What mixture of despair, desperation and thwarted pride would make one or more shooters fire wildly at dozens of innocent people — kids mostly — enjoying a holiday block party? How does an annual summer celebration go from pony rides and face painting to a mass shooting?
In a chronically violent city, last week’s bloodshed in South Baltimore was unusually disturbing. Two young people, 18-year-old Aaliyah Gonzalez and 20-year-old Kylis Fagbemi, were killed. Another 28 people were injured, and many of them were teenagers.
Maybe people willing to commit such acts of violence see themselves as real ones, built like that, out of the trenches and down for whatever.
But spraying bullets from a semi-automatic weapon into a crowd takes no courage. It is a spasm of cowardice, a revolt against impotence, a temper tantrum — albeit one with lethal results.
And in my Baltimore classroom, the trauma of other episodes of gun violence reverberates. Last September, a student needed extra help on assignments as she recovered from a gunshot wound to the head. The next month, a student who’s still coming to terms with the killing of her father six years ago told me, “You don’t heal from that.”
In November, a student got so down he stopped attending school after an uncle who’d been like a father was killed. In December, a student lost his best friend and sank into apathy. In the spring, a student missed weeks of school bracing for and then attending the trial of the man charged with killing the student’s brother.
So, the rituals of not forgetting go on — a funeral program tucked inside the clear plastic sleeve of a student’s notebook, T-shirts and tattoos that honor loved ones lost to violence, RIP messages penciled on desktops.
Don’t get me wrong. These are strong kids, resilient kids, proud kids who put on a good face, keep their heads up and don’t want anyone’s pity. That doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting.
During the 25 years I’ve been teaching in Baltimore, it’s been this way.
Some kids carry with them a kind of siege mentality — a sense that anything could jump off at any time.
Watch your back. Stay on point. Keep your head on a swivel. Keep your circle close. Keep your friends close — keep your enemies closer. Don’t get caught slipping. Be safe. Stay safe. These are the monitions I hear kids take to heart and urge on one another. They are both well wishes and tools for survival. Is it any wonder the language of Baltimore teens has evolved to produce a patois for vigilance?
Moreover, the scale of gun violence in Baltimore — the city has seen more than 3,000 killings and many more nonfatal shootings during the past decade — has probably had a devastating effect on students’ academic progress.
Exposure to gun violence impairs kids’ abilities to learn because it disrupts the circuitry of the brain — particularly the prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in reasoning, memory, problem-solving and executive functions.
According to an opinion piece by Amanda M. Dettmer and Tammy L. Hughes in Education Week: “Following traumatic events like gun violence, the prefrontal cortex connections in the brain are weakened while responses to threat are strengthened … shifting the brain from a more reflective to a more reflexive state. Children are not primed for optimal learning in a reflexive state. … [The] hypervigilant brain affords most of its energy toward survival and the least amount to learning.”
In the days after the mass shooting, acting Police Commissioner Richard Worley spoke, Mayor Brandon Scott spoke, Gov. Wes Moore spoke. CNN, Good Morning America, USA Today, Vanity Fair, People, The Wall Street Journal and other national media outlets ran stories about the shooting.
But in left-behind neighborhoods that have been starved of investment, where the trauma of gun violence exacts its heaviest toll, another press conference won’t help kids. In opportunity deserts found in the city’s poorest ZIP codes, where the specter of gun violence keeps people on edge, a day or two of national news coverage won’t help kids.
Talk with Baltimore teens, and a picture emerges of what gun violence has stolen from them: innocence, idealism, openness, peace of mind, basic expectations of safety, trust in our institutions and faith that government officials value their communities.
That’s a betrayal that should offend all Americans.
Adam Schwartz’s debut collection of stories, “The Rest of the World,” won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction. His nonfiction has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, The Sewanee Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Forward, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Washington Independent Review of Books and Bethesda Magazine. He has taught high school in Baltimore for 25 years.