Khalilah Horton Goes to School

At John W. McCormack Middle School In Dorchester, Students Learn... When They Aren't Playing Pac-Man, Chewing Gum or Selling Jewelry

Khalilah T. Horton, age 14, likes her school. "It's the best middle school in Dorchester," she says. "We don't have violence. We don't fight, stab each other at the bus stop. We just don't think about all that stupid stuff."

Next year, many of Khalilah's classmates will have to start thinking about that stuff. Many will attend South Boston High School, where more than 200 students clashed in a race riot last Thursday, hitting each other, and Mayor Raymond Flynn, with rocks and chunks of asphalt until police in riot gear forced an end to the fighting.

Khalilah holds higher expectations of her education. She has applied to Beaver Country Day School, a private high school in Chestnut Hill. "I want to go so I can push myself to stand up to the work," she says. She wants to be on the "right path," the path to track championships and college.

So far, Khalilah thinks she has been on the right path in the public school system. Her teachers call her a "great kid," one of the ones who can "make it." In the last three years she has not missed a single day of school.

Two weeks ago I joined her there--at the John W. McCormack Middle School--to see what a day is like at one of Dorchester's junior high schools.


The school is a yellowish-tan building behind a fence, directly across the street from the apartment complex where Khalilah has lived with her grandmother for as long as she can remember. "Harbor View Apartments: Luxury Waterfront Apartments," says a sign. The buildings, which have their own swimming pool and tennis courts, look out across the Old Harbor at smokestacks in South Boston. Across the water, off to the left of the factories, rises Boston's downtown skyline, silver, clean and far away.

At 7 a.m., many of Khalilah's friends from Harbor View wait outside to be bused to other schools in Boston. Khalilah just walks across the street to McCormack each day.

We enter through a door on the side of the school into a short hallway with photocopied photographs on the walls. A picture of U.S. attorney general Janet Reno, hangs next to one of rapper Queen Latifah.

Another poster that hangs high on walls throughout the school reads, "The Future Starts When You REACH For It."

Music Class. First period, 8 a.m. "Could we sing?" asks Khalilah. But Ms. Banks, a tall woman, wearing a scarf and a draping black dress, presents the class with part of the libretto from the opera "Carmen" to read silently.

As she begins to teach, the class begins to talk. Khalilah and most others pull Social Studies homework, due next period, from their bags. Boys in the back drag their desks together to compare answers.

Erik, a wiry freckled boy, mischievous and smart, skips to the back of the room to visit Keith. "How ya doin'?" asks Erik. They chat.

Five minutes into the period, I count two of the 17 students in the class listening to the music teacher.

"Act as if I'm telling you something," she pleads. "Pretend, at least." Khalilah looks across the room at me and shrugs.

There is another teacher in the room, but he stands in the front corner, talking with a Crimson photographer. He ducks once to avoid a paper ball flying from the boys in back.