How One NFL Player-Turned-Teacher Is Tackling A Threat To Baltimore Schools

“How would your kids concentrate if you sent them to school in a refrigerator for eight hours?”

Aaron Maybin is a former NFL linebacker, an artist, an activist, and an educator, and now he's putting all those identities to good use. After his art students in a Baltimore school complained about their classroom's frigid temperatures, he started using his fame and social media reach as a catalyst for change.

After rising in the ranks at Penn State, Maybin was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2009. He later transferred to the New York Jets, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Toronto Argonauts before retiring from pro football in 2014. Since then, he's been focusing on his art, much of which focuses on racial inequality and police brutality, as seen in his 2017 book, Art Activism

"Aaron is not doing pretty pictures," artist Larry Poncho Brown, Maybin's longtime mentor, told The Baltimore Sun. "He is doing thought-provoking images."

These days, he's an independent contractor for Baltimore's city school system, teaching art classes three days a week at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School through a program called Leaders of Tomorrow Youth Center. And as the East Coast got buffeted by extreme cold, his students started suffering.

"It's really ridiculous the kind of environment we place our children into and expect them to get an education," he tweeted last week. "I got two classes in one room, kids are freezing, Lights are off. No computers. We're doing our best but our kids don't deserve this."

"When we discuss systematic inequality & institutional racism, this is a glowing example," tweeted ESPN's Jemele Hill, sharing the news on her feed. 

Even with tweets like these, "people just weren't getting it," as Maybin told the Sun. So on January 3, he published a video of his students complaining about the cold. One student even said he had frostbite. "When you see something with your own two eyes, then it's harder to ignore it," Maybin told the newspaper.

Maybin's efforts join those of Samierra Jones, a Coppin State University senior who graduated from Baltimore's public schools. Jones started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for space heaters for the city's schools and outerwear for the students. "Students are still required to attend classes that are freezing and expected [to] wear their coats to assist in keeping them warm," she wrote. "How can you teach a child in these conditions?"

"How would your kids concentrate if you sent them to school in a refrigerator for eight hours? With failing lighting. Two classes in one room?" Maybin said in an interview with Baltimore Brew, which reported classroom temperatures dropped to the 30s and 40s. "We tried our best as educators. They tried their best as scholars. But they are dealing with a lot already. And now they are supposed to learn in the dark and in the cold."

Jones' GoFundMe goal was $20,000. As of January 13, she had raised more than $80,000. Days prior, she posted a photo from Maybin's classroom and said the room is now warm.

"This is an example of how you can use the Internet in a positive way," D. Watkins, a lecturer at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project, told the Sun. "I think [Maybin] was definitely instrumental in bringing a lot of attention to this."

Larry Poncho Brown also saw his mentee's Twitter videos from the school. "My gut feeling was, 'Aaron, go, do what you were placed on this planet to do,' " he told the newspaper. "He has always had a vision to help his people and to help other people."

Maryland's Gov. Larry Hogan said the state would spend $2.5 million to fix the heat in Baltimore's schools, and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said hundreds of city and school employees worked over the weekend to make repairs. And Maybin says it's important that this school heating crisis coincides with an election year and with the start of a legislative session for the state's General Assembly.

"The people of Baltimore have to make it very clear that we're watching how the elected officials handle this situation," Maybin told the Sun, adding that he's been telling his students about the power of citizen advocacy. "It was a real-life example of how they can be a part of the change they want to see," he said.

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