My college roommate and best friend of 7 years lives in Boston, a couple miles away from Copley Square. She is finishing her masters at the Harvard Graduate school of Education, after spending 3 years in the Bronx teaching 4th graders with Teach for America.
I received this email from her yesterday – a reflection on the events that unfolded April 15 – and had to share this inspiring story about what to take forward from this tragedy, and how we can try to make sure it never happens again.
Monday evening, as I sat in the dark of my living room watching the disturbing images of Boston’s blood-spattered streets, shredded flags from various nationalities still blowing in the cool April breeze, footage of terror on the faces of bystanders waiting for their loved ones to cross the finish line, and the heartbreaking image of thousands of marathon runners who were halted in confusion at mile-marker 25 by runners frantically coming in from the other direction, I felt paralyzed by my own realization that this time, this terrorist act in particular, hit too close to home. After all, this had all unfolded less than a mile from my home in Cambridge. I finally turned CNN off and tried to process the events of the day in silence. Just then, my phone lit up and I noticed that the screen reflected “Cesar MOM”.
On Monday, I received scores of phone calls, voicemails, text messages, emails, What’s-App’s, you name it, from family and friends calling to make sure I was okay. “Cesar MOM” wasn’t a call I was expecting, however. Cesar, one of my most complex students from my 1st year of teaching in the Bronx in 2009, could leave a lasting impression on a rock. I will never forget the day he walked into my class as a new student, mid-way through the year, refused to sit in a chair and then somehow organized the class to “Do the Michael Jackson” as I helplessly wondered for the 2,394,872,348 x 10^10 time what I had gotten myself into. Back then, as a 4th grader, Cesar gave me a run for my money and, day after day, held me hostage by his charm, energy and downright insanity. Today, he is an insightful, responsible and brilliant 8th grader who, due to some unfortunate family circumstances, has taken on the role of a parent to his 3 younger siblings.
“Cesar MOM” was a number that was essentially on my speed dial that first year and so I smiled as I picked up the phone, thinking about how much has changed since that time. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:
Me: “Mrs. Altagracia?”
Cesar: “Ms. Zeydler – you sad?”
Me: “ Oh. Hi Cesar! Thank you for calling. Yes, I feel a little bit sad today. But I’m not scared anymore. And I’d rather feel sad than scared any day.”
Cesar: “Ms. Zeydler – remember when I came to your class and I was a bad kid? When I was making you so mad at me that your face turned red?”
Me: “Hmm, I remember a few challenging days but I think we were just getting to know each other. And Cesar, my face never turned red.”
Cesar: “And remember when it was Martin Luther King month?
Me: “You mean, Black History Month?”
Cesar: “Yeah. And Ms. Zeydler, remember you was so mad at me that day?”
Me: “I’m not sure I can think of that right now. Why was I mad at you that day, Cesar?”
Cesar: “Because I wouldn’t say the Black History poem.”
Me: “You mean something that you were supposed to recite? Oh yes, I remember that day. I was so upset that you didn’t read the poem because it was special to me and to the class. That could have been a red-faced day for me, you’re right, Cesar.
Cesar: “Yeah, you had a red face after you was yelling.” (snickers audibly)
Me: “Okay Cesar, so what about Black History Month?”
Cesar: “Nah, Ms. Zeydler, it isn’t about Black History Month, it’s about the poem. The poem I learned from Martin Luther King. I wanted to tell it to you today.
Me: “You memorized the poem? But Cesar, that was 4 years ago.”
Cesar: “I knew the poem then, too. But you know I was a bad kid and I liked seeing when your face got red….” (…snickers audibly, again…)
Me: “Okay, Cesar, that’s wonderful that you now know the poem but”—he interrupts me.
Cesar: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.’…Ms. Zeydler, you think that the people who blew up the Marathon today learn about Martin Luther King in school like we did? ‘Cus if they don’t, their teachers should talk to you.”
After we hung up the phone, I cried for the first and last time that day. My conversation with Cesar gave me a chance to pause, even if momentarily, to forget about the insanity outside, and reflect upon the importance of the work we do in education. I don’t think about it often enough, especially when conversations get caught up in the negative contexts of it all, like bitter union disputes, corrupt politics, school closures and most recently, large-scale cheating scandals. However, my true purpose of pursuing this work, what drives me at my core, is to provide the next generation with an educated society that is safe, democratic, moral, just and protects the future of the innocent. When confronted with a day like Monday, I strongly believe that the best path back to equanimity, the best revenge is to lean into the work, lean into life and go on with a serious half smile of understanding and a fierce determination to make the world better in spite of any damaged fanatics who might be trying to wreak havoc among us.
Despite how discouraged, scared and angry I felt after the events this week, I can’t lose sight of this vision. Our job is to ensure that all kids feel loved by people close to them, learn about history, albeit oftentimes painful, from their teachers, and hear about the possibility of peace from American’s like Dr. King. Furthermore, we, as educators, siblings, parents, friends and community members, must find a way to celebrate the sanctity of life in the face of extreme adversity, terrorism and hatred, and move forward with ever growing vigor and light in response to the darkness that has descended over Boston and elsewhere worldwide. Alas, there will be more pain tomorrow and for weeks to come. One day at a time, however, we will prevail… For Cesar.