Bal­ti­more teacher: ‘When I see the squeegee boys, I see my kids’

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Lena Tashjian

If you’re a res­i­dent of this city, you’re fa­mil­iar with the squeegee boys and with the great squeegee boy debate. Ev­ery­one (and I do mean ev­ery­one) has an opin­ion about the kids who wash car win­dows on this street cor­ner or that. Ask some­one which side of the debate they’re on and you’ll im­me­di­ately know who they are, what they be­lieve in and how they feel about this in­cred­i­bly com­plex city.

Ul­ti­mately, the squeegee boy debate per­fectly en­cap­su­lates the Bal­ti­more divide.

Be­fore we go any fur­ther, let me tell you where I stand: I stand with the kids. And that’s non-ne­go­tiable.

Be­cause my po­si­tion is firm, peo­ple feel com­pelled to tell me less than fa­vor­able sto­ries about their squeegee boy en­coun­ters, but I re­main fixed in my loy­al­ties. Why? Be­cause when I see the squeegee boys, I see my kids.

As a Bal­ti­more City pub­lic school teacher, I have been work­ing with our kids and for our kids for the past 15 years. When I first started teach­ing, I wor­ried that build­ing per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with my stu­dents might dis­tract me from keep­ing the bar as high as I wanted and needed it to be. I tried not to think about the fact that my kids were out of school for funer­als more of­ten than they were out of school for colds. My heart ached for them, but I knew that I had to keep push­ing them for­ward in order to push back against the soft big­otry of low expectatio­ns. I taught the hell out of my kids and felt im­mense pride as I saw them go off to col­lege and grad­u­ate school. But I didn’t re­ally know them. I was so com­mit­ted to be­ing an ef­fec­tive ed­u­ca­tor that I didn’t un­der­stand that be­ing an ef­fec­tive ed­u­ca­tor also meant be­ing a com­pas­sion­ate one.

Get­ting to know our kids means get­ting to know what it means to be born and raised in this city. In an ef­fort to do that, I started teach­ing the work of lo­cal artists and cre­atives like Devin Allen, Tariq Touré and D. Watkins, all of whom gen­er­ously shared their time and tal­ents with us. Once we had cre­ated a safe space and a brave space, I in­vited my stu­dents to tell me their sto­ries, and I learned what I had al­ways al­ready known: My kids are sur­vivors. Chil­dren who grow up in and around vi­o­lence ex­pe­ri­ence trauma at a young age, and that trauma of­ten goes unchecked. I’ve taught kids who have watched their friends die, kids who have sur­vived drive-by shoot­ings, kids who have been home­less and who haven’t known where to lay their head or where to get their next meal. These experience­s are not atyp­i­cal. These are the experience­s of our chil­dren; these are the experience­s of the chil­dren turned en­trepreneur­s you see on the street wash­ing your car win­dows.

I live near the in­ter­sec­tion of Pres­i­dent and Pratt streets, which means that I visit with the squeegee boys every sin­gle day. Every time I see them, I smile and thank them. We have never ex­changed any­thing other than mu­tual re­spect. And, more of­ten than not,

I even get a heart etched onto my wind­shield, which al­ways makes my day. When I see them, I see my kids. De­spite their in­nu­mer­able strug­gles, these kids, our kids, have found a way to make a living for them­selves, and, to be hon­est, I re­spect their hus­tle. I know where else they could be and I’m al­ways and forever grate­ful that they’re at my in­ter­sec­tion in­stead.

We live in a world that in­sists on per­pet­u­at­ing sin­gle sto­ries that crim­i­nal­ize and de­mo­nize our kids. But that’s not what I see. I see kids who are hard work­ing. I see kids who are com­plex and mul­ti­di­men­sional. I see kids who have de­cided to per­se­vere de­spite the in­nu­mer­able odds. So this is my ask: Please get to know our kids be­fore you judge them. They de­serve bet­ter. They de­serve our faith and our good will. They de­serve our re­spect and our sup­port. Be­cause they won’t get very far with­out it. And nei­ther will this city.

Lena Tashjian is an English teacher at Bal­ti­more City Col­lege High School; her email is lenatashji­[email protected]

KARL MERTON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

A teen cleans the win­dows of one car while an­other per­son works on the ve­hi­cle behind him on Mon­roe Street at Wash­ing­ton Blvd.

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