Teach For America in the Terrordome

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Cover Courtesy University of Missouri Press
“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.

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.

I turn left and pass a gas station, which I’ve stopped patronizing. While my car idled at this intersection on the way home one day, I watched a man fill his tank, turn away, head to pay. Another man hopped into the driver’s seat and sped off. The tires screeched as the car veered right onto Route 40. “My car!” the owner shouted and ran after. No, I don’t use that gas station. I use the ones downtown.

North Warwick is a small backstreet squeezing between parking lots of trucks, a towing service, used tire places, more row homes, and a ton of ambiguous brick buildings. The exteriors of the commercial spaces rarely reveal what’s inside: they look like brick cubes planted on over­grown grass, and if they have signs, some of the letters have peeled away. “INTER STA E UE” reads one. Its windows are barred. Overgrown trees and shrubs fill the right side of one block. The greenery might be refresh­ing if it weren’t so unruly. “Sit under a tree this weekend and write your poem,” I once told a class for homework.

“Under a tree?” a girl scowled.

“Yeah,” I said, and nodded, “A tree.”

“What, Ms. Kirn,” said another, the brightest in the class. “Right next to the hypodermic needle?”

I tilted my head to the side and reconsidered.

After passing four black teenagers, some smoking, all cutting me eyes with dark almond suspicion–what am I, the white, short-haired, glasses-wearing woman, doing around their way?–and after passing a skinny white woman wearing a stained T-shirt for a dress, wavering down the sidewalk in a zig-zag, her knees and elbows jutting out from her shirt like ashy knobs, I reach Font Hill, the driveway of Southwestern High School. It’s a long, steady hill that Ms. Patterson says is the reason we never meet anyone at Parent-Teacher night. “It’s too hard for them [the parents] to walk up that hill,” she says. “After a long day, who wants to walk up that hill in the dark?”

Noelani and I first navigated west Baltimore for our interviews, that tale of the flaming car firmly in the backs of our minds. Once we got here to Font Hill we saw, between the brambles and dead vines raveling around still more fencing, a few tombstones. When we reached the top of Font Hill, two jaw-dropping forces competed for our attention: the high school–a tan, five-story mega-complex–and the seemingly endless acres of graves that spanned south and west. Perched on top of dead grass, Southwestern High School stood like a mammoth, intimidating god of the dead.

“Woah,” Noelani said. “My high school was small.”

I was more preoccupied with the graves. Mount Olivet Cemetery cov­ered a square half-mile of ground. Our eyes were gazing across 34,000 tombstones. Don’t go west of MLK, they’d said, and here we were, south and west, and even south and west of Southwestern were none other than a lot of dead people, like the further south and west in Charm City you went, the bleaker the outlook.

Like a prison, the Baltimore Sun often says of the school, and the news­paper isn’t speaking of (or only of) the emotional atmosphere inside. Prisonesque is always the first observation anyone makes of the exterior. The school is a drab beige color, and when you approach it from its only accessible road, Font Hill, there’s no clear entryway. There’s no grand sign, no front door. Very little landscaping, including a charred tree that might have been picturesque before lightning evidently split it. Two rows of tiny windows span the length of the biggest building. A few tiny rectangu­lar windows puncture the side. As I round it, I’m sandwiched between gravesites and a fortress.

“We got you an interview at Southwestern High School,” Jeremy Beard, the Program Director of Teach For America-Baltimore, told a handful of us only two weeks before the city’s first school day. We’d promised two years of our lives to Teach For America’s mission (One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education), and though the organization was responsible for procuring us positions in the district, sometimes jobs came through at the last minute.

Someone asked Jeremy what the school was like. To this, Jeremy clapped one fist into his palm and gave a diplomatic Teach For America response. “It’s definitely a school in need.” Another fist-to-palm clap. “It’s definitely got challenges.” Challenges, I’d learned, was the preferred TFA parlance for obstacles, difficulties, things that would make the job grueling. But challenges implied surmountable possibilities. And a school in need meant Southwestern needed us.

What were the challenges? I asked.

Again, Jeremy paused. “Every Baltimore high school has issues. There’s almost like a checklist . . .” He held both hands together and then stretched them apart like he was unfurling an imaginary scroll. “. . . Like a laundry list of problems common to the high schools. Low attendance. Low test scores.” He started tapping his fingers on one hand with each count. “High incidents of violence. Poor special ed services. . . . ” He stopped, dropped his hand. He could go on, but I got the point. “Southwestern has,” he paused, nodded, “a good many of the problems on that list.”

Southwestern has every problem on that list, I took him to mean, which was accurate. I must have looked hesitant.

“Just go in there and talk yourself up,” he said. “Know you can handle it.”

Know I can handle it, I thought. I, an introverted white woman from the suburbs, a student of Virginia Woolf’s prose and Gwendolyn Brook’s spontaneous metric verse–I can handle teaching in an inner-city school without ever having taught. Ever. But this is the very premise of Teach For America: that overachieving recent college graduates can in fact become change-agents in the most economically depressed of American corners. If the others he gathered that day harbored doubts, they didn’t show it. Noelani, tall and half Hawaiian with silky straight black hair, exuded a calm presence. Amy and Brooke, both blond, were fast-talking and intense. Ellen, brown-haired and the shortest of us at 5’2″, seemed to hang back a bit but still voiced no concern about heading west of MLK (as Jeremy had instructed) or handling the “laundry list” of challenges.

As the five of us were making plans to carpool, Noelani’s roommate piped in. “Southwestern . . . That sounds familiar.” She racked her brain but failed to recall how she’d heard the name.

The next day, when I got into Noelani’s car for the interview, she relayed the news. Her roommate had paged through The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, by David Simon and Edward Burns, the same guys who would later go on to make HBO’s hit show, The Wire. The nonfiction account follows a family entangled in the drug culture of west Baltimore–a son dealing, a mom and pop addicted. Noelani’s roommate swore she’d seen Southwestern’s name somewhere in there. And in one line of the nearly 600-page book, Southwestern High School is referred to as The Terrordome.

“We’re about to interview,” I said, “at the Terrordome?”

I’ve driven here every workday since. I park in the back. It’s 7:45 A.M., and from the looks of the cars, about a dozen administrators and teach­ers are here. Among them are the four other Teach For America teach­ers–Amy, Ellen, Noelani, and Brooke–along with Ms. Davis, the science department head. She arrives faithfully each morning at seven, puts in twelve hours of work. But school won’t start until 8:45, and about half of the faculty will roll up that hill in a sudden line of traffic. They’ll crowd the parking lot only a few minutes before the first bell, fight for the closest spaces, and rush to the front office so they can sign their names and prove they’re on time. Some of these teachers will be the first to bolt from their classrooms when the final bell rings at 3:25.

A year from now, Amy will confess to me that for the first few months of school she feels as I do now: like she’s going to puke. I’ll be surprised to hear this, in part because, by default, I tend to believe everyone besides me has their shit together. Yet Amy is also amazing at feigning confidence, as are the other early risers, Ellen and Brooke. Other than Noelani, who from day one has echoed my concerns, I think I’m the only one who wor­ries about walking through the single unchained side door of “The Terror­dome” and doing what Teach For America has charged me with: bridging the achievement gap. Playing a role in providing my students with educa­tions on par with their middle-class counterparts.

Just as TFA has armed us with alarming statistics on low-income stu­dents (“only one in ten will graduate college”; “by the time they reach fourth grade, low-income kids are two to three grades behind their high-income peers”), the organization has also armed us with optimistic evi­dence of our successes, or at least of the successes of those who’ve gone before us. Ninety percent of all principals who’ve hired TFA teachers in their schools say that they’d hire another if given the chance. And the anecdotal evidence of our effectiveness is inspiring. According to TFA, former teachers have raised their classrooms of elementary school kids two and three grade-levels in nine months; they’ve transformed resistant kids into engaged students by linking subject matter to fun things like football; they’ve founded movements of nationally recognized charter schools. We’ve heard the stories. We know we’re meant to achieve similar results.

The stories once led me to believe that the faculty here would receive us with open arms, but we were quickly warned otherwise. “Don’t. Trust. Anyone,” said the first TFA teacher to be placed in Southwestern, a woman from the very first TFA corps back in 1990. Noelani and I had met up with her prior to the school year. “You might think you’re making friends,” the veteran said, “but they’ll stab you right in the back when you’re not look­ing.” She lasted two years at The Terrordome and then escaped to Mervo, a technical high school with admissions standards, strict attendance poli­cies, and a smoother-functioning administration.

At first, I thought of chalking her advice up to paranoia, but when the five of us first met Ms. Davis, the science department head, she delivered a similar message.

“Come give Ms. Davis a hug,” she said when she found us in a hallway. A pear-shaped woman with wide, plastic-framed glasses stretched her arms out. “You are all my babies!” She hobbled in between embraces. We smiled and returned her hearty bear-hugs. “I adopt all you Teach For America people. Mm-hmm, I do. Just ask some of my former teachers. They’ll tell you. Mm-hmm, yes, I still keep in contact with Teach For America teachers. Teachers from 1990.” She looked at Noelani and nodded, “That’s right.” Then she grew quiet. “Now, I want to tell you something. This information is between you and me.”

She beckoned us closer, and the five of us huddled around her. I pre­pared to learn a secret.

“I don’t go around telling people how I feel about Teach For America. You know how people are,” she said. I realized then that Ms. Davis’s secret was her support of us. Her opened arms were a gift we should keep pri­vate. “And if I were you, I wouldn’t tell anyone you’re a part of Teach For America. No. Uh-uh. They don’t need to know that. You can just keep that information to yourselves.”

It was impossible, though, to keep it a secret. To the faculty, we were obvious outsiders–dubious, energetic white people straight out of col­lege. None of us knew Baltimore, none of us spoke with a B-more accent. Before the school year started, I didn’t have enough desks, and my own department head, Ms. Wallace, said she had no extras, so I had to scavenge some vandalized ones from Ms. Davis. “FUCK YOU” one read in Sharpie marker. On another, an erect, life-size penis, also in Sharpie pen, was about to enter a girl’s open mouth. Other desks had the names of housing proj­ects tagged all across the tops. Noelani was helping me carry these–the last desks to be had in Southwestern–downstairs to my classroom, but we were stopped by a tall woman in clacking red kitten heels. “Can I help you?” she called from down the hall. I knew she was a science teacher.

“No, we’re fine,” I said, thinking she meant, literally, Can I help you?

“What’re you all doing up here?” She wore tight red Capri pants to match her heels.

“My room doesn’t have enough desks,” I shouted back, and side-nodded toward the one I’d heaved into my arms. Half a hallway still separated us. I sensed that I’d crossed an unwritten “No Trespass” sign, the ones that hang on the wire fences of ramshackle homes nobody actually wants to enter. “I teach downstairs,” I said, certain this would put her at ease. I know I don’t look like I teach her, but for real, I teach right down there.

Her neck slumped forward and she put her hand on her hip. She wore a semi-disgusted, semi-bored sneer. She turned to a stout teacher behind her. “What do all these teachers think they’re doing, coming up on our floor?” I went to respond, but they both turned away, mumbling to each other. “These are our desks,” the tall woman shouted over the clack of her kitten heels. “People shouldn’t be taking things that aren’t theirs.” I heard the other teacher huff and mhmm as they rounded the corner and walked out of sight.

Noelani and I were baffled. You can make a difference, we’d been told by TFA. You can level the playing field. America’s schools need you. Ninety percent of all principals request more of you. Why wouldn’t our colleagues appreciate our presence? Back then, I thought TFA teachers were seen as some kind of youthful, revolutionizing commodity. Now, just a couple of months later, I look back at my assumptions and cringe. How could a person so naïve survive even a few weeks in this place? “People have bets on whether or not you’ll make it,” a teacher had told us before the first day of school.

So far, though, we’ve survived. And now I see us from our colleagues’ perspectives: they’re experienced teachers of a tough inner-city school system where they’ve worked for five, ten, twenty years on lower pay than their county colleagues. In some cases they’ve lived among their students all their lives. And suddenly a bunch of eager, mostly white, twenty-something kids storm in under the banner of a white-founded organization and believe, or have been taught to believe, that they can make the experienced teachers’ same students perform two and three times better? And without having ever taught? Yep, our presence can appear insulting. The teachers think we believe we can do their jobs bet­ter than they can. Which is, depending on how you look at it, what Teach For America has taught us to believe. This again might sound insulting, but not if you take a hard look at our faculty. There are some solid, hard-working veterans here, but there’s also Mr. Johnson, the math teacher, who openly derides his female students and makes derogatory, sexual remarks. There’s Ms. Jones, the reading teacher, who only shows up the first few weeks of any semester and then calls out sick, using her racked-up sick-days and leaving her kids with a permanent substitute who shows movies. And there’s Mr. Sypher, a thirtysomething, white history teacher who, when we first met him, told us how we should best handle our future kids. “You just have to fuck with them,” he said, and when Brooke scoffed and my brow furrowed, he rephrased. “Never let them know what to expect.”

We were eating lunch at a neighborhood fast food joint. I glanced at Noelani, whose round, dark, half-Hawaiian eyes had gotten wider than usual. Noelani wore floral skirts and proved easy to make giggle; she didn’t look like the type to “fuck” with people.

“One time, a kid picked up a chair to throw at me. That’s right,” Sypher said. “A chair.” He paused to look around. We were sitting in a Burger King three blocks from Southwestern. Bulletproof glass separated the cashiers from the patrons. The black girls at the registers were chewing on their gum and taking orders, and the black customers were standing in line or eating sandwiches at the tables, and the white teachers were we, sitting in the center of the restaurant. “I leaned right into his face . . .” Sypher leaned toward Noelani. “. . . raised my finger, and said, ‘I’ll fucking kill you. If you throw that chair, I will fucking. Kill you.'” Another pause, another look around. “You have to fuck with them like that. That’s just what it takes.” When Brooke asked if the kid threw the chair, Sypher conceded. “Yeah. But they suspended his ass!” he said smugly.

If you compare us TFA teachers to ones like Mr. Johnson, Ms. Jones, and Mr. Sypher, Teach For America is right: we do better. We show up daily and speak to our kids respectfully.

But we’ve been taught to expect even more from ourselves. We’ve been taught to believe we can change the results of the nation’s underperforming schools, which are failing our students at abysmal rates but which don’t have to fail them, not if we work hard enough. Not if we get up early enough, and stay at school late enough, and call enough students’ homes, and plan enough engaging lessons. Not if we attend enough night-courses and create enough systems for classroom management. Not, in other words, if we teach well enough. Six months ago, I was a college stu­dent writing poems for a degree. Now, I’m attempting what I think might be the toughest job in all of America. When I come to work in the morning, I wear, like a rock-filled backpack, the responsibility of what TFA calls the nation’s greatest injustice, and I park my car in the school lot, and I grab my large caffeinated tea and my black work-bag, heavy with papers I thought I might have the residual energy to grade the night before, and I trudge into school with it: the weight of this task, the heavy burden of attempting to manifest what was once a breezy idealism: excellent education for all.

Already, a few students linger on the outside of the school, their faces vacant and lethargic. It’s early. They’re waiting to get in. They’re waiting to enter a prison-like complex that chains every one of its side-doors, other than the single one on the end. The doors are chained for their protection, so no one from the outside can get in, and the doors are chained for their control, so that, once in, they can’t easily escape. They’re big kids: grown guys a half-foot taller than I am, hefty girls who hold their bodies like walls and smack on their gum. The girls’ hair runs down their shoulders in braided extensions, or swirls around their scalps in elaborately braided up-do’s. If they know that they belong to sad statistics, they don’t really show it. As students of this school, less than half of them are expected to graduate; those who do will perform four or five grade-levels below the national expectation. I recently heard on NPR that Baltimore has the second lowest graduation rate of any city in the nation. The school beyond that one open door is, for the most part, failing them, and still they wait here, early in the morning, not yet able to enter.

I grab the metal handle of the heavy, opaque door and lean away, hurl­ing it open. Once I’m in, it closes behind me with a thud, and I begin the several flights up the dusty, windowless stairwell. When I first came to this building, I expected tough questions. An administrator told the five of us to arrive for our interviews in scattered intervals, but each of our des­ignated times came and went and no one’s name was ever called. The five of us waited in the main office. Why hadn’t any of us been called in yet? Together, we waited fifteen, twenty more minutes. Did any of us know what we might be teaching? We all shook our heads. No one knew. Amy set down her briefcase. Brooke let out a large sigh. Looking back, our reac­tions are funny to me now. Teach For America chose us for our impressive track-record of achievements and our eagerness to get things done–we weren’t necessarily used to institutions blocking our way. We hadn’t yet learned just how much of a barrier a school system could be to its own purpose.

A woman finally appeared, a frail but curvy middle-aged African American woman with rouge-red cheeks and aqua-blue eyelids. She intro­duced herself as Ms. Brown and called us–all of us–into a back conference room.

“You want us all to come in?” Amy asked.

Ms. Brown beckoned with her hand. “Yes. Everyone. Please do come in.”

The five of us sat as upright as possible in a cinderblock room so small it was filled primarily by the table between us. We each wore the newest of work blazers and readied ourselves for the tough questions, the ones we’d practiced answering (Why do you want to be a teacher?) or the ones we’d avoided considering (What will you do when a kid tells you to fuck off?) or the ones we’d never even thought of (What is your teaching philosophy?). I clasped my hands tightly together and waited for the interrogation.

Instead, Ms. Brown asked, “How are you enjoying Baltimore City?”

A softball question, I noted. We said we liked it. The harbor was pretty.

Ms. Brown nodded. “You know,” she said, “Baltimore has an excellent transportation system. You needn’t always rely, on the car as a vehicle.” The syllables of Ms. Brown’s words were meticulously modulated and well-pronounced, and she paused mid-sentence as though she were dic­tating. “Have any of you, taken the bus? From time to time, a person might make use, of the Baltimore Bus System, which runs reliably, between all areas of the city.” She seemed to take great pains to avoid the ums and ahs of everyday speech. There was something unnaturally perfect about it. She smiled steadily, as steadily as she spoke, and I decided just to smile back and enjoy her cordial demeanor. To pretend nothing about her seemed off. To start picking my thumb’s cuticle and tell myself that if a woman like her–a pleasant, formal person–could survive in a supposed “Terrordome,” maybe the school didn’t deserve its nickname. Also, how nice was she, warming us up in this friendly way before the intensive inquiries: How will you handle discipline problems? What kind of unit plan ideas do you have?

But after a list of factual questions about places of birth and colleges attended, and after we answered briefly because the group interview sug­gested that we were a single entity–one large, multi-limbed, five-headed body that needed to answer unanimously–Ms. Brown said, “Well, we are all certainly, very happy, that you have decided to begin, your teaching careers, here, at Southwestern High School.” And just like that, the group had the job.

“You will find that teaching here, is often a challenge, but we all, do our best, to,” and here Ms. Brown had the first long, unsettling pause in her cadence. Her mouth stayed open as she wrestled to find the right words. But before an umm slipped from her mouth, she said, “weather the storm.” Once again, she smiled, looking satisfied with her finely wrought speech.

That’s when I saw it, a glimpse into the reality of this frail woman’s life. Her dark eyes were shrouded in gray half moons. Her voice sometimes quavered, cracking her painfully faultless speech. She seemed weary. And after having figured out her polite metaphor for the unspeakable–weather the storm–she looked at me with a sad, knowing glare. You know this job is tough, I felt she was saying. So tough that I can’t even tell you how tough it is. If you want it, then here: it’s yours now. Ms. Brown knew little more than our ages and our alma maters. Our willingness alone deemed us fit, or fit enough, to teach Southwestern’s youth.

What I didn’t know at the moment was this: the administration had no choice but to hire us. According to Teach For America’s records, the Baltimore City Public School System needs about 650 new hires every year, and the closer the summer creeps toward those first September days, the more desperate principals and administrators become. Whoever had shown up on that hot August day would have filled the opening slots. The school needed us because the school needed teachers, and the stan­dard for that word, teacher, was now akin to warm body in a city where few wanted to teach.

Despite that the school can, in fact, be a place of terror, despite the prisonesque aesthetics, the manic, raucous hallways, the lack of resources, my colleagues’ mistrust of me, and despite my own inexperience, I’m here. I’m here to teach kids five grade levels behind, kids diagnosed with emo­tional disturbances, kids not fed breakfast or dinner in the past twenty-four hours, kids who walk past more violence in one day than I probably see in a year. Right now, they’re riding the city buses and heading up Font Hill and waiting beside the closed doors of this school building with, as Jeremy Beard said, challenges, and in my classroom those challenges become mine. And against reason, against most people’s opinions, against what are on some days my own ardent doubts, I stand in my empty classroom, face my vacant desks, and do this morning what those billboards will soon tell all of Baltimore: Believe. Believe I can teach in The Terrordome. Believe what Teach For America believes. “Southwestern Is a Better Place Because You Are Here,” says a motivational poster on my wall, and I will myself to believe that, somehow, on the end of this long day, I’ll drive down Font Hill, past the cemetery, past the boarded-up row homes and abandoned lots, onto the freeway and back into downtown Baltimore with, not a war-story of letdown, not a minor tale of tragedy, but a triumph, however small, a victory that makes The Terrordome even a centimeter better for its students than it was before the day began.

Excerpted from Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach for America by Heather Kirn Lanier, published by University of Missouri Press, 2012. To order this book, please call (800) 621-2736 or purchase online at University of Missouri Press.

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