BY REBECCA AGULE
When Cora True-Frost LL.M. ’06 asked the audience how many had seen The Wire, nearly all hands were raised. It was obvious that no one had come for advice on their Legal Research and Writing homework. Everyone was much more interested in learning about Cora’s husband, Jim True-Frost, and his experience working as a television actor. But while Jim’s success came from portraying a cop working the streets and schools of Baltimore, Cora’s inspiration came from hands-on experience in the real classrooms of Baltimore, where she saw the grim consequences of life on the street during her service for Teach for America.
On The Wire, Jim portrayed Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, a police officer known for his incompetence on the street who shines due to an aptitude for cracking codes and utilizing wiretaps. His character later becomes a middle school teacher at a blighted Baltimore middle school. To provide context for the event, Jim played several clips from the show, depicting Pryzbylewski’s interactions with students. “It’s amazing when we meet people on the street,” said Jim. “They are so touched by the interactions between Prez and the kids. But when I try to redirect the conversation to Cora, who actually has experience in those schools, they aren’t interested.”
Running on HBO from 2002 until 2008, The Wire garnered critical acclaim and developed an almost cult-like following for its portrayal of Baltimore’s streets and citizens. Jim’s work has included numerous programs centered on the criminal justice system. In addition to The Wire, he appeared on several editions of Law & Order, CSI: Miami and Crime Story, as well as Homicide: Life on the Street, based on the book of the same name by The Wire executive producer and head writer David Simon. Jim now serves as an adjunct faculty member with the American Repertory Theater’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training.
“For three years I didn’t know that I would be anything but this misfit cop,” he explained. “Then, late in the 3rd season I got a hint that something serious was going to happen to my character. I thought I was going to get killed off. Then they told me, you are going to play a teacher, and it was bizarre and wonderful.”
Cora went from her own Wire experience serving for Teach for America into the law, and now her academic research as a Climenko Fellow concentrates on case studies in family, trade and criminal law as a means of understanding the fragmentation of norms at the international level. After completing her JD-MPA at the Syracuse University College of Law and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and her LL.M. from HLS, Cora worked briefly for Cravath, Swaine &?Moore LLP. She left private practice to concentrate on international research and advocate for on women’s issues in both Sierra Leone and East Timor.
In preparing for the event, Cora checked in on Booker T. Washington, the Baltimore school where she taught 7th grade. “It was as bad as it was when I taught there in 1992. On test scores, it ranks at 1 out of 10,” she said. “And it consistently ranked highest on issues like failure to attend, pregnancy, and guns. It is a nexus of the most challenging social problems that schools face.”
But Cora later went to Mott Hall, a Harlem magnet school, where she saw another side of the public school system. “Mott Hall is a school for gifted and talented kids. These were kids who had really motivated parents and family support, people who got them into one of the better public schools.” The contrast revealed to her the stark reality of unequal opportunity. “While I was there, I kept thinking of kids I had at Booker T. who were just as gifted and talented, but who I lost to the street,” she continued. “In those two experiences, I saw the two extremes of public education.”
For Cora, the roadblocks faced by students in The Wire are tangible and pervasive. “These are not problems unique to Baltimore,” she said. “These problems exist across this country.” Cora’s desire to build up her advocacy arsenal led to her decision to leave the classroom and enter the law. “I wanted to empower myself to fight the stratification in this country,” she said.
Jim readily acknowledged that Cora’s experiences as a teacher informed his performance as Pryzbylewski. “When I was reading scripts, I felt like I was reading the scripts that Cora had been talking about for years,” he said. He went on to admit that it felt a bit odd to examine the relevant issues by watching television, asking, “Why aren’t we watching clips of Cora in the classroom?”
However, he went on to recognize the value of popular entertainment as a teaching tool. “For those who have seen The Wire, it’s a godsend,” he said. “It’s great that those issues have been brought to a bigger public arena and a larger audience than they usually would be.”
A former teacher in Camden, NJ, one audience member credited The Wire for its depiction of the issues that plague schools throughout the country. She very much saw herself on the screen.
“All my friends said, ‘I am Mr. Prezbo’, no ‘I am Mr. Prezbo’,” she added. David Simon’s writing partner, Ed Burns, brought his own experience as a Baltimore teacher to the script, deepening the show’s realism.
The audienceeagerly joined the discussion, recounting their own joys and disappointments in the classroom. While watching The Wire, one student recalled her own frustrations, crediting them with driving her from the classroom and into law school.
As might be expected of an educator, Cora closed by encouraging the audience’s commitment, noting several ways to advocate for students, even outside the classroom. Though not currently working directly in primary or secondary education, Cora remains in contact with former colleagues now working on policy or attempting to open their own schools.
“To this day, teaching remains the most important job I’ve ever done, the hardest job I’ve ever done. And that includes my time in Sierra Leone and East Timor.”
“Its great to have had teaching be my first professional experience, because subsequent places I’ve been, I knew when it wasn’t fulfilling me, and I knew it was possible to be fulfilled,” she added.
Child and Youth Advocates, a Harvard Law School organization bringing together students interested in a range of children’s issues, including child welfare, juvenile justice, and education, sponsored the event.