Walker-Jones Elementary School sits in the middle of the "inner city." Located at First and L Streets NW across from the Sursum Corda ("Lift up your hearts") homes, this D.C. public school draws students almost exclusively from the immediate neighborhood. It's ringed by a huge asphalt play area that was filled with screaming, laughing children the afternoon I arrived for a vist to Doris Rhinehart's fifth- grade class.
Black History Month was my excuse for paying a call, and I found evidence of the season everywhere in the "open classroom" space that led to Mrs. Rhinehart's. Bulletin boards were festooned with elementary school hallmarks: magazine clippings, photographs, student art work and poems, all geared toward black history.
After being introduced to the class, I asked the students what they had done to mark the month. Arms waved; one by one they described their reports. The subjects extended far beyond the usual circle of Harriets, Martins and Thurgoods; these kids came up with some people I'd never even heard of. Then I showed them pictures of black singers, scientists, slaves and cowboys. The runaway favorite was the photo of Marshall (Major) Taylor, author of the autobiography, "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World," published in 1928, which described how he'd won the one-mile motor- paced bicycle race in a minute and 19 seconds.
I wanted the children to write about their heroes. The class worked on a collective definition, moving from technicolor images of children being pulled from burning buildings and the paths of speeding trucks to the simple "someone you look up to, who makes you want to go on and do good things because of what they've done."
It was time to write. I asked them each to choose a hero, according to their own definition, and to write a poem about that person. I stipulated only that the subject be a black person.
In the wake of Black History Month stardust, I expected odes to the Sojourners, the Malcolms, the DuBoises and Bethunes. But out of the 19 poems, more than half were about people in the children's own lives: a policeman, a parent, a friend.
Here are some of their words:
"My granddaddy was nice to me. He tried to save the world, and he was in World War II. After that, he got sick for twenty-five years and on September 22, 1984 at 3 a.m. he (died) happy."
"My teacher is a hero, too,
She gives me a good education,
My teacher is so nice to me
She even gives me a vacation!
My teacher is the best of all,
She's kind, considerate, and smart
My teacher is not so well known
But her name is Mrs. Rhinehart."
"My friend is a hero to me.
She's full of y and also full of glee
She's a nice person that you would want to know
Because we talk about drugs which we should not deal with because it is a NoNo."
"My hero is a lot of people,
But this person is very particular
She works hard every day.
This person is special in some way.
She is my mother. She's kind and nice.
She even puts up a good fight.
She's not on public T.V.
But she is great enough for me."
I pass these along not to illustrate how cute, clever and bright these children are -- though they are all of those things -- but to show that heroes live in a concrete sense in at least one classroom of black children in D.C.'s public schools, in a neighborhood that might be quickly stereotyped from the outside as the "inner city" of government studies and sociological abstract, of faceless, nameless mothers with too many babies born too soon.
Doris Rhinehart says that a large percentage of her students come from one-parent families, that the average age of these fifth-graders' parents is "27 to 30, and maybe younger."
Rhinehart, too, describes the area surrounding Walker-Jones as "inner city." It is a simple, literal description from a teacher who has worked in the neighborhood for 24 years. It reminds me of Baltimore poet Lucille Clifton's lines about living "in the inner city/or/like we call it/home." This is one classroom of children and their heroes -- from home.