In the first year I was teaching, there were 120 kids in our group; thirteen had been shot. This was in seventh grade.
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 something—can 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.
Did you get close to giving up?
No, I love teaching. I mean, I truly, truly love to teach.
How did you translate your experiences to the show?
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.
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?
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.
It's interesting in that these are not the typical primetime TV characters.
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.