Adam Schwartz, 55, of Elkridge, is a longtime Baltimore City school teacher and writer. Being a part of the Jewish Baltimore community, he said, has always provided him and his wife with a sense of comfort.
In January, his debut collection of stories, “The Rest of the World,” won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction and will be published in late October. All of the stories in this collection are set in Baltimore, and they were all inspired by the teens in his classroom.
As the country grapples with its identity and ideals, his book offers stories about resilient kids growing up in neighborhoods sabotaged by systemic inequities.
What drew you to write your debut collection of stories, “The Rest of the World”?
The stories were inspired by getting to know the teens in my classroom. Baltimore is hard on children. It can be an astonishingly rough place for many kids to grow up. What is the right way for children to navigate the complex challenges that mine the paths they are afforded in a city like Baltimore?
As much as we wish it weren’t so, children in Baltimore are growing up in a nation whose inner-mechanics have always been calibrated to disenfranchise black folks. My stories take place in the context of this fallout. They’re about kids coming of age in a city that tests their ideals, tests their resilience, tests their beliefs in their own possibilities. In this way, they are initiation stories in which characters undergo experiences that alter how they see themselves and the world around them.
And — in untold ways — kids are changed by their experiences in Baltimore. For some kids, the challenges they deal with can draw out of them a kind of inner drive or focus. Other kids are fighting against an undertow of fatalism. And no matter where kids fall in terms of their outlook, watching kids strive for better in the face of turmoil is inspiring.
Also, Baltimore’s struggling neighborhoods and the residents who live in them deserve a lot more credit than they’re commonly given. During the uprisings in 2015, out-of-town reporters flowed into Baltimore to cover the story. In many ways, these reporters got at least part of the story wrong. Over and over, reporters characterized this stretch of North Avenue and the Sandtown neighborhood in starkly depressing terms: “joyless” (Washington Post), “blighted” (New York Times) “bleak” (Slate) “a dead zone” (Rolling Stone).
The teens in my classroom are not joyless, blighted or bleak. Often they are joyful, hopeful and very much alive. They love, laugh, learn and dream like kids anywhere. So there’s something vile and false in the media’s tendency to pathologize and criminalize Black neighborhoods and Black men in particular. And a lot of the fear of, and indifference toward, people living in struggling communities is driven by toxic narratives perpetuated by the media.
Has your faith inspired these stories?
My mother was born in Poland and lived through the Holocaust. She arrived at Ellis in 1946, still a teenager — orphaned, dispossessed of everything and knowing no English. Twenty-one years later, she was a sociologist with a Ph.D. from Cornell, married and the mother of five children. When I was growing up, my mother never talked about the war. Neither to her children, nor to her friends. I think she did not want to be seen as a victim, and she did not want her losses to be the defining feature of her life.
And while my mother survived the war, her religious faith did not. About Judaism there was little talk in our house — neither for nor against it. It was another silence. Instead, my mother poured herself into her family and her work.
Similarly, though for different reasons, my father, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., was not religious. So I mention all this to say that my Jewish identity remains important to me. My wife and I, for example, were married by Rabbi Shulman, formerly of Chizuk Amuno Congregation. As a toddler, my son went to classes at the JCC in Owings Mills; later he attended Bet Yeladim, a Jewish preschool in Columbia. But I was not raised with any religious traditions, and I mostly don’t know them.
That said, my mother’s values were informed by her Jewish upbringing, and she instilled those values in my siblings and me: empathy for others, speaking out against inequality, valuing egalitarianism, a love of learning, striving for kindness and integrity. So although there were no religious practices taking place when I grew up, some of the values and principles of Judaism were passed down, I believe.
Why do you like writing?
I’ve always been captivated by short stories — both reading them and trying to write them. The form itself draws from the very way we make sense of our lives and organize experience. In this way, stories are an organic, elemental feature of lived life.
In the title story, “The Rest of the World,” the adolescent narrator is called upon to protect a younger child. By doing so, he takes on a moral task larger than himself and achieves, perhaps, a kind of nobility.
What is your favorite work you’ve read? Why?
Richard Ford’s short story, “Great Falls,” is one of the greatest ever written. With a spare lyricism, it tells the story of an adolescent boy whose innocence is shorn away in a night, forever changing him.