Two of Khalil Bridges’s high school classmates were dead, one stabbed repeatedly inside a classroom, and here he was, worried about whether he could get an ID in time to visit the White House.
The woman at the information desk of the Motor Vehicle Administration Express office, a white-walled room with blue-cushioned chairs, had already said no. The name on his birth certificate didn’t match the one on his Social Security card. There was nothing she could do for him.
He took a number and waited.
At least, he would say later, he wasn’t alone. Next to him sat Hallie Atwater, the social worker who doled out snacks and support to teenagers hungry for both at his struggling public school in West Baltimore, a mile from the epicenter of the riots that followed Freddie Gray’s death last year.
For most people, a last-minute invitation to the White House would come as a thrill. For Khalil, 18, a soft-spoken senior at Renaissance Academy, it meant a stress-filled scramble during the final week of February. He had just days to get an ID, and a suit, belt and train ticket that would take him into the nation’s capital. And if he was being honest, he also needed a haircut. He couldn’t walk into the most important address in the country with a “cruddy,” a hairstyle named for how it looks.
Problem was he had no money, no parents at home and almost no perspective beyond Baltimore’s boarded-up buildings. The White House invitation felt so distant from the concrete stoops where he grew up and once dealt drugs that when the information desk woman at the MVA told him he couldn’t get an ID, his first instinct was to shrug and accept her word as indisputable.
But Atwater demanded to speak to a clerk, then a manager and then another manager. Even before a year of record violence in their city and in their school, a team of adults at Renaissance had seen too many of Baltimore’s black boys derailed or destroyed by the mayhem around them. If they could help it, Khalil would not be one of them. In him, they saw promise, a young man who could graduate in June and go on to find success. But they also knew what they were up against: hallways filled with students so neglected and angry that a bumped shoulder could lead to a fight or worse, and a community still so divided by the riots that some days it seemed — forget all, black or blue — no lives mattered.
They could offer hope and help, but only Khalil could answer the most crucial question: Could he pull himself together in a city that was tearing itself apart?
A delivery truck dropped off the ID the next day, and, on Feb. 29, Khalil carried the card with him into the home of the nation’s most successful black man. There, in a slim-cut suit bought for him by his school mentor, Khalil spoke on a panel about his life and shook hands with men in ties. He didn’t meet President Obama but thought he caught a glimpse of him through a West Wing window. The teenager left Washington encouraged about his future, with a pocket full of business cards and promises.
Only when the day was done, and he was back home in Baltimore, would he learn that violence had claimed a third classmate.
‘So much blood’
“You should stand up for this one,” John Comer tells Khalil.
They are in a classroom-turned-bare-bones-studio at the school on a spring afternoon, heads bopping to music flowing from a used speaker that Comer, a former rapper and an activist with Communities United, brought in after the first student died. He figured that boys who didn’t want to talk about how they felt would rap about it. Khalil stands in front of a dozen teens who slouch at desks and show their solidarity through their sudden silence.
“I swear the way we living ain’t right,” Khalil croons. “Ain’t right. Ain’t right.”
Then faster: “Man, it’s crazy how my brothers end up dyin’ over nothing. People quick to blow your brains when you’re shinin’ though you’re runnin.’ ”
He writes when he’s irate or sad, feelings that creep up on him often, sending him into an uncommunicative, walled-off state. Otherwise, his demeanor is set in neutral, revving up only when he talks about basketball or his mother. Then, a smile slips across his face, pushing his sharp cheekbones out before quickly retreating.
Khalil raps about what he knows, and he knows a lot about loss. There is loss by choice: a father who didn’t enter his life until he was a teenager and then stepped back out. And there is loss by circumstance: Four friends from his old neighborhood have died from gun violence, one shot in front of him. He also knew all three students who went to Renaissance, located next to the public housing project that served as the setting for “The Wire,” before they were killed.
“Ain’t right,” he sings, “Ain’t right.”
“I wrote that as soon as he died,” Khalil says when he’s done.
“He” is Ananias Jolley, a 17-year-old who dreamed of becoming an architect and whom Khalil describes as the Kevin Hart of their school, always making people laugh. Surveillance video from the November day Jolley was stabbed shows Donte Crawford, the teenager later charged as an adult, pacing outside a third-floor biology class, “waiting for staff members and teachers to leave the area” before entering the room, according to the police report. In the next images, Crawford runs out, followed seconds later by Jolley, who collapses in front of students and staff members. The knife had pierced his heart.
One of Jolley’s best friends, who raps that day alongside Khalil, is still haunted by the blood. “So much blood,” says the 17-year-old junior.
“When I come into this building, that’s the first thing I think about,” Khalil says.
It’s hard not to. Jolley is gone and yet everywhere. His name is scribbled on walls, heating vents, a basketball backboard in the gym. He has become a motivational mantra for seniors, who wear Graduate for Jolley T-shirts. Wax from a candlelight vigil in his honor still streaks the sidewalk outside the school months later, and weather-worn stuffed animal tributes hang limply from a pole in front of the building.
Even the school’s principal, Nikkia Rowe, keeps his unframed picture on a shelf behind her desk.
“He’s a constant reminder of why I can’t quit,” she says, glancing back one morning. “This is the toughest work I’ve done in my life. He’s a reminder of why we have to fight.”
For nearly a month, Jolley held on in the hospital. Then on a Sunday night right before Christmas, Rowe received a call saying he was gone. She sent a text to staff members and “braced.”
“That Monday we grieved,” says Rowe, 41, a mother of four sons who has spent 16 years as an educator in the city she grew up in. “That day I allowed the kids to see me in my grief. So they could see this isn’t normal, ’cause this isn’t normal.”
Last year was the deadliest in Baltimore in more than two decades, as the city grappled with the fallout of 25-year-old Gray’s death from injuries he suffered in police custody. Long after the fires and looting had ended, crime in Baltimore continued to soar. In total, 344 homicides were recorded. Most of the victims were black males, not unlike those who walk the burgundy and yellow halls of Renaissance.
Here, where the number of students fluctuated from 27o to 326, 100 percent are African American, most live with families earning less than $15,000 a year, and two-thirds are male. Many come from homes headed by single mothers, or they are being raised by grandmothers, aunts or other relatives. Some have arrest records. A few enroll not knowing the alphabet. On the last standardized English test, two-thirds of the school’s students received the lowest possible score — a 1 out of 5.
As soon as she arrived at Renaissance nearly three years ago, Rowe recognized the need to offer teens more than just an education. “These kids don’t look like kids,” she told her staff at the time. “They look like vets coming home from foreign wars. At any given moment, something can trigger them.”
The first time Rowe met Khalil, she was just weeks into the job and stopped the sophomore in the hallway to tell him to remove his headphones. He looked her in the eye, she recalls, and then purposely ran his foot over her open-toed, cream-colored Isaac Mizrahi shoes, tearing a nail and leaving her shoes bloodied and unwearable.
“I was like, this kid!” she recalls. “What’s up with this kid?”
Khalil doesn’t remember the encounter but says he was a different person then. It’s now hard to see that defiant child in his demeanor. He hugs Rowe when he sees her.
If Jolley’s name captures what people remember him for most — always joking, always laughing — then Khalil’s last name is also telling. Bridges. A means of crossing an otherwise impassable barrier.
Just a year earlier, the teenager tensed at the touch of adults, and he peddled marijuana to make money no one else was giving him.
“Growing up, I told myself I wouldn’t be the person on the corner,” he says. “Long story short, I felt I didn’t have a choice.” The language of those sales still slips easily off his tongue: 3.5 grams is “half a baby,” and if you have two of those, it’s a “Michael Vick,” whose jersey number was 7.
Now, instead of selling weed, Khalil takes as many shifts as he can at McDonald’s. He has also become one of Renaissance’s most vocal advocates. When there was talk of shuttering the school late last year, he submitted an op-ed to The Baltimore Sun. In it, he described how the staff at Renaissance helped him with things beyond their walls, “like washing my clothes, transportation and applying to jobs.”
“I’m changing to make a difference because others’ expectations are for me to fail,” he wrote. “Renaissance keeps me so busy that I don’t have time to screw up my life anymore. I’m happy that I found Renaissance, and I know that I will be able to graduate this year and go on to college.”
He repeated the same words in March in front of Maryland lawmakers at a House Ways and Means Committee meeting in Annapolis. Afterward the chairwoman, Del. Sheila Hixson, a Democrat from affluent Montgomery County, remarked that she wouldn’t be surprised if one day he became a politician.
But what he didn’t say at the time, what he never says unless pressed, is that despite prodding from school officials he hadn’t applied to any four-year colleges and that once he graduates — if he graduates — he doesn’t know how he’ll pay for even community college.
‘She taught me to be different’
Dangling at the top of Khalil’s old bedroom door is a boxy red “H,” placed there when he was sure he wanted to attend Howard University in Northwest Washington. He had visited the campus of the historically black university twice, and it felt right.
He could see himself walking to class there, his backpack slung behind him, making his mother proud.
But he hasn’t slept in that bedroom for months, not since his mother, Chelly Smith, was sent to the hospital.
For as long as he can remember, his mother has been ill, her muscles weakened by a degenerative disease and her memory scrambled by seizures. For Khalil, this meant a childhood rooted in unpredictability. His mother could have a good day and bake cookies for the neighborhood or a bad month and stay in bed, forgetting to pay the bills until the lights went out. Then the gas.
That’s what happened in July. His mother went to the hospital, followed by a nursing home, and Khalil stayed in the house for three weeks by himself with no hot water, no working stove, no lights. He stocked up on ramen noodles because they cost 50 cents apiece but depended on the generosity of neighbors to heat the water for them.
“He never really had a normal childhood,” says Stacey Lewis, a woman Khalil calls his aunt but is really his mom’s best friend.
Khalil describes his mom as “my life” and confidante. “I tell my mother everything, the good the bad and the extreme,” he says.
But he attributes much of his anger when he was younger to taking care of her when no one was taking care of him. He cleaned the house, helped her get around and ran their errands, sometimes jetting between his house and the corner store a half-dozen times a day. Many mornings, he says, he would get ready for school, but she would keep him home so she wouldn’t be alone.
Khalil’s school records, which The Washington Post was allowed to review with permission from him and his relatives, show he missed 80 days of kindergarten and 81 days of first grade. In high school, he missed 49 days of 10th grade and 32 days of 11th. His GPA at the end of last year was 1.64 out of 4.0.
In September, school officials helped him restore the power and gas at his house, but when it became clear his mother wasn’t coming home soon, he moved in briefly with his two older sisters and then went to live with Lewis, her husband and their three children. Lewis was in the delivery room the day Khalil was born and has always been part of his life.
She got him health insurance and made him go to his first dentist appointment. When he left a pouch on her dining room table filled with packets of weed, she flushed the contents down the toilet and filled the bag with tiny metal picture hooks so he would find them when he went to make a sale and know she wouldn’t tolerate his behavior. Without telling him, she checks to make sure he’s saving his McDonald’s paychecks.
“He’s one of those kids you have to hold onto real tight,” Lewis says. “He’s a good kid. He just needs guidance. I worry about him every day.”
Khalil says he can’t mess up anymore because he refuses to disappoint his mother. In English class one day, the instructions on a white board read: “List as many things that are important to you as you can. How do the things that are important to you give meaning to your life?” When the students take turns sharing their answers, Khalil says: “You want me to choose just one? Then I choose my mother. . . . she taught me to be different, not to follow a trend.”
‘Their weapons out’
A week later, he fixes his mother’s hair and wipes her face with a tissue during an April visit to her nursing home. He tells her she’s beautiful.
“I have never stopped taking care of her,” he says.
“No, he hasn’t,” she says.
He squeezes into the hospital bed next to her and describes the life he would give her if he could. He would get a job as a physical therapist or athletic trainer and buy her a “little, big farm yard” in Texas or New Mexico, where land is cheap and where she could watch her grandkids play basketball.
“I want her to see great things as long as she’s still here,” he says. “I don’t want her to see me go down the wrong path.”
Some of that, he knows, is in his control. But some isn’t. Long before Freddie Gray’s death, Khalil’s teenage cousin was shot and killed by police in his home. Khalil was 8. “He was the only person who came to see me, who tried to teach me what it’s like to be a man,” Khalil says. “You know, he would have been something.” And although Khalil has never been arrested, he says he has had plenty of intimidating encounters with the police.
“Remember that day I told you I was walking from my girl’s house,” he tells his mom. “And these police said, ‘Hold up, there’s been a robbery.’ I can’t say it was racism but . . . all three white police officers had their weapons out.”
He knows his mother worries about him, so he doesn’t say much more.
“She’s really overparanoid,” he says.
“Overprotective,” she corrects.
His mother’s health is often uncertain, but she tells him she is planning to leave the nursing home to attend his graduation in two months.
“I’m going, in a [wheel]chair or not,” she declares. “I got to go pick my dress out and get my hair done.”
Around her are half-empty soda bottles that she can’t get up to throw away. Khalil has his doubts about whether she will be healthy enough to attend the ceremony, but he doesn’t voice them.
He also doesn’t tell her that he’s not passing English and that, lately, he has been leaving that class early, or missing it altogether, so that he can work extra shifts. He earns $8.25 an hour, and the list of what he has to pay for on his own before graduation is growing: prom tickets, a tuxedo rental, his cellphone bill, an outfit for a farewell ceremony, shoes. He is also trying to save money to get his own apartment. Lewis has told him he can stay as long as he needs, but he doesn’t want to be 19 years old and sleeping in her basement. He doesn’t want to be a burden.
‘Nobody is taking care of me’
The weight of his worries hits him on a Thursday night in May. Renaissance is holding a panel in the cafeteria on the “school to prison pipeline,” and the junior who counted Jolley among his best friends is talking about how teenagers are set up to fail.
“They already know we’re going to get incarcerated or at least once going to get locked up,” he says.
A Baltimore police officer who knew Jolley from his days working at McCulloh Homes, the notorious public housing project where the teenager lived, talks about the problems he has seen in city schools: the lack of media centers, overcrowded classes, air conditioning and heating units that don’t work.
“Let’s be real about it,” Officer Charles Lee says. “We need to hold our leaders in the school system accountable. You need to put them on blast.”
“We did that,” a girl on the panel says. “It didn’t work.”
“You got to stay on top of them,” Lee replies.
Khalil sits off to the side, his arms folded, seething. He thought the school needed him to speak on the panel, so he told his manager he couldn’t work, and she scolded him. Now he’s not on the panel, and he’s not getting paid.
“When I miss work, it hurts me in two ways: reputation and money,” he vents afterward. “I’m responsible for myself. Nobody is taking care of me.”
He isn’t talking to his sisters or Lewis, because they recently lectured him about his latest girlfriend, one in a long string, and his need to stay focused. Khalil also had a falling-out with the one man he credits with steering him from a destructive to a productive place: his Renaissance mentor, Antwon Cooper.
Khalil calls Cooper, who is 6-foot-3 with dreads that hang past his shoulders, his “safe-keeper” and says that even when no one else attended his basketball games, Cooper was there, rooting for him.
“He taught me there’s more than just sitting out here waiting for dreams that are not going to be,” Khalil says.
Rowe started the mentor program called “Seeds of Promise: Transforming Black Boys into Men” last year. She hired four African American men who understood her students’ lives and assigned each between 20 and 30 teenagers who could reach out to them anytime, including holidays and weekends. The mentors’ salaries, $25 an hour without benefits, are paid through a partnership between the high school and a University of Maryland program called Promise Heights. Run through the university’s School of Social Work, Promise Heights counts Renaissance among its community schools, where students and residents can find a wide range of help. The initiative also employs Atwater, a 29-year-old licensed clinical social worker whose school office is stacked with personal hygiene products, air mattresses, donated clothes and other emergency supplies.
Atwater and Cooper, 32, often work together to keep Khalil on track, encouraging him, nagging him, pushing him out of his comfort zone. Atwater helped him write the Sun op-ed. For the White House trip, Cooper used his own money to buy Khalil a $150 suit from H&M and then accompanied him on the train.
The success of the mentor program can be seen in cellphones that ring day and night and in the way students seek out Cooper and his three colleagues in the halls, asking them for advice or to play basketball.
Scribbled in red marker on a white board in Cooper’s office are the mentors’ thoughts about what they are trying to achieve: “You can’t expect a boy to be a man if he never seen one!” reads one. “To show genuine love in a world that doesn’t produce it regularly,” reads another. On another wall, a poster of a stop sign simply says: #Stop Fatherlessness.
Not lost on any of the men: All three teenagers who died this school year, and the one now facing first-degree murder charges, had mentors. Jolley’s mentor cradled him on the ground after he was stabbed. A month after Jolley’s death in December, the school mourned Darius Bardney, 16, who was killed in an apparent accidental shooting at an apartment building. Then in February, Daniel Jackson, 17, who had stopped attending classes months earlier but kept in touch with his mentor, was shot several times less than two miles from the school.
Fights break out with little provocation in Renaissance’s halls. Within a 30-minute period one day, two girls tear at each other in a classroom, drawing a crowd. Once that conflict is quelled, two boys shove each other into walls until they are pried apart. On another day, a boy who struggles with mental illness and drug addiction is furious that Atwater won’t give him a snack at that moment and walks close to her, swinging what looks like a metal pipe. “Don’t get shot,” he says.
“It can be seen from the outside eye, and even from the inside eye,” Cooper says, “that Baltimore is a place with no type of hope.”
But then there are kids like Khalil. “That’s past hope now,” Cooper says. “That’s one of those ones you see and say we made it happen. We got one. We saved one.”
The night of the panel, Khalil stays to eat a community dinner that’s being served. He hasn’t had a deep talk with Cooper in weeks, not since the two went to New Mexico to attend a conference in which Khalil was invited to discuss the benefits of community schools with the mayor of Madison, Wis., and others. He did well in front of the audience. But privately, he said something disrespectful to Cooper — neither will reveal what it was — and Cooper is waiting for an apology.
Khalil still hasn’t addressed it when Cooper sees him sitting alone at a table. He takes the seat across from him. Khalil doesn’t look him in the eye. He can’t. He gets up and walks to the bathroom before the tears come. Cooper follows him.
‘This is your chance’
Eight booths spread across the gym, each offering a different future. Khalil sits at the top of the bleachers, listening as one of the mentors shouts out instructions for the career fair.
“I hear you guys say, ‘We never have a chance. No one gives us opportunities,’ ” he yells. “This is your chance. This is all for y’all. Go feast. Get all you can out of it.”
Two dozen students branch off among the booths and talk to recruiters. Khalil stops first at the Sheffield Institute for the Recording Arts. Then, Empire Beauty School. At the booth for the Community College of Baltimore County, he shakes a woman’s hand and asks, “Do y’all have athletic training or physical therapy?”
At the Army recruiting booth, an officer in a uniform and shiny black boots hands him a card and asks him a series of questions: Does he have any medical conditions? Any kids? Any tattoos? Are you on track to graduate? Khalil answers: No. No. No. And yes, “I just got to do what I have to do.”
Khalil tells him that he’s not interested in combat, and the recruiter tells him the Army also needs people to work in technical jobs.
“I’ve been overseas twice,” the recruiter says. “You’re still in danger,” his fingers swipe quote marks in the air as he says the last word. “But you live in Baltimore, right?”
During the riots, images of angry black youths, some tossing rocks, others stomping on cars, flashed on television screens across the world. Khalil says he didn’t join them but that he understands their outrage.
In the days after Gray’s death, students were so upset that the school’s staff held counseling circles, splitting the teens into small groups to discuss how they were feeling. They held circles again the three times they lost one of their own.
“Don’t call it a village,” Rowe says of her staff and the students’ families. “We are literally at war with what happens out there on the street. So they are more like a battalion or a squad.” And their mission is daunting.
In a chaotic classroom where seven of the 12 overhead lights are burned out, Khalil’s literature teacher is yelling at students to put away their phones. A boy plays with a hula hoop. A girl sucks on a juice box. Two students keep their sunglasses on. When the teacher asks what a metaphor is, only Khalil raises his hand. By the end of the class, he will also be the only one to complete the assignment, which calls for writing a poem using a simile or metaphor in every other line.
“The sun is the smile behind the night,” his begins.
Three weeks before the end of the school year, Khalil’s GPA edges up to a C-minus, and he has caught up on his English assignments. Graduation is in reach, and everyone has an opinion about what he should do afterward: join the Army, enroll in community college, find a paid internship, become a community activist.
Khalil knows only that he doesn’t want to disappoint those who have helped him reach a place he couldn’t have envisioned a few years earlier. Reminders of the alternative yank at him constantly. On the day of his prom, he is excited about the burgundy bowtie and matching suede shoes he will don that night at a hotel overlooking the Inner Harbor, when he sees a classmate crying. He learns then that a friend from his old school, a boy who would ask for food whenever he walked into Khalil’s house, has been shot and killed.
Among the superlatives listed in the program for the senior farewell ceremony, there is no “most likely to succeed.” Instead, there is “most likely to become a millionaire” and “most likely be social media famous” — and, next to Khalil’s name, “most musically inclined.”
But if his classmates will remember him most for his lyrical raps, the staff will remember Khalil for a different skill: speaking out, time and again, whenever he was needed.
At the ceremony, 65 seniors wearing white and gold sit in the auditorium, listening as staff members call out their achievements. First, the names of the eight students with the highest GPAs, ranging from 2.5 to 3.6, are announced. Then the student with the most community service hours, 376, is lauded.
Khalil is not expecting anything when Rowe takes the mic and says she wants to give the principal’s scholar award to a senior who has “demonstrated evolvement and resiliency.” A student, she says, who stepped forward to fight for Renaissance’s survival by speaking in Annapolis, at the White House and in New Mexico, and who was recently selected to serve on the Baltimore Youth Commission.
“Through this student’s efforts, we are graduating this class and will graduate 2017, as well,” she says, as the room thunders with shouts and applause.
Khalil is called to the stage where Cooper waits to place a medal around his neck.
A week later, at graduation, Khalil stands on that same stage, in front of the lectern and several reminders of his three classmates who couldn’t be there: a life-size cutout of one, an empty cap and gown on a plastic hanger for another and three mothers waiting to receive diplomas for children they will not get to celebrate with afterward.
Khalil attempts to read a speech he wrote, but a poor sound system and nerves muffle his words. To those who know him, it doesn’t matter what he says, only that he’s there in front of them in a burgundy and gold cap and gown. Beaming in the audience are Cooper who has his camera ready, Lewis who is cradling her grandson, and Khalil’s sisters, one of whom is yelling, “That’s my brother!” Even his father has come. And true to her word, there in the front row, in a wheelchair with her hair newly done, sits his mother.
She is crying, both for what happened and what didn’t.
He is graduating, which means he did not fail. He is standing, which means in a city where so many young men are cut down too soon, he did not fall.
After the ceremony, the family spends 20 minutes taking pictures and walks out of the school together to celebrate. But even amid the jubilation, they recognize the many challenges that remain ahead for their graduate.
Violence, aimed and aimless, is a constant threat. A week after graduation, a spate of six shootings in two hours will kill a student at the middle school that occupies the same building as Renaissance. The boy was 13.
Khalil isn’t sure what his future will look like. He wants to attend community college, but he doesn’t know how he’ll pay for it. He needs a better job, but he doesn’t know where to find one.
The only thing he is certain about as he leaves his high school on graduation day is that the following week, he will again walk past the limp stuffed animals outside the building, up a dank stairwell and into a familiar office. He still needs help.