Hard Lessons in Baltimore

What a group of middle-schoolers learned from their recent field trip to the city

David Goldman / AP

“Are you still taking your middle schoolers to Baltimore?” my friends asked. I had just written an essay for The Atlantic, days after the city-wide violence broke out, about my students’ long-planned field trip to the city and our study of the protests as they unfolded. I wrote it before we had a clear idea of whether the trip would still happen. “If you go,” my friends said, “let us know how it turns out.”

Unless there were actual disturbances happening the morning of our scheduled departure, we were going. My seventh- and eighth-grade students at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School had spent months planning and fundraising for the three-day trip to the city; it is a tradition that students—not teachers—plan, choosing which city to visit and mapping out the destinations. After Freddie Gray’s death, they studied the protests and discussed the issues in depth. My students are racially and culturally diverse, but few of them have direct life experience that would prepare them to understand poverty. Instead, they learned about incidents in Baltimore through research.

They were riveted by the story of race, class, and justice. When Baltimore’s city prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, delivered charges to the six officers who arrested Gray, my students studied the Bill of Rights and invited two New York City police officers to class. The kids asked probing questions, and the officers responded by talking about the emotional toll of answering 911 calls and responding quickly to dangerous situations. That conversation helped students to understand that things weren’t as simple as they had thought. Many students and teachers were deeply affected by what the officers explained about the challenges of their jobs.

Then, the field trip faced another obstacle: Just a week before the scheduled departure date, an Amtrak train derailed and crashed just outside of Philadelphia, along our route, killing eight people and injuring hundreds. Still, last Tuesday, a day after Amtrak resumed service in its Northeast corridor, my 25 students, four other faculty chaperones, and I were on our way.

Inspiring history lessons unfolded in the museums the students had chosen to visit. At the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the B&O Railroad Museum, students handled historical artifacts and heard a moving story of struggle and progress. The eighth-graders who had planned the trip chose museums that complemented what they had already learned in class over the course of the school year. They  also chose activities to celebrate the end of the school year. They took a speedboat ride in the harbor, clinging tightly as the boat crested the waves. They craved and consumed as many carbs as they could. And on our last night, they dressed up in their nicest clothes for a fancy dinner.

However, they also encountered a set of unintended lessons outside of the museums and our planned activities. Although my Brooklyn students are used to city life, being in an unfamiliar place heightened their awareness of economic inequality and racial divisions.

It is important for educators to protect students’ safety. But I’m not there to insulate them from the world and its problems. We teach so that students will be inspired to have a positive impact on the world they will inherit. Therefore, when we invite students to lead, we don’t just abandon them to their own devices, but rather have to be prepared to help them to learn from what they encounter.

On the way to the hotel, the vans passed a homeless shelter with a vibrant mural and the inspiring exhortation, “Everyone deserves to go home.” Yet an elaborate homeless encampment stood just across the street on a narrow strip of sidewalk by an overpass. As we set out for lunch, we passed the St. Vincent DePaul Catholic church a few doors down. On benches in the large, fenced-in churchyard were piles of belongings covered with plastic tarps. People sat among the piles and the plastic.

Here was the most obvious injustice: The rooms we rented looked out on a street where others slept on the sidewalk. In New York City, up to 60,000 people are housed in shelters on any given night. Throughout the year, the class had cooked meals for a soup kitchen near our school, but seeing semi-permanent encampments for the first time required my students to face homelessness in a different way.

That evening, the students enjoyed free time in the Inner Harbor, a tourist area of shops and restaurants ringing the water. As our group was leaving, a young white woman walked by us with two dobermans. The dogs jumped and lunged at passersby, then began barking frantically at a black man on a bicycle. He became furious, and even after she walked away, continued shouting at her down the pier. Once she was gone, he ranted angrily against white people in general—women in particular. He pedaled up and down the pier wielding a bike lock, brandishing it like a weapon. He ignored the chaperones and students of color in our group, and shouted at me, the only white chaperone, and the white girls, threatening us in the same way he had shouted at the woman with the dogs.

At first, I was worried that the students would feel afraid, but they stayed calm. The other chaperones and I stepped between the kids and the angry man, our confidence shielding them from his invective. But in reality, it was that man who was likely in the greatest danger that night, particularly if he kept shouting at tourists.

The next morning, we toured Baltimore’s National Aquarium. The students raced from tank to tank. They stared at the circling sharks, and clustered around the touch tanks, and frightened themselves and each other with the tarantulas, sting rays, and moray eels. Any danger was sealed behind thick glass.

That afternoon, we took a bus northwest from the city center to a museum to hear a presentation on Maryland’s Civil War history. A friendly man missing most of his teeth saw us looking at the map on the bus for directions, and offered help. He was sunburned and bedraggled, his skin pocked with sores. He knew exactly which stop we should take. “I’m getting off there, too,” he said.

At the museum, the students learned what Civil War soldiers carried, and how to fire a musket. They learned about the inspiring role of freed blacks in the war effort. When I asked the docent about life in Baltimore since the riots, he tried to be positive, but also shared that the museum had lost a great deal of business. Staff at other museums told us that many other groups had canceled their planned visits. The city was holding its breath.

The most challenging moment of the trip happened on our way back to the bus stop. I saw a white man and white woman who appeared pregnant moving in extremely slow motion while waiting for the bus; even from a distance they appeared high. Several people had gathered around them and were shouting at one another and at the stumbling couple. I stopped the school group a few hundred yards away to confer with another chaperone. “Maybe we should walk home,” I said. “I’d prefer our students not ride the bus with people in such bad shape.”

“Well, we can’t go back the way we came,” he told me. “Don’t stare, but a block back there’s a fight. And it’s getting ugly.” He pointed back over his shoulder.  Another long block away, a group of people was gathering, shouting, and grabbing at one another. A car pulled up and one of the women in the fight opened the trunk, pulled out a long plank of wood, and swung it at another woman.

There we stood with two dozen middle-school students between drug users and a fight, at 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. In fact, one of our chaperones learned the next morning from a man who identified himself as a Baltimore City homicide officer that the bus stop where we were waiting was a block from the largest heroin dealer in the city.

I was concerned for the people at the bus stop and the women in the fight. But I wasn’t about to call the police. “Let’s just look at the ground,” I suggested to the kids.

In retrospect, that’s a moment when I wished that I had had something more inspiring and reassuring to say to my hopeful, curious students. But at that moment, there wasn’t anything we could do, not even walk away. It was a reminder of where we all stood in the scheme of race and poverty, and how powerless even privileged people can sometimes feel in the face of all the suffering and chaos of the world.

The chaperones and I ultimately decided to catch the bus instead of walk, the adults surrounding the children protectively. The pregnant woman from before curled up on a seat while the man dozed, dribbling a full bottle of chocolate milk onto the floor of the bus.

“I think those people are drunk,” one student whispered to a chaperone. The couple got off the bus near a hospital, and then lurched into oncoming traffic. Once they got off, the students relaxed. But I also heard them talking, tentatively and quietly, about the fight they had just witnessed.

“Who carries wood in their trunk to hit people with?” one student asked.

“Yeah,” another boy answered. “I’ve lived in all kinds of neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and I’ve never seen something like that.”

“Why do things in Baltimore look so broken?” one student asked.

It was true: While the museums told an inspiring tale of Baltimore’s place in history, our experiences outside on the streets, and the events we had studied in the news, revealed a different story. And they were taking it all in.

At the U.S.S. Constellation, a museum on a sailing ship, my students had their final American history lesson of the field trip. The Constellation was the last full-sail U.S. Navy ship ever commissioned. It was built in the mid-1800s and used before the Civil War to chase and capture slave ships off the coast of Africa. The docent, dressed as a 19th-century sailor, told our group of a day in 1860 when the Constellation’s crew had spotted one such ship, the Cora, and then gave chase in the open ocean. Museum staff lined my students up alongside reproductions of cannons, which they pulled into place with thick ropes, loaded with imaginary cannonballs, and fired at the imaginary slave ship. The story had a happy ending—694 kidnapped Africans returned safely to Liberia.

But the story struck me as strange: Why, in 1860—when the Fugitive Slave Act required even Northern abolitionists to return escaped slaves—was the U.S. using taxpayer money and Navy ships to fight the slave trade off the coast of Africa? When I asked the docent, she appeared off-guard and crestfallen. “Well, it’s actually all about economics,” she said. “They were preventing the importing of cheaper slaves from Africa to keep the price of domestic slaves high.” Her answer hung in the air, souring our victorious mood.

As a teacher, I want my students to feel involved in history, to imagine how they might have acted in times of crisis. Our study of current events and human rights and the visit to Baltimore put them directly inside of the history of civil rights unfolding in modern times.

But I still wondered, how much is too much for 13-year-old kids to process? What’s the right balance of history, politics, media, and reality? Even though we chaperones were there to keep them safe, visiting an unfamiliar city was shifting their perspective and thus their perception. Even as they joked, laughed, and asked to go buy more and more candy, the news events we had studied were never far from their minds.

On Friday, back at school, the students made a banner covered with their words, images, and photographs to reflect on the trip. Nobody wrote about that tense moment by the bus stop. Instead, they wrote about the animals swimming in the aquarium. One student painted a watercolor of boats at night. Some made maps of what we had seen, and graphs showing how they had spent their hard-earned money on the trip. They posted joyful photos of the boat ride. Others made fanciful digital art, photoshopping rainbows onto images of the harbor, reminding me that they were, after all, adolescent kids who had just taken an exciting field trip to an unfamiliar city. Not everyone wanted to reflect on the difficult sights they had seen.

But some of the students did focus on civil rights and economic inequality. Students wrote about feeling empathy for all the people of Baltimore. One student listed names of men and women killed by police officers: Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice, and so on. Another researched and added statistics about homelessness to the banner, and another wrote about how sad he had felt seeing so much poverty.

And one student typed up lyrics from Nina Simone’s album, Baltimore:

“Oh, Baltimore. Ain't it hard just to live?”