The slight teenager stepped into the windowless recording studio. He put on oversize gold headphones and tilted his head up, exuding the confidence of a 16-year-old who knows he has the talent and drive to make it big.
He stood in front of the microphone as his school social worker sat feet away at a computer, ready to record whatever the teenager wanted to sing that day.
Christian Carpenter has a lot to say. A lot of thoughts flow from his head to the microphone as he struggles to understand it all. He’s a boy rapping about grief and violence, cornerstones of so many of his classmates’ childhoods in Southeast Washington.
I want to talk to him and look him right in his face. If you’re not crying then you’re not feeling my pain.
Too many days I have lost, I’m out of focus.
These words spilled out the December day he learned his classmate Gerald had been killed in the neighborhood on his way home from school. Christian was in Anacostia High’s main office when he heard the news and escaped to the school’s recording studio so he could try to make sense of the senseless murder.
My daddy passed away this world is really poison. Gotta watch out for the snakes because they full of venom.
And those were for his father, who died the same month as Gerald. Christian says his father was never in his life like he should have been, but the teen found great comfort in knowing they occupied the same earth.
“I was just confused; all I could do is write,” Christian said in an interview.
Christian is a sophomore at Anacostia High — a school that draws students from some of the District’s poorest neighborhoods.
Ten percent of students at Anacostia High are homeless; 35 percent require special education services; and more than 80 percent are considered at-risk, meaning they are in foster care, their families are recipients of welfare, or they have been held back more than a year in school.
School staff members say they find creative ways to engage these students, hoping to keep them coming through the doors each day. And the recording studio, in which Christian and many of his classmates have found refuge, is just one of those ways.
Christian stopped going to class when his friend Steve Slaughter died. He wandered Anacostia’s hallways, uncertain how he would achieve his boyhood music dreams that managed to survive all the shootings.
But the recording studio — part of the school’s fledgling urban arts program — lured him back to class. To use it, students must show up to class and receive passing grades.
Nathan Luecking, a social worker with music-recording experience, has incorporated the studio into sessions he holds with students. He allows teens to write lyrics before their sessions with him and record them. Then, they dissect the lyrics, understanding the feelings behind the words and connecting themes from previous writings.
Luecking edits the songs and emails the finished product to the students. Christian wants to be a professional musician. He posts his songs on his personal social media accounts when they’re complete.
“I started to see the stuff they would rap about and how they would rap about it — an emotional range they would convey that happened faster and more intensely than it would in traditional talk therapy,” Luecking said. “There’s a permission structure to talk about anything you want in rap.”
Luecking said that Christian’s experiences aren’t all that unusual at the 400-student school. When Gerald Watson was killed, the students at Anacostia lost a peer. When Steve Slaughter was killed, many students who attended Kramer Middle School — which feeds into Anacostia — lost an old friend.
So on some days at school, the main lesson isn’t about literature or geometry. It’s about making sure students like Christian feel safe and heard. William Haith, Anacostia High’s principal, said once that is achieved, students are more likely to be focused on academics.
“When we look at trauma-informed learning, it goes back to students’ languages — and what that means is, when students are asking for love in unusual ways, we have to understand what those ways are,” Haith said.
At only 16, Christian knows that the losses he has experienced, the traumas he has faced, are not something you simply move on from. Twice a day, while commuting to school, he walks past the spot where Steve died.
He remembers when his friend was shot, hearing the sirens and seeing the yellow police tape, but not knowing it was his friend who lay dying.
“I wish I was there by that church, and I would have taken that bullet for him,” Christian said.
He carries in his backpack a fading photo of his father on a keychain. A photo of that keychain is also the background on his phone.
The title of his recent rap album is “Before I’m Gone,” because after encountering so much death, Christian knows that no day is guaranteed — not even for a teenager — so he wants to make sure the world has a chance to hear him.
“When all of this happened, all that was on my mind was, ‘Is this fake? What is going on in the world?’ ” Christian said. “I just wanted to get out of it, get some money, and get out of here.”
Still, there he is, bouncing around the cafeteria during lunch at Anacostia High, greeting every friend, teacher and acquaintance he encounters with a grin and an embrace. His feet can’t help but leave the ground when he runs into one of his closest friends — a group the friends call NGB, which stands for Never Going Back. He says when someone is down, he wants to be the one to help pull them back up.
But at night, Christian said, he often cries. In those hours, writing is all he can muster. About loss. Love. Confusion. Dreams.
His grandmother, Barbara Harper, who raises Christian, says the teen still finds reasons to be grateful. He has written her letters, telling her how thankful he is for the home they have. The two find comfort in attending church.
Christian says he’s focused on academics and is considering college.
“I told him it’s okay to let it go, to cry, but you have to move forward,” Harper said. “I am terrified for him to be outside after 10 p.m. It would kill me if something happened to Christian.”
Those fears don’t elude Christian. He and his friends rarely let each other walk alone. He wakes up a friend, Raysean, each morning, and they commute together to school. But Christian isn’t letting those fears stop him. He’s going to school each day, class every hour. And he’s writing. Writing until he can make a little more sense of it all.
They keep telling me to stay strong and live my life, but I can’t do it without Steve by my side, Christian wrote in the song “Letter to Steve.” I want to give up, but I know I got to grind. I’m doing this for Steve because I know he wants me to shine.