students, who said it was el grafico and not la grafico, which I had mistakenly said as I put up the graph I had finished creating at three o'clock that morning. Oh, if only the language had been my biggest challenge as I prepared this classroom of sixth graders, who spoke little or no English, for a huge math exam that would determine their fate for the next year. Yes, the Spanish was a bit overwhelming, but it just added to the stresses of lesson planning, classroom management, visuals, manipulatives, and bulletin boards that were drowning me behind our motto of "¡si, se puede!" which I was supposed to live by, and ended up fearing.

Yachira read out loud in front of the whole class, and I can still see her face as she whispered 'gracias' as she walked out of class. The picture of Eduardo, still wearing his hat after the tenth time I had asked him to take it off and the tenth time he had refused, comes with me. It was a battle I would have lost had it not been for my persistence and some great advice from an experienced teacher. I also have the picture from week three of Eduardo, his individualized behavior plan taped to his desk, reading quietly, pausing only to self-monitor his behavior so he could show me at our daily conference after school.

There's Yachira, who read aloud, read aloud in broken English a passage at a second-grade reading level. I looked out at the class to call on the next student to read and saw her head glued to the highlighted paragraph we had rehearsed for half an hour before school. José, waving his hand, caught my eye, and I would have called on him had it not been for the fact Yachira looked up, our eyes locked, and she slowly lifted her hand. Yachira read out loud in front of the whole class, and I can still see her face as she whispered "gracias" as she walked out of class. Two stories, two beautiful children of the 22 amazing students I taught that summer.

I carry the pictures of those tiny faces of inspiration with me to Diggs-Johnson Middle School in Baltimore every day. Diggs-Johnson is different. It is actually quite a bit different. I wish I knew where to start, or what picture I should paint first, but the images that fill my mind now are very different from those at the Fabulous 145.

Carrie Holmes and students photo by Ann Card When I arrived at Diggs I was warned about the three regular prostitutes that stand in our parking lot with their skirts up around their waists (we now refer to them as the self-employed women of the neighborhood). I had been warned about the crack houses, the heroin needles, and the filth of a neighborhood of boarded-up houses and people living in cars. I had been warned and yet I was still surprised.

The first day I arrived and met my co-workers, I was not surprised that I was one of only eight white staff members. I can honestly say I barely noticed, until I realized that they all did. I learned quickly that being white could become my downfall in Baltimore. It was a clear signal for distrust. I was going to desert these babies, the babies that they had grown to love. I was going to leave them because they were going to eat me alive. It was the message I received from every staff member I met, and by two that afternoon I was scared I might start believing it.

Carrie Holmes and students photo by Ann Card The school is a story in itself. It has capacity for 300 students but 550 were enrolled, so the city was supposed to build portable classrooms to house the eighth-grade students and the SPAR (special area elective) classes. Of course the city didn't get to it. On our first day of training the city sent a memo that the work would be done by September 14, and by the Friday before the first day of school, five memos later, they could almost guarantee the portables would be built before December.

The eighth-grade team set up the gym for five teachers, five classes running simultaneously with no walls, no desks, no chairs, and 200 students. Many teachers were given carts to push from class to class, and I was one of the fortunate ones who received a classroom. It could hold 22 desks, with a teacher's desk in the back of the room. At the seventh-grade team meeting the principal informed us that the seventh-grade teachers would be sending their students to SPAR classes (my Spanish class is considered SPAR) two classes at a time. They estimated approximately 52 students would be in my fourth-period classroom.

Principal: I would be happy to cut the seventh-grade class in half and you can teach the other half during your lunch. How does that work? Prepared to roll with the punches, I met with two other experienced teachers to rearrange the layout of my room so I could fit more desks. With five more desks, there was barely room to walk along the edges, and so we stopped, all of us knowing it would mean many students without desks, chairs, or even standing room.

My meeting with the seventh-grade principal went like this:

Me: If you have a free moment I would like to talk to you about the seventh-grade SPAR situation.

Ms. H.: Go ahead.

Me: Well, I know that we are facing some serious challenges due to our lack of space this year, but after working all day yesterday and with the help of Ms. Knight and Ms. Cousins, I am positive that I cannot fit more than 27 desks in my classroom.

Ms. H.: Yes.

Me: I would love to take any suggestions you may have, but I just do not know how more than 50 students will fit into my classroom at one time.

Ms. H.: Are you saying you want smaller class sizes?

Me: Of course that would be ideal, but I understand we are not working with ideal right now; I would just like suggestions on how to fit over 50 students in my classroom at one time. And if you agree that it doesn't seem possible, I would like to work with you to brainstorm some alternatives.

Ms. H.: Are you saying you want smaller class sizes?

(At this point I am in shock and not sure what to say.)

Ms. H: Because if you are saying you want smaller class sizes, that is wonderful. I would be happy to cut the seventh-grade class in half and you can teach the other half during your lunch. How does that work?

(Again I am silent because I know this is a trick, although I am almost tempted to give up my lunch for the sake of classroom management.)

Ms. H.: Very well. I am sure you will rise to the challenge and make it work. We wouldn't have hired you at Diggs-Johnson if we didn't think you were tough. (laughing) Tough or crazy, you have to be one of those to work here.

She walks away.

I teach here in Baltimore because I am needed, maybe because I am a little naive, but definitely because I am one of those stubborn teachers not yet burnt out, not yet jaded. The first day of school was an adventure. I guess it is a cultural thing for parents to walk their students to school. Almost every parent did that the first day. The eighth-grade parents walked their children right in and waited patiently for someone to show them to their son's or daughter's homeroom. Having been assigned to the front door for the first half-hour, I was one of the first faces these parents saw. As parents walked in I sent the sixth graders to the auditorium, the seventh graders to the cafeteria, and the eighth graders to the gym, until the hallway was blocked with eighth-grade parents.

My favorite conversation of the morning went like this (and pardon my language):

Group One (three or four mothers of eighth-grade students): This is bullshit. You cannot expect our students to go sit on the floor of the gym all day. Absolute nonsense. My kid ain't sitting on no floor all day. Where the hell are the desks, where are the chairs? This is unbelievable.

Group Two (six or eight mothers of eighth-grade students): Stop blocking the door, we are s'posed to go inside.

Group One: We ain't going in no gym. My kid ain't sitting on no gym floor in her new school clothes. I paid too much money for my daughter to be sitting on no floor.

Group Two: Where you gonna send her then, where are the kids gonna go? This is it, if they say they being taught in the gym, they being taught in the gym.

Group One: Ain't no way my kid's being taught in no gym.

Group Two: Your kid can't even read.

And this is where the brawl begins and Group One charges Group Two. We have parents attacking one another in the hallway between the gym and the cafeteria. And kids cheering their parents on as faculty and staff attempt to break up the fights and the hallway continues to clog.

At about 9:30, after only an hour of outbursts, brawls, and eighth-grade parents and children all-out refusing to enter the gym, the media arrive in full force with cameras, microphones, and at least six reporters pouring into our hallways. The loudspeaker announces that all students and teachers are quarantined to their classrooms on the first floor. I am upstairs at the time watching it all from the computer teacher's window. The school CEOs are called, and the police get there at around 10:30 to escort the reporters, who are now outside interviewing the mob of eighth-grade parents who have pulled their children from Diggs.

Every day since has been an adventure. Teaching is a challenge I never expected it to be and one that I can truly say I love. The culture in Baltimore is drastically different from any other place I have been and "challenging" is an understatement. In my fourth-period class of seventh graders I have students sitting on the radiator and more standing in the back, as I try to get their attention and deal with the fact that Diggs-Johnson cannot afford to hire substitutes, meaning that if a teacher is out, each class gets split up five ways and one-fifth of the students come to me. Standing in the back, they don't care about Spanish or the classroom culture we have created. They do not need to follow along or do any of the work, nor do they need to sit quietly. In the three weeks we have been in school, I have received these extra groups of kids about five times.

Race is a factor I underestimated. My liberal education and liberal belief that I could actually be colorblind was almost as much of a joke as the thought that my students and their parents would accept a white teacher into their community. As I tried to teach the colors in Spanish, I would never have expected the chaos that ensued when I showed the class the word for black, negro (pronounced with the e as in "egg"). And a note that was passed around for the teachers to read that said "Ms. Lehr hates Black People" hit us all hard, as we knew that there was probably more of that in all of our classrooms. I go back every day, of course. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would. Each day I wonder things. When Mardaisha's mom comes in and asks why her daughter is already failing, and I show her the quiz and homework scores, does she mean it when she asks, "Are all the black kids failing?" I am curious if these beautiful students understand when I tell them their names cannot be translated into Spanish, that names like Verneesha, Rasheaara, Shanaira, Quron, and Terrell are unique and special already. I tense a little bit when they ask me where I live and I respond with "here in the city"; in every class someone in the back of the room whispers under their breath loud enough so we all can hear it, "Yeah, in the white part." I honestly have not seen a white part yet, and if there truly is one, I am sure on my teacher's salary I cannot afford to live there.

And have I mentioned they all suck their thumbs – seniors in high school who still suck their thumbs – and I do my best not to judge them because of it, because it is their culture. Confused, I search for clarification and can only think back to self-soothing techniques I have learned about in psychology classes (honestly trying not to believe in Freudian oral fixations).

Today I am perfectly happy teaching here in Baltimore at Diggs-Johnson Middle School. A school on its third year of CEO status (i.e., run like a business, with heavy emphasis on testing and measurable goals), it is still the worst-performing middle school in the city. A school where the attendance rate is 50 percent and we are still without classrooms for all our students. A school where the computer teacher has six working computers and we have four overheads to share. A school without a copy machine or paper, or textbooks for half of the classes (mine included), and class sizes over 25 and some as high as 62 in rooms where we have run out of desks weeks ago.

But every day I go back, because only 10 students passed my first quiz, and Dominique punched James in the face, and although Dominique was sent to the office the principal sent back a note saying to schedule a parent conference before sending any child to the office no matter what the circumstance, and because Spencer got stabbed in the eye with a pencil and the school refused to call his mother for fear of a lawsuit, and because Jameka stood up on Tuesday and said, "I thought SPAR classes were supposed to be fun."

I teach every day because Kiara wrote on the first paper she turned in that "the white bitch teaching Spanish is unfair," and because Mr. English and Mr. Walker laugh about the fact that the last Spanish teacher they had lasted for seven weeks and most white teachers don't last the first semester. I come back because I cannot stop thinking about these mis angelitos every second of the day, because I will not be like the others who have quit, because my whole class can pronounce negro in Spanish and not swear under their breath that their teacher is a racist, and Dominique promised after school that he would lead by example in my classroom and I have no choice but to believe him since his mother has missed our parent conference on four consecutive days and I have no other consequence for him.

I teach every day because Spencer called his mom on my cell phone and his mother, so strung out, came and got him but never brought him to the hospital, and because Kiara came in during her lunch every day this week to wash my board, clap my erasers, and practice her numbers for the quiz. I teach here in Baltimore because I am needed, maybe because I am a little naive, but definitely because I am one of those stubborn teachers not yet burnt out, not yet jaded, and not ready to move to the white part of town or transfer to a private school. So that is the update from Baltimore. There is still so much more you aren't hearing about the most amazing students that walk into my life every day and run through my head every night and weekend.

Missing New Hampshire,


Carrie Holmes photo by Ann Card
Carrie Holmes '02 graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Spanish and Psychology. She cites Dr. Stephen Clark and Patrice Strifert as her most influential mentors at KSC. Carrie is working in Baltimore through Teach for America, and she has bought a house near Diggs-Johnson Middle School. She's also working on a master's degree in education from Johns Hopkins University. She wrote recently, "Teach for America has a simple mission: All children in America will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. I challenge any Keene State student to become part of this movement, to share our goals and our mission by changing much more than one classroom of kids."