Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Graduations, Death Sentences, and Plague

"Life Surrounds Death" by Scott Ketcham
So already, I've been thinking more rather than less about the death penalty since I posted Digesting Dzhokhar's Death Sentence last Saturday. Responses to that post, combined with articles and columns others have been writing since the jury made its decision in that federal case, have me contemplating not only Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's personally having been given the death penalty, but the death penalty itself--its effect as a possible punishment, not just an actual one.  

Consequently, this blog post is going to wander from the Cambridge/Boston area to Oran, the Algerian city where Camus's The Plague takes place, and then back to Cambridge, specifically back to that week in June three years ago when a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School sophomore was killed in a drive-by shooting.

As a high school English teacher, I periodically taught novels and essays that explored the morality of capital punishment and its intended and unintended consequences. In retrospect, I see how detached, theoretical, and analytical I kept my students' exploration: we never examined an actual example of the death penalty's having been carried out. If privilege can be defined as being able to treat as abstractions those phenomena, situations, issues, events that others have no choice but to encounter, live with, and respond to daily, I taught about capital punishment from a position of privilege: this issue and all the complexities swirling around it would never come close to our lives, my teaching suggested to my students.

William Blake's "Cain and Abel"*
But last Friday, the last vestiges of my capital punishment-related privilege evaporated--and left me thinking about the death penalty with a sense of urgency, a need to know--about it and about me. If the jury had sentenced Dzhokhar to life imprisonment, I would have avoided this confrontation once again. But given the number of respondents to my blog who said that unlike me, they couldn't accept the jury's decision, I've had to wonder what it means about me that I relatively quickly could and did accept it, even though I did so with deep, deep sadness. Is it time for me to admit that some part of me is really okay with the death penalty itself, not just the process by which the jury decided to award it? If so, where did that basic acceptance come from? When Cain commits his premeditated murder of Abel, God responds by exiling Cain, not killing him, and He even places a mark on Cain to ensure that no one else will kill him.

When one of my Cambridge Rindge and Latin colleagues posted Amy Davidson's "Tsarnaev's Death Sentence" from The New Yorker on her Facebook page, I had my first insight into how my willingness to go along with the jury's decision might indicate something other than my personal moral deficiency. After her discussion of the effects of the jury's "death qualification"--the professed willingness of each juror to be open to consideration of the death penalty--Davidson takes aim at the death penalty itself: 
The ways in which death qualification can distort a pool are clear. But then the death penalty twists everything it touches. Defense lawyers and prosecutors construct long questionnaires about remorse. There are years of desperate appeals. States scramble to buy chemicals that companies are ashamed to manufacture. Tubes are put into arms the wrong way, killings are botched, and spectators wonder what they have gathered to witness.**
It's the death penalty itself that is poisonous and polluting, according to Davidson. So had it twisted, poisoned, and polluted me?

Nancy Gertner's Boston Globe editorial on the Sunday after the jury's decision doesn't cast the death penalty as a pollutant, but does suggest our identity as "we the people" implicates all of us in Dzhokhar's sentencing: 
We all chose death for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Make no mistake about it. The death penalty law was passed in our name. Attorney General Holder and US Attorney Carmen Ortiz are employed by the government we elected. They sought death for Tsarnaev for the victims, including the Richard family, whose tragedy they highlighted, even though the Richards were opposed to Tsarnaev’s death. The government sought it for Boston — also a victim — even though the majority of the citizens of the city opposed it. The verdict in the United States v. Tsarnaev was literally brought in our name.***
According to Gertner, a retired judge, that the government chose to seek to kill Dzhokhar, and that when it does kill him, it will do so on our behalf links us inextricably to both the government's and the jury's decisions and the execution that will follow from them. If the government stands poised to play its role as executioner, and if it is not just "for the people," but also "of the people" and "by the people,"**** it follows that we're complicit in Dzhokhar's execution-to-be--passively, unintentionally, and inattentively complicit perhaps, but complicit nonetheless.

That trio of adverbs--'passively, unintentionally, and inattentively"--sent me to my bookcase in search of Camus's The Plague. In their conversation late in the novel, what had Jean Tarrou told Dr. Bernard Rieux about his reasons for deeply involving himself in Oran's fight against the plague--which Tarrou defines as anything that kills human beings, or simply as murder itself?

"Crimson Cloak" by Scott Ketcham
Tarrou explains to Rieux that as a very young man, he had much admired his father, a prosecutor, until he went to court one day and heard his red-robed father "'clamoring for the prisoner's death, telling the jury that they owed it to society to find him guilty'" (148), this frightened, remorseful prisoner who appeared to Tarrou "'like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light'" (247).*****

Eventually, Tarrou left home, recognizing that his goal in life was "'to square accounts with the blind owl.'" Not wanting to be "pestiferous"--the French word for plague is la peste--he reasons that since "'the social order around me was based on the death sentence, . . . by fighting the established order I'd be fighting against murder'" (250).

After graphically describing to Rieux an execution that he witnessed--an event more horrifying and inhumane than he had even imagined--Tarrou explains why the realities of execution are seldom known by the general populace:  "'For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than human life. Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy o' nights, mustn't they?'" (251) The general populace--we--want the death penalty enforced far from us, and are interested solely in confirmation that the execution has happened, not in the details of it.

"The Discovery" by Scott Ketcham
It's Tarrou's next words that feel strangely right for me: "'And thus I came to understand that I . . . had had plague all through those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I'd believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I'd even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way'" (251).

The more I understand the disconnects between the professed and the actual (if often inadvertent) purposes and practices of various systems, agencies, and organizations that we as Americans are taught to believe exist to ensure justice, equity, and well-being, the more I realize how my customary willing belief in what's professed has sometimes made me an accomplice in systemic injustice and dysfunction. 

And that's plague in its most insidious form: insufficient understanding or misunderstanding, ignorance that derives from or is easily aggravated by privilege, character, and probably any number of other things. Unrecognized and unchecked, it can aid and abet death despite the professed contrary intentions of those who harbor it. And it's all the more the more dangerous when those afflicted with it are sure they are not, just couldn't be, afflicted with it.

But as Tarrou says, there is an acceptable response to plague, given that "each of us has plague within him": "'we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody's face and fasten infection on him'" (253). In other words, we must live in the manner opposite to that described by trio of adverbs I mentioned before: we must live actively, intentionally, and attentively. If we are destined to do some harm, at least we can do less harm.

When Tarrou has finished telling his story and explaining his philosophy, Rieux asks "if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace." Tarrou's response: "''The path of sympathy'" (254) 

The first twenty times I read this book--I've taught it a lot--I didn't know how to interpret "the path of sympathy" after Tarrou's grim resolve to be unceasingly vigiliant in his war against plague. It seemed too soft. But one of my favorite parts of The Plague occurs right after this conversation. For a brief interlude, the two men, comrades in the war against plague, lay down their responsibilities and go for an evening swim. Even plague warriors who understand the nature and ubiquity of plague get to take a time-out. They're--we're--not expected to be more than human. We need friends; we need reasons to live other than anti-plague vigilance and righteous action.

With Nicole G. a few years back
That's why last weekend I kept checking Facebook while writing about Dzhokhar's death sentence. The day's theme was graduations: many of my FB friends were celebrating their children's just-earned undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, ballet school certificates, gymnastic academy recognitions, high school diplomas. While I sat at my computer, others were celebrating, just as they should have been. The good stuff of life doesn't eclipse the bad; nor does the bad override the good. Somehow they manage to occupy the same moment. Those FB smiles and the pride accompanying them were the perfect antidote to my heavy thought and feeling.

Then, my enjoyment was replaced by more sadness in response to a comment left by a Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) colleague/friend on my Google+ page: "I keep thinking of his [Dzhokhar's] classmates, many of them graduating [this] season. I pray for their health." Had Dzhokhar done differently, he might have been among UMass Dartmouth's Class of 2015 graduates, one of many CRLS Class of 2011 graduates completing the next stage of their formal educations.

Screen Shot of Friends of CRLS Facebook Page
Dzhokhar's forfeiture of his graduation brought to mind another CRLS student who was deprived of her graduation day. Charlene Holmes did not graduate from CRLS in 2014 because in early June 2012, she was killed in a drive-by shooting as she sat on the front steps of her own house. All of America knows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by name and face; most Americans have never heard of Charlene Holmes, though Cambridge teachers and friends knew her as a young woman of great spirit and promise.

Last year, at the graduation ceremony in which she would have participated had she lived, CRLS presented Charlene with an honorary high school graduation diploma that her brother and sister accepted for her. But to date, no one has been charged with her murder.

I think back a lot on the CRLS graduation of 2012, which happened just days after Charlene had been killed. The friend who had been sitting next to her on her front steps and who was recovering from a gunshot wound participated in the graduation ceremony from her hospital bed, courtesy of CRLS technology. And Charlene's parents attended because even though they were grieving over the their daughter, they were celebrating the achievement of their son: Charlene's older brother was graduating as a member of the CRLS Class of 2012. Those assembled, including Charlene's family, simultaneously grieved and celebrated because the moment demanded both.
But in truth, there are a lot Charlenes out there: the collateral damage of cultures that embrace drugs and violence, and of ineffective wars on drugs, gun violence, injustice, and the abuse of authority. If efforts to eradicate these ills are half-hearted and tentative, they are also nothing short of plague. And plague has a terrible way of imposing death sentences, sometimes even on whole communities, as America has seen multiple times this year.

"Messy Heart" by Shawna Smith********
It makes me uncomfortable that "my government" will execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on my behalf; it makes me uncomfortable that some of my government's policies and practices that allegedly foster justice and life actually advance injustice and death. And I hate what lots of people do to other people on purpose. So I end this post heavy-hearted, resolved, and optimistic. No doubt my past lapses of attention and preconceptions have aided plague; but I also believe that my--all of our--deliberate attentiveness, awareness, and action can lessen plague. Finally, I understand that since vigilance is exhausting, resting from it and recharging are essential. So since I can't go for a moonlit swim, I'll listen to a piece of music that sounds like water and moonlight both.*******

* The photograph of William Blake's "Cain and Abel" is in the common domain: <>
** Davidson, Amy. ""Tsarnaev's Death Sentence"" New Yorker. Conde Nast, 15 May 2015. Web.  
***  Gertner, Nancy. ""We All Chose Death for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev"" Editorial. Boston Globe Media Partners LLC, 16 May 2015. Web. 17 May 2015. 
**** As LIncoln said in the Gettysburg Address. 
***** Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.  
****** Angiolillo, Paul. "Cambridge Rindge Graduates Pay Tribute to Charlene Holmes as They Look to the Future." Wicked Local Cambridge. N.p., 6 June 2014. Web. 20 May 2015.  
******* Please note: you will have to click on the sound file to hear Libby Larsen's piece,"Invitation to Music." Larsen has set Ellizabeth Bishop's poem to music.
******** Shawna Smith is a student at Massasoit Community College. Her watercolor was selected to appear in its annual juried student show. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Digesting Dzhokhar's Death Sentence

So already, yesterday afternoon when I walked into the lobby of my building and headed toward my mailbox, my across-the-hall neighbor greeted me. "Your student got the death penalty," he said.

For a few seconds, I couldn't talk or move. My eyes filled up with tears that I was almost certain my neighbor wouldn't understand because I wasn't sure that I understood them myself. Finally, as we walked toward our apartments, we had one of those awkward conversations in which I managed to say that I hadn't wanted Dzhokhar to get the death penalty, though I believed he deserved a severe punishment for his atrocious deeds.

I have to say that over the last weeks, I've been horrified by the prospect of either of Dzhokhar's possible punishments, and sometimes I've wondered if life imprisonment was actually worse than death. My mind kept swarming back to Oedipus Rex, when the distraught Oedipus hungers for his own death and is reminded that by his own decree, his punishment must be exile. To be put outside and apart, to live with the knowledge of his own sinful deeds is more burdensome to Oedipus than death itself. 

But if Dzhokhar was feeling shame, sorrow, and regret during the trial, he didn't let on. 

Upstairs in my living room, I turned on the television and began listening to the commentators, prosecutors, and others speaking into microphones. As various speakers discussed the specific counts for which the jury had sentenced Dzhokhar to death, I appreciated the apparent care with which they had deliberated. They had attached the death sentence only to those behaviors and outcomes for which they believed that Dzhokhar, and only Dzhokhar, was completely responsible: the decision to place and detonate the bomb behind a row of finish line spectators that included children, and the resultant deaths of Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu. 

Separated from his brother on Boylston Street, Dzhokhar might have changed his mind about going through with the plan to which they had both agreed. But he didn't.

Around 4:30, when I realized that I understood and accepted the jury's decision, I began weeping--I think because I could understand and could accept their decision. I wondered how a very dear friend of mine was doing. Her son and daughter-in-law survived the bombing, but had lost legs, endured countless surgeries, and are still very much in the process of adjusting to the new realities of their lives. No member of their family favors the death penalty for anyone. I walked over to my computer and sent her an e-mail: "Thinking of you, thinking of what is that didn’t need to be, and knowing your family and all the rest of us will move forward from this, though there’s much to feel and think about."

Around 5:00, I realized that the sentence had been announced at 3:00, after the school day was over for my Cambridge Rindge and Latin School colleagues, and I breathed a sigh of relief that none of them were needing to process this news while leading their Period 4 classes. Like me, many of them had never known either of the brothers personally; but some of them had known and/or taught one or both of the brothers, and some of them had been subpoenaed. Frankly, this trial was happening to all of us affiliated with Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS), despite our varying distances from the Tsarnaev brothers: they were/are our CRLS kids, and we are/were their CRLS teachers.

That last point is part of what explains the intense emotion--and today, the profound sadness--that surrounds this case for so many of us. It also explains why I keep referring to the Tamerlan and Dzhokhar by their first names only. Timothy McVeigh is always "Timothy McVeigh" or "McVeigh" when I refer to him, but I always refer to students by their first names. Furthermore, whenever I look at my students who are all grown up, even when they're busy keeping an eye on their own children as they talk to me, I can't help but remember the teenage versions of those competent adults standing before me.

So when do kids stop being kids? Articles get written about the American ambiguous answer to that question all the time. I've had to remind myself that Dzhokhar is a grown man, even if he's a very young grown man, because my tendency is to view him as a kid, and on some level to feel terrible that he got himself into this heinous, deadly mess. But if he's not the problem, who or what is? More than one of my colleagues has lamented the number of bad cards he was dealt in the game of life. But at every moment when my heart went out to him over one or another of those cards, it went out even more to his victims. Bad cards aren't fair, bad cards generate all kinds of consequences and problems for those holding them and often for those around them, but they can't justify murderous behavior.

But that's where the school problem arises again. Public high schools, especially public schools that serve students who are economically disadvantaged, often have more than their share of students who've been dealt somewhat bad hands. 

So how should, and how much can, we as their teachers respond to that? Even if our goal and our hope is to be responsive and constructive, we don't always have the chance to be: by the time our students are sixteen or seventeen, they're very good at playing their cards close to the vest, if that's their choice. In my own experience, I've known many kids who, in their ambivalence about wanting to be known or to be helped, sometimes flashed and hid, flashed and hid their cards a number of time before ultimately deciding to reveal or conceal. 

Also, there are those kids who leave their cards at the door when they enter the school building at the beginning of the day. School becomes the one place they can put those cards aside for a while and be someone else, take some time off from the struggle. Despite the energy and promise we see in school, those cards are often playing a larger, more compelling role in shaping the narratives of their lives than we understand.

Meanwhile, when kids do share their difficult cards with us, sometimes the most we can do is provide a place for them to talk and help them to focus on the kinds of choices they can make that will prevent those cards from unduly shaping their future lives.

This is all my way of saying that we are not responsible for what we can't see, can't know, and can't swoop in and change. We are not responsible for what Dzhokhar did, even if we wish that one of us, or all of us, might have said or done something that might have counteracted the other influences in his life: what if there was something we could have known while Dzhokhar was still enrolled at CRLS? and what if one of us had managed to engage with him around it?

It's a "what if" moment for us--because what we really wish is that the events of April 15, 2013 had never happened at all. And that makes us resolve to be better, even if we're not guilty. We're reminded of what we already know as educators. That we must pay attention to our students' lives, not just to their achievement. That we must conscientiously work toward having all, or most, of our students authentically experience themselves as part of the "we" to which we so optimistically refer when we articulate our aspirations for them and our school community as a whole. That we must respond, not look away, when our students self-marginalize, self-medicate, self-aggrandize, and hint at beginning to self-destruct, even when the forces driving their behavior originate beyond the walls of our schools.  

And yet we know that even if we succeed at enacting all of the above, we can't guarantee a safe world for our students or those around them. It's just not all up to us. So we move forward hoping that our efforts will have some positive effect on our students and their choices. And understanding that our sadness arises and persists because we are part of the same "we" to which Dzhokhar still belongs. And as the novel Ceremony explains it when Tayo's beautiful young mother makes some irreversible choices, "what happened to the girl did not happen to her alone, it happened to all of them (68)."**

* Screen shot of <>
** Silko, Leslie M. Ceremony. New York: Penguin, 1977. Print.