The teacher's cheeks got redder and redder as the class time ticked by.
The second-graders squiggling in the chairs in front of her weren't listening. Some sang along as the music teacher directed a hip hop song about respect, but others didn't. They talked, changed seats, walked around.
They twisted around in their chairs to hurl insults at one another.
It was a Tuesday afternoon near the end of the school year, and the music class at Edwards Elementary was derailing quickly.
The teacher shook her head. She pointed at students and then the back of the room, directing them to sit in the back row. She used musical breaks in the song to shout out directions for them to sit down, be quiet, turn around.
When the song was over, that's when things went south.
A girl with pretty braids and a dark spot on her cheek stood up in the back of a room. She stared at a boy who had been taunting her for nearly half an hour.
"He called me 'Scarface,' " she said with defiance. "I'm not."
Bravado melted into grief. Her eyes squinted shut.
"I was born like that."
She slumped to the floor, crying.
Two friends rushed to her side. The class descended into chaos.
"Who called her 'Scarface?' " the teacher yelled over the commotion, her face darting back and forth across the room. "Who called her Scarface? Who called her Scarface?"
Another girl started crying. One boy asked if he could call his parents. Everyone was talking or shouting.
No culprit was identified. No one was punished. The girl was comforted only by friends as the teacher continued yelling about how horrible the students were.
A change of tone
That same class filed back into Linda Merriweather's room in silence, heads hung, eyes on the floor. No one smiled. No one spoke.
Back in their regular second-grade classroom, they were different. The music teacher had told Merriweather they misbehaved. Merriweather waited, deciding what to say.
"Hold fast to dreams," she said calmly, quietly.
"Hold fast to dreams," they echoed.
"For if dreams die?" she said, urging them on. They finished reciting the Langston Hughes poem:
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
They sat in silence again. Merriweather waited.
"We want a life that's full of dreams, dreams that flourish, dreams that take us places we want to go," she said in a voice somewhere between talking and a whisper. "Every place you go, you need to have your dreams in mind.
"You go in there and act like you have no dreams."
Merriweather challenged them to finish the last half-hour of the day with respect. Could they work math word problems together? Could they cooperate and focus?
Yes, they promised.
The teacher redirected the class, moving from chaos to math. They morphed back into eager learners with waving, shaking hands, begging to answer questions.
A girl in the front row smiled shyly with pride when the class applauded her for a right answer. A small boy in a white shirt pointed his fingers in the air and danced in his seat when he got a problem right.
They worked feverishly to finish as many problems as they could before the end of the day.
Edwards Elementary, 1123 NE Grand, is a small school of about 300 students that sits in a neighborhood mixed with tidy homes and boarded up windows. About 92 percent of the students are black.
The businesses are a patchwork of garages, nail salons, T-shirt printers, pawnshops, smoke shops, beauty shops, churches, payday loan offices, and check cashers. Men smoked and sat in beat-up recliners in front of a used tire shop.
A golf course is down the street, across from a rotting building with creeping ivy. A bicycle with training wheels but no handle bars sat in a yard across the street.
The state capitol and the state Education Department are three miles away.