A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 24 2010

On Territory

One thing that I’ve observed throughout the year is that students at my school like marking out their territory (theme song for this post here. The Joakim Remix is appropriate too).  Like marauding packs of wolves, they stake their claims on various pieces of school and community property.  Pencils, pens, markers, whiteout, spray paint–students will creatively use any means to show whence they came.

It isn’t so much the end product that provides satisfaction. Instead, it is the process–the simultaneous act of proclaiming who is boss and the defiance against authority that it represents–that brings joy to the hearts and minds of my students.  The scrawls have special significance–a symbolism–that transcends other forms of taking pride in one’s identity.


Indeed, one can find territorial marks everywhere:

On walls (obviously)…

On desks (duh!)…

On faculty bathroom stall doors (no idea how they got inside these locked bathrooms)…

On hallway doors…

On lockers…

And…on TI-84 graphing calculators (completed during DC BAS math testing).

The calculator graffiti shows just how far students will go to leave their mark.  Digital or analog, pen or pencil–anything goes in this game.


In all seriousness, I’ve never seen a school community so divided into territorial groups.  Students from one group aren’t allowed to mingle with students from another.  When they wrote their “Where I’m From” poems, students refrained from saying, out loud, where they were from, lest they get chastised or harassed by opposing “crews.”

NG brought in a full topographical map of DC and showed me where are the various “hoods” existed (when I said “neighborhoods” he respectfully corrected me).  There must have been 50 or so hoods intricately labeled on his map.  I asked him why he drew this map.  He told me that he wanted to make sure he didn’t go anywhere he wasn’t supposed to go. He added, “also, if I walk into a neighborhood and get jumped, I want to know who it was, so I can get them back.”  He said this in jest and with a smile on his face, but I’m sure that he was only half-joking.

I know school is a natural place for group formation.  Students have a tendency to associate with people who have common identities.  This is what naturally unites groups.  I had my own groups in middle school, high school and college.

Yet, I’ve never seen an environment in which physical location matters so much.  What street or what block you live on determines who you are “reppin’.” This, in turn, dictates how you must act. There are no cliques centered around your average stereotypes (e.g. “nerds,” “jocks,” “goths”).  Jocks don’t pick on nerds.  Instead, the 12th ‘n Hamlin crew picks on UPT (Uptown).

All of this “street crew” stuff seems petty to me.  It also seems, at times, innocent.  What’s the hurt in showing some pride in where one is from?

But what starts out as petty school “beefs” turns into (dangerous) ways of life.  Gangs begin by “jumping” students whom they don’t like.  Eventually, these groups of naive kids evolve into law-breaking thugs.  Although violent crime in DC has stabilized somewhat, less severe crimes–car thefts, robberies, vandalism and misdemeanors–have skyrocketed.  And, unfortunately, I sometimes see the consequences of violent crime in my students.

Our school recognizes–thankfully–the dangers inherent in such territorialization.  As a staff, we try to cover up or erase all graffiti as soon as we see it, to show students that it is not acceptable.  Later this year, I will be attending Therapeutic Crisis Intervention System training to help me deal with students in crisis.  Others in the community, including the ‘gang whisperer‘, are doing their best to show that this is not the way to lead one’s life here in DC.

Indeed, I’d prefer to see a school where jocks pick on nerds (or imagine a school where the nerds bully the jocks for not being bookish enough!) than where people from one ‘hood jump people from another ‘hood.

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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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