What is happening in our neighborhood is not acceptable. I live on the “wrong side of the tracks” in zip code 20874 between Father Hurley Boulevard and Frederick I-270. As much as I admire the police officers who do a wonderful job, things are not alright in that area. Even though I applaud Principal, Dr. Cohen’s enthusiastic support of the good kids and worthwhile programs at Seneca Valley High School, that does not make what residents have to go through any easier to bear. It is easy for someone who does not live in this community to sugar-coat the reality, which is that this area has become unlivable. Those who have the means will move out, which leaves a lot of honest, hard-working people in the lurch.
I have been in education for 25 years, I have been a professor at Montgomery College in Germantown for 17 years, and I have lived among my students in Germantown for 12 years. I moved here because the neighborhood was conveniently located; close to stores, lakes, and my job. I enjoyed the diversity of the area and the proximity to Washington, D.C. and international airports. However, over the years, I have felt increasingly unsafe and angry about what was happening in “my” neighborhood.
I used to be innocent and thought that because I had done everything the right way in my life, my life would be alright. I have increasingly become jaded because what does my honesty, hard work, and being engaged in my community get me? Absolutely nothing! I even used to think that money was not important and that I’d rather serve the community I live in than make loads of money in the corporate world because at least I would be able to sleep at night. Not so much anymore; most nights and especially during the weekend, I lie awake at night listening to sirens, belligerent drunks on the steps to my building, loud fights right under my balcony. The only smart thing I did was buying a condo on the third floor. Buying in this area itself was one of the least smart things I have done in my entire life. Frankly, lately I have been feeling like a loser because the message I receive from society, living in this area, is that those who play by the rules are not rewarded, respected, or heard, but when you litter, vandalize property, disrespect or even attack others, you are just being a kid or just a poor homeless person.
Leading a meeting of angry residents is not easy; I know because in my capacity as Chair Person of Communication Studies, Linguistics, and the American English Language Program, I often play the same role as Commander David Gillespie, who ably calmed people down while addressing their concerns. I also admire and appreciate all his officers, who are out there in the trenches as my teachers nowadays more or less are. Make no mistake about it; they do all the difficult work. I want to thank them for all their hard work. Much like teachers, they are often under-appreciated and get tasked with solving the problems of the world with precious little help from others, high expectations from the public, and for the gargantuan tasks they tackle, and for little pay compared to jobs in the corporate world.
Out of respect for these men and women, I am not proud of the fact that I lost my cool and left the meeting angry a little before it was over. What bothered me tremendously though was the general tone of the meeting; it is as if residents were told that they should “lighten up.” Dr. Cohen and Mr. Rice, I suggest that you come live in my neighborhood, but I suspect that you don’t, and that is exactly what is wrong with society nowadays. Leave your single family home in your nice neighborhood, and come live in my little condo in a neighborhood littered with trash, shopping carts, needles, and empty liquor bottles. How would you feel if you were the young lady in the audience who told us she is too scared to get out of her car when she gets home from work? Do you hear what I am saying? Here is a young person who worked hard all day, and she is too scared to walk to her front door. That is not okay, and it makes me furious that this lady is not heard.
Two murders, a few assaults, thefts from cars, stumbling alcoholics and drug addicts, a group of homeless people living in the utility room of my building, and recently, a dozen or so loudly cursing, pot-smoking, and even copulating teenagers right under my window so that I cannot correct my students’ papers. That is my lovely neighborhood! That is what I pay an exorbitant mortgage for a tiny cracker-box of a condo and recently quadrupled HOA fees to pay for what others trash. That is what I worked so hard for. “Buy a place. It is the best investment,” peopled told me. I hesitantly obliged, scraping together the little I had made as a part-time professor at that time. Fast forward and I have a depreciated property in a dirty and unpleasant neighborhood. I feel cheated and angry, as are the few neighbors who stayed.
However, let’s not do anything about it because often no laws are broken. A great recipe for holding no one accountable and once again blaming the ones who should be getting awards instead – cops and teachers! They, as well as the resilient and honest residents who stay in this area, are my heroes. One of them was the kind, somewhat older gentleman who stood up at last Wednesday’s meeting and asked why the parents were not held accountable. Of course Dr. Cohen, a cool recording studio instead of an outdated clubhouse might attract teenagers who otherwise hang around in the streets looking for trouble, but is all we can ever do is throw money at problems? Yeah, where are the parents, and whatever happened to academic rigor? Instead of recording the next big rap album glorifying “heroes” who do not deserve that label, shouldn’t students be… well… studying? No, let’s pass them from grade to grade, and then stick them in Developmental English classes at the community college, where they will have babysitters. When they fail, we can then blame – not the students themselves — but... Aaaah, the teachers!!!
When one of the officers at last Wednesday’s meeting kept saying, “We’ve all been there and done stuff,” I thought to myself, “No, I never have done anything like that because 1.) I had to study and work too hard, and 2.) My father would have prevented that kind of behavior in any of my siblings or me in a very politically incorrect way, and I am grateful every day of my life that he did.
I know from working with these very same teenagers when they are slightly older, and I get them in my ENGL101A classes that the sad fact is that the worst instigators come from broken homes, or homes where the parents are away working and then come home and give them “stuff” instead of providing them with the tough love they need. However, the fact is that this is not a poor county, and the majority of kids do not live in abject poverty and do have relatively caring parents. I say to those parents, WAKE up!
Throw those misguided ideas about the perceived need of teenagers for privacy out the window. Did I hide from my mom when I was a teen? You bet! But would she refrain from going through my dresser, schoolbag, or diary if she suspected that I did drugs? Heck no! Would my father have given me a phone and allow me to tell him that he was not allowed to check it because the parents of a classmate complained about cyber-bullying? You must be insane. WAKE UP, parents – you are the adults, you have the power to be a good role-model and have those difficult conversations, and yes, you are the ones who are supposed to set the boundaries. If more parents would do that and show their kids that life is not a popularity contest or about taking the easy way out, fewer teens would succumb to peer pressure.
I say to local legislators, community leaders, and principals, STOP giving me excuses for inexcusable behavior. Stop the spin. Stop worrying about whether you look good in the news or not, or whether what you say will benefit you at the elections, the polls, and on Twitter. Instead, tell it like it is: the crimes and misdemeanors in and around the Germantown Town Center are not acceptable, and the residents are sick of the situation.
And last, but not least, I say to the kids, Have some respect!
Respect is earned;
First, respect yourself.
Then, have the guts to respect others.
Don’t cave in to peer pressure.
And in turn, earn the respect of others.
You are the future, and you are so much better than what I see around me.
Jorinde van den Berg, Ph.D. is a Germantown resident and Chairperson of the Communications Department at Montgomery College – Germantown Campus.