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Interview with Ed Burns

Ed Burns interview

HBO

After 20 years as a cop you became a teacher. How did that come about?

Burns

After I retired from the Police Department, Dave [Simon] and I wrote The Corner. I'm just a natural loser, so I decided it would be fun to teach in an inner-city school, because that's the kind of world I like. And that's pretty much the amount of thought I gave it until I walked into the room.

HBO

What did you have to do to prepare for the switch?

Burns

You know, it's not like the teachers are beating down the doors. In a place like Baltimore, most schools start the school year short of teachers. So, if you've got two arms, two legs and two eyes, they're begging for you. Psychologically, there's no way to prepare for it. The closest preparation I think I had was when I went to Vietnam in the infantry.

HBO

Can you describe the classroom a bit? Why is it so challenging?

Burns

Well, it's how damaged these kids are. I mean, it's profound. You get a class of 35 kids, of which five or six are thugs -- what the DSM calls "oppositionally defiant children." So they're fighting and disruptive and cursing you like sailors.

Everybody's in motion. The educational range in a classroom, if you're teaching 8th grade, is probably from the first grade to the sixth grade. So you have students who can't read a lick to kids who maybe can read on the sixth grade level.

Their needs are so phenomenal on the educational level. And then, as you get to know them, you realize that that is just the crust on the cake. Kids are seeing people killed in front of them. In the first year I was teaching, there were 120 kids in our group; thirteen had been shot. This was in seventh grade. Lots had been stabbed. All of them had been abused, one way or the other. So when you put them in a classroom with a curriculum that doesn't compute with their world, everybody has a way of surviving, right?

You have the small boy who becomes a doll for the girls, they're playing with his hair. Other kids are reading magazines, drawing on their desks. Kids are spitting sunflower seeds on the floor. Other kids are drinking vodka from what you thought was a water bottle. And the noise level makes it very difficult for anything to progress.

You'd have to keep them off-guard like a boxer, you know. And every once in a while you get a little sliver of a moment to teach. But what you're actually doing is modeling a caring behavior.

HBO

Did you feel that you made headway?

In the first year I was teaching, there were 120 kids in our group; thirteen had been shot. This was in seventh grade.

Burns

Well, when the kids leave me, they're just back in the mix in eighth grade again. What you try to do is present an image that the kids -- maybe at some time later on in life, even if they're sitting in prison or somethingcan reflect on. There's another way of being; it doesn't have to just be the way you see on the street. Because that's all they're getting. The only representative of traditional society that some of these kids see is the teacher.

A bad teacher is what they expect, because adults in general are bad. So when they see the adult who's consistent, who's always there, who always comes through with what he said, then that's a new world for them.

Kids will give respect where respect is warranted. And I could touch them because they believed that I cared about them. I used to stay at the school for chess club in a computer room, and some of the kids would come up for lunch. When they're really close, when you can really interact with them, they're wonderful, vibrant human beings. But collectively they're a pain in the ass.

HBO

Did you get close to giving up?

Burns

No, I love teaching. I mean, I truly, truly love to teach.

HBO

How did you translate your experiences to the show?

Burns

We take the kids from the first episode, where you see them as children and less as adults. And then, as you move through the season, we bring the problems in. We have four distinct personalities that we're following. They're as consistent on the street as in the classroom.

Sometimes we think of schools and prisons as being removed from society, places where the street doesn't enter in. But that's not the case. The school is porous. If there's a problem in the neighborhood, there's a problem in the school. A wannabe thug is a wannabe thug in the classroom.

HBO

The idea of education as a theme sounds awfully high-minded. As a storyteller, how do you turn that into a story that affects people?

Burns

Well, it's not about education as you're thinking about education. Everybody is going to get educated. It's just a question of where. Some people get educated in the classroom, some people get educated in a boxing gym; some people get educated on a corner.

So we have adult characters who are the magnets of where you get educated. Marlo is a huge magnet. Cutty and Colvin are trying a different approach.

When kids are connected through interest, that's where the process begins. So a kid might be disruptive in class, but when someone is showing them how to load a gun, they're riveted. That's how I see education.

HBO

It's interesting in that these are not the typical primetime TV characters.

Burns

I think guys like Bodie and Prop Joe and Slim Charles and Marlo are very compelling. They're a group of people you don't get to see and by giving them humanity, and a bureaucracy and you start to like them. You feel sorry for the Bodies of the world when Avon is screwing up on top, and for the Lester Freamons, when Burrell is screwing up at the top. The people that we've had playing these characters over the years have also made them so believable. They're like tools in a tool kit for the writer, because someone like JD Williams, who plays Bodie, or Jamie Hector, who plays Marlo brings so much to a scene with the kids.

So a kid might be disruptive in class, but when someone is showing them how to load a gun, they're riveted. That's how I see education.

HBO

Do you remember how the idea got started that this would be the direction you guys would go this year?

Burns

Well, each year we've tried to look at one aspect of the city and this was on our list. I think it's neat to find out where these drug dealers and drug addicts are coming from. And where they're coming from is a failed education process. A system which, in this town is abominable. In high schools there's a 70 percent drop-out rate.

HBO

It's unbelievable...

Burns

No, it's not unbelievable. It's the same in Detroit, it's the same in East St. Louis. It's just not talked about.

As with the police department, as with the dying port, there's a disfunctionalism which must have outcomes. And every dying institution, like a dying animal, seeks to protect itself. The schools and Burrell's Police Department were unresponsive, because it's about keeping the world as is, so you're on top of it.

HBO

As a writer, do you enjoy having these long arcs to play out stories organically?

Burns

It's wonderful, because you can plan something in episode 302 that doesn't blossom until 504. I remember in the second season we had this woman in the background just scrubbing her steps. And you see her in the background, just scrubbing every episode, and the drug dealers are moving closer and closer, until the final episodethey're sitting on her steps and she has a little 'for sale' sign in the window.

HBO

So is there a message that you think people can take away from this year's arc?

Burns

I think the idea we're trying to bring across is that kids are going to get educated. And that we're going to see where. It's not about kids making bad mistakes and becoming caught in the Criminal Justice system. They don't have an option of choice. We in society have the choices. So you might see a kid who clearly doesn't have a prayer and it will be very apparent why he doesn't have a prayer. It's not about blaming kids. They will survive. They will learn. It's just a question of where.

Interviews