The year is 1994. I started my first year of teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools. If you know much about Baltimore City aka Charm City, you know teaching in Baltimore City is not for the faint at heart. Consider Nina Simone’s song, “Baltimore” , where the lyrics read, “Oh, Baltimore, Ain’t it just hard to live?” or Prince’s 2015 collaboration with Eryn Allen Kane and their song also titled, “Baltimore”. In verse one, Prince sings, “We’re tired of the cryin’ and people dyin’.” Neither artist depicted a pretty picture of Charm City. But, I also knew another side of the city. This is a city where my career in education began and thus, I owe much of my strength. Still. there is another side of Baltimore that is not often shared. One in which diversity is its’ strength and a resilient people grow.
Back to my beginning. You see, because I was born in New York, many folks assume I had the thick skin to weather the initial challenges I encountered in the classroom. They were wrong. Sure, I was born and raised in New York, but not Brooklyn or Queens or Harlem where some of the toughest folks I knew were raised. Instead, I was born in Mount Vernon, a small city near the Bronx and a little shy of 35-minutes from Manhattan. I attended parochial schools from kindergarten through high school. And, my mother, albeit a divorcee, sheltered me as much as she could from the ails of our city.
I recall interviewing for my first teaching job while still in my Masters’ program. Because I majored in physical education (PE) and had not yet completed my Masters in Health Education, I was eager to teach PE. When I arrived in Baltimore to tour the school and explore the gymnasium where I would hold court, I was shocked when the principal took me into a real classroom. Honestly, I’m questioning, quietly to myself, what am I suppose to do in here? The principal, with her big smile, said, I am going to have you teach health. So it begins. I started my first year teaching health education to eighth graders. I was clueless. I was prepared to set up the gym; I was comfortable demonstrating techniques for most sports, but terms like differentiation, depth of knowledge, and deficit-thinking were not broad terms used 25-years ago, so I was left figuring this teaching thing out on my own. It did not help that I was also the youngest member on staff, small in stature, and had the word “scared” scrolled across my forehead. It didn’t take long for me to resort to putting students out of my classroom when behavior issues surfaced. I honestly did not know what else to do.
There were so many shocks that first year. the shock of not knowing how to teach Black boys who were taller than me; the shock of teaching Black girls who eyed you with deep suspicion; and then there was the shock of how to respond when your students fight…in front of you. Yes, this was the beginning of the end. So I thought. My classroom was next door to a staff restroom. So, when I was confronted with the first physical altercation between two of my students, I was completely caught of guard. Now, I am no pushover and my mom would attest to the number of altercations I had growing up, but I was a teacher. I am suppose to save the world and my students are fighting. Now what? Once students, not staff, broke up the fight, I quickly went into that staff restroom and cried like a baby. Why was I crying so hard? The altercation and the fact my idealist views of everyone will get along and I will save them from themselves was halted and quite suddenly. So, I did what I knew best at the time. I called my mom and told her I wanted to come home. No, she didn’t tell me to stick it out. Instead, in her sweet and nurturing voice, my mom told me to come on home. I still smile at this thought. I did not go home though. Rather, there were a team of veteran teachers who must have observed my inhibitions and external struggles; they took me under their wing. Their guidance and support were invaluable to me then and to this day, I hold true to the values of team. So, the journey to press through year one of teaching in the heart of East Baltimore City continues.