A class of sixth-graders from Georgetown Day School arrived at the Washington Project for the Arts last week to view the exhibit "Shooting Back," which featured photographs taken by homeless children.
"This is horrible," said Rebecca Grochow, 11. Her eyes were locked on a photograph of animal control workers removing pets from the home of an evicted family.
"They're taking away the cats?" she asked. "They should take care of the kids first, then worry about the cats."
"It's terrible," said Terry Carter, 12, turning in anguish from a photograph of two homeless boys, roughly his age, at play along the banks of an open sewer. "Kids should not live this way."
From the children of the District's well-to-do, certainly among the most educationally privileged in the city, the reaction to the plight of their less fortunate neighbors was a potent mixture of sadness and anger, tempered by their sense of good fortune.
"It makes me sad because it's not the kids' fault," said Dana Mulhauser, 11. "But it also makes me feel real lucky to have been born into a family with hot water and a cat."
The students had read about the lives of children who suffered through the Great Depression in Irene Hunt's novel "No Promises in the Wind." But seeing photographs of their contemporaries -- trying valiantly to sustain love, hope and family amid unspeakable degradation -- caused tears to well in the eyes of some.
Many students from the District's public schools have viewed the more than 160 photographs, project officials said, and the Georgetown Day students are among the students who appeared especially moved by what they saw.
"There have been basically two sets of reactions," said Debra Singer, the project's educational consultant. "Students in schools that draw from poor neighborhoods get a big kick out of seeing someone or someplace they know. Then there are students from schools like Georgetown Day, who may have volunteered at soup kitchens or donated their toys to homeless shelters. They are very serious and show tremendous concern about what is happening to homeless people."
This may seem ironic, given the fact that the District's Ward 3, where many Georgetown Day students live, voted overwhelmingly in the last election against a referendum that would have guaranteed overnight shelter to all homeless people.
"If some of these millionaires would use more of their money to help out, the situation would be 10 times better," Terry said.
"What's sadder than everybody not having a place to live is that nobody seems to care," said Alicia Wasserman, 11.
"We must do more, like not be greedy when we go shopping so there will be enough for everybody," said Ben Rivlin, 11.
The "Shooting Back" exhibit, which ends Nov. 25, was produced by children who lived in five homeless shelters in the Washington area. The young photographers focused on other homeless children and "how they view the society that has placed them on the street," according to the arts project, which is at Seventh and D streets NW.
"Too often, children get separated from their parents, so in some photographs you will see only homeless children," Singer told the students. "Many times, a parent gets sick, can't go to work, and the family gets evicted. Does anybody know what an eviction is?"
Gemal Johnson, 12, raised his hand. "When somebody gets kicked out because they can't pay the rent," he said.
"That's a hard life," said Leo Waterston, 11, viewing a photograph of a family of seven who posed on a bed in their shelter room. "I don't think I could make it."
"The stories are depressing," said Lisa Berenson, 10. "But the photographs are very good."
"It's just not fair," said Marnie Lipnick, 11. "The children were born into homelessness."
"And here we are," said Julia Tannenbaun, 11. "We have a nice school and everything and they don't have that much."
Jessica Levi, 12, sighed as she stepped back from a photograph of a gun being pointed out of a window. "How can they live with the things that are going on in their lives?" she asked.
Susie Mandoza, 11, shook her head defiantly. "We're just going to have to make a bigger deal about this," she declared.
What inspired their heartfelt responses was succinctly put by a student who wrote in the project's visitors book: "These kids are neat. They are just like me."