This week I wrote about the marathon bombings (sort of) for the Standard Times. Here's the link. Full 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.