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Artist Aaron Maybin poses for a portrait on Sept. 1, 2015 in his home studio in Canton, Md.
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Aaron Maybin’s fight for Baltimore schools won’t end with turning the heat back on

A day with Aaron Maybin in the wake of his viral moment that helped give Baltimore school kids heat in the middle of winter.

A woman Aaron Maybin calls his sister, Catalina, walks into her beauty of a row home in West Baltimore. The house is adorned with nods to civil unrest. Posters of Martin Luther King Jr. with the phrase “Aids Is A Civil Rights Issue” line a shelf in the room next to the kitchen. The walls have pictures of black trumpeters and black amazons with jutting Afros. Angie Thomas and Maya Angelou novels scatter the floor along with Maybin’s own books and flyers for art shows.

A baby is running around the kitchen in blue pajamas, nibbling a green apple. Maybin is on a stool trying to unwind, but his eyes are on his phone, watching an interview that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous is giving about Baltimore’s frigid public schools.

“I’m so tired of these promises, man,” he says, before putting his phone down and walking to another room to do what he says is his 10th interview of the day. He finishes and walks back to the kitchen, relieved to be done. It may be the first time I’ve seen him happy all day.

The night before, Maybin got drunk after dealing with the barrage of his viral moment. It was all too much. The notifications, the messages, political banter, everything.

“Most of the time in Baltimore, we gotta self medicate,” he says. “You’re giving your energy to everybody. You gotta sometimes take care of you.”

Maybin, a former NFL first-rounder turned Baltimore school teacher, often spends his mornings reading to kids at Matthew A. Henson Elementary in Sandtown. Last Wednesday, however, he couldn’t ignore that kids were shivering. The temperature in the room dipped below 40 degrees. Many didn’t have coats. “We can’t be in this space and have a normal day,” he tells me.

Maybin started taping a conversation with his kids on his phone.

“What’s the day been like for you guys today?” he asked them.

“Coldddddd!” his kids responded.

“Very, very, very, very, very, very cold,” a girl said.

“Super, super cold,” another boy said.

“Yesterday I had frost bite!” one last kid said.

Maybin tweeted the video of the exchange and was met with an overwhelming response. Publications swooped to his inbox, and thousands interacted with his Twitter account. He wasn’t expecting the reaction. He thought he was just venting. Maybin was disgusted with Baltimore’s unenthused response to freezing kids. He was fed up with his city.

“How would you feel if your kids sat in a refrigerator for eight hours?” he says. “Like, how do you think my kids are doing? They aren’t doing well.”

The city of Baltimore hasn’t been able to properly heat its classrooms, filled with mostly black children, for years. Baltimore’s heart has always had to fight for a better city — from the 1968 riots, to a fight for school integration in the ’90s, to the Baltimore Uprising after Freddie Gray’s tragic death. It is a city whose history is shaped by activism. People here have seen many calls for change before Maybin’s.

So, it’s not hard to imagine folks asking: “What’s different this time?” when they’ve seen it all before. Maybin is asking for Baltimore’s trust, to believe he can be one of the city’s good stewards.

“Any time we have black men, as teachers, especially in Baltimore, it’s a very powerful thing,” says Kwame Rose, a friend of Maybin’s and prominent activist in the city. “If more black, male athletes came home and did that, it gives kids real-life role models. If one of these athletes comes home and is now their teacher, that’s powerful. That gives kids hope. My hero ain’t on TV. My hero is right in front of me.”

Maybin doesn’t mind being a symbol, but he’s worried about being seen as only that. That’s the crux of his frustration in the days since his viral moment. He got the world’s attention, but attention is fleeting. Maybin wants results.

“We aren’t marching. We don’t have signs. It’s sitting and talking and planning and spreadsheets for the greater good of helping these kids,” Maybin says during the day while typing on his phone. “This is what leads to policy change, to me. This ain’t the sexy side of activism.”

Kindergarten students at the East Baltimore Community School.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

The sun is trying to trick Baltimore into believing it’s warm out. It feels subzero as I wait for Maybin at the bank. He’s coming to deposit money he has collected that will buy hats, coats, and space heaters for children until the school’s heating units are fixed.

“Damn, man,” I say. “It’s cold out here.”

Maybin is slender for a 6’4 former linebacker. His dreads are layered in fourths, an intricate fishtail design, accompanied with a full beard partially covering the scar on the left side of his face.

He grins.

“Ay, man. That’s Baltimore.”

Maybin walks into the bank with two women, Samierra Jones and Valerie Arum.

“We might be at $50,000 right now,” Maybin says. “I think someone about to make a sizable donation. My friend who’s a stylist for Chris Brown said so.”

Truthfully, Maybin has no blueprint for how to do this. Maybin was called well after the GoFundMe was started and became the face of the fundraising effort. Jones, a senior at Coppin State who grew up in the Baltimore school system, began the campaign. “I don’t think people understand,” she says shuffling with her phone at the bank. “We’ve been working at [this] non-stop.”

Jones called Arum, the stepdaughter of a Baltimore school teacher and organizer who helped lead a successful lawsuit that got additional funding for Maryland’s HBCUs, for help. By the time they were posting on social networks, Maybin was going viral. The trio knew each other before the campaign, and Jones and Arum reached out to Maybin. Black women, like many times across America’s organizing history, led this action.

“A lot of people were skeptical that it was two young, black women who started it but that doesn’t matter,” Maybin says. “At the end of the day we know where [the money] is going.”

No one wanted to begin the project without all of them being present for financial transactions. Arum stressed that the important thing is the children.

“There’s a lot of neglect when it comes to city schools, especially in the poorer neighborhoods. Poor neighborhoods don’t benefit the government and the growth of the city,” Arum says. “They are just a liability (to them).”

Since 2009, Baltimore city schools have lost around $66 million in state funding for repairs, according to The Baltimore Sun. Approved projects were more expensive than assumed. Repairs took too long. And any money allocated for new heating systems vanished overnight.

The Maryland Public School Construction Program listed Baltimore City as only having 17 percent of its schools in “good” condition. A 2012 Jacobs Report revealed that only 3 percent of the district’s 18.5 million square footage was built within the last 25 years, 74 percent of which was built between 1946 and 1985.

The result is hundreds of black children being condemned to a bad educational environment, making it harder for them to reach their potential. And cold kids are only one of Maybin’s fights. Baltimore schoolchildren still can barely drink from water fountains because of a decade of lead contamination in their schools.

“For a long time we’re saying, How is it that you don’t get it?” says Monique Crawley, a 7th grade teacher at nearby Montebello. “For someone to stand up and say, unapologetically, This is what’s happening in the school system and what can we do to fix it. Someone like (Maybin) might be the someone who opens their eyes. He doesn’t have anything to gain or lose.”

The deposit at the bank must wait for another day. Some wires have gotten crossed and the transaction is taking too long. There’s another appointment to get to if he’s to deliver supplies to the city. Three coat drop offs that the trio organized via email just ended. If Baltimore schools are going to warm up any time soon, plenty needs to be done. Maybin buttons up and heads out into the cold.

Aaron Maybin teaching a group of kids on a field trip to his exhibition at the Frederick Douglass Museum in Baltimore.
Facebook

Maybin’s life since the viral moment has been frenetic. He’s constantly checking his phone, scrolling through Twitter and texts from unassigned numbers, as we swerve through Baltimore in the back of an Uber.

“Damn I haven’t been able to put this phone down in days,” he says. “If I showed you all the shit I missed, you wouldn’t believe it.”

In addition to a life of fatherhood, painting, and teaching, Maybin has added the balancing act of being a public face at a crucial time. Yes, the money is the reason we’re here. The children are the forefront of this charge. But if he stops checking Twitter, will the kids lose funds? Will J.R. Smith, whose camp is calling him right now, send the food these kids really need? Would Chris Brown, who Maybin met at Art Basel a few times, post about this online?

That’s unknown, but what he’s doing has seemingly yielded results. Bart Scott, the 11-year veteran, sent money. Adam Jones of the Orioles, Torrey Smith of the Eagles, and, yes, Brown, all donated, some calling Maybin personally.

There is no obligation for black athletes to give to troubled communities, but many do. Some donate money. Some donate time. Some donate platforms and voices. There are no perfect protesters; there’s just a need to have consistent ones, especially when no one is watching.

“Guys are always in their communities like this but no one cares,” Maybin says. “They don’t care until it’s a big enough stage and they wanna celebrate it. People love to fetishize poverty. And we’ve accepted that as the societal norm for how we see black people. When you do that, it marginalizes the position of the oppressed person. You trivialize the reality of that person.

“You can see the video of students freezing and cast blame. But who cares whose fault it is? What are we doing about it?”

That’s the crux of Maybin’s fight. He’s often impatient. He dislikes waiting for anything that doesn’t serve whatever he believes is a greater purpose. He enjoys seeing major networks discussing Baltimore. He smiles watching ESPN bring Baltimore’s education crisis to the national public. Ultimately, he cares about the kids, his family, and Baltimore — yet, he knows that publicity is necessary.

Driving along W. Franklin street Maybin stops checking his phone to point toward a barren field. “I grew up that way.”

Maybin grew up in West Baltimore off Edmondson Avenue. His grandfather was a sharecropper who migrated from the South to work in the shipyard of Bethlehem Steel. All of his uncles followed suit. His grandfather had 14 kids and fed the family off his salary, keeping fresh produce at their home from his farm.

Maybin’s father, Michael, wanted him to leave Baltimore and play football in Howard County. The idea was that there might be better somewhere else, if there wasn’t better here. Even if, as his father said, those counties were never made for black people. Though the decision reaped athletic gold, it made Maybin uncomfortable. He’s never felt stable anywhere but Baltimore.

The county life led to State College, an All-American career at Penn State, a first-round pick, and pro stints in Buffalo and New York. Maybin retired his parents with his rookie contract and got them homes in Hilton Head, S.C. He told them to design their dream house. And, ever the artist, he etched and “built that shit.”

This is his first full year as a teacher. He’s not yet full time. He wouldn’t have much time to be at school five days a week, anyway, because of art exhibitions, book signings, and speaking engagements. When he started his Project Mayhem foundation in 2009, he centered it on schools that lost art programs to budget cuts.

Maybin left football because he said he was unfulfilled. After being released from Cincinnati, teams still wanted to meet. He was packing his bags to visit Indianapolis when everything in him told him no.

“I didn’t wanna convince a whole locker room of dudes I didn’t bang with that I was gonna help get a Super Bowl,” he says. “My heart wasn’t in it.”

He was more passionate about artwork and grassroots organizing. He had made enough money to survive. His parents had a new house. What he was doing off the field felt more important.

“It’s always been a game to me. It was a kids game I happened to be good at,” he says. “What I’m doing now is fighting for kids to fight for the same opportunities I was blessed to do. This is now where my heart is at.”

Detractors have attacked him and the GoFundMe — some with legitimate concerns, he admits.

Some have said that buying and placing “dangerous” space heaters in classrooms isn’t a viable solution. Power outlets can short circuit, though Maybin says he has scheduled fire crews to do walk-throughs of certain schools to see what is possible.

Some have said that his effort isn’t doing anything, that this is too short-sighted. Some schools have more issues than just temperature. The kids need books, too, and less lead in their drinking water. Many items donated cannot be approved without the agreement of the city.

Given that, it’s easy for cynics to say that his efforts are useless. That thinking implies, to Maybin, that black lives are secondary, and he has no patience for it.

“There’s a lot of work here. I’ll drive myself crazy making sure we have to do what we said we can do,” Maybin says. “When I put my name on something, if I’m asking for folks to donate, I’m in it for the long haul.”

His first step is raising money. The next step is meeting with the lawmakers of the city. Maybe they can match his donations. Maybe they’d be willing to hear a new voice. He’s desperate for anything, really.

“We can’t have this be a singular solution.”

Maybin grapples with worry. He has it himself. Change might not be coming to Baltimore, but Maybin cannot afford to believe that.

“What should I do? Would you rather me teach these kids, look them in the eye, and let them shiver?” he says. “No. My students will never be cold again.”

Aaron Maybin and his daughter, Tacori.
Instagram

We pull up to Celestial Cafe, a beauty salon turned cramped political fundraising camp, on Belair Road. Marques Dent, a man running for delegate in Baltimore, invited Maybin to speak to donors.

It’s a room full of black people discussing Baltimore’s school district. These are voters, fundraisers, and suits of the city willing, at least during election season, to care about the issues Maybin has organized around.

Wale plays as folks eat salmon cakes. Maybin is thanked by people he has never seen. He feels an obligation to meet donors, but this isn’t really his scene. People pull him in every direction for hugs and handshakes. The colorful ascots and velvet jackets clash with his pea-colored bomber. This is often the job of the advocate, to schmooze and booze with the best in the city in hopes that they’ll care about the fight of the day.

Maybin is offered food and sheepishly pushes it away. “You sure?” Dent asks. “Yeah. I ate before I came.” Maybin says. He backs out of pictures he doesn’t think are mandatory. He shakes hands only when necessary. As he tries to move out of the way of the crowd, he awkwardly leans on several light switches, inadvertently turning off about half the lights at the small fundraiser.

For now, Maybin has an audience, and that’s all that matters. If a politician can glad-hand his way through a crowd and reassure Maybin that something will be done about freezing kids in Baltimore, then this effort could be worthwhile. That is, if something is done. It may be easier to care about black people in the warmth of a gala than it is in the middle of a cold street.

“I don’t wanna be a part of the political machine,” Maybin says. “I feel like it’s hard to trust these people.”

As he says that, more constituents ask about his latest book, but the conversation shifts.

“Aaron, before you go, she wants you to draw something for her,” one woman says.

“Oh. Uh, I really don’t do that,” Maybin says.

“No, I just want you to sketch this for a tattoo,” the woman says.

“Why, the tattoo artist can’t do that?” Maybin says, giving a strained smile.

The lights begin to shut off and Maybin shakes the last few hands in the place while turning toward the door.

“I need to find the exact stipulations out before I leave the house,” he says. “I wasn’t really cool with this. It strayed from what I’m doing. I don’t need people to pat me on the back. I wanna know how we will fix this as a collective. But I don’t wanna come off as an angry black man.”

It’s nearly 10 p.m. The day has dragged. He starts talking to a man known as “O.”

“We raised $55,000 today.”

“$60,000,” I say, having just checked. (As of publication, the campaign had raised nearly $79,000.)

“Wow.” He leans his head back, then exhales. “Sixty fucking thousand in two days!”

“You the man!” someone yells.

He thinks for a second. “This is incredible. But even with 60 grand we might be able to really help one or two [schools],” Maybin says.

“Even with all this,” he sighs. “This is a Band Aid on a shotgun wound.”

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