Word of Mouth One writer reflects on rumors about Baltimore’s violence and the 2015 unrest.

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The word was out on the street: One hundred women would be killed as a gang initiation. No one knew when it would start. No one knew which gang was behind it. But they were going after women, one by one. One hundred women.

It was just a rumor, right? Just false words and bravado, a power grab by a pack of boys and men made more potent by guns and drugs. Still, guns and drugs ran this city.

Everyone knew the story from years before of a gang that had firebombed the house of a woman who had called the police on the dealer on her East Baltimore block. Seven people in her family died.

At Sisters Academy of Baltimore, we heard about the rumor the way we caught word of everything: The girls couldn’t stop talking about it. A whisper became a hum that became a buzz, until finally one of them brought it up during morning Gathering Space, and Sister Debbie Liesen, the principal, reassured everyone that they were safe. One sweet-faced fifth grader remained scared and wanted to call her mother later, just to be sure she had made it safely home from work.

Sisters Academy welcomed its first students in September 2004. The girls came from the neighborhoods on the west side, from Sandtown-Winchester to Pigtown, down to Cherry Hill and Brooklyn on the south side. At the time the school opened, there were very few buildings on the west side that could house it. Years later, the Archdiocese of Baltimore would shut down several schools whose enrollment numbers crumbled like the aging row houses and roads around them. But in 2004, the nuns who started Sisters Academy chose a shuttered school in Lansdowne, where an occasional Confederate flag flew and the “n” word sometimes got scrawled on our school building for the nuns to rub off before the girls arrived.

Saturday parent conferences were nearly all-women affairs with mothers and grandmothers and little sisters and babies, an occasional boyfriend, and a single father or two who was nervous about raising a soon-to-be teenaged girl and sure glad that he had found our school. Mothers were young, mostly in their 20s and early 30s, their schooling and their careers slowed by children. They dreamed big dreams for their girls and looked to us to help them make the dreams real. At back-to-school night, they piled in Gathering Space, all serious and beautiful and fierce, and we bowed our heads and prayed with them for the blessings that they and their daughters deserved.

The school was small. We took 20 girls for each grade, grades five to eight, and we rarely replaced students when they left. We wanted them to be with us the whole time, so they could squeeze in every moment of learning that was needed to catch them up with their suburban peers. We were so small that if a gang killed 100 women, they would kill all of the mothers and grandmothers in our community.
It was just a rumor. But we couldn’t stop thinking about it because this insidious, fear-stirring story bulleted into the heart of the work we did every day.

In April 2015, Freddie Gray was dead and there was a new rumor: There was going to be a purge, a gang uprising. They were going to take over the city and march all the way from Mondawmin Mall to the Inner Harbor, destroying what they could on their way. My phone buzzed with texts from a Sisters Academy mom — warnings about the violence. Tell the principal, she wrote. Send the students home.

By then I was working at a Cristo Rey Jesuit High School on the east side. I called the precinct commander there and asked him what he knew about these rumors. It was Monday and our sophomores were spread across the city, working at internships. Should we bring them back to the school? The commander was in a car headed to City Hall, sirens whining in the background as he dismissed my worry and said, “It’s going to be a peaceful day.” I still hate him for that.

On my desk, my phone buzzed. Another text from the mother. The police were wrong, she told me. Tell the principal. We dismissed just before the chaos began. A few of us watched the news in the school counselor’s office as we waited for parents and worried that someone was going to be killed. I drove home anxious and alert, the air snapping with uncertainty as the city broke up around us and years of anger seeped out. In the morning, some of my co-workers and our students swept up the broken glass and emotion, while I wrote statements for our school leaders and letters to our parents. I called the mother who had texted me the day before; she was still shaken up, but OK.

Weeks later, co-workers and I were in Sandtown-Winchester for a prayer walk and I ran into Sister Delia Dowling, the president of Sisters Academy and a longtime West Baltimore resident. It was a late spring night, light-filled and warm. There were no police sirens, just the sounds of children playing in the neighborhood, and we walked together not saying much.

What I wanted to ask her was why our work hadn’t been enough. As if one small school with 80 girls could have changed a whole city. And why couldn’t it? What I wanted to ask was why everyone had looked down their noses at the community we had formed. (I remembered a lawyer on a date who once dared to ask me how much money I made.) Yet, now the words “Sandtown-Winchester” were in everyone’s mouth mixed with their own wisdom and advice.

What I wanted to ask her was what would happen next: How was this all going to turn out? Would our city be better because of this time? Instead we walked and sang.

There is a new rumor: The children of this city and their parents will take over Baltimore, throw the guns in the harbor and flush the drugs with the sewage. My former students will wipe away the graffiti, plant trees and flowers, start businesses and repair homes. They will shake out this patchwork town, stitch it back up and lay it out on a banquet table with crystal and silver so we can all eat from its buffet of bounty. They will make a difference. This is not just a rumor. It’s a truth I plan on repeating until it becomes real.

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