This American Life's brilliant radio documentary, "Harper High School," describes a "turnaround" school as it comes off a year in which 29 current and recent students were shot. Eight died, and there were dozens of other incidents where bullets were thrown.
Reporter Alex Kotlowitz, author of the masterpiece, There Are No Children Here, reporting with Linda Lutton and Ira Glass, spent five months at Harper and nearly every time he visited the school's social work office, Thomas would be there. Asked why he hangs out there so much, Thomas replied in a "muffled and sluggish" voice, as if he's "speaking from deep inside a cave." "Nay, I ain't gonna give you no answer for that. Every time I come here, you come. And I'm for real."
Thomas sounds like the type of black male who frightens so many people who don't understand his world. "His braided hair hangs over his eyes. He often has a hood on. He won't look you in the eye."
Last June, Thomas was standing on a porch, talking with another Harper student, Shakaki Asphy, when she was shot and killed. In 2006, at a birthday party for 10-year-old girl, "Nugget," Thomas saw her brains laying on the floor after she was shot. And according to his social worker, there have been "many, many in between."
But, then again, perhaps society should worry about Thomas' expressed fears that he will "try to hurt somebody." Angered by a bully, Thomas punched the aggressor so hard that one of the boy's teeth got stuck in Thomas hand.
"Harper High School" explains a world that is even indecipherable to many educators. It tells how gangs broke into smaller, less organized turfs, or cliques, that can be even more lethal than the old drug dealing organizations. It recounts the tragedy of Terrence Green, and why his homies rap, "I got you tatted on my arm, man. The grief's still sitting on us, so we got your name written on us."
This American Life tells the story of Devonte, who killed his brother, and who is doubly stressed because his immediate family doubts it was an accident. It also describes the burden carried by his school counselor, Crystal Smith, who went to the ER because she was worried she was having a stroke. After Ms. Smith and two other mourning counselors were provided professional help for their stress, they still recognized the pointlessness of so much of the struggle. Like the students they serve, the counselors know, "It's not over... the shooting hasn't stopped."
The suffering I witnessed over, say, a decade in my high school has been compressed into just a few years at Harper. Ira Glass stresses that Harper is not alone and gives voice to seven other school administrators who described the more typical levels of violence that our kids have endured.
Harper's Devonte reminds me of our D___, who was haunted by the fatal game of Russian Roulette he played with his best friend. "Harper High School" brings back the year my run-of-the-mill inner ring suburban school endured five funerals and started down the path to being hard core. It provides insights into our gangs' transformation when the kids couldn't describe the difference between the new cliques and the old Crip-Blood sets, or the distinction between their "play brothers" and other complicated family ties. It provides context to my C___ who said that our violence was due to "too many cousins."
When principal Leonetta Sanders goes on a four minute and 38 second imaginary tour of the world she would build for her students if she had millions of dollars, she reminds me of one of my most traumatized students. R___ would detail the investments he would make with his uncle's (then lost) profits from the drug trade. R___ would repeatedly punctuate his plans for justice for all peoples of the earth and its wildlife with the exclamation, "I think of things! Deep things!"
And that brings us back to the rock on which better schools must be built -- our kids' moral consciousness. Aligned and coordinated socio-emotional interventions are the key. When Harper's School Improvement Grant runs out next year, it will lose the funding for counselors like Ms. Smith, Anita Stewart, and Ben Calhoun.
Education has always been an affair of "the heart," not "the head." Perhaps society has imposed a school reform experiment devoted to remediating academic weaknesses because we dare not confront the emotions of Harper High School. But, if principal Sanders and my R___ can still think of deep things, perhaps we can invest in communities where students have rehabbed houses, safe passage to school, clothes detergent as well as computer access, art labs, and caring adults to help kids build on their moral and emotional consciousnesses.