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Teaching in the Terrordome

Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach for America

Heather Kirn Lanier

Publication Year: 2012

Only 50 percent of kids growing up in poverty will earn a high school diploma. Just one in ten will graduate college. Compelled by these troubling statistics, Heather Kirn Lanier joined Teach For America (TFA), 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. 
            With little more than a five-week teacher boot camp and the knowledge that David Simon referred to her future school as “The Terrordome,” the altruistic and naïve Lanier devoted herself to attaining the program’s goals but met obstacles on all fronts. The building itself was in such poor condition that tiles fell from the ceiling at random. Kids from the halls barged into classes all day, disrupting even the most carefully planned educational activities. In the middle of one lesson, a wandering student lit her classroom door on fire. Some colleagues, instantly suspicious of TFA’s intentions, withheld their help and supplies. (“They think you’re trying to ‘save’ the children,” one teacher said.) And although high school students can be by definition resistant, in west Baltimore they threw eggs, slashed tires, and threatened teachers’ lives. Within weeks, Lanier realized that the task she was charged with—achieving quantifiable gains in her students’ learning—would require something close to a miracle. 
            Superbly written and timely, Teaching in the Terrordome casts an unflinching gaze on one of America’s “dropout factory” high schools. Though Teach For America often touts its most successful teacher stories, in this powerful memoir Lanier illuminates a more common experience of “Teaching For America” with thoughtful complexity, a poet’s eye, and an engaging voice. As hard as Lanier worked to become a competent teacher, she found that in “The Terrordome,” idealism wasn’t enough. To persevere, she had to rely on grit, humility, a little comedy, and a willingness to look failure in the face. As she adjusted to a chaotic school administration, crumbling facilities, burned-out colleagues, and students who perceived their school for the failure it was, she gained perspective on the true state of the crisis TFA sets out to solve. Ultimately, she discovered that contrary to her intentions, survival in the so-called Charm City was a high expectation.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-9


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

Author’s Note

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pp. xi-xiv

I. First Year

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1. The School Beside the Cemetery

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pp. 3-13

“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 ...

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2. Teacher Boot Camp

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pp. 14-34

Should you decide to become a Teach For America teacher—should you decide, that is, to throw yourself without any teaching experience into one of the nation’s toughest rural or urban schools and vow to work relentlessly for its improvement—you’ll hear plenty of dissenting voices. You’ll read them in newspaper commentaries and from education critics, and ...

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3. First Day

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pp. 35-43

Don’t let them see you vulnerable. Be firm. If you look weak, they will walk on you forever. Engage them. If you don’t engage them, they won’t care about learning, and you’ll lose their interest forever. Smile—it sets the tone for the rest of the semester. Don’t smile. Never smile. Don’t smile until Christmas. Get contact information from them. You need their con-...

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4. The Plot of Marigolds

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pp. 44-66

Three days later, Southwestern High School made the news for a massive fight that broke out in its cafeteria. The cafeteria was located far enough from my classroom to exist in another dimension, so I neither saw nor heard the brawl, but I quickly learned it wasn’t your average school rumble, or at least not average for my suburban high school, where two or ...

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5. When The State Walks In

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pp. 67-79

If you scanned a sheet of Southwestern High School statistics, you’d see underneath the bolded headings, such as Student Population, that the school had a total enrollment of about 1,600, that (Ethnicity) 86 percent of our students were African American, 13 and change were white, and a These are rather benign digits. But you’d also see under Population ...

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6. Barely Passing

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pp. 80-98

Coach Powell was a light-skinned, middle-aged man with a gravelly voice like low-grade sandpaper. I’d heard he had a proclivity for flirting with the young teachers. At the school’s pre-year retreat, I’d seen him corner a new teacher who’d just graduated from a local college. Powell got two feet from her, lowered his eyes and mumbled something, and she’d ...

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7. Happy Hour

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pp. 99-108

On Fridays at five, we—Noelani, Amy, Ellen, Brooke, and I—all sat in the dark, wood-adorned pubs of Baltimore’s gentrified neighborhoods—Fells Point, Federal Hill—and drank porters and lagers from pint-glasses, half-believing each sip would coax our minds away from that big school on the hill. But sip after sip brought us right back to Southwestern....

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8. Do Over

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pp. 109-126

Fuck it, chuck it, do it over. Southwestern High School’s academic schedule echoed the sentiment in my students’ crumpled paper-balls of frustrated work. In January, teachers got all new classes; kids got all new teachers. Goodbye rowdy third period with loquacious hair-braiding Kia and free-style rapping Derek. Goodbye lethargic first period; goodbye ...

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9. Disarming the Alarm

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pp. 127-144

What seemed like every day, in any given minute between 8:45 and 3:15, the school’s alarm system activated. While I took attendance. In the middle of the drill. In that precious second when silence fell upon my class like snow, and every kids’ eyes focused. While a normally absent, usu-ally angry kid finally read something he’d written aloud. As another...

II. Second Year

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10. The Revolving Principals

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pp. 147-158

Ms. Ryder’s sun-yellow gauze pants and matching sun-yellow blouse blew in the hot September wind. Beside her were walking flags of other primary colors: Ms. Patterson, stouter than Ryder, in cranberry. Another mid-sized woman in shimmering peacock green.
“Everyone’s dressed in their Sunday best,” said Noelani with a sigh from the driver’s seat.

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11. Killing the Kitten

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pp. 159-170

Anthony Smalls was ten baggy-jean-waddling strides away from his science class, and he was headed there. On his way from where? I never knew, but Anthony strutted in an empty hallway wearing the unofficial male uniform of sagging sweatpants and knee-length Hanes white T-shirt, looking like any lone hallwalker of Southwestern. Only Anthony did not ...

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12. Reading Powhite Trash

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pp. 171-187

They were mostly black, I was white. They lived in the inner-city, I grew up in the suburbs. They knew bus systems and row homes and the subtle-ties of local drug-pyramids. I knew minivans and spacious isolated back-yards and after-school specials starring skinny white kids whose characters popped stimulants so they could pull all-nighters. I grew up middle class, ...

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13. Northern Exposure

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pp. 188-204

“Karrren!” Wallace beckoned me with a holler that carried out of her office, past the doorways that separated us, and into my classroom. I had second period off.
I popped my head in. She sat at her desk, hands holding a sandwich together. “Let me see your writing folders.”...

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14. Elisabeth Shue Loves Us

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pp. 205-216

Because it was a weekday night, we had sore feet from standing all day and sore throats from speaking (slash shouting) all day, but by God, we were going anyway, because tickets that cost forty dollars for the general public had been given to us for free. Because we Taught for America. Because we served the nation’s underprivileged schools, ...

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15. One Hundred and Forty

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pp. 217-229

The grass surrounding the half-charred tree in the school’s front yard had turned from straw-yellow to rich green. The kids in the hallway—or whoever remained—no longer wore hoodie sweatshirts over their T-shirts. By June, the building was warm. It was also kind of sleepy. Southwestern succumbed to heat like a beast that submits to some hypnotic charmer and ...

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pp. 230-238

Today, I have one photo on my desk from the final Teach For America banquet: Noelani, Amy, Ellen, Brooke, and I are standing in front of a patchwork quilt of cherry-red circles and emerald green squares. Our arms are wrapped loosely around one another. The flash of the camera reflects against our foreheads, causing them to shine. We’re smiling broadly and, ...

About the Author

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p. 256-256

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272867
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219862

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012