He walked into the classroom with his black floppy hat on. He didn’t take it off. He slouched into his seat as if he expected aggravation from the visitors who greeted him. He spoke in monosyllables, “Yes” and “No” and “I don’t know.”
He seemed … not hostile, just not there. He wanted a job, but the world of work had to come to him, had to accept his hat and his slouching posture.
If you had 100 applicants in a room, he’d rank pretty far down the list. Not good when unemployment is 10.2 percent.
This, to be sure, is a judgment based on first impressions. But, when you are black and poorly educated with little job experience, first impressions may matter even more than they usually do.
He’s hearing this and many other things from his teacher, Alexis Nemer. She works at the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development on Patapsco Avenue. Her school, about to be closed in the state’s latest round of budget cutting, helps young men and women win their GED certificate. (The students have this going for them: Some employers think the GED is better than a high school diploma. You have to pass a rigorous, five-part test.)
A colleague and I interviewed the young man as part of a series we’re working on at WYPR-FM. It’s called “Growing Up Baltimore.” The conversation got better as we went along. Sometimes, I knew, we had no idea how to ask questions in ways that were clear and apt to uncover morsels of real truth. We were as awkward as the young man
Sometimes you just have to slog forward. You get bits and pieces of what you’re looking for. Of course, you’re getting paid.
A secret formula
The kid in the slouch hat has to go on faith. He talks about an endless round of filling out applications, asking to see the manager, getting nowhere, heading for the next place.
“They’re hiring,” he says, “they’re just not hiring me.”
You wonder if he thinks there’s some magic, secret formula. He needs someone to say, “Go back. Keep going back until you see the guy. He’s going to be impressed when he sees you coming back over and over. Or, if he isn’t impressed, someone else will be. This is how it works. Really.”
He could approach it the way he’s approaching the GED. He found out about Chesapeake’s alternative school on his own. There’s no court order requiring him to be there. But he is there. Every afternoon until Alexis Nemer has finished in the classroom. Then she tutors him.
He’s doing himself a world of good without necessarily knowing it. He’s establishing a track record, a reliability record. He’s a high school dropout, but he wants to learn. He can learn. He’s putting himself at risk here, studying hard even as the world seems willing to toss him aside.
All about numbers
He’s getting a chance at the Chesapeake Center. It’s a 35-year-old helping agency with a director, Ivan Leshinsky, who long ago proved his effectiveness with young men and women.
The program’s imminent demise has nothing to do with effectiveness. It’s all about the numbers. Gov. Martin O’Malley and his budget experts are trying to close a big hole in the state’s budget.
Tax increases to keep this center, community mental health centers and violence prevention programs alive are said to be off the table. Cuts to public schools are off the table. That big budget can’t be touched. Too politically sensitive. Too many parents vote.
Alexis Nemer and her charges have no lobbyist to make their case. All they have is hope. The kids have been let down in the past, so they won’t be surprised.
Bonnie Brobst, the school’s education director, says its closing will hurt doubly because trusting relationships will be shattered. The old pattern of rejection will return.
“These kids have had the breath knocked out of them over and over. This time they’re being choked. Where do they go next?”
C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.