Spend just 20 minutes with high-school senior Jamesha Caldwell and you’ll see she has many layers – one reason we at Equal Ed are taking more time to listen to individual students, whom the media often lump into one abstract category.
Planning my trip to Washington to cover a Monitor Breakfast with US Secretary of Education John King Jr., I thought: Wouldn’t it be great if a student joined the education reporters at the table?
A friend of a friend connected me with the nonprofit Writers in Baltimore Schools. In partnership with Johns Hopkins University, it puts on a Poetry and Social Justice class after school, pairing university and high school students to interview poet activists.
“I love spoken word,” Jamesha told me. “I knew that I was always an outspoken person. But I also knew that I was good at writing and I just didn’t know how to structure it.”
Jamesha found a mentor in the professor. (Hear a discussion on the power of mentoring – including more student voices – in the Monitor’s Fixcast podcast here.) “She took me to one of ‘LOVE the Poets’ open mikes that she was hosting and we bonded over the poetry,” she says.
And it gave her an outlet during the 2015 Baltimore riots in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death.
“I needed a place where I could express myself and there weren’t any criticisms, there wasn’t anybody chastising me about my emotions,” she says.
Jamesha is now a senior in the International Baccalaureate program at Baltimore City College high school. Her question to Secretary King: “How can you close the gaps between inner city students and introduce them to more rigorous opportunities such as IB?” While acknowledging the need for more work on equity, he told her about several efforts under way to expand access to advanced coursework.
An internship at the Homewood Museum deepened Jamesha’s perspective on the complexity of US history. The museum is in a house built by Charles Carroll Jr., the son of a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. “I got this instant pull of patriotism,” she says of first walking in and seeing all kinds of American symbols.
Then she learned more about all the international influences on America in the 1700s. And she learned that the Carrolls enslaved Africans.
That’s a part of history, she says, but it’s also relevant today.
“I have spoken with people who have said ‘Well, that happened X amount of years ago, you need to get over it.’ But … there needs to be a lot of attention to the fact that … minorities are being slaughtered … by people that are supposed to protect this country – because African-Americans, 300-400 years ago, worked so hard to protect this country and build it.”
She plans to be the first in her family to attend college. I asked her if she knew what she wanted to study – poetry, history, art? But remember what I said about layers? She’s thinking pre-med.