Telling old stories: Recalling the fallout from school closure

Cities change all of the time, but when neighborhoods change, displacement often follows. People have to move out of their homes, and institutions, like schools, close. History gets lost. A piece of history gets left behind, staying on only in the memories of people who lived through that period.Eastern high

Bill Bleisch, longtime teacher from Baltimore, recalls what gets lost when schools get closed, communities of students moved, and institutions get replaced:

“There have been many closings, over many years – not just the recent ones – ever since the student population of the Baltimore City Public Schools became majority Black in the 1970s.

In the 80’s, for example, it was announced that Eastern High School would be closed, as of June, 1985. The official rationale was that there were too few students, citywide, in the high school grades and that Eastern (built with the same architectural design as Douglass, which had by then been renovated) was the city’s oldest un-renovated high school.

They neglected to talk about how part of the land was wanted – and indeed later asphalted – for baseball parking, after the Orioles won the World Series in ’83, and phenomenal traffic came to Waverly, with more expected.

We knew that a certain percentage of our students would end up dropping out, amidst a re-assignment to what would be called Lake Clifton/Eastern, farther away from their homes.

A huge protest was organized. The preparations were heartwarming and highly impressive. Teaching at Eastern at the time, I could go to a teacher and ask, “How would you feel about organizing the cooking of a hundred chickens, so we can feed several hundred students after school before we march to the School Board?” and the answer would be, “No problem!”  The same was true about asking folks to bring in enough materials to make hundreds of posters.

On our march from Eastern to the School Board, after the in-school dinner, a couple of opportunist politicians jumped in front of the march, and pretended they had been organizing and leading the struggle all along.

Outside the School Board, we had perhaps the largest demonstration I had ever seen there, totally surrounding the building while picketing.

Then, inside, we dramatically unrolled hundreds of petitions, taped end-to-end with what must have been thousands of signatures opposing the closing, complemented by our spokespersons.

In the end, we won a little. We succeeded in keeping the school open for one more year, and we won a commitment that Eastern’s business program (teaching office skills, not training students to want to be capitalist exploiters) would be kept alive, long term, at Lake Clifton/Eastern.

At the end of the next and final year of Eastern’s existence, our seniors had their traditional Farewell Assembly, except on this occasion, all of us – not just the seniors – were saying farewell to the school. There was barely a dry eye in the auditorium.

On Eastern’s large, beautiful grounds (only part of which remain), there had been a stone sculpture, by artist Grace Turnbull, showing a shepherd tending a flock of sheep. It was based on a poem called “Tears,” published in 1909 by Lizette Woodworth Reese, who herself had been a Baltimore City Public School teacher for nearly 50 years.

When Eastern closed, this large statue was moved to the Lake Clifton/Eastern campus.

On the occasion of a Lake Clifton/Eastern assembly to acknowledge the statue and its new site, I ended up being the one to say a few words.

Well, I chose – at the assembly – to tell a story about a student of mine who had come on one of the large, three-day, end-of-the-year, camping trips. On that year’s trip, we had learned a lot about revolutionary politics, and had also had a lot of fun but, on the way back home, when we got to this student’s street, he became even happier, smiled broadly, looked with fresh eyes at his block, part of a neighborhood where residents didn’t earn big wages, and – to an outsider – the homes appeared run down, not particularly desirable, and he exclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful!” expressing the joy of being re-united with the family he loved and the place where they cherished one another, emotions about which Reese had indeed written and Turnbull had chiseled.

Well, after not very many years at Lake, more powerful forces chose to expropriate the Reese/Turnbull statue, move it back to the former Eastern complex, and use it to give a bit of false legitimacy to the now Hopkins-appropriated building on 33rd Street.

Somehow, I don’t think the theme of transcending tears by regaining our losses – as represented through the visual metaphor of sheep being shepherded back home – is quite apt for Johns Hopkins, an institution that has displaced hundreds of families’ from their homes, has a tiny percentage of African American faculty in a majority-Black city, and wouldn’t allow a single Black student into its medical school for the first 70 years of that institution’s inglorious history.”

But that is what happens when schools are closed. Things get moved around. The story changes, and memories fade. We need to remember the story of Eastern and the story of Lake Clifton. We need to remember what these schools meant to students, families, and teachers.

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