I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in Baltimore. To have lived my entire life in one city and be unwelcome in many of its neighborhoods. To have known the nightmare of gun violence since childhood. To lose family and friends to violence, incarceration, both. To attend schools that everyone openly condemns, only to be told that something is wrong with me if I don’t succeed academically.
I do know what it’s like to teach in those schools, to be made better by teenagers. To adore them so much I call them my lovelies. To never find the right words when lovelies tell me they don’t expect to live past 21, so why bother with school? To be grateful every time a lovely cries, writes, talks about someone they’ve lost, because at least it shows they’re processing. To wish they’d all let themselves have that release.
I know what it’s like for a co-worker to fall into my arms, wailing at the news of another student killed. I know what it’s like to be that co-worker, collapsing and inconsolable.
On Monday, a 16-year-old who attends Patterson High School was killed just off school property. This is the fourth time this school year that Baltimore City Public Schools students have died on or near school grounds.
Typing this, especially as a teacher, makes me sick. In September, a 17-year-old was killed during dismissal at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School. In January, five teenagers were shot — one fatally — across the street from Edmondson-Westside High School. More teenagers have been victims of gun violence than we’ve seen since 2014, according to a recent Baltimore Banner analysis.
Every time a young person dies, I worry about my lovelies: Is this someone they care about? Does this make them feel unsafe? Discouraged? I’m also painfully reminded of my limits. As much as I cherish my lovelies, as hard as I work and as often as I pray for their well-being, sometimes it feels like we’re fighting a losing battle.
I know, you know, we all know: Our city must change. Children are dying. Unnecessarily. Violently. Often.
So many of us work earnestly and every day for this change. Service providers. Community members. Coaches. Health professionals. Educators. We encourage, support, listen, treat, instruct. Love.
Our work makes a difference. But not enough of one.
There are people reading this who aren’t interested in working toward a better Baltimore. The people who learn of another teenager’s homicide and, rather than express condolences, ask, “Was he a real victim or a participant in a life of crime?” as one person wrote in the comments section of a local news site. “Good riddance,” another wrote.
I’m not writing this for people who berate Baltimore.
Instead, I’m writing for those who agree: Baltimore deserves better. Our homicide rate is unsustainable and something must be done. I’m writing for residents of this city; folks who make their living here; graduate students at our universities; people who drive downtown from surrounding counties for games, festivals, concerts.
I’m writing for those who believe in Baltimore. People who want our city to thrive, and have faith that someday it will. Your confidence in Baltimore is necessary.
It’s also not enough.
Before I became a teacher, someone told me a parable from the Sant Mat spiritual movement. An adult and child sat in a rowboat with two oars: one inscribed with the word “faith,” the other “effort.” Once they were in the middle of the lake, the adult told the child to row back to shore, but to only use the oar inscribed “faith.” The child followed instructions, and the boat began going in circles. The adult told the child to try rowing only with the oar inscribed “effort” next. Again, the boat went in circles. It was only when the adult said, “Now use both faith and effort to row,” that the boat moved forward toward their destination.
Baltimore needs and warrants our faith. It also needs and warrants our effort. Baltimore deserves more of us to show up — by volunteering, donating, tutoring, protesting, organizing, demanding, mentoring.
I don’t know how long it’ll take for Baltimore to become the city we know it can be. I don’t know what the precise solution is, or how many of us need to contribute to it.
I just know that, years ago, when my first lovely was killed, I called his best friend at sunrise the next morning. We didn’t, couldn’t speak — we only sobbed. I know that, at a vigil for three Patterson students killed in the fall of 2020, a lovely and I stood in front of the crowd, squeezing each other’s hands as we shared memories of her friend.
I know exactly where the fatal shooting of that 16-year-old occurred on Monday; it’s where I’ve wandered during many lunch breaks as a teacher at Patterson High School. I hate that a place where I’ve gone for fresh air and peace of mind is where a young person lost his life.
I know, you know, we all know: This cannot keep happening. Let’s make it stop.
Kerry Graham is a Baltimore City Public Schools teacher and a creative in residence for The Baltimore Banner.