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Mercury Scare Could Have Deeper Meaning

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page C01

In the wake of the mercury spill at Cardozo Senior High in Northwest last week, city and federal officials are wondering how vandals gained access to the hazardous substance and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

It should be noted that Mercury is the name of a planet and a Greek god -- and that both come packed with symbolism that just might point toward some of the answers they seek.

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Courtland Milloy can be reached at (202) 334-7592 or by e-mail at milloyc@washpost.com.

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In ancient mythology, Mercury is depicted as a messenger wearing winged sandals; in astrology, the planet rules intellect, voice and communication. Archetypically, Mercury is the critic and student and teacher both.

Could Mercury, by forcing yet another D.C. public school to close, be delivering a message from students at large that the real hazard to their neurological development is not some liquid metal but the school system itself?

"It's possible that it's nothing but a prank, but also possible that it's more emblematic of a larger problem that the city's high schools are having, " said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "Who knows what the motive and thinking of the individuals involved in the spill might be? But it's impossible for me to think that students haven't noticed the quality of education they are receiving and the conditions of the buildings where they are expected to learn and are not frustrated by what they see."

In 2003, the schools council released a report that said the D.C. school system has, as Casserly put it, "lost its instructional focus; its efforts have become fractured and incoherent; its academic moorings have loosened and its unity of purpose has splintered."

John L. Johnson, professor emeritus of education at the University of the District of Columbia, compares mercury to a broken promise.

"It's slippery, and it breaks up," he said, "like the promise to these kids that our schools would teach them to read, like the promise that they would be prepared for college after graduating from high school."

In fact, according to the Great City Schools report, students in D.C. public schools tend to make impressive gains in reading during first grade. But by the time they reach 11th grade, fewer than 25 percent can read at or above grade level.

"If the students had any sense of belonging, they wouldn't try to destroy their schools," Johnson said. "That's why involving the students should be the first step in creating any educational program. Given all of this recurring trouble in the schools and the community, why do people think you can administer it away or call in police to arrest it?"

Jahar Abraham, co-founder of a group called Peaceaholics and a volunteer at Cardozo, said part of the problem is a devaluation of teachers.

"Some younger teachers are coming in who aren't as committed as teachers used to be," he said. "You might have a guy with an engineering degree biding his time teaching high school math until he can land a job with a firm. He'd never consider making teaching a career because there is no money in it."

Abraham praised Cardozo's principal, Reginald Ballard Jr., saying he is doing the best he can in a tough situation. "Ballard gets a majority of the boys who come out of Oak Hill (the District's juvenile detention center) because so many group homes are in the neighborhood," Abraham said. "But when I go to the school to check up on them, most are usually in class, doing what they are supposed to be doing, and not out in the halls the way they are at some other schools."

The message from Mercury is not an indictment of one or two schools. (Ballou Senior High in Southeast was closed for a month in fall 2003 after students deliberately spilled mercury there.)

From an astrological perspective, Mercury is approaching a "retrograde" phase, which, as one stargazer put it, often involves "slowing things down" through glitches and blockages. The stargazer's advice is to "think of it as a maintenance period, ideal for revisiting old problems that call for action but lay ignored."

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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