Ever since the school year began, Anacostia High School's power mechanics teacher, Gary Minor, had tried to get the school system to buy a cheap second-hand car for his class so the kids would have an actual auto, not just scaled-down models of gasoline engines, to work on. School officials refused, citing money problems.
Minor then asked the police if could get an abandoned car. He asked other Anacostia teachers if they knew of someone who would donate a car. He got nowhere.
Finally, two weeks ago, Anacostia's principal donated his own canary-yellow 1973 Chrysler Newport to the mechanics class. But none of the students ever got to work on it.
The car was parked on the school lot little more than a week when vandals smashed all the car windows and lights, slashed all four tires, dented in the roof and tore apart the interior of the car and some of the engine parts. Now, what Minor's students have left is anger and bitterness about a school system that they say ignores them and a community they feel just doesn't care about its neighborhood high school.
"People are always saying the school don't do nothing for the community. But the community don't do nothing for the school," complained Jonathan Williams, 18, a senior, who is convinced like the other mechanics students that the vandals were not Anacostia students.
"People in this community, in the District, on the school board, they always sayin' the D.C. students should do this and do that, but they don't help us," said Herbert Smith Jr., one of 70 students enrolled in power mechanics at Anacostia. "The police had time to put three tickets on the car (because it was parked on school property with no tags). But they didn't have time to see this," he said, looking at the vandalized car.
It's hard to keep student morale up anyway, says Anacostia's new principal, Jerry L. Coward, when the students see other schools in the area getting more attention from the school system than their school. Anacostia has no special programs such as the math-science school at Ballou High and the special extensive humanities curriculum at Woodson High, no junior Reserve Officer Training Corp, no football coach of its own, no police officer assigned there to help curb drug use and other crimes in the school, as other schools have.
These are some of the things Coward said he has been trying to turn around.
"I could not have asked for a better motivational situation for the [mechanics] students . . . . When they saw the car coming in, they were so happy. They were saying, "That's our car, Mr. Coward.'
"The community did know this car was a teaching tool. Despite that fact, they just devastated the car. Now the students are demoralized. We had a positive effort turned against us."
Coward said he does not think Anacostia students were responsible for the vandalism, but he cannot be sure.
He does blame schools' central administration in part. Coward said he has been calling the administration office every week for three months to get someone to repair the metal fence around the school lot after vandals tore apart the section of the fence that can be locked. If the gate could have been locked at night, perhaps vandals would not have gotten to the car, Coward said.
"I would like to get hold of these people and let them see how they would feel if this happened to them. If you got something of your own, you should protect it to the highest, of your ability," said Shawn Turner, 18, a senior.
Minor said he is not hopeful about getting another car for the students.
"We don't want to just walk away and say, 'That's life.' This has been too much of a loss. But at this point, we really don't know what to do."