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Where I Come From

Old School

As municipalities scale back, private enterprises expand, and government employees are maligned

“I’ve served my time.”

In 1992, when I was in sixth grade, that was the explanation I gave for why I was transferring out of Lombard Middle School in Washington Hill. I laughed, but I meant it. There are many natural parallels between school and prison—bad food, tension between inmates and administrators, intrigue in the rec yard—but Lombard really blurred the line. The building was squat and wide with metal grates protecting broken windows. Things weren’t much nicer on the periphery. I was once chased and beaten by students from a rival school. In 2005, the federal government branded Lombard “persistently dangerous.” Today, it no longer exists.

You’d think I would have sprinted out the door each day the moment the bell rang, but I didn’t. Instead, I lingered for an hour or so in Mr. Hairston’s music room. What kept me from running to freedom? Besides Bruce Lee and Optimus Prime, Wendell Hairston was the coolest person I’d ever seen or heard of. He could call you “a real cool cat” without being the least bit pretentious, and just about everything he said came out relaxed and happy, as if the conversation were being held in hammocks on the beach. For him, jazz wasn’t just an art form. It was a way of life, and he was happy to share it with you. He started with major scales, the DNA of Western music. After you learned to run up and down every key with your eyes closed, you found out when and how to break the rules with the blues. With that much under your belt and a willingness to eat and sleep with your instrument, anything was possible: symphonies, Bach études, the theme songs to your favorite cartoons. As a kid, because of Mr. Hairston, I thought of Charlie Parker solos the way many regard the Book of Revelation, as something ominous and beautiful and worth spending several lifetimes studying. I suppose that’s what great teachers do: help you get from point A to just about anywhere, one lesson at a time.

I met Michael Carter much later, in 2008. After working as a journalist, I decided I wanted to join the do-gooders I wrote about, not just interview them. I couldn’t have chosen a better mentor. Earlier that year, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso had offered Carter a position as director of family and community engagement. It was a bold choice. At six feet eight inches, he’d been a towering figure in more ways than one, advocating for people on the margins: low-income families who wanted their kids to attend decent schools, young men trying to get out of harm’s way. Not long after Alonso became CEO, and before he’d offered Carter the job, Carter told him that if he wasn’t serious about doing what it would take to fix the schools, he would drive Alonso back to the airport himself. That trip never happened. Instead, after Carter arrived on North Avenue, he helped put parents’ rights in writing, with policies that forced administrators to consult them when selecting a new principal and drafting a school’s annual budget. Carter was a rare breed, an insider who used his encyclopedic knowledge of the system to guide people who wouldn’t otherwise know where to begin.

Both Mr. Hairston and Carter were important mentors for me, and both died recently, each in his early sixties. Mr. Hairston was still working. He’d been teaching kids “Killer Joe” and “Mr. PC” for 38 years. Hundreds attended their respective funerals, and since their passing I’ve been wondering if we’re likely to see people like them again.

Carter and Mr. Hairston grew up during the civil rights era, watching their parents’ and grandparents’ generations fight for, among other things, full access to public institutions. And while these rights had already been legally reinforced by the time they finished college, both arrived just in time to help make what was legally permissible—for example, a quality education—achievable for children from some of the worst neighborhoods in the city.

They did their parts to answer one of the most contentious questions in American history: Who can fully participate in public life? But today, as municipalities scale back, private enterprises expand, and government employees are maligned, the biggest debates are about something more fundamental: Do we even need a public realm?

It’s hard to imagine a new music teacher surviving 38 years amid current cuts in arts education. And if Carter were getting started as an activist today, a community association or church meeting might be a little harder to find. There aren’t as many obvious paths to public service as there used to be.

Blessed with the talent and drive to live life in the first person, full of statements that begin “I can,” “I have,” or “I will,” Michael Carter and Wendell Hairston chose “we,” “you,” and “us.” That type of selflessness is rare in any age and grows more so by the day.

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