Teach For America in the Terrordome

Experience the disheartening first impressions of Southwestern High School, a.k.a. the “Terrordome,” through the eyes of a Teach For America member.

| October 2012

  • Teaching in the Terrordome
    “Teaching in the Terrordome” is the story of one Teach For America member who had to rely on grit, humility, a little comedy and a willingness to look failure in the face in order to survive, and make a difference, teaching in West Baltimore.
    Cover Courtesy University of Missouri Press

  • Teaching in the Terrordome

Teaching in the Terrordome (University of Missouri Press, 2012) tells the story of how Heather Kirn Lanier joined Teach For America, a program that thrusts eager but inexperienced college graduates into America’s most impoverished areas to teach, asking them to do whatever is necessary to catch their disadvantaged kids up to the rest of the nation. Teaching at Southwestern High School, a.k.a. “The Terrordome,” in West Baltimore, Lanier had to overcome obstacles such as a disintegrating building, suspicious colleagues and even violent actions from the students. Despite shining statistics presented by the organization, here is a more common story of “Teaching For America,” written with thoughtful complexity, a poet’s eye and an engaging voice. Read about Lanier’s first impressions of West Baltimore and the school she would be teaching at in this excerpt taken from Chapter 1, “The School Beside the Cemetery.” 

“Never drive west of MLK,” a friend advised before I learned I’d teach every day in a school two miles west of Martin Luther King Boulevard. “I drove west of MLK last night,” said another friend, a future teacher, “and a cop stopped me at a light, told me to turn around. Go back, he told us. He said a white person’s car got set on fire west of MLK. He said they were just sitting there, at a light—the white people—and someone set their car on fire.” I imagined cars west of MLK spontaneously bursting into flames.

But so far, I’ve never seen any. I’m heading west again today, as I did yesterday and as, should I survive another seven hours of teaching, I’ll do tomorrow. After passing through Charles Village, the neighborhood of Johns Hopkins and brightly painted, Victorian row homes, and after pass­ing through Mount Vernon, Baltimore’s upscale, urban-hipster scene of posh bars, galleries, bead stores, and transvestite prostitutes, I turn right onto West Franklin. White flower boxes sit perched on the sills of tall, arch-shaped windows. Park benches and potted plants line one building’s out­side. I am not yet west of MLK.

But West Franklin becomes a freeway, and it’s here, on a slab of concrete hovering twenty feet or so over MLK Boulevard, that I do what those voices warn me never to do. The elevation of the freeway lowers until it dips below street level. I now speed below the short Baltimore blocks that my students freely, almost cheerfully call “ghetto.” I pass under the names of streets they live on, the ones that make the news for the latest shooting or drug arrest: Calhoun, Gilmor, Monroe. If I were to head south on the last, I’d hit West Fayette. North Monroe and West Fayette: a drug intersec­tion made famous by an HBO series.

I merge from West Franklin onto Route 40, and with each passing meter the road rises to street-level, the walls diminish, and it’s like emerging from a concrete tunnel, like being birthed from a concrete mother into a depressed world of more concrete that’s now just trash-riddled and broken. In a mile, the city has transformed. Trees and shrubs aren’t sculpted around banks and homes. Instead, dead vines and branches wrap around phone lines and chain-link fencing. Row homes line the streets. The homes are no wider than a window and a door. They look conjoined and sad, their varying brick façades stuck together like dulled Lego bricks. Several are boarded up, the doors and windows covered by plywood. Homes should have entries, openings, ways in and ways out. The boarded-up homes look like faces with sealed eyes and mouths. Occasionally, when I spot a real home—a home with glass, a working door—it’s almost inviting. Except its rarity seems foreboding.

At a traffic light at North Warwick, an old black man crosses in front of me. With his back bent forward, he makes shaky, pained steps across the road. I smile when I read his stretched out, threadbare T-shirt. Walk to Win, it says. In another year, Mayor O’Malley will plaster Baltimore’s billboards with his simple marketing scheme: Baltimore Believe. The white capital let­ters will stand starkly against a black background, and no image or border will clutter the signs. Right now, the billboards advertise mattresses and McDonalds and the importance of keeping one’s virginity. Right now, the city’s slogan is “Baltimore: The City that Reads.” City workers stenciled the phrase long ago onto bus stop benches. Baltimore’s reading test scores are a national embarrassment, so locals like to mock the motto. Even the kids know it’s a lie. A friend of mine asked his students to re-create the city’s ad campaign. “Baltimore,” they said. “The City that Bleeds.” They haven’t been the first to say it.

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