Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Searching for the Second Story: A Peacemaker's Task

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good. 

I taught this poem on a very cool crisp perfectly Fallish New England day in Connecticut.  It was an honors writing class, and we had a poetry unit.  My students, six total, were tired and frustrated.  Exams of their chosen majors were coming up, and not one of them was English.  This was a class to pass.  They were so polite, these lovely kids.  They knew whose authority held in the room, and all of them, every one, did their work and contributed faithfully.  The poem, made most famous by John Hannah in Four Weddings and a Funeral, was in the anthology I’d chosen.  What I remember most clearly, though, after going through meter counting and the stress on a syllable for emphasis, was the blank stares I received when I asked why such public mourning?  It led to a necessary discussion of World Wars, and dates that were, to my astonishment, unknown.  No one knew, in the 6 blinking faces staring at me, the beginning or end of the Great War and only vaguely knew the start and end dates of World War II.

We had to begin then at the most basic of basics to understand the context of the poem, the legacy of mourning, the significance of planes flying overhead, for a population exhausted and spent by War.  There was, in fact, another story in the poem that needed to be heard to make it understood.

So the story is important—every one of the stories.  It provides a depth of understanding to a poem, and really for me, that’s what poetry does.  A few lines, that convey a range of emotion.  Here, for Auden, it is sorrow and fear.  He invites us into his personal grief, his fear that his love will be forgotten for good; someone so significant yet you go on eating and drinking and living as though they never passed on the same street.  In a country worn out by war, Auden is speaking that remembrance is important. 

Did fear of what would be forgotten drive him to write and re-write his poem?  We may never know.  But fear is an extremely potent force in our lives.  I have fears.  So many.  Several that keep me up at night and others that exist in dreams that double down as nightmares.   My prejudices are profound in their scope and I've only really questioned them since becoming a mother, so sure I've been in my arrogance.  In teaching my children, in my silences as well as my words, I have become teachable.  In the need to constrict the fear I have had to look further and harder at anything else that can inform a story. 

Knowledge is the crushing challenger of fear.   I feel my boys' fear acutely, and, instead of ignoring it, I ask them to talk about it.  To name it.  In doing so, my hope is that it falls apart like a house of cards.  I have taught them that there is no stabilization, no anchor Lego, nothing that can give fear permanence.

Ahmed Mohamed, 14
Our fear of the unknown is difficult, but our fear of the known is debilitating.  It can seduce us and divide us.

Right now in Irving, Texas there is an opportunity, an opportunity for understanding and community.  To see why we react the way we do.  To understand perception and how altered it can be.  To review policy and enact change.  To show compassion.  And most importantly, to actively model this for our children who will have the choice to carry our fear with them, or discard it as rapidly as beads of water that disappear under the warmth of our sun.   I thought of this while reading an article about Ahmed Mohamed.  A young boy who 
loves to invent, to process and see how things work.  He built a clock and then was arrested at school with the possibility that it was a bomb.  The actual headline (that accompanied the photograph above) most people read was: “Teen Brings Clock to School, Gets Arrested.”

The reaction on social media was fast and furious.  Defense of Ahmed came in hashtags and tweets from
the White House to Mark Zuckerberg.  A statement came from the Mayor of Irving, Beth Van Duyne.  That led to more incensed hyperbole online and otherwise.  Accusations flew that she was a racist, and deeply suspicious of the Muslim community in
Irving.  As these ideas became widespread, and in our current mode of online excavation, we are all members of “the smoking gun,” what would have 
taken weeks happened in minutes.  Town minutes were revealed, parties emailed.  Anonymous quotations passed.  

An amended statement was offered, one that added a paragraph about Ahmed: “As a parent, I agree that if this happened to my child I would be very upset. It is my sincere desire that Irving ISD students are encouraged to use their creativity, develop innovations and explore their interests in a manner that fosters higher learning. Hopefully, we can all learn from this week’s events and the student, who has obvious gifts, will not feel at all discouraged from pursuing his talent in electronics and engineering.”

Sounds wonderful…except she never mentioned his name.  I wondered why this was.  When I read the several accounts of this story, I thought that there's a lot more at stake than meets the eye--this is about a seemingly divided community. 

I am asking that we look at the opaque subtext here that informs many narratives like this one.  (Providing, of course, that the secondary reporting received in the media has been accurate.)  I am asking that we look for the second story.

  • Why did this teacher tell Ahmed not to show the clock to anyone else?

  • Why would the clock's beep panic his English teacher to the extent that s/he wouldn't accept his explanation?
  • Was there a procedure that needed to be followed for something like this?

  • What is in the school or student handbook for these scenarios?
    Found trending on FB re: Ahmed

  • What, if any, responsibility does the county have in this case?

  • Why has the school board or superintendent not responded or is their oversight eclipsed by the Mayor?

  • Had the school been under threat before this?

  • Did his English teacher have a personal relationship to a victim of terrorism that made her/his reaction disproportionate?

Until these questions can be answered, and if I am privy to them, I will not encourage or join in to the general mocking and baiting of both the school and the town of Irving, TX.

Because many of these posts, links and tweets suggest that everyone in this town (and state!) and especially this school is stupid and racist. They speak to the child and offer support while condemning and judging the actions of those around him as completely unfounded, illogical and the sordid result of profiling. Those same comments highlight and deepen an ideological divide that is becoming more and more entrenched in that community.  One that will widen more and gape further now that the world's attention is brought to it.

How will this community continue on after the national spotlight is gone?

What happens when you are called stupid is that you become angry and defensive.  You will not be contrite, and you will not be willing to listen. The only people who will suffer further are those in this community who were already uneasy feeling prejudice from the
 further reports that I have read of the turmoil in Irving, events that took place in the Spring of this year.  Ahmed will go to the White House, but he still has to come home.  He still has to live and go to school in Irving. None of this will be water cooler conversation for this community, it will be absorbed into its very fabric--whether to strengthen or stain it remains to be seen.

How can we help?

Because the people I'm most concerned about are the 22 or so other students in that classroom, classmates and friends of this child who watched their English teacher and administration call for the arrest of their classmate.  How do they walk away from this unscathed?  They will carry this into their lives both private and public, their families and their jobs.  History is repeated by individual action.  If prejudice is a learned behavior, then I reason, it can also be untaught. 
Now is the moment for healing of a community not more name calling.  Now is the time to show tremendous courage asking, collectively, "why am I afraid?"
  • Why did we react this way?  

  • What policy do we have in place?  

  • What should we do to change it?  

  • What can we do differently? 

  • How do we explain our actions and their outcome to our children?

  • How can we involve them in a solution?

How about a leadership that would welcome that kind of intervention--both nationally and locally?

There are 
organizations that teach tolerance to students and faculty alike.  Instead of offering ridicule, how about offering to help bring such a group to this school? To this community?

It would mean the difference between a band-aid and potential cure.

Matthew 5:9

We all need this.  No matter how far left you may be, how supremely right your side is: you need to be teachable.  If you have given up on the possibility of another way, if you content yourself only with another's sound bite, there is no hope for community or this nation.   It's a country built on the possibilities of dreams, constructed in the direst of circumstances, paid in blood.  Without the collective intelligence of the American people to demand more of themselves and their leadership, there is nothing but misunderstanding and turmoil.

None of this can happen while polemics are the order of the day—whether it is from a neighbor or the President.  No good can come of making someone else the bad guy whether the “guy” is a person or school or community.  An invitation to the White House and the message it sends to that school, school board and school district does not help this community deal with its people (especially its young people) next week or next year.  It makes them feel small and defensive and react from those places.  That will not help them move forward.  This is a community that needs more than that.  We all need to move forward, to enact change.  We all have misapprehension in us; we all know that behaviors are learned.  We can be teachable.  We can do this, if not to live more wholly and happily, then to show a different way for our children.  We cannot be quick to judge, to assume.  If no one is telling you why it was done that way—ask.  If it doesn’t seem fair to you, ask how it can be done differently. 

We can choose.  We can be better because we are better.  We do not have to dependent on fear to drive us when we can move with grace towards truth.  If Matthew 6:21 says that your heart is where your treasure is, then the silt where your fear resides covers the bedrock where your courage can be found.  It is hidden, not gone.

Fear is no way to live—and we have a culture of it; a screen will not protect you from passing along
uncensored thought and adding to it.  It just creates a powerful vortex of decisive derision.  And that is exactly the opposite of what is intended.  One voice joined with many…for what?

The bravest and most courageous thing we can do as people is confront what we fear: beginning that run even though you believe all eyes will be on your excess weight, extending a hand to work on a project with someone with whom you do not agree, eating a food that you think is too strange, speaking in front of a group, trusting to love again, walking into a place that holds you no welcome.

The list is endless and so are the possibilities.  In the space between what we fear and what we love is a lifetime.  The scale on which they balance is constantly weighted toward only one.  Right now we live in a state of siege where fear is being used as a constant levying agent.  Fear mongering is utterly bipartisan.  The agents of fear can be found everywhere, and they are counting on us not to question it.  Their survival, fear's survival, is dependent on our complicity.

The only way out is to name it.

Between my children, best of brothers, a band unto themselves, there is conflict.  Hurts.  Anger.  As the only adjudicator present, I usually sigh and sigh again before calling both parties and asking for the stories, because there is always more than one.  Always.

When have we forgotten that?  I would hope that as the judgment goes higher and the consequences larger and the repercussions larger still, the winnowing of the second story would be even more pressured.  But it is not.  It simply does not matter anymore.  Only one narrative will do. 

It does not fit.

It will never do.

We can never ever stop searching for the second story, the one that may alter and change the first.  The one that will provide new understanding.

In my family's history, my parents and mine, we had: a brick thrown through our window, our trash set fire to, told personally to "get the hell out of [our] country," told we were "stealing jobs," sent hate mail, been spit on, ridiculed in school, had full cans of beer thrown at us while walking.  But this is a part of our history. 

Despite this, I believe that this is the greatest nation in the world.  I am grateful that my parents sacrificed to raise me here. I am allowed an opinion here.  I can watch what I like, when I like.  I can get information, almost any kind, with relative ease.   I can work and worship how I choose.  I can vote for my representation and call upon those in office for answers.  There are so many places in the world where the liberties I enjoy are non-existent.  My parents, whether they were aware or not, by confirming this for me, telling me how fortunate I was to be an American, they gave me a second story that tempered the first-hand experience I have had.  It matters.  I am well vested in the success of this country for all its citizens.  And that can only be a reality if the fears we have collectively are dealt with honestly.

I wonder if the quiet student, brave and shy, whose heart was at cross-purposes watching the scene unfold before her in Ahmed’s English class, a class she loved and looked forward to every day.  A class where she felt she belonged and understood.  I wonder what lines she would choose to write about that day, what meter would make the moment tense and what word would be a sharp staccato point?  What poem will she write about a day that changed her view of her world?  What will it convey?  Will it show her fear and her confusion?  Will it show anger and quiet acceptance?  Will she offer a stanza or two about the brewing clouds of animosity tempered by red lines of interest of the wide world?  Will it show reckoning?  Will it show understanding realized? 

I believe that every story has another side, that truth is not elusive, that fear can be met and matched with compassion not incredulity.  We are not solely polemical.  We are extraordinarily nuanced, and we are more than unblinking receptors of headlines.  There's more to the story.  There's more to construct, there's more to support and discover.  We are smarter than this, we are stronger than this, and we are better than this.

All of this has made me weary, and I suspect it has for you as well.  But whenever I doubt all I have to do is look around and see this:

I cannot stop looking harder for them.  There is never a time I see them without feeling the joy of hope that surrounds them, these starry-eyed boys.  They will not inherit my fear.  They will move confidently forward because courage and inquiry will inform their steps.  They will not know another way to walk.

The stories we write and how we tell them matter; because they are written on the blank brows of the young, whose uncurved fingers are still unblemished by time, trial or tears.  This is a question I must always ask of what I choose to tell: what else is being said here?  “There are two sides to every story.”  What will your story say? 

Time passes.  Wounds heal.  Scars and voices fade. Clocks tick each passing moment as hearts beat in tandem.  Will you join me in searching for the second story before time and circumstance silence both?    We can do this.  Peace.

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