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How One West Baltimore Principal Helps Her Students Make Sense Of It All

Crystal Harden-Lindsey, 35, is the principal at Green Street Academy in West Baltimore.

Editor's note: Code Switch reporter Shereen Marisol Meraji is spending Wednesday with a West Baltimore principal who's charged with a huge task today: helping her middle and high school students, who are overwhelmingly poor and black, make sense of what's happening in Baltimore right now. We'll be updating the post over the course of the day.

Part One

It's 7:12 a.m. on Wednesday morning and Crystal Harden-Lindsey rolls into the parking lot of Green Street Academy in West Baltimore, which she has headed since 2012. Today is a big day: School's back in session after shutting down all day yesterday in the face of protests and unrest. Harden-Lindsey, who's 35 and grew up in East Baltimore, knows her kids are going to have lots of questions; a few of them were texting with her yesterday, sending her their cellphone videos of the looted stores and burned buildings.

It helps that she knows where they're coming from. Harden-Lindsey has roots in this city. She grew up across town, right around North Rose and East Monument streets. Her grandmother lives right by Southern Baptist Church, near the senior center that was engulfed in flames on Monday. And throughout her life she has been no stranger to violence. When she was just a kid, she recalls seeing a dead body in the street. It's nothing new, but this sort of violence still breaks her heart, she says.

On a day like today, it's all about looking forward.

"If we can get today under control, we'll be OK until Friday," Harden-Lindsey says. On Friday, the Baltimore Police Department is expected to release the findings of its investigation into Gray's death, according to the Baltimore Sun. Depending on what those findings say, the weekend could be fairly quiet or embroiled in further protests.

Part Two

First on the principal's agenda today is a 7:30 a.m. meeting with the school's leadership committee of teachers. Their job: figure out how to help their students cope with everything they're seeing.

There are 42 teachers at the school. Only nine are black, a stark contrast to what the student body looks like. Green Street Academy has 450 students, 98 percent of whom are black, with nearly all of them on a free-and-reduced lunch plan.

One of the teachers asks whether the school will be getting any outside help in talking to the kids. Harden-Lindsey says two social workers, a pastor and a psychologist are scheduled to come in. By 9 a.m., some of that outside help has arrived.

William Richardson stands in front of a group of about 30 eighth-grade boys in the school cafeteria. He knows Baltimore's school system well; he taught in this city for 10 years and served as the dean of students at Green Street Academy for two. These days, Richardson works for the Department of Juvenile Services, helping young men with substance abuse issues.

The students are seated before him at a row of cafeteria tables. They're dressed in gray slacks and pressed white shirts adorned with green ties — imitations of the adults they're becoming.

Richardson was scheduled to talk to eighth-grade boys and girls at the same time, but he quickly decided to separate them into groups — boys from girls, girls from boys. The boys were reticent to talk, so he figured, maybe separating them would lead to a more honest and open dialogue. Instantly after the girls leave, the boys seem to start paying attention.

And the questions — which became increasingly pointed, increasingly impassioned — start pouring out.

"Why have white people been killing us since slavery, and they're still killing us?" one student asks.

"All these police officers are killing black dudes for no reason," says a boy named Montrel.

"If a cop asks what we're doing, and we're not doing anything, do we have to answer?" another wonders. (Code Switch's Gene Demby tweeted about young brown men's encounters with police a while back.)

One of the adults in the room tells them they can peacefully protest with adult supervision, "but don't break things." The adults tell them to write emails to politicians, encourage their parents to shop at black-owned businesses and to above all, be positive.

A frustrated student pipes up at this: "Positive is not always the answer."

Some of the teachers try another tack. Get your education, one says. Move up out of here.

The students don't seem satisfied with the answers they're receiving. It's never easy to give advice to adolescents, especially in this case, where the stakes are so high.

"When I walk out the door, it's not even my choice whether I live or die," one student says.

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