Street Soldiers: Youth Arming Themselves with Education

Street Soldiers: Youth Arming Themselves with Education

Illustration by Ryan Jedlicka

This is the story of not one but a forest of roses growing through layers of cracked concrete. This is the story of “The Children Capitalism Forgot”— children whose neighborhoods have been chewed up and spit out as My New East Side without so much as an invitation to share in the fruits of the renovations. Children whose parents are not available, whether because they are locked away from their offspring by jails or drugs, or because they have to work 2 or 3 jobs to contend with today’s failing economy. Children who have been poisoned by lead, cocaine, corn syrup, tobacco, MSG, dioxin, heroin, yellow #5, and literally hundreds of other environmental toxins. Children who wake each morning to face incredible odds. I am proud to say that many of our young people are beating those odds.When I describe Heritage High School, the institution at which I have been blessed to find employment, many people assume it is an innovation school or a magnet school. The expectations Baltimoreans have for our neighborhood schools are in line with the amount of funding those schools have to work with (which is very little). What people fail to realize is that a small group of caring, committed citizens can change the world. Under the loving leadership of Ms. Karen Lawrence, our principal, and Ms. Lydia Hall, the angel who brought us Street Soldiers (1), we are building real community. Shaniqua has gone above and beyond what is expected of a high school student. Vociferous for knowledge, she has explored her personal understanding of the universe both within and outside of the confines of the state-mandated curriculum. Serving her school community as a member of student government and a peer tutor for the standardized tests doesn’t stop “Niqua” from asking tough questions about the structures of our society. A young woman who cares deeply about her peers, she volunteers at both a teen job-counseling center and a reproductive health clinic for young people. She has also played a number of sports, participated in the debate team, and worked on the school’s yearbook. Niqua’s greatest gift to the world, however, is her smile, which has a healing warmth she is always happy to share. Or consider Charles. Although his dream career is in the NFL, Charles is not betting his family’s future on it. Since his 10th grade year, he has actively pursued his back up plan: anesthesiologist. Diligence and determination landed him in an intensive program at a local research university taking pre-pre-med classes on Saturday mornings last school year. He spring-boarded off of that to earn a full scholarship to study medicine in Washington, DC for two weeks over the summer. Always voracious for facts and the vocabulary to describe them, Charles is helping to set a trend at Heritage. He encouraged some of his friends to take our school’s new AP Statistics course with him. He also works after school as a tutor for the very well-known Algebra Project. When I met Chyna two years ago, I never thought I’d get to use her as an example of positive youth in Baltimore. A prolific reader and writer, Chyna opted to use her time in our freshman English class to sulk or sleep. The tiniest confrontation would send her flying off the handle. Indeed, despite having some of the highest scores on the standardized tests, she almost failed English that year. Fortunately, Street Soldiers came to Heritage High. This internationally renowned violence prevention program diagnoses violence as a disease. The cure is pretty incredible. The Chyna of today is a changed woman. From an instigator she has grown into a Conflict Resolution Youth Facilitator. She has gone from someone always seeming bored with the world to becoming an active member of the Entrepreneurship Training University, our after school Community School partner. And there are countless others. Our likely valedictorian, Nicole, writes poetry that brands the soul. E’van is working on publishing an original ‘Zine of his writing. Ashley’s business plan won such a high award she was invited to New York to dine with P.Diddy. We live in truly trying times. Although Obama offers a glimmer of hope in the upper echelons of society, we all know that he alone can do precious little, especially in the face of the powerful lobbyists. But never fear, Baltimore: there is hope in the youth. Yet they can’t do it alone, either. If we truly care about the future of this great city we must show them our real support. Want safer streets? Become a mentor. Want to fight crime? Hire a black teenager—everybody needs income; let our youth earn theirs legitimately. Need help with your research? Solicit volunteers from a local high school and “pay” students in lunches and “service learning hours” (they all need 75 to graduate). Most of all, let go of your fears. The group of high-fashion teens on the bus may sneer at your high waters, but they’re probably not going to jump you. The young people reading magazines in your store may actually intend to buy them. By giving up on fear, we can focus on the cooperation and neighborliness that make this city tick. Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City School Teacher. (1)The Omega Boys Club/Street Soldiers mission is to keep young people alive and unharmed by violence and free from incarceration. We provide youth with opportunity and support to build positive lives for themselves, and move into contributing roles in society.

Iris Kirsch

Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.