Fast tweets @ Wise High School

December 28, 2011

When William Blake shepherds bleary-eyed students into the Henry A. Wise Jr. High School cafeteria each morning, he carries a megaphone in his left hand. In his right is his iPhone, logged on to Twitter.

“Hit me up on my timeline, people, so I can do some shout-outs!” the assistant principal yelled into the megaphone one recent day while swooshing through his Twitter feed. “Wassup, Tokyo7? Wassup, McLovin’?”

Blake, 27, is in his first year as an administrator. He thinks his success at the school in Upper Marlboro could depend on how well he can tap into Twitter, this school’s most active network. Although school leaders across the country still wrestle with how — or whether — they should regulate Internet use, Blake saw an opportunity to mentor, monitor and mediate.

But there is a darker side to the social-network patter.

In a school where fights often break out weekly, guidance counselors say at least 60 percent of Wise’s fights start with cutting comments of 140 characters or less.

Twitter is where the legend of the school’s most notorious fashion faux pas — a girl wearing Michael Jordan shoes atop two-inch heels — was born. A student’s pregnancy scare became hallway prattle after she wondered about why she had missed her period.

Principals in Prince George’s County and other districts with large black populations noticed the Twitter trail of innuendo and trouble.

In November, a Pew Research Center study confirmed their suspicions: Black teenagers were three times as likely to actively use Twitter as white or Latino teenagers, researchers said, and twice as likely to have an online profile that all the world could see. Users with public profiles were more likely to start fights, end friendships or have other “negative experiences.”

Blake tries to make sure they have positive ones.

“Elmolover says: ‘You need to sleep and stop drinking coffee,’ ’’ Blake says, reading a Twitter message meant for him. He shrugs off the snark, then asks the students to tweet their grade-point averages. A 4.0 average gets applause. So does a 3.2.

Then Blake frowns.

“What type of nasty name is this? And a 2.5? You need to change your Twitter name,” he says, referring to a moniker that is only a couple of strategically omitted letters short of obscene. “That’s why your GPA is so low!”

Welcome to Wise High School’s Twitter feed.

Wise, home of the Pumas, has more than 2,600 students. Blake has persuaded about 1,400 to follow him at @pumasden. His followers include @FollowMe­Jesus, @WhoaWitWit and @mr­successful­16. Some of their Twitter icons smile; others growl.

By 9:15 a.m. each weekday, @pumasden’s timeline spews about 20 tweets a minute in a cycle that doesn’t slow until 1 a.m. Sometimes, they “lls” — an acronym for laughing like [expletive].

Over the next 10 minutes one day at 9:15 a.m., the tweets read like this (edited for content):

“My Spanish teacher talkin’ bout how she wants a new husband for Christmas! Lls”

“Applying for Penn State, North Carolina A&T, and University of North Carolina”

“430 can’t come faster today.”

Students say they love the chatter on “Twitter after dark,” when their peers often talk about sex.

Blake tries to discourage the randy talk. Sometimes, he’ll start commenting on the Redskins. Last week around midnight, @pumasden tried to divert the discussion while also building school spirit, tweeting: “I will die 4 Wise HS.” He wondered in the tweet how he could get students to feel the same way.

@rubymelaine: “we should have More wise paraphernalia! like hoodies!”

@pumasden: “i can dig that”

Almost 30 Twitter users took part in the conversation. The back-and-forth lasted more than an hour, past 1 a.m.

S. Craig Watkins, a University of Texas sociologist who studies how youths use social media, is fascinated by the question of why black teens have gravitated so strongly to Twitter.

Its popularity started with the early adoption of Twitter by hip-hop stars such as Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watkins said. Fans started following them. Those fans’ friends started following other friends.

Interest moved from Hollywood celebrities to hometown celebrities, and gaining followers became the name of the game. To get more followers, the teens make jokes on trendy topics. They put up sexy pictures and use raunchy language.

“We understand privacy,’’ Wise student Ahmad Edwards said. “But we also want to have fun.”

At Wise, guidance counselors try to engage students and tame their online behavior. But they don’t know how. In private, they admit to being Facebook people. They just don’t “get” Twitter. Blake does.

“I’m their generation,’’ he said.

Rocking red Chuck Taylor sneakers and oversize bow ties, Blake is an urban prepster who created “Puma Pride Swag,” the school chant based on lyrics by the hip-hop artist Soulja Boy Tell ’Em.

His students loved Blake’s health and nutrition class. But the cool teacher is now the disciplinarian.

Twitter helps him keep his good reputation. In some sense, he’s searching for popularity as much as his students. So he took special pride when a student tweeted: “If U Go To Dr. Henry A. Wise And R Not Following
@Pumasden . . . Something Ain’t Right.”

Blake mostly dismisses the naughty talk as kids being kids. He has to. There is a delicate balance between being a big brother and being Big Brother.

One Sunday this fall, Blake noticed that an online video was circulating of two Wise students fighting during a weekend party. Blake called the two teens’ parents and messaged the students, warning them to behave in school Monday.

The school’s principal, Carletta Marrow, wishes more of her staff would take Blake’s approach. His observations on Twitter have helped reduce the number of school fights by about a third, compared with last year, she said.

One day in October, Blake was upset with the mean online language of two of Wise’s most well-behaved students. He thought they were taking jabs at the girl who supposedly wore Jordan heels — although no one seems clear on whether she actually exists. He chided the pair in school the next day.

“I just wanted more followers,” one responded.

Blake hopes that as students get wiser, their online behavior will change. Usually, freshmen tweet the nastiest things, he said. Their approaches become more refined as they get older and apply to college.

“I used to be all about drama on Twitter,’’ said student Witney Perkins, 17. “Now, I just stay on to communicate [with] my friends. I’m over the drama and the girls who don’t respect themselves. . . . I just want to graduate.”

She and two friends walk into Blake’s office, where he is talking to a ninth-grader who keeps getting kicked out of math class.

The three students and Blake tell the freshman to stay on task; the bad influences who are with her now won’t be walking across the stage with her in four years.

As they speak, one tweets, “I don’t hang out with half of my friends from ninth grade.”

Witney challenges the freshman to be a better version of herself. Too many girls, she said, are getting into fights at school nowadays.

“Are you on Twitter?” she asks the freshman, who smiles and nods. “Stay out of the drama. Don’t be starting none. It’s a distraction.”

The freshman appreciates the advice. But afterwards, she says it will be hard to follow: “The drama is the best part!”

Blake thanks the group, then encourages the seniors to walk the younger girl to class.

“That’s how I want to connect students,’’ Blake said. “If they can be connected in online, they can be connected in person.”

Alone in his office, Blake returns to his desk. His eyes fix on the blue glow of his computer screen. He looks up and wonders whether he should call the freshman back to the office.

“I need to get her Twitter name.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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