BALTIMORE — When Principal Tammatha Woodhouse pronounced 104 Excel Academy seniors high school graduates Friday night, tassels flipped to the right, caps flew, and the room exploded with noise. It’s a sound heard around the country this time of year, but perhaps none louder than the cries — even shrieks — of joy and relief that erupted from these Baltimore families.
These were the students who made it through high school alive.
Five didn’t. Five of the roughly 300 teens who started the school year at Excel never made it to the end. They were killed in the epidemic of violence that has claimed 146 victims through the end of May and made Baltimore “the toughest city in America to grow up in,” as the local politician who addressed the graduates called it.
Five shot dead, one every 5 1/2 weeks between mid-fall and the spring. More shootings than fire drills, more funerals than standardized tests.
“You will take them wherever you go,” said Baltimore City Council member Brandon M. Scott, himself a product of these unforgiving city streets who remembers burying classmates as a teenager. “You have to make sure that you live that life that they could have lived.”
The seniors at Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High School listened, hearing nothing about the toughness of life they didn’t already know. Those in the front row of the auditorium of Notre Dame of Maryland University sat next to one seat that held an empty cap and gown and a photograph: Markel “Kel” Scott, who would have crossed the stage with them if a hail of slugs hadn’t ended his life at 19.
Kel was No. 4, gunned down by unknown shooters in March, wearing his school backpack, waiting for a ride home from an East Baltimore neighborhood.
The first was Tre’Quan Bullock, a jeans-loving 18-year-old, shot in October. His slaying remains unsolved.
Two months later, Excel junior Lavar Douglas was shot by a Coppin State University police officer in West Baltimore after allegedly opening fire at another car. Prosecutors ruled the officer’s use of force justified.
In February, the night before Excel’s senior inauguration dinner, assailants chased a jovial Excel student named Bryant Beverly into a house for unknown reasons and shot him. He died a few days later. Police have made no arrests to date. He was 18.
And at the very end of April, Steven Jackson, an 18-year-old Excel junior, was found shot dead in a double homicide that remains under investigation.
“He was a very respectful kid,” said Giselle Maiden, a guidance counselor at the school for the past 10 years. “None of them were what people might label as bad kids. They were good kids.”
Maiden, having helped corral the boisterous graduates into a couple of reasonably straight lines as “Pomp and Circumstance” began to play in the crowded auditorium, confessed to the obvious: “I think a lot of the teachers are ready for this year to be over.”
Woodhouse agreed. “This has probably been the roughest school year of my career,” she told the graduates gathered before her Friday. She talked not just about the funerals, but also about starting the year with a threadbare per-pupil budget and having to scrounge for toilet paper.
“We love you,” one of her kids called, the rest of them cheering.
“I love you, too,” Woodhouse said.
Police don’t think the school itself was a nexus in the five tragedies. Rather, the shootings were simply a function of the city’s record-setting surge of gun violence. Baltimore is among the most violent cities in the country this year.
“It’s certainly tragic and unfortunate that five students were killed this year, but it looks more like a sad coincidence rather than anything related to the school,” said Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith.
Still, as the year wore on, the shocks grew not only more painful but also more practiced. Death became a devastating routine. The news of another killing would sweep through the halls; the school system’s rapid-response counseling team would set up (in the library for students, in the lunchroom for staff); teachers would console one another in the break room and then, in the classrooms, beseech the kids back to stay focused, never give up, don’t be the next horrifying statistic. Above all: Graduate.
“It became too much,” said Maiden. “It became — I hate to say familiar — but just the same thing over and over.”
Maiden had been to only one student’s funeral in her 10 years at the school, after a young woman was killed in a car accident. This year, she went to three. She spoke at the service for Scott, one of the seniors she counseled.
“There is no doubt in my mind he was going to graduate,” Maiden said.
Scott’s path to a cap and gown had not been an easy one. Like all 300 or so students at Excel, one of the city’s alternative programs for kids who have dropped out or were failing at other schools, Scott had been in and out of the classroom. Maiden said he had made at least two false starts at Excel before showing up again last fall, dressed in the school’s mandatory burgundy shirt and ready to get serious.
“He came back this year and took over with a vengeance,” she said.
Scott and Maiden agreed on a plan; he would stop by her office every single day to make sure he was staying on track. He visited Woodhouse almost weekly for the same purpose. By spring, his name was on a hallway bulletin board as a one of the seniors accepted at Baltimore City Community College next year.
Maiden came back to school after a half-day workshop on a Friday to learn that Scott was dead.
On Friday, Scott’s mother collected his diploma for him, coming onstage with his cap and gown in hand, hugging Woodhouse. Sharonda Rhodes yelled to her son’s graduating friends: “You all can do anything! Keep marching! Keep marching!”
Afterward, holding the milestone document her son earned but would never see, she said, “This is what he wanted. He wanted a diploma. He didn’t want to be a statistic.”
She marveled at the resilience of Excel, both students and staff members, who have absorbed every loss and still come to school every day to learn and to teach.
That’s the best response, said Bronwyn Mayden, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and head of a support program at Renaissance Academy High School, another school that has lost multiple students to violence.
The heroic answer to violence is to give the students the gift of normality. Teachers can distract students with the rites of youth that should be part of every student’s high school experience: cheering at the homecoming game, flipping through college catalogues, going to prom.
“They may not have another dance like this in their lives, when people dress up and take pictures,” she said. “Give them something fun to remember from this year.”
Judging by the roar of triumph the graduates gave up Friday, they have more ahead of them than grief.