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Street Smart

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To his teachers, he was just another bit player in the city's violent and booming drug trade. Few expected him to show up for class, let alone make them proud.

In The Corner, Edward Burns and David Simon chronicle life around the Fayette Street drug market in Baltimore. Burns, a cop-turned-teacher, and Simon, a reporter and the author of the book that inspired the television series Homicide, tell the story of DeAndre McCullough, a 15-year-old already peddling drugs on turf that he's carved out on Fairmount Avenue.

Sitting on the stoop, DeAndre decides that this is his last night on Fairmount. He works his package down that evening, and the next morning, he does his laundry in the tub. Dressed in still damp clothes, he heads down Fayette Street past the Fairmount corner and two blocks farther to Francis M. Woods High School, the only school in Baltimore that would consider for more than a second the idea of enrolling DeAndre McCullough. Chin to chest, eyes cast down, he is deep inside himself as he walks stiff-legged, driving his heels mechanically into the pavement.

He climbs the school steps like he belongs, trying several of the front doors. All locked. He rings the buzzer, content to wait. He's spent an inordinate amount of time on the wrong side of a locked school door, in most cases accompanied by his mother, waiting for the authorities to reach a decision, waiting to start again. Standing here today in the January cold, he stares indifferently into the lens of the security camera. Finally, he hears the buzz of the door release and snatches the handle.

Inside, he's greeted by Gould, the school security officer. "Good to have you back, brother."

DeAndre smiles sheepishly, then enters the front office to wait for Miss Davis. He's sure she will claim him, his confidence secured, at least for this moment, by his newfound resolve to attend class and do the work. He knows that for his part, he's willing to let bygones be bygones, and he's hoping the assistant principal sees it the same way.

Rose Davis has created a haven at Francis M. Woods High School for those rebellious, damaged spirits shipwrecked and abandoned by the rest of the city school system. She is everywhere at Francis Woods: a calming influence, encouraging and chiding, trying to get her charges to realize some of their potential, or at least some of their value, fighting what amounts to an endless rear guard action against the corner itself. She makes it her business to travel the local markets, where she sees many of her students and former students hanging. She's seen DeAndre on Fairmount; she knows what that's about.

He sits there in the office, wrapped in an unlikely innocence, waiting to be given yet another chance, accustomed to this moment of feigned redemption. DeAndre is forever in a school's administrative office, forever waiting to talk to an administrator. His academic standard is defined by a long streak of second-day suspensions, allowing him the opportunity to attend the first day of every semester, showing off new outfits and hightops and front for the girls. Once all joy is squeezed from that first day, DeAndre follows up with a quick scuttling of the academics and a disciplinary suspension of no less than two weeks, or with any luck at all, a month or more. His friends' school disciplinary sheets aren't shabby, but DeAndre always manages to go them one better. For all of them, school is something to endure until the age of 15 and a half; the law says 16, but the children of Fayette Street have the juvenile court backlog figured into the equation. Within that framework, most learn to at least go through the motions. A few of the regulars of DeAndre's crew, the Crenshaw Mafia Brothers, won't bother showing up, preferring to take their chances with the juvenile system. But the rest do, with some regularity, take a seat in classrooms that seem to them entirely disconnected from the facts of their world.

For DeAndre, there is no common ground with anything resembling authority, and his juvenile sheet chronicles a constant struggle to stand true to himself regardless of the damage done. DeAndre McCullough doesn't bend, and he doesn't forgive, and he never forgets. In the classroom, he flies the flag of piracy and insolence. He is about struggle.

In nursery school, he had words with a little girl and ended up crowning her with a chair. That was the first suspension. In the 2nd and 4th grades, he fought with his teachers, taking charges for assault and more suspensions. In the 5th grade, he was asked to leave three separate schools. In the 7th grade, he failed to embrace an anti-drug presentation at the school and joined the select few who can claim a charge of punching an armed Baltimore City police officer during classroom hours.

For DeAndre McCullough, there is no common ground with anything resembling authority. He doesn't bend, and he doesn't forgive, and he never forgets. In the classroom, he flies the flag of piracy and insolence.

It's not as if the school officials weren't aware of the challenge. They caught on to DeAndre early and sent him, at age 10, to a big brother program, hoping a role model would have a positive influence. It didn't take, but still they moved him along. He's too smart to be held back, the officials would tell his mother, Fran, who learned to anticipate that on the second day of any given semester, she could expect an invitation to meet with some vice principal at some school somewhere in the city.

But things seemed to change last September, when DeAndre came to Francis Woods and the enlightened administration of Miss Rose Davis. Fresh from his wild summer on Fairmount, DeAndre arrived at school in high spirits, and come the second day of classes, he stayed put. He was there the third day, as well. And the fourth. His mother began to believe that her son had turned a corner.

What they didn't know about this sudden commitment to academics was its origin, which had to do with a hot weekend night that summer, when the boys of C.M.B. got deep and decided to take a walk into South Baltimore, down to Ramsay Street in search of a rumored house party. They found it, but they weren't exactly welcomed--at least not by the Stricker and Ramsay crew, who sensed a territorial violation. Eyes glaring, the two groups managed for a time to keep their distance, but when you're traveling with the likes of Boo and Dorian, two tough C.M.B. regulars, trouble is assured. Words got tossed, then fists, until a full-blown brawl tumbled outside. C.M.B. held its own; DeAndre and R.C. were doing most of the damage until one of the Stricker and Ramsay boys--Sherman Smith, by name--tilted the table and came out with his iron. A couple of misspent shots, and C.M.B. was on the run.

It wasn't anything special. They'd had their share of shooting and being shot at and were usually content to laugh it off in the safety of the rec center playground, R.C. often taking the lead in editing the encounter: "Yo, we was fucking them up. Yo, did you see DeAndre hit that motherfucker? Yo, he dropped him."

That they got run off, that they were fighting tame when the other side had their guns out didn't matter. In R.C.'s version, victory would always be assured.

But on that occasion, R.C.'s revisionism wasn't enough for DeAndre, who crept back home to get his 380 semi, a weary thing that could have used a little more care. Creeping back down near McHenry Street that same night, DeAndre spotted Sherman and let one fly, but missed. Sherman returned fire, and a rolling gun battle ensued, at least until DeAndre's gun fell apart, the clip hitting the ground, the bullets spilling onto the pavement.

He tried frantically to stuff the bullets into the clip, but Sherman, sensing weakness, pressed the attack and sent DeAndre scurrying back up top. Safe on the other side of Baltimore Street, his body soaked in sweat, DeAndre vowed revenge. And true to that purpose, he spent the rest of the summer hunting Sherman, but the boy was nowhere to be found.

Until September, when on that first day of class, during the homeroom roll call, DeAndre caught the sound of two magic words: "Sherman Smith."

Yeah boy. Brightening, he scanned the room.

"...Sherman Smith..."

No response. Marked absent.

DeAndre left school that day inspired. Of all the schools and of all the classes, fate chose to put Sherman in the same blessed room. All he had to do was wait him out, and for that, DeAndre was in school the next day and the day after that and for as long as it took. All the time praying that Sherman wasn't locked up, or doing so well on some corner that he wouldn't ever come to class.

As the September days ran one to the next, his resolve never wavered. Every morning he was up and out, attending each of his first three classes, then maybe cutting out only when he was sure Sherman was a no-show.

DeAndre failed to embrace an anti-drug presentation at the school and joined the select few who can claim a charge of punching an armed Baltimore City police officer during classroom hours.

He even asked his mother to help him get up in the mornings. Fran responded initially with suspicion, but after a week or so, DeAndre could see she was impressed at his effort.

Two weeks into the semester, DeAndre was in a third-floor hallway when he focused on the vision that was Sherman, bending over to open a metal locker.

"Yeah boy!"

DeAndre dropped his binder and charged. Sherman had a second to straighten up before DeAndre crashed into him, sending both boys sprawling across the floor. DeAndre was on top quickly, raining fists as Sherman balled up like a possum.

Later in her office, Rose Davis let loose on both DeAndre and Sherman, ordering them to come back the next day with a parent. DeAndre left first and quickly found R.C., who was hanging on Fulton Avenue with Dorian.

"Look at these," he declared, raising his swollen hands with pride. "Fucked that boy up."

"DeAndre, you a crazy nigger, yo," R.C. assured him.

Then it was off to tell Fran, who listened to the whole story and gave back only a cold look of disappointment. Watching her, DeAndre actually felt bad for the first time and found himself promising to continue with school if Fran would go and talk with Miss Davis.

"Andre, you got to be joking," she told him.

But the next day, Fran went with her son to see Rose Davis, who greeted Fran warmly and ushered her into her office. As long as DeAndre could remember, Fran had always attended these meetings and, regardless of her own problems, had always managed to wear her concern into the room.

"You can come in, too," added Rose, her eyebrows raised. DeAndre had settled in on the couch in the outer office. "There are no secrets here."

True to form, Rose had spent part of the previous day tapping into her considerable sources, pinning down the details of the McCullough-Smith feud. With the three of them seated in her office, she let a long silence undermine DeAndre's confidence, staring at him until he dropped his head and began to fidget. She related to Fran her son's history with Sherman.

Damn, thought DeAndre. Who's snitching?

"Well, DeAndre," Rose said, turning her attention to him, "your attendance has certainly improved from last year."

He was out of his depth, and he knew it, hiding behind a mumbled, "Yes'm."

"So now that you've settled your little score, I guess we won't be seeing very much of you around here anymore."

"No, I'm going to go," he insisted. "I'm going to go."

"Well, let's just write that down."

She handed him her little account book, the repository for so many handwritten promises, all duly signed. Some were kept, most were forgotten, but all were used to try to bind her students to her, to put it on a personal level.

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