Fire is a gift from the gods, but it’s still hard to watch your neighborhood burn.
There was no CVS on the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenues in Baltimore—or Penn North as folks from the area call it—when I grew up there. But I know the corner like the back of my hand.
The library on the southeast side is where I got my first Dungeons & Dragons manual, which was shipped in from a library in the county. I was one of the first to ride the subway when it opened there. My aunt surprised me one evening with a trip downtown to the Hippodrome to see a movie—the long escalator seemed like it should descend into a dark nothing, but instead all was lit and pristine. I caught that same subway one stop up all the time to Mondawmin Mall where I bought my first compact disc when I was about 15. It was the Jimi Hendrix Experience. All the kids at my prep school listened to classic rock, so I figured I should too.
I knew the corner so well because I spent what seemed like half of my life waiting for buses or subways there to take me to schools far from Penn North and Sandtown-Winchester, where two black boys—myself and, many years later, the dead-too-soon Freddie Gray—both grew up. Those rides got longer and longer over the years once I was old enough that the school bus didn’t pick me up anymore to take me to Harford Heights elementary over on the east side. Or Roland Park out in its magnificent planned community. Or eventually St. Paul’s, with its stunning view of TV Hill, which was tall enough that it almost hid the city.
The blessings of my life kept making the circle bigger, and I kept going further away to get to them.
I never thought things were rough in my neighborhood when I was a kid. I thought they just “were.” But the older I got the more my life became a focused square of activity because of those rough streets. School, sports, home at night, dinner, then the blue chair in my grandma’s Baker Street living room where I fought to stay awake and master the quadratic formula.
In retrospect, a lifetime of dinner conversations and events make the haze of memories crystal clear. My grandma talked about redlining, a lot. My friend Stuart, a big redhead black kid a few years older than me that lived on Calhoun Street, was shot and killed. Grandma got mugged while walking home from church one morning. I’d been beat up and had my bike taken from me. All the streets around us—Stricker, Presstman, Gilmor, Gold—loomed with their own sort of eerie malevolence. In a city of neighborhoods, mine was exactly one square block.
I did not have much perspective on how rough Sandtown had become until reading about the death of Freddie Gray. A story in the Baltimore Sun, where as a high schooler I’d only seen my name in the box score, told me all I needed to know about the place I am from:
The neighborhood where he lived, Sandtown-Winchester, recently made news as the census tract that is home to more inmates in the Maryland correctional system than any other. But that is not the only way in which it is exceptional. Four years ago, the Baltimore Health Department issued a community profile of that neighborhood and even in a city where poverty is widespread, it stands out. The unemployment rate there is about double the citywide average, and so is the poverty rate.
Similarly, there are about twice as many liquor stores and tobacco outlets per capita in Sandtown-Winchester as in the city as a whole. Fully a quarter of juveniles in that neighborhood had been arrested between 2005 and 2009. It had the worst domestic violence rate of any of the neighborhoods the health department analyzed and among the worst rates for non-fatal shootings and homicides. A quarter of the buildings are vacant, and the lead paint violation rate is triple the city average. (Gray and his sisters suffered from lead paint poisoning as children.) The only metric the health department analyzed in which Sandtown-Winchester was the best in the city was in the density of fast food restaurants. Perhaps it’s too poor to have any.
Reading the details was devastating. Seeing the flames over the CVS was even worse. But having a life of experience that helps you divine the deeper “why” of it all is, perhaps, the most terrible part of it all.
I get a lot of resistance for my efforts broadly in education reform and, very specifically, for my work on and deep belief in school choice. According to the criticism, I am part pariah, part pushover. A mix of equal measures, shill and destroyer. The owners of these opinions, until the Gray tragedy, would likely not have been able to find Penn North on a map.
But it’s exactly because you grow up in Sandtown that you know the value of an excellent school which you get to attend regardless of who your parents are, how much money they make or where you live. While watching students of Frederick Douglass High School throw rocks at police across the Gwynns Falls Parkway, all I could remember was my first trip to that school. I arrived as a visitor and an athlete—not a student—at what would have been my zoned public school. There was glass in the grass of the end zone; I was the only one of my classmates who knew to look for it.
It’s precisely because your grandma, Daisy, was pissed about redlining all those years ago that you understand school segregation and how deliberate and purposeful its effects and reemergence have been.
And it is absolutely because you know that, but for the right school and the shining fingertip of providence, you are Freddie Gray.
In a world of infinite timetables for school improvement that are rarely if ever reached, choice is the most powerful way to create new worlds of possible for kids who are destined to have so little possible for themselves.
While the status quo argues over who gets to educate our kids, no one is educated. While they fight over who runs our schools, our kids run for their lives. And while they damn necessary and aggressive change at every turn, nothing changes. This complacency and defense of the indefensible must end.
Freddie Gray’s death is found at the intersection of numerous oppressive systems that, as I’ve written about before, are working precisely as intended. While the protesters try to show their profound rage peacefully, and the anarchists hurl the gift of fire at buildings and property and commerce, what’s plain is that one of those oppressive systems is schooling—assigned by where you live and not what you need. Propped up as an institutional concern while many of our children and their parents are simply concerned about survival. And floundering in the hot sun of public scrutiny for its inability to save the lives it now must. The young people of Baltimore desire and deserve better from their cornerstone institutions, schooling chief among them.
Prometheus faced an eternity of suffering for giving us that gift of the gods, fire. And like all gifts, it consumes, as it already has done in the neighborhood of my youth. Or it lights the way.
For the sake of all the young Freddie Grays in that neighborhood and neighborhoods like it across Baltimore, Maryland and America for whom education is the only way out, it must be the latter.