Kondwani Fidel never thought he'd find himself back at Baltimore City College. After graduating from the public high school in 2011 and going off to Virginia State University, he thought he'd stay far away from the place where he hated going to class. But Fidel, now a 22-year-old poet and recent college graduate armed with an English degree, is a substitute teacher at the center of a viral video filmed inside a classroom at the same high school he graduated from just years prior.
"My students are excited that I'm on WorldStar," he said with a laugh in an interview with Mic about the video landing on the popular website. "I don't really know how to deal with that."
Fidel introduced himself to the class as a long-term substitute on Oct. 5. "They were just rowdy and talking amongst themselves," he recalled about his introduction. So when he mentioned he was a poet, and several students challenged him to perform a piece, he remembers thinking, "they don't really wanna hear me."
After performing a five-minute spoken word piece about his rough childhood in Baltimore with drug-addicted parents and the specter of constant violence, his classroom erupted in applause.
Not only that, but many of them could relate, Fidel said. The city is still reeling from days of civil unrest last spring sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died after his spinal cord was partially severed while he was in police custody. The six Baltimore police officers who were indicted in Gray's death are expected to stand trial in November. But the unrest and upcoming trial have renewed focus on decades of institutional neglect in Baltimore's black communities, particularly as the movement for black lives calls for more accountability.
But Fidel's fight for survival is deeply personal. In a recent interview on The Jake Sasseville Show, he said his father, described in the poem as struggling with addiction and robbing his friends, is incarcerated at Maryland's Jessup Correctional Institution and that it was his 75-year-old grandmother's guidance that helped him navigate some of the street's toughest obstacles. He cites The Great Gatsby and Boyz in the Hood as some of his chief inspirations, and talks about finding poetry in his freshman year of college, a hobby that's turned into a life-affirming passion. "I wanna be in schools so that I can be that teacher that many of us never had in Baltimore," he said to Mic.
By almost all accounts, the viral video could be a game-changer for Fidel. He's already released a self-published collection of poems and hopes to find a publisher for a memoir in the next year. He said he's received invitations to perform in cities across the country. Fidel said it's important the world took notice while he performed in front of students who grew up under similar circumstances.
"My biggest thing [is] to inspire," Fidel said. "I went through these things and I didn't cry for many moons. I thought I was going crazy." Now, he's trying to show other young people that perseverance is possible. "It's not that I wanna brag about my past, but I do that because I wanna show people 'Look, you think you're going through something, but it's OK. I did it.'"