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The Educators

Steve Bumbaugh

My first day at Kramer, I had my shirt and tie on, I was 23, and some guy who was on something, probably crack because it was a stimulant, he was really jittery and hyper, stumbles across the school yard and picks a fight with some kid. A very tough kid who just tattoos the guy. And now there are a bunch of boys jumping on this guy—not that he didn’t ask for it—but it was a pretty vicious scene. I’m looking at the 6’3” assistant principal, who’s not doing anything, and I’m like, Well, I’m going to break this up. So I go and I break it up. And this guy, who’s on drugs so he’s not rational, and he wants to fight me. And I’m like, “Look, man, I just saved you. I don’t know these kids and it’s probably just best for you to leave right now.” And he’s got blood all over his face and he wipes it, wipes it on my shirt, and then walks away. So before I had been to my first class at Kramer, my white shirt was covered in blood. I was like, Wow.

That year, I saw a kid shot on the playground, I actually saw him get shot. And then one day at lunch in the cafeteria—I would always eat lunch in the cafeteria with the kids—I see this kid, he was this very troubled boy who caused a lot of problems at school, he’s walking really strangely and he’s moaning in a really animalistic kind of way. So I looked at him—I didn’t quite get what was going on—and I hear all these chairs being knocked over and all these kids are getting away from him. And I look and he pulls a butcher knife out of his back. And collapses on the floor. I run over there, and he’s got a hole in his back, like this big, and there’s blood coming out like a geyser, and I thought, God, he’s going to die. And so then, the assistant principal who didn’t help me break up the fight at the beginning of the school year comes over and puts the boy on his lap and tells me: “Call 911.” So I tell a Martece, I think it was, “Go to the office and call 911” and she runs off and does that, and I run into the kitchen because I’m like, This kid’s going to bleed to death. They had this big, huge box of white, clean rags. And I just grabbed the box and I’m putting them on his back. I don’t really know what I’m doing, right, but I felt like I should do something, so I’m putting a bunch of white rags in this hole and they just turn red immediately and I’m just doing it over and over and over.

Then that afternoon on the playground, somehow people tie the stabbing to a beef that these two different neighborhoods are having. So boys from these two different neighborhoods start fighting. And the whole school is on the playground. And I’m like, My God, we’re going to have a riot, right? It’s about ten boys, and they’re doing construction at Kramer and these kids start grabbing wood. And a bunch of them are on this one kid, hitting him with wood. And again, none of the men are doing anything—and there are some big men on the staff there. And these are 14 and 15-year-old guys, right, and they’re big. So I go there and I start breaking it up and a couple of my really tough Dreamers help me break it up, but it’s insanity, this place is crazy. Just the level of day-to-day violence in the goddamn school—which is considered a safe haven—I had never seen anything like it. It was insanity. It was In-Sanity. 

A typical I Have a Dream program was a mentor program. They would hire one project coordinator, whose job was to inspire 70 kids growing up in the middle of the drug wars in the toughest neighborhoods in the United States. That was well-intentioned at the time, but it doesn’t work. I think that Mr. Bainum put a lot more financial resources into his program than the other sponsors did. He had two full-time staff. So he probably in salaries alone tripled what the typical sponsor was paying. And the starting point was different; we were teaching. Some of those children were in class with us half the day. I’d almost say that we had something akin to a school within a school. Phyllis’ background was as an educator. I mean, Phyllis is just a pedagogic expert with 25, 30 years of experience, which you don’t often get. So she pretty much taught all day. She had kids in with her almost every period and she was providing instruction. And we didn’t have a rigid curriculum. You know, Phyllis would be in a class with eight kids and she’d have eight different lesson plans. And she’s running around doing different stuff with different kids. It wasn’t this cookie-cutter stuff that you see now.

My job was a little different. I was also providing instruction—it varied from year to year—but especially the first year, a third to a half the day. But I also was responsible for keeping in touch and staying on top of those kids who moved out of the neighborhood and/or were going to different schools. So we had clusters of kids at different schools, and I tended to go there once or twice a week and teach. I thought that was the best way to keep in touch with them. We also identified people to be one-on-one mentors to students, so we had this kind of loose confederation of people who worked with us.

And Phyllis and I were always in the homes. I was in somebody’s home, oh gosh, three or four days a week. And I would say I was almost always welcome. In a sample size of three or four-hundred visits there were a handful of times it didn’t go well. These are Southern black families who have a very expansive idea of what a family member is, and I just became a family member. I mean, parents of a lot of these Dreamers who have friended me on Facebook, there’s a category that lists family members and they’ve got me listed there. I’m sure, they feel the same way about Phyllis. I think they knew that Phyllis and I genuinely had their child’s best interests at heart. When you look at the systems that they engaged with through their children, it was mostly the education system, sometimes the criminal justice system, public welfare system, health care system. For the most part the feedback these parents were getting was critical. Or at best it was indifferent. Most of the time they got a call from the school, it was to tell them something that their child had done wrong. And here Phyllis and I were often telling them what their child was doing right. And that bought us the social currency to be able to be candid when they were doing things that were wrong. Because they heard from us so often and usually it was, “Hey, I just want to tell you all the great stuff that so and so did.” And we really made a point of that. Because we worked with the families, not just the kids. So we got to know them and they trusted us.

I think we had 40 girls and 28 boys. A really small number of kids—three or four—never really started with the kids in 7th grade. Others, over time, dropped out of school. Which was always pretty difficult. And then some would drop out of their neighborhood school but be enrolled in a GED program. I mean, it’s much more complicated than the typical narrative that you hear about a drop out. So even if a child dropped out, it’s not like we didn’t work with them anymore. We only didn’t work with them anymore if, you know, they would just outright avoid us. I was primarily the one who was tracking them down. I knew where they lived, I knew where their aunts lived, and their grandmothers. Sometimes they would see me coming and they would leave, you know! But we never kicked anybody out of the program, and they couldn’t really drop out.

I would basically put the kids into three groups: the ones who really had horrible homes lives, like just awful. And that means that their primary caretaker was probably a mother who had a substance abuse problem, but that they shuffled around to various relatives and neighbors, friends. They saw violence regularly inside of their home, they saw substance abuse in their home, they were probably the victims of violence—and if they were girls, and probably more boys than I suspect—sexual abuse. They really just were living nightmares. And that was a minority of our group—maybe of the 68 kids, 15-20. There were some kids who had that thing that everyone talks about now, they call it resiliency. They just had it. For whatever reason. Kids, who grew up in horrific circumstances every goddamn day, but still made it.

Then there was a much larger group who, I would say, came from typical homes. And the typical home was a single parent, usually a mother, sometimes an aunt, sometimes a grandmother, who was being supported by a network of other relatives. And often the father. There’s this notion that the fathers are always absent. That’s not true. A lot of the fathers were not in the home every day, but had regular contact with their kids. And the mother, she probably didn’t have a high school degree. She certainly didn’t have any college education. So she was in an unstable work environment, so in and out of the work force, but working her butt off. And very, very concerned with her child’s well-being. And that was most of the kids, I don’t know, 35, 30 of the kids.

And then there was a group that was relatively better off. There weren’t a lot of two-parent homes, but there were a few. So maybe their mom and dad were both at home, maybe their parent had a job in the federal government that was stable, even if it didn’t pay very much. Maybe they owned a home; they had a car. They would probably have been involved in their child’s education even if the program hadn’t come along.

Part of our life cycle was that we put more energy into the minority of truly, truly desperate kids, than into the majority of kids that were working hard to make it. And I think that was a fine disposition to have initially, but I think after 9th grade or so we realized there were certain kids we didn’t have the skills or the time to serve.  While we had other kids, like Shafton Green, who was at school every day, who worked his butt off, and maybe wasn’t getting the attention from us that he deserved because I’m running around after school trying to find kids that are in and out of the criminal justice system and who never come to school. And we decided, Well, maybe we should be spending that time with Shafton, you know? So we kind of shifted our focus in high school to the kids who—not to denigrate the kids who were dropping out—but to focus on the kids who were physically present.

And then the other thing we learned—and again, not to denigrate the students who dropped out; they were in situations that were difficult to watch and that no child should have to endure, but if they were not able to accept our help, there was nothing we could do—nothing. These kids, they had parents who were HIV-positive, who were dying, they had relatives who were murdered, it was crazy, crazy. So you could see how a twelve or thirteen-year-old could just get crushed under the weight of that depression and stress. And at some point, there isn’t much that two people who are in the neighborhood—and we were there a lot, long hours, ten, twelve hours a day—but there still wasn’t much we could do for those kids. And we were gone during the most stressful parts of the day, you know, during the middle of the night we weren’t there. It was a difficult environment for all of the kids, but for some, it was too much; it was just too much.

I was there from ’90 to ’94; from the summer between their 8th and 9th grades until they graduated from high school. And that was the absolute height of the murder epidemic. I just didn’t know how the kids took it. I mean, it affected me, and I knew that this was temporary for me, because when the kids graduated from high school I was going to go to graduate school. But even I, I started looking over my shoulder on my block and I lived in Palisades with a bunch of my college buddies, you know? For me, it was an eye-opening experience. When I was very young I was in a rough situation. I was in foster care on the south side of Chicago, but I got adopted by, I’d say a working class, but very stable family. I got a real culture shock when I went to Yale, because I had not been around really, really wealthy people before. And I got a shock when I went to Anacostia, because I had never been around that kind of desperation. Every direction you looked in for just miles around was just desperate. So I was pretty shocked.

And we saw with our Dreamers, whether they were in a stable home or not, they were in such a dramatically unstable community, with murder everywhere, violence everywhere, horrific violence—every single Dreamer has witnessed somebody being murdered. All of them. I would be shocked if there is a kid who had not witnessed a murder or a shooting. I mean, I did. And I was only there for four years for ten to twelve hours a day. They were there their whole upbringing. So they were living in something I would describe as a low-grade civil war. So they grew up in the toughest neighborhood, in the toughest time, in one of the toughest cities in the country. And so that affected all of them. And so when they were with us, especially, not exclusively, but especially, when they were out of Southeast—because I would have boys spend the night at my house almost every Friday the first year and a half or so, or we would go on these away trips to the beach or to New York City. To Ohio, or whatever. And when they were away, they were such children—younger in many ways than you would expect a 14 or 15-year-old to be. And it was obvious to the adults; we were like, Well, they just don’t get to be like this. They just don’t get to be like this in their community.  Not very often, anyway. And there’s a need for people to be innocent and just have fun and not have to act tough and look over their shoulders. So it was fascinating to watch. Sometimes you’d see kids, like 14, 15 years old and they’d fall asleep and have their thumb in their mouth, where they’re self-soothing at that age, you know? I mean it was something.

I had this deal worked out with boys—and I would have had it worked out with girls, too, had they been interested, but they weren’t—that if they met certain conditions on a week-by-week basis, then we could have a basketball tournament on Friday after school. Like a round robin basketball tournament. The school let me light up the score board, bring out the scoring machines, and run a round robin tournament in the gym every Friday afternoon. But the whole idea was: it’s Friday afternoon, that’s when the kids start getting in trouble; let’s do something fun and productive, and try to get their weekend off to a good start. And I tell you, we would be in that gym sometimes until seven-thirty or eight. And we’d all be starving, but we were having fun. And it wasn’t just for the Dreamers, either, I would let non-Dreamer kids in there, which was actually symptomatic of the whole program in many ways. We would let non-Dreamer kids come to our after school programs and many of them would come to our field trips and such, if they followed the rules. So we had this basketball tournament into Friday evening. Often Saturday morning we’d have something, a field trip even if it was just to an ice skating rink or even if we just opened up the school for tutoring and we threw a ball out there, to keep the kids busy. I hope that the kids felt, you know, we were trying to keep them busy and we were working on academics, because it was a school program, and because they lived in a tough, dangerous neighborhood, but we respected them and we respected their parents. And I think that’s one of the reasons why they reacted pretty well to us. We genuinely loved those kids. And I still do, you know?

I would get tired sometimes, just the level of action—I’d never seen anything like it. And there were times when I was just depressed. It just seemed so hopeless, you know? But I actually really liked my job. I worked at the Federal Reserve before I started this job and I was bored out of my wits. I was there for a paycheck and a resume booster. But this, like, the kids were glad to see me in the morning. They would call me to get advice on real stuff. I loved it. Most of the time. But yeah, whew! It was something. It was something.

I saw a lot of stuff in this job that I had never seen before. And I would be shocked when I’d see these things, upset, maybe even a little bit traumatized, but it was so different I didn’t really understand it. You know, all the violence and substance abuse and that sort of stuff. But there’s a story that I often come back to in my head. I remember we would have this Christmas party every year, and Mr. Bainum would always get the kids a present, and usually a pretty good present. And one year, the present was a really nice, white, Sony clock radio. And so when the kids were presented with their presents, I noticed most of the kids were kind of taking the tape off, sliding it out, looking at what it was, putting it back and wrapping it. I thought: What? Because usually kids tear it open. So I’m driving a bunch of kids home after the Christmas party and my last stop is Shateria and she and I were tight, so I could ask her blunt questions. I was like, “Shateria, I saw this, what is that all about?” And she kind of laughed. She said, “Mr. Bumbaugh, a lot of those kids, that’s all they’re going to get for Christmas.” And it was weird: when she got out of the car, I just started crying. That was the only time in four years that I cried. Because I could kind of get that. I was like, Wow, that’s terrible. It’s not as terrible as getting shot, but I was like, Wow – wow. It seems relatively minor, but I think sometimes for outsiders, the things that really begin to translate the difference are the things that they can viscerally understand. So you tell people, “Oh yeah, so and so’s cousin got shot over the weekend.” It’s hard to wrap your arms around that. But a kid who doesn’t get presents at Christmas—we get that.

You know one of the things I did for therapy when I was doing this job was I wrote. And I was a regular speaker. It was always rich, white audiences, and my narrative was that, Look, most people are average, right? I mean definitionally most people are average. And if you’re average and you’re living in a distressed community, your outcomes are going to look like most people in the community. If you’re average and you’re growing up in Bethesda and it’s a very well-off community, the average kid’s going to be well off. And so I would say, Look, I’m not asking you to answer this question because I don’t want to have a debate, but I know, I know that when you go home you think that if your kids were being raised in the environment that my kids are being raised in under the exact same circumstances you really believe that your kids would do better. I know you believe that. And I know you believe that if my kids came and lived in your community under exactly the same circumstances as your kids that they wouldn’t do as well as your kids. You believe that. And why wouldn’t you? That’s the whole narrative that we’re taught. But you’re wrong, you’re just wrong. They would do, on average, exactly the same. Exactly the same. I was trying to frame things in ways people could grasp. And to really not be judgmental about their predispositions or prejudices or whatever anybody wants to call it. But just point them out: You’re kid’s got it made. These kids don’t. So if you want to have mandatory minimums and three strikes and whatever, you can do that. But it’s a cowardly thing to do, because it does nothing to address why these kids’ average is so much lower than your kids’ average.

Look, having entered that world when I went to college, those people work hard too. When I was at Yale, I mean, those kids worked their tails off—too hard, really, they drove themselves too hard. And it’s the same now that we’re all in the workforce. So I would never suggest that people who live in these big houses had it handed to them. But I think these kids should have the opportunity to do that, too. That’s all I’m saying. But my kids, by in large, don’t have that opportunity. We could be so much better off as a country if we didn’t wage war against each other—and especially against people who have the profile that my students have. It’s a waste—for everyone.

So the notion that Eugene Lang had, in retrospect, was pretty naïve. You know, that I just have my phone available, or I’m walking through the halls giving pep talks to kids and that that’s going to make a dramatic difference in their lives. It can make a difference for some, for sure, but you need a lot more than that.  And the problem with that way of thinking is that, deep in the subconscious it assumes that what these communities are missing is some cheerleader telling them to be the best they can be. And that’s really not it. That’s not it at all. They’re missing real stuff that they have in other communities. And that’s what you need to produce. In order for them to be successful you’ve got to give them the things that you needed to be successful—that’s it, right? And if they don’t have it, like friggin safety or access to a goddamn doctor if they get sick. And if you don’t know that and you’re in a position to create policy, you’re going to create bad policy.

Had we known then what we know now, we’d have done some things differently. But we did the best we could at the time with what we knew. Like, we would not have had our program in Kramer Junior High School where I’m trying to keep a kid from dying and I’m seeing a kid shot and there’s just chaos; you can’t even teach because there are fights in the hall, or just everybody in the hall making noise when you’re trying to teach. There’s no control. And again, then our kids, they have to be tough. They got to wear their armor. I was trying to get kids to graduate and go to college. That was my biggest goal. The aspirations for the students may have been quite different. I mean, frankly some of those kids really were trying to make it to the next day. If we’d have had our own building, in a church or something in Anacostia where our kids could have come and been kids and knew they were safe and eaten better food and had a longer day, we could have done way better. Just on that. That would have required more of a commitment from Mr. Bainum, financially. And Mr. Bainum is very wealthy and very magnanimous and I think, had we come up with that idea early on, he may well have funded that. If we had done that one thing it would have made a huge difference, huge. But some things become obvious later on that aren’t obvious at the time.

I keep in touch now with a good number of our Dreamers, about half of them, and one of the things that has surprised me the most over time is that they just do better and better and better as a group. I don’t think any of us could have guessed that. When the kids graduated in ’94, the successes were pretty obvious: a far higher percentage of our kids graduated from high school than the half of the kids who were not selected to participate. I ran those numbers at the end of the program. And ditto, a far higher percentage of kids from our program went to college than the half of the kids in their class who were not in our program. I can say that quantifiably. But I think we felt that it could have gone better. The kids could have graduated from high school at a greater rate, gone to college at a higher rate; their academic skills, as a group, could have been better.

And I don’t think any of us could have anticipated the lagging effect that the program had, which has only become apparent over time. I think the kids in our program—what is it now, 24-and-a-half years after they were adopted?—are doing much better than their parents. And that’s not anecdotally, they just are. And I strongly suggest much better than that half of the class that was not selected to be in that program. If we want to suggest that some of the outcomes of the kids, I still call them kids, the Dreamers, are as a result of the program—obviously there are a lot of factors. But these kids, overall, are just doing so much better than the adults who lived in the neighborhood when they were growing up that it’s hard to not conclude that the program bore some responsibility for that.

One of the things that really stood out to me was maybe ten years ago or so, I started getting all these invitations from Dreamers to weddings. I was like, Wow! Because most of their parents weren’t married. And I thought: That’s interesting, and that’s pretty cool. Often they were marrying a guy or a gal they had a baby with before and they’d been with since high school but the point is they were in these stable, what were intended to be life-long partnerships that resulted in a marriage ceremony. That was not the case with their parents for so many of them. And then, the phone numbers weren’t changing every three or four months. And that was what it was like when they were growing up, I mean, I constantly had to scratch out the number on the roster. Many of them were at the same jobs for a long time. And I was like, Well, that’s interesting, there’s something going on here. And if my observations are correct, then the beneficial components of this program have accrued over a very long time: they’ve accrued over 24 years, not just over six years.

What I think this program was able to do with the investment was to break a cycle of poverty that goes back to the 17th or 18th century, back to slavery, for a significant number of people. And that’s going to continue with their kids. And I think that’s pretty awesome, that’s pretty awesome, you know! So I think it was worth it, and I think Mr. Bainum should be very proud of what he did. These investments take a long time to take root, but then, like something that takes root, they grow and they grow and they grow.