My Op-Ed in the New Bedford Standard Times

This week I wrote about the marathon bombings (sort of) for the Standard Times. Here's the linkFull text below:

At one point, at least, he was one of us


In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, it's tempting, correct even, to unite as one against the brothers Tsarnaev. But the problem for me is that he was one of us. I say this as a former resident of Norfolk Street in Cambridge, a former college essay tutor at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, and a current professor of English at UMass Dartmouth. I can't dismiss the boys so easily, Dzhokhar in particular, because I have been sharing his life for as long as he's lived here in America.

I spent most of the week after the bombings knowing that I had suffered no real loss: I have my life, my family, my legs and my experience of the marathon unblemished. But during the manhunt, my phone lit up with word of connection after connection to these suspected bombers. Friends asked if I knew Dzhokhar. And I realized that I did.

He wasn't in my classes. But I do know him. He is like all 18- to 22-year-olds that I see in the halls and in my classrooms. They are searching for their place in the world, trying on identities, looking for connections, shedding their childhoods. They are first-generation Americans or American children who are first in their families to go to college. They are all striving, reaching toward a future that is indistinct, but that everyone assures them is possible. They are sometimes lost, often rudderless, trying to chart a steady course but constantly derailed by income, illness, family strife and personal hardship. The stories I've heard range from lost jobs to car accidents to girlfriends who've gone off their medication. Often, I am afraid to ask what medication and really, it doesn't matter, because what these students seek when they talk to me is safe harbor, an ear, understanding, reassurance that they can reset their course (and courses) and continue to a better future.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is exactly like all of my students, and yet also tragically different. Much has been made of his transformation from the student many knew at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School — a popular, prom-going wrestler who was an active part of the community and the recipient of an academic scholarship — to an undistinguished student turned suspected bomber who returned to his dorm at UMass Dartmouth displaying no outward emotion over the attacks he is accused of instigating. His parents were no longer in the country, his brother was becoming radicalized, his supportive high school community was miles away. All he had, perhaps, was his life at college.

He enrolled at UMass Dartmouth to begin making his way forward into adulthood. What did he find here? Did he find community, welcome and friendship to replace what he'd left behind? Even if he had, it may not have been enough to turn him away from his brother and radical Islam. But as the young journey toward independence, the power of community and connection can be transformative. They can be a counterweight to outside influences like violence and hate. Or that is my deepest hope.

What we teach in America's classrooms is not only academic. We also teach students how to conduct themselves in the world: with professors, potential employers and each other. We sow the seeds of respect for humans and their environment, pride in their work and achievements, and kindness toward others.

These are uncontroversial goals; they are most often not even explicit, but demonstrated daily by the way we speak and interact with our students and our colleagues. But as the past few weeks have shown, the lessons aren't learned by osmosis. The time may have come for a more deliberate effort to defuse the disengagement and alienation that can turn explosive.

While Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may no longer be one of us, having bombed his way out of sympathy and society, his presence will be felt on the streets of Boston and Cambridge, and on the walkways of UMass Dartmouth for years to come. But I hope that his legacy will be the reverse of what he intended: not terror, fear or pain, but a renewed kindness toward each other, a knowledge of the importance of connections and how easily they can be frayed.


I Am Mrs. Ed Flynn

Here is an essay about my name that has not yet found a home:

I Am Mrs. Ed Flynn

Two days before my wedding, my mother pulled out a circa 1969 National Geographic magazine she had set aside for my husband, who is an airline pilot. The cover story on the future of transportation featured predictions about supersonic transport, automated ticketing, and buses that fly. Happy for a distraction from the proceedings, Chris and I flipped through the magazine to the back page ad, and that's where we met Mrs. Ed Flynn.

            The ad for Mazola cooking oil and margarine featured a woman nuzzling her husband as she offered him a heaping bowl of salad beneath the tag line, "Tonight's the night Mrs. Ed Flynn starts polyunsaturating her husband."  Poor Mrs. Ed. Here she was undertaking a revolution in home economics and the woman didn't even warrant her own name. That's when I began to wonder what I was getting myself into.

Now let's be clear: I wasn't a teenage bride. After 38 years as Caitlin O'Neil, there was little danger I'd forget who I was. I had come by my name in the days before there were Caitlins (or Katelyns or Katlynns), surviving an elementary school's worth of mispronunciations to, as they say, own it.

In time I grew to love my name. As a writer, it was my calling card.  Searching for my byline, editors and readers could see what I’d written about, and how well. I couldn't separate myself from my name anymore than I could remove my size nine feet. I was my name. Better yet, it didn't advertise or categorize me according to my marital status. Now here was this ad, published only two years before I was born, to remind me that women's identities had once existed only in relation to their husband's. And it wouldn't be the last reminder either. Mrs. Ed wasn’t as retro as I’d anticipated.

You see, after much deliberation, I had decided to take my husband's last name and move my own up to the middle, at least in my personal life. (More on this later.) The issue of name changing is fraught with both emotion and politics, and I’d sworn I’d never do it. Changing my name was akin to splicing my DNA. So I surprised even myself when I made my decision.  To me, having the same name as Chris felt like creating a family, which I also badly wanted. Because we lived in collectivist hippie Cambridge, MA, we started calling ourselves the Amaral Collective, like some live-off-the-earth commune/jam band. But it mattered less what I called myself than what the world called me. And I would soon learn the world’s ideas about name changing hadn’t caught up with mine.

I began making calls and writing letters to the Social Security Administration, Massachusetts DMV, and finally the credit card companies to change my name to Caitlin O’Neil Amaral.  For the most part, I was surprised at how simple it was to change a name.  Until I got my American Express card in the mail. 

It read Neil Amaral.

            Mrs. Ed Flynn eat your heart out. I hadn't been concealed inside my husband's name, reduced to a “Mrs.” on an envelope or Mazola ad; I'd become him.  Perhaps I should have looked at this as a promotion of sorts, but it felt like an erasure. I had disappeared with the stroke of a keyboard.

            When I called to get the error corrected, I bounced from one customer service representative to another, perhaps because I was the funniest call they'd had all week.  Finally I spoke with a Ms. Cox, who issued me a new card and told me I was lucky. I didn't want to know the misprints she'd seen on her credit cards.

            My story might have ended there, if I hadn't had to fill out one final piece of paperwork for my employer, a university with extensive computer automation which needed my name as it appeared on my Social Security card to take care of pesky details like my paycheck and health insurance. I inter-officed the harmless looking form and thought no more about it until, with a keystroke, my name changed to Caitlin Amaral across the entire system.

The trouble was I hadn't changed my name at work. I'd been writing and teaching for almost 20 years. My editors and students knew me only as Professor O'Neil. Who was this Professor Amaral? Where was her office? Where was her byline? What had she written?  The computer made the choice for me and, the IT office told me, I couldn't change it back unless I rewound to the start.  So both the name I was born with and the name I had chosen were gone, replaced by a name the school decided on for me.  It was worse than an arranged marriage.

I’d wanted to change my name to send a message to the world that my life was different now, but I found myself annoyed when the world took me at my word. It showed me how quickly something as essential as a name, a whole identity, could be erased. It was an unnerving after years trying to make my name. That it was a computer who didn’t understand the ins-and-outs of gender politics made no difference.  I’d had a bitter taste the plight of Mrs. Ed Flynn.

            First wave feminists are often appalled at the cavalier attitude my generation takes toward the equality for which they fought so hard.  We take it for granted, rather than appreciating how far we’ve come, and in how short a time. My lifetime, really. My parents had hung a bubble-lettered sign proclaiming, “Girls Can Do Anything,” on my bedroom wall and I’d believed it.  Growing up, I never knew it had been otherwise.

But a few years ago, I worked as a researcher for a syndicated newspaper columnist who lamented the fact that feminism had become a dirty word.  She got her start in the 1970s and told stories of being the only female reporter on staff, with a child to boot, the sort of creature never seen before in newsrooms. First, she was relegated to “the woman’s pages” (Are women of my age even aware these existed?) then elevated to coverage of the woman’s movement when the editors decided it was newsworthy. She took her chance and ran with it, breaking a path that I and other female writers now stroll down nonchalantly, as we assume parity with our male peers and toy with changing our bylines. She took her husband’s last name and made it her own. Her groundbreaking work made sure I’d never be Mrs. Ed Flynn.  She made it possible for me to have a choice, and to ascribe my choice meaning beyond that of housewifedom.  Taking my husband’s name didn’t have to mean losing myself.

Today, as a modern woman in the age of automated ticketing and supersonic transport, I feel entitled to pick which name I use. But until I tried to change my name, I didn’t realize how powerful choosing your name can be.  Men never get to do it. And it’s a privilege Mrs. Ed Flynn never had.  She didn’t even have the luxury of annoyance at her pigeon-holing, let alone anger.  Poor Mrs. Ed had only her husband, her salad, and her bottle of Mazola.  At least I have my first name. And a job of my own. It could be worse; I could be Polyunsaturating my husband tonight. Good thing he's off flying those buses.

MCC Reading tonight at 7pm in Worcester!

Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) is honored to present fellows and finalists from MCC's Artist Fellowship Program in the 2013 Commonwealth Reading Series. All events in the statewide series are free and open to the public.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013, 7 PM
American Antiquarian Society, 185 Salisbury Street, Worcester MA

Featuring award-winning writers and poets:
Kathryn Burak
Danielle Legros Georges
Holly Guran
Caitlin O'Neil

Writing Is Like Baseball

Here's my latest over at Ploughshares:

Every March my eyes turn south toward spring training. The sunburned announcers report from director’s chairs on games that don’t count. The players work on their autographs and perfect their sunflower seed spits. Teenagers called up from the lowercase “a” team —hardly more than little leaguers—pitch, bat, and field, hanging crooked numbers or laying goose eggs. The crack of a bat, the thwack of ball and glove, the collective groan as a player on the other team sends a homer over the wall: hearing this soundtrack out of sequence reminds me that change is coming, despite the hard crust of snow lingering in my front yard.