Boston (a love letter to my mother, part one)

I’ve been thinking for the past few hours, as many of us have, about Boston.

You should know that I grew up watching my mother cross marathon finish lines.

One of my favorite childhood memories of my mother was a time when we were leaving Disneyland (I grew up in Southern California), and we were all so tired and cold we could barely stand (seeing as how my parents were still together, I know this memory is from when I was very, very, small). We had just missed the shuttle to get to our car, and rather than wait for the next one (I think it was coming in 30 minutes or something absurd, but again, I was young, so maybe it was ten minutes and my brother and I were having an inspired, screaming fit–who knows). I do remember that I felt very, very, very tired. My mom put my brother and my hands into my father’s, grabbed the keys, checked the knots on her shoelaces, and ran the mile or so to the car and drove it to the gate to pick us up.

She beat the shuttle.

My mom could do anything.

The first thing I thought of was not the idiotic terrorist questions people are asking, but of my mom. She is older now, in her 60s, and as some sort of strange result, primarily does triathlons rather than marathons. I know she wouldn’t be in Boston for the marathon this year. She has been before–I have a rubber duckie to this day she brought back for me in a previous year. But I knew something else, too.

I knew that she needed bunion surgery for nearly her entire adult life, which she never got. I vividly remember how, when I was a teenager, she would leave her running shoes in the bathroom, and in my early morning haze, I would stumble to the bathroom, sit on the toilet, and stare at them as I started to come to: otherwise white shoes drying out in their orderly spot beneath the towel rack, the toes dyed a deep brown by blood from her bunions. She said the blood wasn’t a big deal. When I asked her why she didn’t get the surgery, she would tell me simply that if she succumbed to the knife, the healing process would mean she might not be able to run for a year or more. Even if the surgery miraculously took the pain away for the rest of her life, she would have to wait for “when she got old.” Blood or no blood, a year was too long to not run.

My mother is not old yet.

The explosions at the Boston Marathon rip at my heartstrings. They rip at my heartstrings because the first news report I heard was of people receiving amputations of limbs due to the explosions. My immediate thoughts were not of the two (the death count at the time of this writing) who had died, but of runners losing their feet, their legs.

I cannot imagine anything worse for a runner than not being able to run, just as I cannot imagine anything worse for a musician or sculptor than losing her hands, or a painter losing his sight. I thought about when I was doing a lot of dance and performance work, how any time I had a small injury, I would spin into a panic about how it might change my entire life’s focus.

I thought of years and years of my mother running in bloody shoes.

So my first reaction, of course, was sorrow. It was grief. It was empathy for those who were injured, for the loved ones of those injured, and for the two who had died. And I read this quote, and it captured a part of my feeling:

“Anyone who has ever run a race knows that the beauty of the finish line goes far beyond being done; but extends into the realm of accomplishment, courage, and the spirit of freedom that only a long, hard race can provide. Today’s tragedy is horrific on many levels as innocent lives were lost, and has placed fear in the hearts of all of those who run, who encourage, and stand by their loved ones. Today’s events are a thief of running’s main goal: running should set you free.” – Bonnie Lewis

And as you might expect if you have visited my blog in the past, my next reaction was anger. I felt angry because of all of those whose lives are lost daily in the United States for institutionalized reasons rather than because of freak events. I felt angry because of the time a black adolescent snatched my iphone out of my hand at a dirty bus station in Washington DC, about how, as I watched him run away, all I could think about was how mesmorizingly, how impossibly fast he was running, how his form was incredibly beautiful,  how if he were growing up under different circumstances he would be training for the olympics rather than stealing my gadget.

How on weekends, he would be running, maybe, with his mom.

How much my mom would have loved watching him run on television. (Yes, in my house, we did not watch football, we watched running. No joke.)

Then, in the passing of minutes, even that quote made me mad; I felt angry because of how many children I have taught just this year whose fathers have been shot and killed, who go home to their fatherless homes each day despite the trauma. I felt angry at myself for falling into that trap I judge so harshly, of caring because it reminds me of ME, of MY mom, of MY life, when there are so many other things to care about that happen EVERY DAY to OTHER PEOPLE. That just like everyone else–whom I judge so harshly–my emotions are reserved for what pulls at MY heartstrings… for what I see.

I struggle frequently to be compassionate in the face of “event” tragedies, and particularly what I view as middle class event tragedies. There are just so many daily tragedies that go unspoken, so many tears that are not shown to cameras. I become so angry that I lose perspective; I lose my ability to be useful.

Today, however, I realized, too, that caring about people, frankly, is caring about people. And part of why I started this blog is because for those of us living outside of poverty, it is easy not to care because we don’t LOOK at poverty, we don’t witness economic inequity, at how deeply it ties to race and how it affects children. In particular, how it shapes education. And my hope is that this is a forum in which we can look together at what I am seeing all the time.

I like to think that for some of us, for growing and growing numbers of us, when we view tragedy, when we collectively mourn, we DO begin to see outside of our daily world. So tonight, my thoughts as I approach sleep are not so much of judgement as they are of gratitude–gratitude for people outside of Boston who feel compassion for people in Boston whom they have never met. As much as I want to judge their compassion, compassion is compassion, and love is love. And there’s no way we can build active compassion and love where I think we need it most if we can’t start by noticing it whenever and wherever it occurs authentically for us.

Compassion and love, I firmly believe, are the roots upon which our equity will be built.

I learned that, by the way, from my mom, the runner.

it begins.

In December, a tragedy occurred. In the United States at large, and in social media in particular, our world exploded about gun legislation  About mental health. Oh, and also about grief. I found the situation overwhelming… in particular because I felt overwhelmed before it even happened.

Five days before the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the school at which I work in the Bronx had experienced what we call a lock-down–a preventive measure that has been incorporated into our routines in the form of drills–shelter in, hard lock-down, soft lock-down (not dissimilar to a fire drill or earthquake in many communities). Except in this case, it was not a drill. And we didn’t know why it was happening. We locked our classroom doors, we kept students out of sight. The next day, the students would inform me that there were an excessive amount of police officers downstairs when they went downstairs to lunch after the lock-down was over. Rumours flared. Some of them seemed to make sense. There were no explanations.

Later that day, a colleague confided in me that an adult (not a stranger–someone who was employed in the school building) had brought a gun into the school and threatened to shoot another employee and then turn the gun on himself. Luckily for him, luckily for the intended victim, and luckily for every other adult and child in the building and the neighborhood, no one was shot. That afternoon, we had continued to go about our business.

I was profoundly affected that day. The man who brought the gun into the school was someone I worked with and thought well of. He was a member of the community. I had called on his help many times. He was, I was told, heartbroken and angry with this other person. His reaction to those feelings was to threaten this other person’s life and his own.

The thing that kept bouncing around my brain was not the problem of my own safety, of schools, of security, of gun legislation. It was not the problem of profound mental illness. The thought I couldn’t get out of my head is that I work in a community in which the chronic and generally acceptable response to disappointment, fear, frustrations, and anger is violence. And all I could think about on that topic was the children–not that they might get shot, and not even in a concrete way that they might be destined to become shooters.

Now, obviously I know that responding to discomfort with violence is not only a problem of my current community.   But that I was worried about was in a deep, deep way, no matter what interventions, was that these particular children have very little chance of growing up with a healthy relationship to their own fear and disappointments. This man’s actions really drove this home for me. And because I love them, because I respect their right to live full lives, this overwhelmed and terrified me. It had finally started to seem that no matter what I do as an educator and community member, nothing would help them.

I could not stop crying.

A few days later,  the tragedy in Connecticut happened. Still there was no official communication in the school about what had occurred at our school, and there was no media coverage. I addressed the issue with the Principal directly, as the rumour mill was brewing and we had no good answers for the students’ questions, and I was basically told that her hands were tied until she got the go-ahead to share information. The relationship between these two events astounded me as all media worlds–including social media–exploded.

I am not implying that a near-tragedy at my school and the very real tragedy that occurred in Newtown that day are the same or even similar. What I do hope to express is that we have a sociological problem that has to do with experiencing the world emotionally. And as I had many thoughts roaming through my head, I did a very rare thing for me the week of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy:

I didn’t post about it on social media.

Not for many days. I tried to sit with my feelings and thoughts and take in what was happening around me. My social circle is diverse, and although I lean heavily towards developing relationships with people who are socially/artistically/politically/professionally engaged in social issues, where they stand on those issues is sometimes all over the map… especially given the existence of  that magically libertarian place where extreme left and extreme right meet up and share some middle ground. And in all honestly (real talk, we call it), there is a certain amount of gratitude I experienced (and do experience  daily) knowing  that–thus far–it’s really only white kids who shoot up children’s schools. We only have two white students at our school, and neither show any indication of being particularly dangerous. Although the thought carries a very complicated sort of sadness, I feel safe at my school in part because of its lack of affluence. And then I got angry.  I thought about the lack of attention daily violence receives. I thought about how weird we are in not teaching healthy ways to deal with feelings of aggression. And like so many others, MY fear, MY grief, turned to something akin to rage.

When I told them about the shooting in Connecticut, the only thing the students with whom I work  wanted to know was what town, what school. They wanted to be sure they hadn’t lost yet another friend or relative. Their concept of death is in no way abstract, in a way that, not unironically, protected them from this tragedy, even as the move from abstract to concrete for the people of Newtown did exactly the opposite.

I could go on and on about my emotional experiences of that week and the one that followed. Even today, it is difficult for me to discuss it with real coherency, which I have to simply hope is not evidenced in a way that is too distracting in this blog. But what happened was that eventually, the gun control v. mental health care debate that overtook everything made me feel, well… murderous. The idea even of the either-or structure of that thinking in combination with the idea that once people are driven crazy by a society that doesn’t teach skills at, well, not being driven crazy, we need to offer help–that THAT, THEN is the issue– struck me as… insane.

I was finally inspired to rant a bit on social media. So I wrote a post.

A good friend of mine, another educator and social justice activist and who is also a parent, read my posting and in response asked me directly why I haven’t created a blog. I thought she was being complimentary (which was great, as– like most–I love being complimented). She said quite clearly that she was not; she reminded me that we have a long history of dialogue and that she simply felt that, on this topic and others) other people need to hear what I have to say.

I am not certain I agree with her. I have always found blogs pretentious, and frankly, I am not sure I need the help on that front. I already ride a pretty arrogant line a lot of the time. I am, however, certain of one thing–I have a lot to say, and what I have to say, however aggressive at points, is rooted in love. I am deeply, deeply invested in what I call educational equity, which encompasses the problematics of so, so much more than school. So now, a few months later, I am taking her advice and I have created this blog. My hope is that it will encourage dialogue. We shall see how it goes.

Below is the original posting I wrote a week or two after what we simply seem to term now, “Sandy Hook,” when I just couldn’t take it any more. I fear, as I did then, that it rants. There are portions I would love to edit for clarity, typos I’d love to fix. But I won’t.

In hopes of dialogue that facilitates real change, here goes.

Thank you for reading.


Mental health is NOT a distinct aspect of health from physical health. that means that cultivated teaching of life skills, preventative care, and an understanding about how humans fit into the webwork of the world are the key to a healthy life. It means we need to be able to acknowledge when we are more and less healthy and seek care at times… for EVERYONE, not for “crazy people.” why isn’t anyone talking about how the issue is that our culture teaches (both implicitly and explicitly) dysfunctional methods of dealing with emotion and feelings of aggression? In my opinion, the best thing we could do to limit violence is to reintroduce healthy expressions of aggression, especially for boys. Boxing, wrestling, martial arts, highly cardiovascular sports–including DANCE, running, etc.–can serve as natural, healthy, NECESSARY expressions of what we now limit as a society because we have an excessively strange relationship with masculinity and an even stranger, severely dissociated relationship with the natural world and aggression’s healthy place within it.

Hunting–BEFORE guns– was an extremely powerful way to channel this sort of energy when humankind was younger; I believe advanced weaponry limits a person’s ability to be healthfully aggressive and replaces it with an unnatural sensation of power and control. It makes sense that we need that, that it feels good and exciting and fun–in a world where we are trained not to be physical, we ARE powerless and controlled. It is also true that it helps those of us who are highly aware that in many communities, “protective” forces (such as the police) are DANGEROUS to us. When this is the case, who wouldn’t want to be armed?

I don’t care if you own a gun. I don’t care how many guns you own. But I care very deeply about the fact that I seem to be the only person I know who will concede that under the correct correct set of circumstances and frustrations, I could shoot up anything. As such, I care whether IIIIIIII own a gun. And I don’t. And I care whether the children I teach and love and support and laugh with and cry over every day know how to react to disappointment without either acting out inappropriately violently (verses positively aggressively) or trying to shut down their feelings without expressing them because they don’t know how to talk about them in a useful way.
They don’t. Not yet.

However, you won’t hear about my kids on the news when they shoot or get shot, because it will happen in their own neighborhoods, and they will kill one another. So no one cares. But this is the thing–more of them die EVERY DAY than the children we’ve been taking about on the news for a week.

Children. All people start as children.

Well, been holding that all week. This is the only post I am making on this topic, and then I am back to my french onion soup quest. Also, I am going running.